Afghan relics sold for food

Published on 3 March 2010

Author(s): BBC/Peter Greste

Type:  news

The BBC’s Peter Greste in northern Afghanistan finds civil war and poverty destroying what remains of the country’s ancient heritage in 2001

Lying at the cross-roads of Central Asia, South Asia and the Middle East, Afghanistan has been invaded by some of the world’s greatest armies and played host to some of history’s finest civilisations.  Alexander the Great first marched over Afghanistan’s mountains almost 2,500 years ago. Since then it has been marched across, fought over, settled, and forced out or abandoned by the Persians (twice), the White Huns, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, the Moghuls, the British and the Soviet Union. Each has left its own archaeological legacy, making Afghanistan one of the world’s richest historical treasures. But the recent years of war and conflict are threatening to destroy these illustrious treasures.

Museum treasures
Until the collapse of the communist government in 1992, the national museum in Kabul had been at the forefront of investigating and preserving the country’s unique archaeological treasures. But the museum six miles to the south of Kabul was often on the front lines, and its treasures were looted each time it changed hands between rival Mujahedeen factions.
Now, archaeologists estimate that about 70% of its collection has disappeared. More than 70% of the national museum’s collection has been looted or destroyed
Most of its vast gold and silver coin collection, which spanned the nation’s history from the Achaemenids in the sixth century BC through the Islamic period, has been looted.
Also gone is a Greco-Bactrian hoard of more than 600 coins from Kunduz, in northern Afghanistan, dating from the third and second centuries BC, including the largest Greek coins ever discovered. The giant standing Buddhas, carved out of a cliff-face in the central province of Bamiyan have also been destroyed - this time by the Taleban - over their refusal to countenance any image of the human form, arguing that they were "unIslamic". Now, with the known treasures all but gone, archaeological sites still unexplored are also being destroyed.

An ancient citadel first built by Alexander the Great almost 2500 years ago still dominates the junction of the Panj and Kokche rivers, close to the northern border with Tajikistan.
Known as Dasht-e-Khala, its significance as a strategic military stronghold remains, and it is now an imposing redoubt dotted with Northern Alliance tanks, artillery and trenches facing the Taleban front lines less than a kilometre away. The site is littered with ancient pottery shards, while the top of a Greek column pokes through the dust near a bunker.
The Northern Alliance fighters have levered away the stones of buried wall to make way for their trenches. Each day that the war continues, incoming rounds, defensive excavations and the movement of heavy artillery grinds what remains of the site into dust.

Digging to survive
Away from the front lines, buried cities are just as vulnerable. Although it is technically illegal to take antiquities, there are no police around to enforce the law.
With a rich market in wealthy countries for ancient artefacts, Afghanistan’s poorest say they have no choice but to dig up the sites to survive. In the desert a few miles from Dasht-e-Khala and away from the gaze of the troops, a group of internally-displaced Afghans have been digging their way through an unnamed ancient town. It is marked only by a few nondescript mounds that rise out of the dust, but the town has been yielding a wealth of pottery and jewellery that is helping to keep the refugees fed. Money changers in Afghanistan sell relics on the black market to Iran, Russia and Pakistan Khudayqul and Abdur Rashid have been digging there since they settled at a nearby camp a month ago. They abandoned most of their possessions in their home in Bamiyan province after the Taleban launched a purge, and fled across the lines to the Northern Alliance controlled territory. Khudayqul knows it is illegal do dig, but he also insists that it is the only way he can feed his children. "Last month, we found an amulet that we sold for three week’s supply of oil and flour and rice. That made my children very happy," he said. "But all that has gone now, and if we do not find something else soon we will starve. I have to keep digging."

Black market
Most of the artefacts go to the money-changers in market towns like Khodja Bahuddin, who act as middle-men for the big dealers in Pakistan, Iran and Russia.
Nothing stays in Afghanistan for long. One changer, Salahuddin, said that as soon as anybody comes in with a significant find, he calls his contacts who come in personally to snap up the treasures. "It is a question of survival," he said. "I know it is important for Afghanistan’s heritage, but we can’t eat the gold coins, and they’re no use to us if we’re dead."

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