Bamiyan Cul­tural Preser­va­tion

The rich cul­tural her­itage of Afghanistan has been de­stroyed by war and strife but now there are lo­cal and in­ter­na­tional restora­tion ef­forts afoot.

Southasia - - MALÉ - By Sa­mar Qud­dus

The years of civil war and armed con­flict in Afghanistan fol­low­ing the Soviet oc­cu­pa­tion in­curred a huge so­cio-eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal cost for the state and the peo­ple. The war and con­flict sit­u­a­tion has not only dam­aged the eco­nomic, ad­min­is­tra­tive and po­lit­i­cal fab­ric of the coun­try but has for­feited the cul­tural her­itage due to the so­cio-po­lit­i­cal tur­moil. The loss is ir­repara­ble and spells many dan­gers for Afghanistan.

Lo­cated at the cross­road of an­cient civ­i­liza­tions, the geostrate­gic po­si­tion of Afghanistan has made it a mul­ti­cul­tural hub of dif­fer­ent na­tions and civ­i­liza­tions through­out the his­tory. The pres­ence of stu­pen­dous trea­sures, arte­facts and ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ex­ca­va­tions at­tracted 20th cen­tury ar­chae­ol­o­gists, his­to­ri­ans and re­searchers from around the world to visit and work there. They strug­gled for more than half a cen­tury in un­earthing traces of Afghan’s rich past. How­ever, their suc­cess has been an­ni­hi­lated by the civil war and the tyran­ni­cal and unimag­i­na­tive Tal­iban regime. Ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial Afghan sta­tis­tics of 1980, there were al­most 2800 ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites in the coun­try that later served as a blue­print for loot­ers to bury an­tiq­ui­ties and trea­sures amidst the strife and war.

Prior to the Tal­iban vic­tory, the na­tional mu­seum of Afghanistan which is lo­cated in Kabul, was one of the most rich, di­verse and spec­tac­u­lar mu­se­ums in the world. Its splen­did pre­his­toric mon­u­ments and price­less artis­tic ob­jects told the story of the dy­namic cul­tural his­tory of Afghanistan dat­ing from pre­his­toric times to the Is­lamic and ethno­graphic eras. The mu­seum housed more than 6000 ex­cep­tional arte­facts fea­tur­ing mag­nif­i­cent Bud­dhist sculp­tures, gold and ivory or­na­ments of Bac­trian no­mads and Ba­gram, an­cient Hindu mar­ble stat­u­ary and the world’s largest col­lec­tion of sig­nif­i­cant coins from civ­i­liza­tions as old as 800 B.C.

In an act of cul­tural geno­cide, the na­tional her­itage of Afghanistan was looted and pil­laged dur­ing il­le­gal ex­ca­va­tion and smug­gled to the in­ter­na­tional markets, mainly through Pak­istan. From 1992 to 1994, al­most 70% of the ob­jects dis­played were looted and stolen while a num­ber of his­tor­i­cal sites were bombed and de­stroyed across the coun­try. In May 1993, the na­tional mu­seum was also tar­geted in which its build­ing was burned down and it col­lapsed. Dur­ing the years of un­remit­ting war­fare, 90% of the mu­seum’s ob­jects were re­ported lost.

The cul­tural her­itage of Afghanistan was en­dan­gered not only as a re­sult of war and eco­nomic down­turn but the sys­tem­atic and wil­ful de­struc­tion of the peer­less her­itage by vested in­ter­ests of the rul­ing war­lords and this was even more de­plorable. This heinous crime of de­stroy­ing awe-in­spir­ing relics and pre-his­toric re­mains was a con­scious po­lit­i­cal move by the then Tal­iban govern­ment which jus­ti­fied this as a step for­ward to en­dorse Is­lamic in­junc­tions against idol worship.

Blow­ing up of the gi­ant stat­ues of Bud­dhas carved into the cliffs of Bamiyan was an­other dark event in the his­tory of Afghan cul­ture that caused ir­repara­ble loss to the his­tor­i­cal her­itage of the coun­try. These were the world’s tallest stand­ing Bud­dhas from the 5th cen­tury along with other an­cient sculp­tures in the coun­try, that had sur­vived the war and pre­vi­ous loot­ing. They were de­stroyed dur­ing the rad­i­cal Tal­iban regime in 2001. The minaret of Chakari from the first cen­tury A.D., Tepe Shutur-e-Hadda tem­ple from the Ghan­dara civ­i­liza­tion, his­tor­i­cal stat­ues in Sorkh-ko­tal, Ghazni, Khar­war and many oth­ers also fell vic­tim to Tal­iban sav­agery and op­pres­sion.

Most of the dam­age caused to the cul­tural her­itage of Afghanistan oc­curred dur­ing the Tal­iban regime. How­ever, much to one’s sur­prise, the re­cent project ini­ti­ated in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Univer­sity of Chicago by the Afghan govern­ment to pre­serve its cul­tural her­itage comes up with the no­tion that the cur­rent threat to the an­cient sites is even graver than the pre­vi­ous de­struc­tion.

The un­fet­tered de­vel­op­ment projects such as rapid in­dus­trial ex­pan­sion, hap­haz­ard ur­ban de­vel­op­ment and build­ing of in­fra­struc­ture from mines to roads, bridges and hous­ing, con­tinue to de­stroy the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal her­itage at a much faster pace. Many an­cient sites in Kabul, Balkh, Herat, Jam, Ghazni, Bamiyan and many other places across the coun­try are un­der this new threat of eco­nomic onomic de­vel­op­ment at the cost of cul­tural de­pre­ci­a­tion. Fur­ther­more, re­source ource ex­trac­tion ex­trac­tion, il­le­gal ex­ca­va­tion ex­ca­va­tion, par­tic­u­larly in re­mote ar­eas, il­licit traf­fic of an­tiq­ui­ties and old-fash­ioned loot­ing by the lo­cals rep­re­sents a con­tin­u­ous loss of cul­tural as­set.

De­spite the pro­hi­bi­tion in the Afghan Law re­gard­ing the Pro­tec­tion of His­tor­i­cal and Cul­tural Prop­er­ties (2004), il­le­gal items con­tinue to be looted, bought and sold by the lo­cals. It is ei­ther be­cause of gen­eral un­aware­ness about the sig­nif­i­cance of cul­tural pat­ri­mony among the peo­ple or neg­li­gence and lack of po­lit­i­cal will on the part of the govern­ment to pre­serve and safe­guard the cul­tural her­itage. This on­go­ing sys­tem­atic and or­ga­nized de­struc­tion of his­tor­i­cal trea­sures, from the con­ser­va­tion per­spec­tive, is a wakeup call for the con­cerned au­thor­i­ties to re­ha­bil­i­tate the frag­ile cul­tural land­scape of the coun­try. It is im­por­tant be­cause the fu­ture gen­er­a­tions must live and breathe their cul­ture.

The ef­forts of the mu­seum staff in Kabul who ac­tu­ally risked their lives for the safety of the valu­able ob­jects is worth prais­ing, es­pe­cially dur­ing the time when the cul­tural her­itage of Afghanistan was be­ing sys­tem­at­i­cally de­stroyed dur­ing the Tal­iban regime. The unique arte­facts and trea­sures of the mu­seum were trans­ferred and se­cretly kept in safe havens dur­ing the war and re­mained hid­den for many years. They were not dis­closed un­til 2004 when the na­tional mu­seum was re­opened for the gen­eral pub­lic. It is be­ing said that many an­tiq­ui­ties are still hid­den un­der­ground in the feat that his­tory may re­peat it­self.

Through the years, par­tic­u­larly af­ter the an­ni­hi­la­tion of the Bud­dhas in Bamiyan, the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity in­ter­vened to res­cue the crum­bled cul­tural her­itage. Through this ef­fort, var­i­ous projects of her­itage con­ser­va­tion have been launched through co­op­er­a­tion of the Afghan govern­ment in part­ner­ship with var­i­ous NGOs, for­eign gov­ern­ments, the pri­vate sec­tor and ded­i­cated in­di­vid­u­als.

Since 2002, enor­mous ef­forts have been made, from main­tain­ing in­ven­tory to lo­gis­tics, to re­cover the lost as­sets. The most no­table ef­forts in­clude the res­cue of ex­ca­va­tions at Mes Ay­nak – the world’s largest cop­per de­posit – where the ar­chi­tec­tural trea­sure was at risk due to the cop­per min­ing ac­tiv­i­ties. Other sim­i­larly res­cue ef­forts in­clude ex­ca­va­tions of Bud­dhist stu­pas at Tepe Naringi, doc­u­men­ta­tion of minarets of Ghazni, restora­tion of Bagh-e-Babur in Kabul and preser­va­tion of many other lo­ca­tions of in­tan­gi­ble her­itage. The Afghan govern­ment has also strength­ened the le­gal frame­work to se­cure the her­itage by rat­i­fy­ing sev­eral con­ven­tions of UNESCO’ Univer­sal Dec­la­ra­tion on Cul­tural Di­ver­sity.

How­ever, re­build­ing the gi­ant stone Bud­dhas is still un­der ques­tion and it seems im­pos­si­ble to re­store them to their orig­i­nal form. Some ex­perts be­lieve that the project will cost too much money and time. In­stead, they say the com­mu­nity and con­cerned au­thor­i­ties should fo­cus on restor­ing other an­cient sites. None­the­less, the govern­ment has lob­bied with UNESCO and the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity to re­build the stat­ues or at least any one of them for cul­tural re­vival.

Cul­ture plays an im­por­tant role in na­tion build­ing as it cre­ates a sense of na­tional iden­tity and har­mony re­gard­less of eth­nic and re­li­gious dif­fer­ences and as­serts mu­tual un­der­stand­ing. Also, a well-func­tion­ing cul­tural ap­proach not only se­cures the her­itage and past relics of the coun­try but also helps to fos­ter eco­nomic growth through cre­ation of jobs and gen­er­ates rev­enue from the tourism in­dus­try. The cul­tural per­spec­tive within the na­tional pol­icy frame­work is a fun­da­men­tal req­ui­site to­wards achiev­ing sus­tain­able eco­nomic growth and en­cour­ag­ing peace-build­ing. There are many who are busy in carv­ing the suc­cess of var­i­ous her­itage pro­tec­tion pro­grammes but there is still a long way to go. The chal­lenge to safe­guard tra­di­tions is over­whelm­ing and re­quires a lot of money and ex­per­tise so that the coun­try can again take the path to­wards sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment.

The writer is a free-lance con­trib­u­tor and fol­lows na­tional is­sues with keen in­ter­est.

The Bamiyan statue be­fore and af­ter de­struc­tion.

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