The responsibility of tolerance lies with those who have
the wider vision
Published on 8 October 2009
Looted in the 90s. Recovered in 2004. Now Afghan treasures restored to glory.
It was a moment that went a long way to putting Afghanistan and its cultural heritage back on the map. In a small space in a once bombed-out building on the southern edge of Kabul, Afghan dignitaries and western diplomats squeezed past each other to see into the display cases: bronze age digging implements, pieces of carved marble and elaborate metal goods spanning Afghanistan’s rich history. It was only a two-room exhibit and much of the rest of Afghanistan’s National Museum remained empty. But the opening of the room marked a first step towards the restoration of a museum which, before the destruction wreaked during the country’s civil war, once boasted one of the greatest collections of ancient artefacts anywhere in the world.
For the antiquities, the exhibit marks the end of a tortuous odyssey: looted during the anarchy of the 1990s, hundreds of pieces were spirited overseas only to be impounded by British customs officials at Heathrow airport over an 11-day period in July 2004. But even after experts at the British Museum identified them as "highly important ancient material" they could not be returned: the museum was in no fit state to house any major collection.
Until recently a tour of the museum in Kabul would take even the most dutiful visitor barely half an hour, so little was on display. All that remained were mostly works too big to be destroyed by the Taliban or photos of some of antiquities that were either long-lost or sent elsewhere for safe keeping. Despite extensive rebuilding of the museum, it lacked the capacity to handle such a large collection.
But after years of sitting in the storerooms of the British Museum and HM Customs, 22 crates of artefacts were finally returned to Kabul in February and unveiled at a ceremony attended by the country’s minister of culture, and the British ambassador, Mark Sedwill. "It is giving the Afghan people back that sense of cultural heritage that was so nearly taken from them", Sedwill said, adding it was "refreshing the history of the country". None of the pieces are thought to be part of the original stock of 70,000 items owned by the museum in its heyday, but are more recently looted items. But Nancy Hatch Dupree, the US historian who has been living in the region ever since she first arrived in Kabul more than 40 years ago and wrote a guide to the museum in the 1970s, said many of the pieces were similar to the original collection. "This sends a really important message to those countries where all the museum material went," she said. "There are collections like this sitting in Switzerland, Germany and other parts of Europe which need to get their houses in order to find this stuff and return it. And until recently the museum simply did not have the capacity to take new things. So it shows the world that the museum has been restored, the staff has been restored and we can look after these objects ourselves." Throughout its history Afghanistan has been a meeting point for different civilisations, part of the international trade route known as the silk route and the preferred invasion corridor for the ancient military powers with an eye on the Indian subcontinent.
All the comings and goings endowed the country with one of the world’s richest archaeological records. Many of the best artefacts ended up in the National Museum, although the building itself could not have been more badly located – it was on one of the frontlines between opposing forces who battled for control of Kabul after the fall of the Russian-backed government of Muhammad Najibullah in 1992. A rocket strike on the building in 1994 largely destroyed the building and whatever remained was attacked by the Taliban in 2001 who smashed up artefacts they regarded as idolatrous. Museum officials hope ultimately to move from the current building, six miles from the city centre where it was located to be part of a new city conceived by the modernising king Amanullah Khan in the 1920s.What remains of his efforts are the shattered hulks of the neo-classical government buildings at the end of one of Kabul’s longest roads right next to the museum building. Funding for a new museum is in short supply and there is little hope, however, of some of the very best artefacts that were present in the 1970s ever making it back to Kabul. "Most of that really good stuff is in some private collector’s house somewhere, we will never get it back," said Joanie Meharry, a US scholar currently working on a book about the history of the museum.
And questions hang over whether the museum will ever be able to look after the Bactrian Gold hoard, a staggering collection of bracelets, buckles and gold jewellery dating from the first century BC. Many experts feared they had been lost, stolen or even melted down by the Taliban and sold for cash. But a heroic group of curators managed to move some of the best items to vaults in the presidential palace in Kabul and to keep the location secret until the political situation improved. The extraordinary items, and another stash of ancient trade goods found near Bagram, are currently on a world tour of leading museums.
Sitting in pride of place in the new exhibition in Kabul is an extraordinary bronze bird. It stands about two feet high and, as the drawer on its body shows, is actually an incense burner dating from between the 11th and 13th centuries AD. It is the perhaps most striking object in the small set of rooms in Afghanistan’s National Museum, which also includes beautiful pieces of engraved marble blocks that most probably once formed parts of buildings. And there are other rare stone items from the Bactrian civilisation that once flourished in what is now northern Afghanistan. Detailed information about the pieces is in short supply since no one knows where they were dug up. They were impounded by officials at Heathrow airport in 2005, after, it is thought, having been taken by looters. The exhibition divides neatly between largely Islamic period artefacts, including stone plates engraved with hunting scenes, and bronze age blades, arrowheads and other implements, all in unusually good condition. Although there is little of the high-quality Buddhist material that characterised the museum’s original collection and for which it was famous around the world, Afghan authorities hope that as other law enforcement agencies crack down on looted artefacts the museum’s new collection will continue to grow.
13 June 2013
Due to heavy workload
20 February 2013
We emptied Syria's museums
19 February 2013
The ancient manuscripts of Timbuktu are a door into Africa's golden age. We must not let this crisis threaten their survival
These manuscripts are our identity
Mosaics depicting scenes from Homer?s epic poem The Odyssey.
18 February 2013
Press, reigime and propaganda
International Conference on Protection of Cultural Property in Asia