Saving Afghanistan's cultural heritage

by Ambassador Said T. Jawad, Diplomatic Traffic, May 8, 2006

Excerpts of speech on the preservation of Afghanistan’s archaeological, historical, and cultural heritage, given on April 17, 2006, at the Embassy of Afghanistan

Washington, USA -- Afghanistan is a land bridge connecting Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East. The ancient Silk Route, which carried both goods and knowledge, and connected China to the heart of Europe, passed through Afghanistan. Today, Afghanistan is once more playing its historic role in bridging cultures, countries and civilizations. Over 60 counties have joined together to help rebuild Afghanistan.

<< Bamiyan Buddhas

The first archaeological excavations in Afghanistan began in 1922. American, French, British, Japanese, Italian, Indian and Russian archeologists worked alongside their Afghan counterparts to unearth Afghanistan’s hidden past. What they discovered over the intervening decades exceeded their wildest dreams; layers upon layers of relics, a testament to the many kingdoms, cultures and civilizations that rose and fell in Afghanistan throughout the centuries.

What took our archaeologists 70 years to discover took extremists less than a decade to sell off, burn, mutilate and demolish. The hollow cavities where the Giant Buddhas once stood in Bamiyan are a testament to the suffering of our country under the Taliban. Their absence speaks to the other voids that exist today in Afghanistan, the ruins of buildings and schools, the young men who were cut down too early in life, the children who were not permitted a childhood, the landmine victims missing arms and legs.

Bamyian is a well known example, but many other Afghan Archaeological sites of equal wealth have also been looted and destroyed. During the war, illegal excavations at historical sights became commonplace, a practice that sadly continues to this day. The Hellenistic city of Al Khanum, which could have become a major tourist attraction and center for scholars, was badly damaged when looters used bulldozers to search for treasures. The Buddhist site of Tepe Shutur-e-Hadda was plundered and much of its priceless art destroyed. The Minaret of Chakari, one of the most important monuments of the first century B.C.E., collapsed into a pile of dust and rock. Only one-third of the Minaret remains standing.

During the civil war, the Museum was on the front lines. Rockets vaporized wall paintings with Greek, Buddhist and Hindu motifs. This same fire engulfed priceless frescoes from Islam’s artistic flowering under the Ghaznavid dynasty. Of course, fire does not discriminate between Buddhist or Islamic art. The human costs of our war were staggering enough, but our cultural losses compounded the tragedy.

During this cultural genocide, there were many acts of individual heroism, many of which were preformed by the people in this room, Mr. Massodi especially. In 1994 museum staff risked bodily harm to inventory the objects that had survived the shelling, as well as to clear some of the rubble, and weatherproof and secure the collection. They cleverly painted over the images that would offend the critical gaze of the Taliban, created hidden rooms to preserve film footage, and rescued countless objects from the National Gallery, the Afghan Film Archives and the Presidential Palace. The people in this room are much more qualified than I to speak about their individual contributions to the preservation of our cultural heritage. Our nation is stronger thanks to their bravery.

Tragically, many of the objects that were not destroyed have been stolen and sold to foreign countries. 50-thousand year old Palaeolitihic tools, Greek and Aramaic inscriptions from the Third Century B.C.E. and more than 30,000 precious coins have been pillaged and their whereabouts are unknown. Many of these pieces have been smuggled to Islamabad, London, Tokyo and New York. In place of our national treasures, we have burned ledgers, emptied crates, tire tracks and thousands of pounds of debris. As the international community helps Afghanistan rebuild, they must also be vigilant within their own borders, and return all stolen items of Afghan cultural heritage to Afghanistan.

When the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan’s Buddha statutes, they were not attacking mere relics. This was part of a greater plan, which included the eradication of all symbols of faith that they could not control and all traces of foreign influence. It was not enough to destroy Afghanistan’s identity and culture, the Taliban tried to erase our country’s historic tolerance for other cultures as well. This dogma is shared by every totalitarian regime in recent history. It is our duty to condemn such cultural terrorism in its earliest phases, so that we do not need to watch helplessly as another world wonder crumble into dust.

The next step is to build our human capital through education. Many of our specialists in the fields of history and archeology went into exile during the war. Thankfully, many of them are coming back, temporarily participating in new excavations or settling permanently to train a new generation of professionals. Our famous archaeologist Professor Zemaryali Tarzi is searching for the fabled third Buddha of Bamiyan. In the process he has discovered other objects of immeasurable value. Professor Tarzi gives us hope for the promise of the future.

A bill is now before the U.S. House of Representatives that would allow the President to impose emergency protection for antiquities illegally excavated and exported from Afghanistan. We have a chance to stop this despicable trade dead in its track and reverse some of the damage that has been done. The work will be slow, painstaking, meticulous, but so is the work of rebuilding a country. We are patient. But more importantly, we are proud. And it is through this belief in ourselves, in our history and our culture, that Afghanistan will persevere.

Said T. Jawad is Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States

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