Piecing Together the Past

Local and international specialists are working to rebuild Afghanistan's priceless history.

Piecing Together the Past

Local and international specialists are working to rebuild Afghanistan's priceless history.

Tuesday, 2 September, 2003

Putting together ancient sculptures destroyed by the Taleban is like assembling a giant three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, with many of the pieces missing.

It is a painfully slow process, but a satisfying one for Sherazuddin, head of Kabul museum's restoration department, who was once forced to stand helplessly by as priceless artefacts were smashed by the hard line Islamic regime.

"Today I am very happy, because our museum is once again part of our country," said the historian, who has worked at the centre for more than a quarter of a century.

Sherazuddin and his colleagues are relishing the chance to work on the museum's treasures, as they have had few opportunities to protect them since the fall of the Najibullah regime in 1992.

But now, using techniques learned during a sponsored trip to Japan, Sherazuddin is happily reconstructing the head of a 7th century statue of the Buddha, while a colleague works on its feet. Together they sift through the carefully sorted small piles of rubble to fit the pieces together and glue them back in place.

Just how much has been lost is clear from a nearby book of photographs showing a statue's once-delicate face.

Museum director Omar Khan Masoudi's own face lights up as he talks about how the museum - which dates back to 1919 - once held a collection of world importance numbering 100,000 pieces.

"You could see from prehistory to the twentieth century, more than 60,000 years of civilisation," he enthused. "There were different cultures such as Hellenistic and Buddhist, as this was a crossroads of the Silk Route."

While the museum officially reopened its doors in November 2001, plans for displays are modest. Masoudi hopes to have two small exhibition rooms showing restored pieces open within a couple of months.

However, even this seems optimistic. Masoudi estimates that up to 70,000 items were looted during factional fighting in Kabul between 1992 and 96, often to turn up for sale in the bazaars of neighbouring countries or auction houses around the world. During this period, rocket attacks destroyed the building's second floor and set fire to the museum's prized carpet collection.

This period of robbery and destruction was all the more damaging because so much material was held in Kabul. Back in 1982, the Soviet-backed government had ordered collections previously held in the provinces to be brought to the central museum, to avoid damage from its war against the mujahedin.

The rise of the Taleban regime - whose strict interpretation of Islam included a ban on anything showing the human form, or representing any other religion - brought further problems for the museum. The surviving statues - often left because they were too large and heavy to be looted - were systematically destroyed or defaced.

Sherazuddin, who continued to visit every day even though he had to take a second job to support himself, recalls how members of the Taleban would laugh while wielding their hammers. He and his colleagues would cower in their offices, unable to intervene.

The low point for Masoudi was the destruction of an important second-century statue of the great Kushan empire warrior king Kanishka.

Masoudi firmly rejects the Taleban's narrow interpretation of Islamic law, "Afghanistan is Islamic now, but [other faiths are] part of our culture, and we are responsible for preserving them. While nobody worships these icons anymore, they are still an important part of our history."

Kabul Museum's barren and battle-scarred exhibition rooms are currently filled with scaffolding and painters slapping on whitewash.

The Greek government is financing repairs on the ground floor, while the United States has granted funds for the restoration of the second floor, which today has little more than a few arches standing.

It is a truly international effort, with Italian and French specialists on site, and officials from the British Museum expected soon.

However, Masoudi emphasised that much more help will be needed if the museum is to truly capture anything of its former glory, as at present only three local staff are working full time to reconstruct the artefacts.

"It is difficult to find funds but if we do, then we can work out all the problems," he said. "I am very happy right now because of the rebuilding. I hope it will keep improving - and that the people who stole our items will bring them back."

After all he has been through, Sherazuddin cannot suppress a natural optimism. "When you come here again, you will see that it has been repaired," he smiled, carefully rewrapping brown paper back around one of his precious pieces.

Homa Safi is an independent journalist undergoing IWPR training in Kabul.

Support our journalists