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

Historic Afghan Sites Face Ruin

Archaeological treasures in Nangarhar province left to decay as officials say they lack the resources to preserve them.
By Mirwais Rahmani

In the Shahi Qala area of Surkhrod district in eastern Afghanistan, half-a-dozen round towers lie scattered at intervals of a few hundred metres.

They are Buddhist stupas, remnants of a 2,000-year-old civilisation. The structures have crumbled to less than half their original height, thought to be around ten metres. The mud-brick walls of each tower encircles a four-metre wide space within, now silted up with soil.

In Nangarhar, as in other parts of Afghanistan, such monuments to an ancient heritage are at risk of being lost forever as a result of years of conflict and neglect.

Zabihullah Armani, a resident of the village of Ghowchak in Sorkhrod, said the stupas and other sites had been excavated many times by local residents who believed that gold and other precious items lay buried underneath.

“I have personally gone with my friends to excavate historic graves, but we didn’t find anything in them,” he said, adding that no one had ever told him such ruins had any wider significance.

Afghanistan's landscape is filled with buried historical monuments, artwork, statues and artefacts, some dating back 5,000 years. Vast numbers of priceless objects have been smuggled out of the country, especially but not only during the civil war of the early 1990s. The archaeological sites they came from have been badly damaged or left to decay during more than three decades of conflict.

Nangarhar province was once part of the ancient kingdom of Gandhara, a centre of Buddhist culture until the Muslim conquest. The dozens of historic remains include a royal castle, ruins in the Memla area of Khugiani district, tombs in Bahrabad, and the Greco-Buddhist site of Hadda, south of the provincial centre Jalalabad.

Awrang Samim, the head of Nangarhar’s cultural affairs department, says all 22 districts in the province have areas of archaeological significance. He told IWPR it was up to the Kabul authorities to take action to stop the decay.

“We cannot make this decision,” he continued. “It is the duty of the ministry of information and culture of Afghanistan and UNESCO to restore them in coordination with one another. We have informed the ministry of the whole picture.”

At the ministry of information and culture in Kabul, Ahad Abbasi, in charge of the maintenance of historic buildings, told IWPR government resources had been focused on Ghazni province for the last few years.

The city of Ghazni has just finished its year as the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s Capital of Islamic Culture for 2013.

“We don’t have the staff to care for all historic structures around the country,” Abbasi said.

He acknowledged that Nangarhar’s stupas had been neglected.

“Unfortunately, we could not find a donor for Nangarhar, nor were we able to do anything ourselves,” he said, adding that he hoped restoration work would start on one historic site in the province in the next few months.

“Only the stupas and the royal castle are included in our [conservation] list for Nangarhar,” he said. “The other buildings aren’t on the list.”

Addressing a February 23 gathering to mark the end of Ghazni’s year as Capital of Islamic Culture, the minister of information and culture, Sayed Makhdum Rahin, said 1,200 historic buildings around Afghanistan were on the verge of destruction.

“We expect the whole Islamic world to assist us in this regard, but no one has yet promised to help,” he said. “The destruction and collapse of these historic buildings is shameful not only for us, but also for the whole civilised world.”

Sayed Pacha Bawar, in charge of historic buildings in Nangarhar’s culture department, could not say how many sites were at risk. He said he had alerted the authorities to misuse of these sites.

“I have informed the security forces several times that historic sites and lands have been taken over by powerful individuals and by the general public, but they have taken no action about this, “ he said. “Look, I am alone in this department. What can I do? There is no security in these districts. The security forces won’t help us. What should I do?”

At Nangarhar’s police department, spokesman Hazrat Hussein Mashriqiwal denied ignoring pleas for help.

“The directorate of information and culture has not yet requested our help,” he said. “They haven’t given us any information about this matter. The police are ready to cooperate with them in every way.”

Mashriqiwal said that if culture department officials felt the countryside was too dangerous, they could at least work on preserving important sites within the city of Jalalabad.

“What have they done about Amanullah Khan’s Garden [site of former king’s tomb]? That’s a historic structure, but its territory has been taken over and is being destroyed on a daily basis,” he said.

Others call for more to be done to educate the public about the importance of preserving their nation’s history.

Lal Pacha Azmun, a lecturer in literature at Kabul university, broke down in tears as he described the state of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage.

“It is unfortunate that historic buildings and relics in Nangarhar haven’t yet been recorded by cultural officials,” he said. “Their own history is of no worth to them.”

He said the blame lay both with the ministry of information and culture and with its provincial subordinates, accusing them of failing to make the average Afghan aware of the value of preserving the past.

“The agencies responsible must set up public awareness teams and send them out to areas that have historic buildings and relics,” Azmun said. “They must talk to people about the value of these things so that they will protect them, or at least not destroy them.”

He also suggested teaching school pupils and university students about ancient sites and taking them there on field trips.

Azmun finished with a stern warning – “If this neglect continues, the names of historical treasures will be erased from the memories of future generations. No one will speak of the Hadda in Nangarhar. These things will exist only in books.”

Mirwais Rahmani is an IWPR-trained reporter in Nangarhar province.


More IWPR's Global Voices