An appeal to safeguard the cultural heritage of Aynak

Published on 11 January 2011

Author(s): Tolo News/Dr M. Zahir Aziz

Type:  Feature

When considering Afghanistan, many outsiders may see only rubble, ruin and desolation. However, archaeologists, historians and millions around the world believe that the war-torn country has much more to offer.

This is manifest in terms of Afghanistan's natural beauty, unique historical sites and the diversity of its rich culture in which can be discerned influences of several advanced civilisations from Ancient Rome to China, from Greece to India and from many great Islamic civilisations.

Because of its location, Afghanistan became a natural part of the adventures and travels of people, making it a treasure trove of relics of many cultures, religions and civilisations, among them Zoroastrian, Greek and Persian, as well as Buddhist, Jewish, Christian and Islamic. Afghanistan's main cities, Ariana, Gandhara, Arachosia and Bactria-now respectively known to us as Herat, the Kabul Valley, Kandahar, Balkh and Ghazni-became centres of great civilisations, arts and learning. During the Islamic period, Ghazni, Balkh and Herat offered to central Asia and to the entire Islamic civilisation, great poets, humanists and philosophers, such as Mawlana Jalal-ud-Din Balkhi-Rumi, Sana'i Ghaznawi, Albiruni, Sayyed Jamal-ud-Din Afghani and others.
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The archaeological site of Mes Anyak

Poets, thinkers, writers, artists, visitors, adventurers, diplomats as well as travellers who have been in Afghanistan, all wrote and were unanimous about the legendary beauty of the ancient cities of Afghanistan and the type of advanced cultural richness they used to enjoy which spread over to central Asia and beyond.

In view of the former USSR's occupation of Afghanistan and ensuing civil war, the Afghan cultural heritages have greatly been damaged or destroyed as a result of ignorance, thoughtlessness and due to urbanisation. But even more intolerable is the damage caused to our cultural heritages by war, armed conflict, looting, theft and ignorance of their intrinsic national values. Examples of this loss to both Afghanistan and the greater human heritage are countless. The heartless destruction of the Bamiyan Buddas by Taliban in 2001, the destruction and looting of the Kabul Museum and the ignorance of the authorities to preserve the valuable Islamic cultural sites of Herat and Ghazni are but just a few.

All of these have the greatest effect on severing the links between the people of Afghanistan in addition to irrevocably obliterating the memory of our past. We have the solemn duty to value and understand that preservation and appreciation of our cultural heritage enable us to defend our sovereignty and independence, and hence affirm and promote Afghans cultural identity.

All these tangible and intangible cultural treasures that still remain in Balkh, Herat, Kandahar, Ghazni, Kabul, Ghoor, Aynak and elsewhere in Afghanistan are our most precious cultural heritage symbolising Afghans' cultural identity and thus must be preserved for generations to come. This heritage is also here to be valued and used as a basis for national pride and unity, social harmony, democracy and as an engine of promoting sustainable development.

It seems that we in Afghanistan, have not learnt from the destruction of one of our cultural treasures in Bamiyan by the Taliban and the destruction and looting of the Kabul Museum, one of the richest museums in Asia in Islamic and pre Islamic collections. We have not learnt our lessons from the unspeakable damage that historical sites and centres were subject to, during the 30 years of war, looting, illegal excavations and smugglings of cultural objects to the neighbouring countries and from there, to private collections and museums in rich countries.

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French archaeologists walk on top of a giant 4th century Bhuddist stupa

We have not taken any significant steps to protect and preserve the unique monuments and outstanding historical sites of Balkh, one of the most ancient cities of Afghanistan, unmatched in its deeply precious pre-Islamic and Islamic cultural heritage.

The historical site of the old city of Herat and its beautiful monuments, bearing witness to one of the most advanced periods of Islamic civilisation, is in great danger and being destroyed as we speak if immediate action is not taken. This is due to the demolition of parts of the old city allowing the construction of a highway built right through the centre of the city, including through sections containing its historical minarets which have unique characteristics not seen elsewhere.

The Islamic historical minarets, the citadel of the city of Ghazni, hundreds of historical monuments and even the tombs of great personalities of Ghazni are in total ruin. Ghazni, the centre of one of the greatest Islamic civilisations during the 9th and 10th centuries, selected in 2007 by the Islamic, Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation ( ISESCO), to be the Capital of the Islamic Civilisation in 2013 did not receive any attention by Afghan authorities and unfortunately will not be ready for 2013. We have not, in fact neglected to understand the significance of the honour bestowed upon Ghazni by the Islamic world.

At present, another cultural treasure of Afghanistan, a massive first century B.C. Buddhist site is seriously in danger due to it being located right on top of a copper mine discovered recently. The Aynak copper mine is apparently the largest unexplored copper mine in the world and in agreement with the government of Afghanistan, the China Metallurgical Group ‎Corporation is poised to start exploration of the mine imminently.

If the historical Buddhist cultural treasures of Aynak, representing part of humanity's cultural heritage, are not excavated with care, utilising proper scientific methods of excavation, we may risk yet another disaster. Without sufficient time devoted to its care-at least ten years, without a minimum funding at the disposal of archaeological efforts, and without an action plan assuring the preservation of its monuments, these cultural treasures of Afghanistan will disappear forever, joining the Bamiyan Buddhas, destroyed by Taliban in 2001.

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The Anyak cupper mine

It is incumbent that the government of Afghanistan negotiates the conditions for the exploration of the Aynak Mines with the Chinese government and assures the preservation of the historic heritage discovered in Aynak. The Chinese government will see its way in helping to preserve this unique Buddhist cultural site and may also view its role in providing financial and technical assistance to its neighbour in efforts assuring the survival of an important Asian heritage. China will be seen not only as helping to protect an invaluable common heritage but would also be seen broadly as a leading nation in helping coordinate an international effort with organisations such as UNESCO and others in assuring that historical traditions are preserved and cohabit with advances in social and economic progress.

We now know that Afghanistan is endowed with large mineral resources, including rare earth minerals which are in great demand for high-tech components. This presents us with an unprecedented historic opportunity to help bring stability and prosperity to this region by directing the exploration of Afghanistan's rich mines to the goal of extracting the people of Afghanistan from the yoke of poverty, illiteracy, illness, and insecurity. Afghan authorities need to be cognizant of the fact that the nation's historical monuments and cultural treasures are its permanent wealth, and if cared for, will contribute to its national wealth for hundreds of years, unlike minerals, which will eventually be depleted.

One of the most important steps to be taken towards the safeguarding of this cultural heritage would be to develop a scientific and enduring plan of action in order to help reestablish the links between the populations concerned and their cultural history, thus helping to develop a sense of common ownership of tangible cultural heritage, sites, monuments and other objects representing the cultural identity of different segments of the Afghan society. We must understand that the safeguarding efforts of cultural heritage through the development of a national strategy for Afghanistan are directly linked to the national reconstruction process, inclusive of the international efforts underway.

Dozens of countries around the world where the national authorities have effectively managed the preservation and promotion of their historic heritage have benefitted from billions of dollars annually stemming from tourists visiting every year. The historical monuments and cultural sites of Egypt, Thailand, India, China, Spain, Greece, Italy and many other countries will continue to endure for many decades in the future, well beyond any mining profits. Indeed these cultural sites, if embraced, will generate positive benefits for thousands of years.

Similar to any other good people, Afghans are sincere and eager to see their country be rebuilt and developed, as they have an untapped thirst for learning, reading and writing. They want to send their children to school and have basic health services available. In doing so, they want to be ready for the challenges ahead. At the same time, they also desire to uphold their own dignity, values and cultures and to be able to pass along their heritage to future generations. In this manner, they hope to preserve their pride and identity as a people and nation and ready themselves to be able to cope with the hard challenges they will invariably encounter.

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An archaeologist unearths an wooden Bhuddist statue probably 1400 years old

We also know that if in the reconstruction and development process in Afghanistan, a prominent position is not given to all aspects of this deep cultural heritage inherent to the people of Afghanistan, we risk to perpetuate the current social and economic problems of our country and by consequent, the entire region.

The safeguarding of cultural heritages-both tangible and intangible-including museums, monuments, archaeological sites, music, art, and traditional crafts, holds an exceptionally vital position in strengthening the sense of Afghanistan's national integrity. In addition, it is also important to realise that cultural heritage can become a particularly constructive rallying point for former adversaries, enabling them to rebuild ties and dialogue and to redesign a common identity, and a sense of unity for a future together.

Recognising that culture may now be said to be the whole complex of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features that characterise a society or social group and includes not only the arts and letters, but also modes of life, the fundamental rights of the human being, value systems, traditions and beliefs; it therefore becomes vital to develop and support comprehensive and well-planned national measures to harmonise a national cultural policy. This policy will in turn support the need to preserve grassroots cultural initiatives in order to promote mutual understanding as well as respect and consideration between individuals, groups and communities in Afghanistan.

The Afghan culture, with its historical significance and its present diversity, contains values that clearly define the Afghan identity. This Afghan cultural identity, therefore, is a treasure that vitalises both individuals and communities in their potentials for helping every one of us to seek nurture in our past, as well as to welcome contributions and enrichment from near and far compatible with our own characteristics and needs. These characteristics, far from presenting obstacles, tend to enrich communion in the Afghan nation's values that unite us.

Every study and particularly those in countries with emerging economies show that culture constitutes a fundamental dimension of the development process and helps to strengthen the independence, sovereignty and identity of nations. Sadly, growth and advancement has often been conceived in quantitative terms, without taking into account its necessary qualitative dimension, namely the satisfaction of man's spiritual and cultural aspirations. The aims of enduring and genuine development need to be firmly couched in the continuing well-being of all members of our society.

The search for economic growth is legitimate and critically essential for Afghanistan, as it needs to be re-built after long years of destruction, war and suffering. But, growth is only one part of the whole process of development. And to assure that growth itself is sustained, it cannot be achieved without fully integrating the specific cultural dimensions of development and the needs of Afghan communities together with their national values and aspirations. An effective cultural development strategy for Afghanistan is thus an essential part of the reconstruction process assuring that development is inclusive it its profound human significance. We need development models that are interconnected with the cultural aspirations of the Afghan society together with the preservation of the natural environment and our tangible and intangible cultural heritages. These models are to be found in the important spheres of culture and education.

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The dormitories housing Chines workers at the site

We have no other choice but to be successful in our common endeavours to rebuild Afghanistan, to bring about enduring peace and stability, social and economic growth, and above all, to create in the minds of our children, the sense of nationhood. Despite the difficulties we are encountering today, it is certain that we will achieve all these, as it was the case for other countries with similar problems. However, we must ensure that cultural factors are an integral part of the policies and strategies for a more successful and lasting development.

In this respect, it is imperative that we realise that the policies and strategies we adopt today towards assuring Afghanistan's development and security be devised in the light of the historical, social and cultural context of the Afghan society.

I appeal to the government authorities, to regional friends and to our international community of nations to help preserve one of the world's most valuable cultural treasures and heritage for future generations who will look back at the efforts we are now making in passing along to them that which is at the same time its pride and dignity as well as its heart and soul and the very essence of what makes us human.

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