Destruction of old artefects hardly serves the cause of peace.
When the Taliban destroyed the two statues of Buddha in 2001in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, the action served as an apt symbol for the cultural destruction that the war-ravaged country had suffered in the past few decades. Despite the international furor that exploded after dynamiting of the statues, a systematic and remorseless crippling of the heritage continued – to the extent that the recovery process now seems a steep uphill task, if not an impossible one.
Once upon a time, not very long ago, this piece of land lying to the west of Pakistan was home to a rich and diverse civilizations that dated back to the ancient times. Afghanistan’s strategic location ensured that it became crossroad to many a race, as
they travelled across its rugged terrains from East to the West and vice versa. Each civilization left its footprints gifting the region with varied customs and traditional largesse.
This is where Ai Khanum – the historical Alexandria on the Oxus – lay sprawled deep down. Founded in the 4th century BC and discovered in the early part of the last century, the civilization manifests the rule of Alexander the Great. Sadly, today, this amazing site sits pockmarked with craters – a victim of war bombings. This is the land that witnessed the glories of the Achaemenid and Macedonian empires, saw the likes of Kushans and Ghaznavi dynasties rise to power and buried in its heart is the largest deposit of coins known in the history of currencies. Yet, today, there are few relics preserved to reflect these glorious facts. The Afghans have not only been robbed of their cultural identity, but financially too, the loss of heritage amounts to billions of dollars.
The pillaging of Afghanistan’s historical artifacts has been a practice ever since the region took up arms against the erstwhile Soviet Union. Reports document that illicit excavation and trade of artifacts were rampant across Afghan borders even during the 1990s and everything from ornaments to coins to animal figurines was smuggled. What the Taliban did was simply an extension of the destruction, the state of war anarchy further wrecking the system. "All we are breaking are stones," was Taliban’s militia leader Mullah Omar’s infamous response to international condemnation of the cultural massacre. But the world knew that the destruction of these relics was irreversible. Abdul Wasey Ferozi, former Director General of The National Institute of Archaeology, Afghanistan, rightly pointed out that it is easy to repair infrastructure such as roads, bridges and schools, but “cultural heritage can never be rehabilitated nor renovated.”
Efforts of rehabilitation, however, got underway as soon as possible. In 2002 UNESCO was handed the job of salvaging the massacred cultural heritage of Afghanistan. At the behest of the government, the organization coordinates various international efforts aimed at protecting the heritage. At present, different global cultural institutions are striving to inculcate a sense of ownership of cultural heritage among the Afghan people. Other organizations, too, are also making efforts to return and preserve the country’s lost glory back to its former self.
This is not an easy job, however. The question of reconstructing the smaller statue of Buddha, for example, has come under fire since many cultural experts believe that the destruction should be preserved as a reminder of the tragic war. However, those who support the reassembling of the statue are persuading authorities to go forward with the venture. Unfortunately, work on the resurrecting has hit yet another snag: the United Nation’s Venice charter for the conservation and restoration of monuments and sites, 1964, states that the material to be used in the process should be original. This has posed a few problems since the 2001 demolition left just scattered rubble with less than half of the smaller Buddha remaining intact. As per an article that appeared in the Guardian Weekly in January this year, the ad hoc expert committee has warned that the reconstruction would require a “thorough technical and scientific study”.
In a recent interview published in Asia Today, Paul Bucherer, Director of the Afghanistan Institute and Museum (Bibliotheca Afghanica), Switzerland, discussed the ground realities and the roadblocks that the rehabilitation process faces. The Bibliotheca Afghanica is a ‘depot’ of sorts, where Bucherer has been entrusted with safekeeping of artifacts loaned by Afghans for a temporary period. To begin with, says Bucherer, a sizeable number of artifacts have been sold in the black market and travelled to all corners of the world. This makes tracing them particularly difficult. In the cases where the artifacts have been traced and identified, the exorbitant cost serves as a deterrent in retrieving them. Sometimes, the pieces are dismantled and sold separately for higher gains.
Bucherer gives the example of a dealer he met who was demanding $40,000 for an exquisite and rare Gandharan piece which the latter had purchased for $30,000. However, he could not find a suitable buyer and eventually broke the rather large artifact into individual figures which he planned to sell and cover his loss. Similarly, a news report published three years ago claimed that an increasing number of Afghans were smuggling relics – particularly Buddha statues – which were being sold in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa with little or no documented record of the sales. The laws concerning import are another tricky issue that Bucherer raised. With no import papers of the artifacts, it becomes very difficult to bring them back to Afghanistan.
There is also the argument of people vs. culture. Experts, focused on rebuilding the Afghan cultural scene have been accused of robbing the country of humanitarian aid. This was particularly directed towards resurrecting the Buddha statue in Bamiyan, estimated to cost $40 million to $50 million. Bucherer counters the criticism by arguing that the capital that will come for the purpose will be funded by sources which will probably never provide humanitarian aid.
In her book, Art and Archeology of Afghanistan: its fall and survival: a multi-disciplinary approach, Juliette Van Krieken-Pieters insists that given its tumultuous war history, cultural identity is an antidote that will help the Afghans to return to normalcy. The road, however, is long and twisting, demanding from its travelers unstinted commitment. Even then, complete reversal is practically impossible; what Afghanistan may eventually witness is the blurred reflection of its magnificent past.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Karachi. She writes on topics related to human interest and civic issues.
Experts, focused on rebuilding the Afghan cultural scene have been accused of robbing the country of humanitarian aid.