Afghanistan wants its 'Dead Sea Scrolls of Buddhism' back from UK

By Nick Meo, The Independent, November 12, 2004

Kabul, Afghanistan -- The Afghan government is to request the return of the "Dead Sea Scrolls of Buddhism" from the British Library, amid concerns the priceless manuscripts were looted during civil war in the early nineties.

Afghanistan's Minister of Culture will formally ask for the 2000-year-old scrolls to be sent from London to the newly restored Kabul Museum in the next few weeks as part of a campaign to bring home stolen treasures from foreign collections.

The British Library, whose conservation experts saved the scrolls from crumbling, has admitted it has no idea how they came to London from one of Afghanistan's most famous historical sites at Hadda near the Khyber Pass.

Museums and archaeological sites were looted to order by gangs during the years of turmoil in the early nineties, with treasures from Afghanistan's past being dug up or stolen from museums and shipped abroad, usually by Pakistani middle men selling to rich collectors in America, Europe and Japan.

After years of seeing their heritage plundered for profit, Afghans are showing a new interest in the glories of their past. Showcasing treasures from the extraordinary rich cultures that grew up in ancient Afghanistan, at a cultural crossroads of the Silk Road, are also seen by modern Afghans as a way of showing a more positive international image than the usual one of drugs, terrorism and bloodshed.

Dr Sayed Raheen, Minister of Information and Culture, has promised to try and restore the once-famous collection of the Kabul Museum, looted and burned during the war and reopened last month after a major restoration project.

Many of its finest pieces were hidden first from looters and later from Taliban iconoclasts by museum workers, often at great personal risk.

The Kharosti Scrolls would be a hugely prestigious centerpiece for the new museum. The 60 fragments of text written in the ancient script Kharosti on birch bark are considered by Buddhist scholars as comparable in historical importance to the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Between the 2nd and 7th centuries AD, Hadda was one of the holiest sites in Buddhism drawing pilgrims from all over India and China. The scrolls are the earliest known Buddhist scripts and were produced by monks in the extraordinary civilisation of Gandhara, a synthesis of Indian and Greek culture spread to Asia by the followers of Alexander the Great.

The civilisation flourished at the time of the Roman Empire in what is now the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Dr Raheen said: "Afghanistan has lost so many unique and priceless pieces - ancient coins, books and statues - it's impossible to say how many thousands of our artefacts have disappeared abroad.

"Most of them have gone into private collections and we may never see them again. But there are also treasures in some museums in the West. Paris has important collections of Afghan artifacts, so does Switzerland. And we will certainly be requesting that the British Library returns the scrolls."

Dr Raheen, a noted Sufi poet, said Hadda, near the antiques markets in the Pakistani city of Peshawar and in an area of savage fighting, suffered terrible damage during the war.

He said: "Hadda was totally looted. There are numerous pieces from there now in a number of foreign museums. We have been assured that they are being looked after and told that whenever our national museum is ready they will be sent back.

"The museum is ready now. So we look forward to receiving them." Dr Raheen insisted that the museum is secure enough to hold treasures but still needs specialist display cabinets.

The British Library said it bought the scrolls in 1994 from a British dealer out of concern that they were deteriorating rapidly and needed emergency restoration work to ensure that they were not lost.

Staff usually carefully check the provenance of new acquisitions to ensure they have not been stolen but it is difficult to check the history of Afghan artifacts. Little was known about the scripts and checks could not be made.

A decision was taken to leave the provenance issue aside and buy them to ensure their survival.

They had been stuffed into a pickle jar and it was believed that they had not been unrolled for centuries.

A spokesman for the British Library said: "It is not for the library to speculate upon the future safety of any items returned to Afghanistan, but we note with approval the present regime's concern for the whole of Afghanistan's important cultural heritage, Buddhist as well as Islamic." He said the library would be willing to consider a claim.
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