Afghans plan museums to replace moonscapes
• Kabul steps up campaign to restore cultural heritage
• Thousands of treasures repatriated from abroad
* Helena Smith in Athens
* The Guardian,
* Thursday October 30 2008
It has been described as one of the great acts of cultural desecration of modern times, a rampant pillage that threatens to denude a country of much of its fabulous heritage. But now Afghanistan is stepping up an ambitious campaign to stop the looting of the country’s archaeological sites, with a programme to build museums, train archaeologists and repatriate the billions of dollars worth of stolen antiquities that have been spirited through its porous borders during the past seven years.
“We’re in the process of building 10 provincial museums, training more archaeologists, repatriating stolen treasures and making a red-list of [looted] art works,” the deputy culture minister, Omar Sultan, said during an official visit to Greece.
“But we also desperately need to educate young Afghans about the importance of their culture,” he told the Guardian. “There is a whole generation out there who have only ever known weapons and war. If they are sensitised, if they can be made to feel there is a cultural heritage of which they can be proud, they can influence their parents who help the gangs.”
The authorities are starting to make progress with repatriating stolen artefacts retrieved from overseas: in the past year, thousands of treasures have been repatriated from Denmark and Switzerland. Four tonnes of valuable items, holed up at Heathrow airport since 2005, are also due to be returned in coming weeks.
But formidable challenges still face Sultan and his colleagues. Attempts to hire extra guards to protect sites have failed because the authorities were unable to pay them more than $10 (£6) a month, or even equip them with telephones and cars. The security vacuum has allowed illegal smugglers to prosper. Working at night, gangs of Afghans in the pay of warlords and plunderers have turned swaths of the country into the moonscapes that now stand as testimony to the cultural desecration.
“People are hungry and they’re desperate, and smugglers play on that,” said Sultan, a Greek-trained archaeologist. “There are heroes in Afghanistan who have worked without any credit to save our treasures. But I worry that if this continues, looters will take everything – such is the scale of the organised crime.”
He is appealing for international funding to provide stronger protection for important sites and better equipment to guards. He also wants more countries to follow Greece’s lead in offering scholarships to trainee archaeologists. Afghanistan has only six trained archaeologists.
Even before the 2001 US-led invasion, nearly three decades of war and the fundamentalist Islamist rule of the Taliban had resulted in terrible loss to Afghanistan’s cultural heritage, most notably with the looting of the national museum in Kabul.
The destruction by the Taliban of the giant Buddhas carved into the mountainside at Bamiyan, with dynamite, picks and axes in 2001 – monuments the Afghans, in collaboration with international conservationists, are trying to restore – highlighted the country’s plight.
Sultan said it would be a big moment for Afghanistan when the relics currently impounded at Heathrow are returned. The objects date mostly from the great Bronze Age of the Bactrian civilisation in the second millennium BC, as well as the later pre-Islamic period.
“It will be a great moment for us when they return from Britain,” Sultan said. “I always say that our cultural heritage doesn’t just belong to us – it belongs to the world, and that’s why I hope the world will come and help us. About 90% of what we have underground has still not been discovered, and it needs to be protected.”
Afghanistan has some of the finest treasures and Hellenistic sites in the world, thanks in part to Alexander the Great, who invaded in 337BC. The looted Bactrian treasures include gold discs, elaborate jewels and gold-carved weapons. The national museum saw 70% of its treasures lost to looters in 1993. Antiquities are frequently smuggled through Pakistan and Iran. Treasures seized at Heathrow in 2005 included hundreds of jewels, axe-heads, stone statues, gold ornaments, ivory games pieces, ceramics, bronze seals and other ancient objects.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008