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.
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.