Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Heratis Suspect Iran of Cultural Sabotage

Herat officials claim Iranians behind theft of artefacts and destruction of historical sites.
By Sadeq Behnam
Trouble is brewing in Herat, the ancient and beautiful city in western Afghanistan that has served as a cultural capital for centuries.

It was once famously said that you could not stick your leg out in Herat without kicking a poet, and the city’s 3500 years of history have yielded a rich collection of sites and artefacts that are prized the world over.

But Herat’s multi-layered past is in danger of disappearing, victim of the general destruction and lawlessness of the past three decades. Local officials are attempting to place the blame on Iran, a country with which Afghanistan has had a very complicated relationship of late.

According to statistics compiled by the Herat Department for the Preservation of Historic Sites, Herat has lost more than 100 sites or artefacts since the city was added to UNESCO’s tentative list of World Heritage Centres in 2004.

Ayamuddin Ajmal, head of the department, told IWPR that over the past few months the city’s historical sites and artefacts have been targeted even more than usual, resulting in significant losses.

According to Ajmal, 22 artefacts, some of them more than 3,000 years old, were taken from the National Museum of Herat in late September. Twelve historical sites, including an ancient mosque and engraved headstones in a cemetery, have also been desecrated in recent weeks.

While Ajmal refused to speculate on who might be behind the thefts and vandalism, other government officials have not been so reticent. The target of their ire is Iran, a country that has been accused of meddling in Afghanistan’s affairs over the past several years.

Neamatullah Sarwari, head of the Department of Information and Culture Department in Herat, told IWPR that Iran was motivated by competition for UNESCO – the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation – World Heritage Centre status.

“A number of circles and individuals in our neighbouring countries, who share a similar culture with us, want to sabotage the process of Herat province's inclusion on the UNESCO list,” he said.

Once on the list, an historical site is eligible for UNESCO funding and restoration projects. So far in Afghanistan, only Bamian and the Minaret of Jam have acquired the sought after status.

“According to our information, Isfahan, in Iran is also one of the nominees for the UNESCO list,” said Sarwari. “This has raised suspicions that specific individuals in Iran are orchestrating the thefts of historical artefacts and participating in the destruction of historical sites.”

Sarwari cited the recent break-in at the National Museum of Herat, which, he maintained, could not have been accomplished without the assistance of a foreign power.

“A professional and skilled group supported by a foreign country was involved in the thefts at the National Museum,” he insisted. “It would be impossible to break into the museum without support from a foreign country, because the museum only has one entrance, along with some holes in the ceiling to generate light. One would need a precise plan to steal from a place like that.”

Mohammad Kazem Safe, who heads the political relations office of the Consulate of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Herat, dismissed the accusations as baseless.

“Isfahan and Herat have never been in competition,” he said. “The inclusion or exclusion of Herat on the World Heritage list has no relation to whether Isfahan will be included on the list.”

He also categorically rejected any involvement in the museum break-in.

“Whenever Afghan officials are incapable of doing their job, they blame foreign and neighbouring countries for meddling in Afghanistan’s affairs,” he said

UNESCO officials in Afghanistan refused to comment on the issue.

There are currently more than 1600 artefacts, belonging to the pre-Islamic and Islamic periods, in the National Museum of Herat, located in an ancient fort, Qala-e-Ikhtiaruddin. The public is not allowed access to the museum.

Mohammad Rafiq Shahir, head of the non-government council of experts in Herat, also took Iran to task for allegedly trying to extend its influence over the educational system in Herat.

“Neighbouring countries are not only involved in destroying or stealing our historic relics, they are also influencing the educational system,” he said. “Iran’s influence over our educational system increases daily. Herati schools are implementing the Iranian school curriculum.”

Basir Ahmad Tahiri, deputy head of the provincial education department in Herat, acknowledges that Iranian books are being used in schools in the city. But this is a temporary measure, he says, until the Afghan education ministry can print enough books for all the schools.

“Teaching some books and subjects of the Islamic Republic of Iran has not caused any interference in our teaching method,” he said. “It does not contradict the Afghan education curriculum in term of its content.”

But Ghulam Farooq Hussaini, spokesman for the Ahl-e-Sunat wa Jama'at organisation in Herat, which promotes the Sunni form of Islam and is opposed to Iranian influence, said that Iran has cultural institutions such as private schools in different parts of the province.

“Children in these schools are taught Iranian culture, rather than Afghan,” he said.

Hussaini also claimed that some officials in Herat province were actively working for Iran. But Anwar Matin, spokesman for the provincial governor, played down the allegations, claiming that some people are all too eager to blame government officials, but have little or no basis for their accusations.

This latest spat is a continuation of a dispute that has been growing for some time. While Iranian officials deny any unfriendly actions in Afghanistan, there have been numerous reports over the past year that Iran has been arming and funding the Taleban insurgency.

Iran, a predominantly Shia country, might seem to have little in common with the overwhelmingly Sunni Taleban, but some analysts point to Iran’s alleged desire to keep the United States pinned down in Afghanistan, limiting its ability to possibly strike at Iran.

Iran has also been accused of trying to extend its cultural influence into Afghanistan, a country with which it shares a common language and history. Herat and parts of eastern Iran once formed Khorasan, one of the major satrapies of the 7th century Sassanid Empire.

Heratis speak a form of Farsi that is quite close to Iran’s dialect, and many are watching Iranian television. Some provincial and city officials are worried that the cultural distance between the two countries is becoming too narrow.

Sadeq Behnam is an IWPR-trained journalist in Herat.

More IWPR's Global Voices

Georgia: Perils of the Enguri Crossing
With the checkpoint closed, some residents of Abkhazia are risking their lives to access services.
Georgia: Perils of the Enguri Crossing
Trapped in Eastern Ukraine