Afghanistan’s Heritage May Be Threatened with Taliban Return to Power

The Taliban shocked the world when, in 2001, they had the giant statues of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, in Afghanistan, exploded for thousands of years. Twenty years later, with the return of the extremist group to power, archaeologists, researchers and international organizations are calling for the archaeological relics that the country is home to be preserved. It remains to be seen whether, this time, these requests will be granted.

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A few days after the Taliban took the capital Kabul last weekend, UNESCO issued a statement calling for the protection of Afghanistan’s cultural and historical heritage and the guarantee of a safe environment for the country’s artists. “It is crucial for the future of Afghanistan to safeguard and preserve this heritage,” said the United Nations agency for education and culture.

Afghanistan has a rich and diverse cultural heritage. The territory was home to important Silk Road roads, connecting India to Iran and China since 200 BC, and is full of archaeological sites of ancient cities, monasteries and caravanserais (typical inns from the Middle East, which received travelers and explorers , including the famous Marco Polo). Afghan history is also marked by a strong and rich millenary heritage of Buddhism and saw the flourishing of Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism, before and after the arrival of Islam in the 7th century after Christ.

The country is also home to two World Heritage Sites recognized by Unesco and considered at risk: the landscape and the remains of the Buddhas in the Bamiyan Valley and the Minaret and archaeological ruins of Jam, located in the province of Ghor, in the west of the country.

Historically, the Taliban embraces a fundamentalist view of Islam that rejects images of humans and animals and looks suspiciously at Afghanistan’s pre-Islamic past. However, as it consolidated its advance in the country in recent months, the group released a statement instructing its followers to “protect, monitor and preserve” the relics, prevent illegal excavations and safeguard “all historic sites”.

Additionally, they informed that they would prohibit the sale of artifacts in the clandestine art market. “No one should disturb the order in these places or think about using them for profit,” warned the group.

“This was a statement in response to our request sent to both sides in the peace negotiations. We hope that the guideline will be followed – Cheryl Benard, director of the Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage (Arch), tells GLOBO.

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The Washington, USA-based organization has developed a number of projects in recent years to protect and document Afghanistan’s historic heritage. One of the initiatives is to collect information about the original appearance of the Bamiyan Buddhas and the construction methods used 1500 years ago so that the sculptures can, in the future, be restored.

For Benard, the biggest concern at the moment is the protection of non-Islamic and pre-Islamic sites like Bamiyan. The Alliance has already been notified of looting at the site, but so far there is no information about those responsible.

Sites at risk

For the director of the Italian Archaeological Mission in Afghanistan, professor and archaeologist Anna Filigenzi, the situation is critical and all the thousands of archaeological sites scattered across the country are at risk.

“In recent years, deteriorating security conditions have prevented us from working directly on the sites, but we continue our activities from a distance, through collaboration with the Afghan Archeology Institute,” explained Filigenzi.

She says that looting had been happening frequently: — The sites have been frequently looted by illegal excavators who take the artifacts to clandestine art markets — she says.

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Founded in 1956, the Italian mission is primarily engaged in excavations at Buddhist and Islamic sites located in the Ghazni region, 150 km south of Kabul. Activities were even suspended during the previous period of Taliban rule in the country, between 1996 and 2001, and with the group’s return to power, the fate of the mission is uncertain.

“It’s hard to say what will happen. This is a chaotic situation. No one knows what the Taliban’s political plans are in relation to cultural heritage and, even more, representatives of the agencies of the previous government. But we will not give up on our scientific commitment – he says.

National museum

In the last year he was in charge of the country, in 2001, the Taliban was also responsible for destroying pre-Islamic artifacts that were part of the collection of the National Museum of Afghanistan, based in Kabul.

When the group took over the capital last weekend, the museum published a press release informing that so far, looting and attacks had not yet reached the institution’s collections, but that “the continuation of chaos raised serious concerns. ” Currently, the museum’s collection has more than 80,000 artifacts.

National Museum of Afghanistan, Kabul Photo: Reproduction
National Museum of Afghanistan, Kabul Photo: Reproduction

“We urge security officials, the international community, the Taliban and other influential institutions to pay serious attention to the security and immunity of the National Museum of Afghanistan so that this situation is not the cause of looting and destruction of the institution’s property.” informed the note.

“The museum director was very scared of the looters. So we asked our Taliban contacts to send you some guards. Four guards were assigned and a Taliban representative visited the site to reassure him. So all I can say is that so far it’s okay,” said Benard of Arch. The report tried direct contact with the museum’s director, Mohammad Fahim Rahimi, but was unable to locate him.

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— So far, and the work there has continued until a few days, we have not had any reports of destruction of property — Ernesto Ottone, Assistant Director General for Culture at UNESCO, told GLOBO.

Before reaching the capital, the Taliban already had full control of Mes Aynak, one of the oldest Buddhist monasteries in Central Asia, located 40 km from Kabul. Along with the statues and sculptures, there are around 10,000 artifacts excavated at the site, including more than 2,500 coins. The group also oversaw the new museum in the citadel of Herat, as well as smaller museums and collections in the cities of Kandahar and Ghazni, where the Italian mission operates, and in Balkh.

– We certainly hope that heritage, all heritage, will be safeguarded and protected, in accordance with the international legal commitment that Afghanistan assumed by ratifying the UNESCO cultural conventions on the subject – emphasizes Ottone.

Asked if Unesco already has plans to act to protect the collections and archeological sites, the spokesman said that the priority, at the moment, is the safety of the Afghans:

— The greatest urgency concerns the humanitarian phase. The priority is to ensure that calm is restored and that people are safe. It is too early at this stage to discuss plans that may need to be changed or adapted in light of unpredictable developments.