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Afghanistan: At the Crossroads of Ancient Civilisations

Short art history of Afghanistan

Published on 1 September 2002

Author(s): BBC/Dan Cruickshank

Type:  Art history report

Art in Afghanistan has always been the victim of wars and plunders. In the old days by the invaders, today by Afghani themselves

Once a cultural crossroads, Afghanistan has been ravaged by 22 years of war and the Taliban regime whose systematic destruction of the country’s cultural heritage culminated in the blowing up of the Bamiyan Buddhas. Early in 2002, Dan Cruickshank travelled to Kabul to investigate what treasures remain and find out how Afghanistan’s people have dealt with attempts to destroy their culture and national identity.

Cultural crossroads

Afghanistan is at the centre - the crossroads - of ancient civilisations stretching back at least 3,000 years. Its richness and strategic importance - located as it once was at the meeting point of Chinese, Indian and European civilisations - means that through the centuries it has attracted many outsiders, invaders as well as merchants. Alexander the Great conquered the region in 300 BC, and from the early years of the new millennium the Silk Route passed through central Afghanistan carrying commerce, culture and religion between the major western and eastern civilisations. These civilisations have all left their marks on the people and the culture of the country. Most dramatically the monastery of Bamiyan - where the trade route coming south from India met the route from China to the Roman Empire in the west - is a product of Afghanistan’s rich past. Buddhist monks, moving along the Silk Route, created a monastery within the cliff face overlooking the road by hollowing out cells, halls and chambers and - in the 4th to the 6th centuries - carved there two colossal statues of Buddha. This was the first time the ’enlightened one’ had been expressed not in abstract but in human form. ’...many traces of the rich past have been unearthed in Afghanistan, and stupendous treasures have been found.’

In modern times, during the last 60 years, many traces of the rich past have been unearthed in Afghanistan, and stupendous treasures have been found. These include: the Kunduz Hoard of silver coins - the largest and most splendid Greek-style coins ever discovered; the Bagram Treasure - a collection of precious 2nd-century Roman, Chinese and Indian artefacts, showing the eclectic mix of high-quality works that passed along the Silk Route; also, only discovered in 1979, the Bactrian Gold, excavated at Tilla-Tepe, which included over 20,000 items from the 1st century. The mix of Classical and oriental influence evident in the items forming the collection of Bactrian Gold demonstrates the creative fusion between cultures that has given Afghanistan its distinct character. As well as artefacts, Afghanistan contains architecture of world importance. The 1,000-year-old Buddhist Pillar, the 80ft-tall Minar-i-Chakari, standing high above the plain of Kabul, was a wonderfully engineered and sophisticated structure. While at Ghazni there are giant 11th and 12th-century minarets - a form developed in a spectacular manner by the enigmatic minaret at Jam, which stands in strange and splendid isolation in a lonely valley to the east of Herat.

War

’It was when the Soviets retreated in the early 1990s, and civil war broke out, that most damage to the cultural heritage of the country occurred.’ Afghanistan is just recovering from 22 years of destructive war within its boundaries. First, from 1979 until the late 1980s, the fighting was between Soviet invaders and various mujehadin groups. Cultural destruction was relatively slight and generally accidental, although rockets did damage one of the minarets at Ghazni and one at Herat. It was when the Soviets retreated in the early 1990s, and civil war broke out, that most damage to the cultural heritage of the country occurred.

During the civil war different war lords - regionally and ethnically based but struggling for national power - fought for Kabul. At this lawless time the Kabul Museum - one of the most important museums in the world, packed with treasures of the highest quality - was sacked. It stands in a south-western suburb of Kabul, in the front line between the warring factions. Before its collections could be fully removed it was hit by rockets and set alight, and within months 70 per cent of its contents had been destroyed or looted. Lost are the Kunduz Hoard and the Bagram Treasure - looted rather than destroyed because coins and ivories, well known from catalogue records, continue to turn up on the illicit art market.

The Taliban

’...all things modern and western were suspect, and all representations of living beings were perceived as idolatrous...’ Destruction and loss of cultural objects and historic architecture through looting and vandalism was followed by ideological destruction during the six-year regime of the Taliban. When the Taliban came to power in 1996 the surviving cultural fragments of Afghanistan were protected - or at least tolerated. But by 2000 the approach of the Taliban ruling factions changed. The more primitive Wahabist attitudes - where all things modern and western were suspect, and all representations of living beings were perceived as idolatrous - became dominant and provoked an orgy of destruction.

The large Buddhist and Hindu images that had survived in the Kabul Museum because they were too large to loot, were smashed. Paintings of animals and people in the Kabul National Gallery were torn to pieces, the mighty Buddhas at Bamiyan were blown-up, and the 1,500-year-old frescoes in the surrounding caves destroyed or pillaged. The 1,000-year-old Buddhist Manir-i-Chakari was toppled. ’It became clear that the Taliban, in their last days, were not only destroying images of living things... but also attacking history and memory.’

It became clear that the Taliban, in their last days, were not only destroying images of living things - an act that was an abuse of Koran texts - but also attacking history and memory. They wanted to eradicate Afghanistan’s culturally rich past, and take the country back to a notional year zero, in an attempt to create their ideal of an Islamic state. All was to be elemental and primitive, and Allah was to be worshipped in a very prescribed manner. All art and sport were banished, education and technology were limited, and women were suppressed.

Kabul in 2002

I visited this traumatised and devastated world early in 2002, a few months after the fall of the Taliban. I wanted to find out how and why key monuments such as the Bamiyan Buddhas were destroyed, and to discover the fate of lost treasures such as the Bactrian Gold. I also wanted to discuss with the people of Afghanistan how they have dealt with this attack on their culture and their national identity.

My tour around the ruins of the Kabul Museum with its director revealed some depressing sights. With first-floor galleries open to the sky, the museum contains little besides crates of pulverised objects. What little the looters left was destroyed by the Taliban fanatics. A magnificent image of a Buddhist Bodhisattva, which had survived the civil war and been put back on show in 2000, fell victim to the Taliban’s hardening attitude and now stands as a shattered hulk - smashed in 2001. ’...there are some objects that have survived, hidden by brave souls who risked their liberty and even their lives to save beauty and history.’

Fortunately, however, there are some objects that have survived, hidden by brave souls who risked their liberty and even their lives to save beauty and history. I was taken to the Ministry of Information and Culture, in the centre of Kabul, where the most important museum fragments and the few complete remaining objects are stored, under apparently tight security. Using a 1974 pictorial guide to the museum I was able - among the scores of open timber crates and piles of stone, pottery and timber - to identify some of the objects that had once been the pride of the Kabul Museum. It was a shocking experience.

One crate contained the fragments of the faces of delicately curved 5th-century Buddhas and Bodhisattvas from Hadda - their benign and ecstatic smiles have somehow survived the sledgehammer’s blows. Another crate contained pieces of the remarkable and sensuous 7th-century figures of clay and straw from Fondukistan. In one corner there was a pile of timber that had once been the extraordinary, pre-Islamic, ancestor effigies of Nuristan. There was talk of restoration and repair - which is a possibility if money and state-of-the art expertise and technology are made available. But none of these things will ever be the same. They could be put back on show, but their battered remnants would always, to some extent, be a monument to Taliban brutality.

People

’They can destroy our buildings and monuments but not our minds, our past, our history lives on in them...’
The people I spoke to - ranging from academics and museum curators to villagers and cave-dwellers at Bamiyan - were highly sophisticated in their response to the devastation of their culture. All were aware of the cultural richness of their country, and appalled at its spoliation; all felt that their national identity had been attacked and undermined. I asked a man in Chakari village if he thought money should be made available for the reconstruction of the Manir-I-Chakari. He replied: ’It was such a cruel way to treat any historic object. They can destroy our buildings and monuments but not our minds, our past, our history lives on in them - yes it must be rebuilt.’

Few people seem to have been broken or made bitter by the 20 years of war and oppression. All the Afghans I met were dignified, welcoming and optimistic about their future. As the culture minister, Dr Sayed Raheen, told me: ’Our nation is an old nation and the location of this country has required it to be invaded by different conquerors, and each time after destruction our people have managed to survive, and to revive what they lost. I’m sure we will do it once more.’

Restoration and regeneration

’...looters are ’an organised mafia’ and they are now the biggest threat to Afghan culture...’ But what of the future? International efforts are being made to conserve the historic artefacts and buildings that survive, and help is needed urgently. The minarets at Ghazni and Jam are near collapse, partly as a result of the depredations of looters who have recently undermined the foundations of these minarets in their search for treasure. As Dr. Mohammad Popal, the chancellor of Kabul University said, looters are ’an organised mafia’ and they are now the biggest threat to Afghan culture, since the relative peace in the country has made it easier for thieves to operate in remote regions.

On the positive side, the British Museum, with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, has launched an initiative to establish and fund a conservation studio in the Kabul Museum, so that damaged objects from the collection can be repaired. The Greek Government has also offered to pay for the reconstruction of the museum. The Aga Khan Foundation has agreed to take responsibility for the restoration and regeneration of the early-19th-century Timur Shah district of Kabul, with its traditional houses and mausoleum, and of Babur’s Mogul Garden - also in Kabul. In addition, it intends to survey and produce a conservation plan for the old city of Herat. And the myths continue - the Bactrian Gold may still survive as a collection. I visited the vaults of the presidential palace in Kabul, where it is said to have survived, but I was given no assurance it was there, and certainly not permitted to see it. The country is still too unstable to confirm the existence and location of such a tempting treasure. ’The problem is that the looters are currently working faster than the archaeologists.’

As if to confirm the cultural richness of the country, and the possibility of recreating the Kabul Museum, a little-known 2nd-century Buddhist site in south Afghanistan - Kaffir Got - has recently been investigated. It is said to be rich in artefacts, and may even include a buried giant Buddha to rival those destroyed at Bamiyan. The problem is that the looters are currently working faster than the archaeologists. Much more may soon be discovered - and much may soon be lost through looting. It is to be hoped that the international community will control the western art market, which encourages looting through the appetite of collectors for Afghan art, and will make further money and expertise available - urgently - to protect and conserve the artefacts that have so far survived.

Find out more

Books
Afghanistan by Reuters Foreign Correspondents (Prentice Hall, 2002)
The Fragmentation of Afghanistan (Second edition) by Barnett R. Rubin (Yale University Press, 2002)
Ganhara: The memory of Afghanistan by Berenice Geoffroy-Schneiter (Assouline, 2001)

Places to visit
Afghanistan is unlikely to be a recommended destination for tourists in the near future. However, the British government’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office at http://www.fco.gov.uk/ offers advice for British nationals wishing to travel to unstable regions. Select ’Country Advice’ from the home page.
National Museum of Asian Art-Guimet at http://www.museeguimet.fr/gb/index_frame-gb.html Paris, has a fantastic collection of Afghanistan artifacts.
The British Museum at http://www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk/ is always a mine of information on the art of the ancient civilisations.

Links
Find out about the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage (SPACH) http://www.culturalprofiles.org.uk/Afghanistan/Units/153.html
Follow the Bamiyan Buddha Reconstruction Project on the New 7 wonders at http://cms.n7w.com/index.php?id=37
Read about the work of UNESCO’s culture sector in Afghanistan http://www.unesco.org/culture/heritage/tangible/afghanistan/html_eng/index_en.shtml

Related Links

Articles
• The Changing Faces of Terrorism - http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/recent/sept_11/changing_faces_01.shtml
• Out of Nowhere? - http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/recent/sept_11/build_up_01.shtml
• Crusades and Jihads in Postcolonial Times - http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/recent/sept_11/west_01.shtml

BBC Links
• BBC News - Country Profile of Afghanistan - http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/country_profiles/1162668.stm
• BBC News - Profile of Hamid Karzai - http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/2043606.stm
• BBC News - You asked Hamid Karzai - http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/talking_point/1940038.stm
• BBC News - September 11, One Year On - http://www.bbc.co.uk/september11/
• BBC News - Bamiyan: Wonder of the ancient world - http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/1198379.stm

External Web Links
• Kings College London: September 11 and War on Terrorism - http://www.kcl.ac.uk/depsta/wsg/sept11/index.html
• Columbia University, Fathom - September 11, Before and After - http://www.fathom.com/special/sept_11/
• Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage - http://www.culturalprofiles.org.uk/Afghanistan/Units/153.html
• UNESCO - Afghanistan. - http://www.unesco.org/culture/heritage/tangible/afghanistan/html_eng/index_en.shtml

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