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The Man Who Saved Afghan Treasures

The director of Afghanistan’s National Museum describes how he preserved the country’s historic heritage from destruction.
By Abdul Baseer

Afghanistan was relieved to learn last week that many of its historic treasures, once feared lost to looters and the Taleban, had actually been saved by a dedicated museum director and his staff.

Now, the man who played a major role in saving Afghanistan’s history has revealed that most of the looting took place during the mujahedin era, not under the Taleban.

Omara Khan Massoudi, the director of the Afghan National Museum, gained international attention when he announced that he had successfully preserved much of the country’s artistic history.

But less well noted, perhaps, were his comments that “that we can say that 70 per cent of the looted artefacts were looted during the rule of the mujahedin" - before the Taleban came to power in 1996.

After all, it was the Taleban who were synonymous with the destruction of Afghan culture. Most notoriously, they demolished the colossal Buddha statues in Bamian, central Afghanistan. Members of the Taleban government also ransacked the national museum, smashing statues and artefacts that they deemed to be un-Islamic.

But in an interview with IWPR, Massoudi described how the destruction of Afghanistan’s artistic heritage began long before the Taleban came to power - and what he did to prevent it.

Afghanistan's national museum was first established in 1919 in the Bagh-e-Bala restaurant in Kabul. Six years later, the collection moved to Qasr-e-Koti Baghcha-ye-Arg, a palace now within the presidential compound. The collection quickly outgrew that facility, however, and in 1931, the museum was moved near the Darulaman palace, southwestern Kabul, where it is currently located.

Massoudi, a tall, elegant man with a full beard who favours distinguished-looking Western suits, graduated from Kabul University in 1973, and has worked in the national museum since 1978.

He won widespread recognition for his efforts to hide and preserve cultural and historical relics, particularly during the Taleban era. This year, he was awarded 25,000 euros by the Prince Claus Fund in the Netherlands for his work.

Massoudi recounted the history of the museum during a decade and a half of civil war.

"Before the mujahedin took over in 1992, the museum held over 100,000 historical relics from different periods, dating from the pre-historic era to the twentieth century," he said. "They were kept properly, with 10 per cent of the collection put on display and the rest kept in storage."

In 1989, under the pro-Soviet regime of President Najibullah, the ministry of culture and information decided to collect the bulk of the artefacts on display in the museum and put them away in storage. At that time, opponents of the regime were firing rockets into the city, and museum staff feared the museum building might be destroyed.

After the fall of Najibullah in 1992 and the establishment of a government led by mujahedin leaders, different factions occupied various parts of the capital. The museum, like many other places, was looted by armed militias.

"The mujahedin used the museum building as a military base between the years 1992 and 1996," he said. "In 1993, the second floor of the museum was totally burnt out, and all relics stored in it were destroyed."

During the mid-Nineties, the museum was closed and many of the antiquities were ruthlessly looted, Massoudi said. Coins from the Aaj-e-Bagram collection, Islamic-era relics, and statues light enough to be carried were all taken away.

After the fall of the mujahedin and the Taleban’s capture of Kabul in 1996, the security situation improved at first. But in 2001, Taleban leaders ordered the destruction of pre-Islamic statues.

Massoudi described how he managed to save much of the collection.

"Some of the boxes containing statues were placed under boxes [that contained] pottery," he said. "When they had opened several of the boxes of clay artefacts, they stopped searching the rest of the boxes."

In addition, Massoudi said, he and his staff managed to conceal some statues from the Taleban by hiding them under packing material.

The director said the Taleban were selective in their destruction, "The Taleban would destroy those relics which had the human form, and the others were left intact."

Today, the museum remains a shambles. In 1994, the museum received some money from the international community for basic repairs. They bricked up the windows on the first floor and put a metal gate in front of the main entrance of the museum building.

Massoudi said that plans are now under way to protect and catalogue the remaining inventory in the museum.

Afghanistan's ministry of information and culture is now creating a computer database to record all the artefacts in the museum's collection. The registration process began at the end of April. To date, more than 22,500 of them have been recorded.

Restoration of damaged artefacts is also under way. Massoudi said the ministry has repaired about 500 items. Experts from France and Italy are also aiding in the effort.

Abdul Baseer Saeed is an IWPR staff reporter in Kabul.

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