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Kabul Museum: Keeping Afghanistan's culture alive

Published on 1 October 2002

Author(s): The New Courier #1 October 2002

Type:  New

A banner hung over the entrance of Kabul museum earlier this year proudly proclaimed: “A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive.” Inside, however, tells a different story

Once one of the cultural icons of Kabul, the museum was repeatedly hit by rockets during the 1991-96 civil war, and two-thirds of its unique collection systematically looted. Many irreplacable items, such as the Begram ivories (right), the entire numismatic collection, and fragments of Buddhist wall paintings from the Bamiyan Valley disappeared. Later, the Taliban smashed many of its Greco-Buddhist statues.

Of two nearly 2,000-year-old statues – one believed to represent the Kushan King Kanishka I, the other a Kushan nobleman - that once graced the entrance hall, nothing is left but the feet. The fragments of these and other smashed statues are piled in crates in the museum, in the hope that experts, using digital and virtual assembly techniques, can reconstitute some of them. It is also hoped to bring back items taken abroad illegally as soon as the museum is secure.

With the help of Greece, the museum building, which is situated in the war-ravaged suburb of Darulaman, some eight kilometres from the centre of Kabul, is to regain its roof and windows. Efforts to restore the museum’s collection have already begun, with CEREDAF, a French NGO, furnishing the required materials, and the Musee Guimet of France, the British Museum and the SPACH (Society for the Protection of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage, an NGO) contributing to the inventory and training of personnel. “We must hurry, for 15 years the artifacts have not been treated and many have defects” said the museum director as he showed a recent visitor around the dark, dusty museum, which six months after the fall of the Taliban was still without water or electricity.

The first museum in Afghanistan was established in 1919 in the Bagh-i-Bala palace overlooking Kabul, and consisted of manuscripts, miniatures, weapons and art objects belonging to former royal families. A few years later the collection was moved to the king’s palace in the city centre and in 1931 was officially installed in the present building, which King Amanullah had originally intended to be the Municipality of a new capital area on the outskirts of Kabul. The original collection was dramatically enriched, beginning in 1922, by the first excavations of the Delegation Archeologique Francais et Afghanistan (DAFA). Through the years other archeological expeditions added their finds to the museum until the collection spanned 6,000 years, including the Prehistoric, Classical, Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic periods.

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