Vanishing Afghan Treasures

Religious fanatics and smugglers have over the years laid waste to Afghanistan's rich cultural heritage.

Vanishing Afghan Treasures

Religious fanatics and smugglers have over the years laid waste to Afghanistan's rich cultural heritage.

Monday, 15 February, 2010

The Taleban's destruction of Afghanistan's towering Buddha statues last year shocked the world, but this was only the most public of a series of assaults on the country's archeological riches in recent years.

Today, most of the country's riches are gone - smashed in the name of religion or stolen for profit. Museums have been bombed, archeological sites looted and priceless antiques smuggled abroad and sold to foreign collectors. Most of the treasures documented before Afghanistan descended into chaos two decades ago have been lost forever. It will take years to rebuild a comparable national collection - if at all.

“The people are sick of seeing their heritage ripped out of Afghanistan and sold to collectors in the east and west,” said Amanullah, leader of the Albila Khail tribe in the Afghan refugee camp of Kacha Garai on the edge of Peshawar, a centre for the trafficking of Afghan antiquities.

The multi-million-dollar smuggling industry begins with the pillaging of ancient sites in remote villages, and ends in some of the plush art galleries of London, Tokyo and New York.

“The antiques from western Afghanistan travel by way of Iran to Europe, especially London,” said an expert involved in antiques in Peshawar. “Objects looted from northern Afghanistan are smuggled to Russia. Those which travel through the Khyber Pass and the tribal areas of Pakistan go into underground trafficking centres in Peshawar, from where they are taken to the world's arts markets.”

Nancy Dupree, an expert who has spent decades in the region and helped prepare guidebooks to Afghanistan and its now-destroyed national museum, told IWPR that she had personally seen looted sculpture in the hands of a local dealer. However, she was unable to raise the funds needed to purchase it on behalf of Afghanistan and knew that it would soon disappear from view if she informed the police.

If it could be sold in a foreign gallery without arousing questions of its origin, such a piece would draw bids of millions of dollars from foreign collectors. A single fragmentary piece from the Begram collection, a hoard of intricately carved ivory miniatures that were stolen from Kabul's museum a decade ago, was reported for sale a year ago in London for hundreds of thousands of US dollars.

Antiquity smuggling has a long history and the collapse of effective government has allowed it to grow to huge proportions.

Before the anti-Soviet mujahedin forces captured Kabul in 1992, the city's museum was still a respected institution - a showcase for Afghanistan's unique position at the crossroads of history.

There is probably no other country that could display such a mixture of eastern and western traditions. One statue from Gandharan period showed an Asiatic-faced Buddha draped in flowing robes that look as if they should be enveloping a Greek god carved thousands of kilometres away in the West.

That influence was left by the brief presence of Alexander the Great, who tried to consolidate his rapid conquests by leaving behind a string of Greek settlements. His artistic legacy, from sculpture to the issuing of coins with a ruler's profile, lasted centuries and fused styles from east and west.

The silk route, along which camel caravans plied their trade in the centuries before sea links supplanted the land connection, traversed Afghanistan long before the advent of Islam.

Under the Kushan empire in the first centuries after Christ, Afghanistan and adjacent areas of Pakistan were the centre of Buddhist thought. As the faith spread to the east, pilgrims came here from as far away as China. Their carvings can still be seen on the rocks leading north along the Indus River and over the Khunjerab Pass into what is now Central Asia.

It was this era that produced the famous Bamiyan statues, two giant carvings inside a colossal niche in the side of a cliff. The Buddhas were part of a major ceremonial centre that continues to provide raw material for the antiques trade.

The succeeding Islamic period produced less to supply collectors, largely because of the belief attributed to the Prophet Mohammad that there should be no reproduction of the images of living objects.

The greatest monuments of the era are architectural ones, such as the Minaret of Jam - a mysterious 65 m tall 12th century tower hidden in a mountain valley - or the superb main mosque in Herat, which dates from the 15th century Timurid period. Other artistic endeavours included calligraphy, which produced much material for the cultural thieves of recent years - collections of rare manuscripts have disappeared in Afghanistan to surface in a number of foreign capitals.

The largest amount of looting predated the Taleban. When the mujahedin took Kabul, they saw the national archaeological collections not as a heritage to be preserved but as booty. “When it came to protecting Afghanistan's antiquities, the Russians were better than the holy warriors,” said Zalmai Jan, an Afghan businessman now living in Peshawar. Many books, old and new, were burned to keep Islamic warriors warm during the frigid Afghan winter.

What was not quickly stolen from the museums was subjected to bombardment in a vicious power struggle between competing mujahedin factions. Only now is there any prospect of repairing the damage.

The student militia then added a new twist to the assault on Afghanistan's heritage by extending its opposition to the portrayal of living creatures into a campaign to destroy existing images.

The Taleban information minister was reported to have personally smashed a statue of Kanishka, the great ruler of the Kushan empire, that had been one of the most treasured pieces in the Kabul museum. It had probably survived so long because it was too famous to ever sell. This was followed by a trail of destruction so severe that even the heads of birds on a screen inside the museum were chiselled away.

Afghanistan's history makes its antiquities uniquely sellable. Sculpture from its most famous era, the Gandharan, is sought as much by eastern as western collectors because Buddhism has continued to thrive in parts of Asia more than a thousand years after it was supplanted by Islam in Afghanistan.

Manuscripts from this era and the later Muslim period also flowed out of Afghanistan in the Nineties. Some reportedly disappeared into the hands of the Iranian government, others into collections further afield.

While the most spectacular items are those stolen from the national Afghan collections, a continual flow is guaranteed by constant pillaging in rural areas. At the lowest level, it is carried out by poor villagers mining the local archaeological sites for items they sell on to dealers for a pittance. With the national government still lacking control in most of the country, local warlords often demand a share of the business.

“Some of the antiques were dug out of the well-known Serrai Grave in Mukikhail village in the Afghan district of Khogiani by residents and then smuggled to Peshawar,” said Taj Mohammad, an antiques expert.

“Two other statues were dug up in Gandomak which triggered a war between the smugglers. Eventually the Taleban took the statues and the partners got nothing.”

Under General Pervez Musharraf, controls have been tightened and dealers report that it is now much harder to smuggle items out of Pakistan. Dupree said there has also been a recent dip in the amount of antiquities being taken from Afghanistan because Pakistani dealers are reluctant to enter the country as their close ties with the Taleban regime have made them less than welcome under the new transitional administration. However, reports suggest that the flow of objects through Herat into Iran has risen.

The majority of items taken out of Afghanistan have probably disappeared into private collections. It would be near to impossible to sell well-known objects on the international market today as major dealers are under increasing pressure to prove the legality of pieces offered for sale.

The director of the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, California, David Kamansky, told the Washington Post last year how he had been offered fragments of a 2,000-year-old ivory casket that was once held in the Kabul Museum. He walked away.

Yet it is difficult to prove the origin of items other than those documented in previous archeological publications.

In the mid Nineties, there were reports that Pakistan was taking advantage of the turmoil over the border to augment its collections. But the Peshawar Museum, a red-brick Anglo-Indian structure that boasts a fine collection of Gandharan sculpture, firmly denies that anything in its collection originated in Afghanistan.

“We don't have anything which is related to Kabul,” said museum director Saleh Mohammad. “Our museum is full of local antiques that were brought from the Takht Bahi and Mardan areas of Pakistan. Afghanis themselves sold the missing antiquities to foreigners.”

Mystery remains over the fate some of the most famous of Afghanistan's stolen treasures. Kabul Museum's collection of 40,000 historic coins, one of the world's largest, has been dispersed around the world. Many of the Indian ivory statues and reliefs that formed the heart of the Bagram collection - treasures unearthed in the 1939 discovery of the 2nd century capital of the Kushan King Kanishka - have surfaced across the world.

But the Bactrian gold, a collection of some 21,000 items excavated by Soviet archaeologists at Tilla Tepe in northern Afghanistan only a year before their country invaded, has seemingly disappeared.

Before they retreated in 1988, Soviet forces reportedly made a vain attempt to break into the Central Bank vault in the presidential palace where the collection was stored. It was believed to be in place when the mujahedin broke into Kabul in 1992 yet there have been no confirmed sightings of the treasures since then.

Dealers in Peshawar said everyone knew the value of the antiques far exceeded that of the gold in the plates, bowls and jewellery so no one would have melted them down. A few similar pieces have appeared on the market, although these could have come from illegal excavations of a mound left untouched by the archaeologists.

There is little prospect of reassembling the lost Afghan collections, as most had been looted even before the Taleban began their final frenzied attack on Afghanistan's pre-Islamic heritage.

International dealers have been alerted to watch for stolen items and a few have been salvaged. The small Afghanistan Museum in Switzerland has received more than 2,000 items - some donated, others bought by foreign funds - that it is storing in anticipation of eventually returning them to Kabul.

But Afghanistan's archaeological collections will probably be restocked largely from new finds inside the country. With one of the world's richest histories, there are undoubtedly many treasures still to be found. Protecting those from the ongoing ravages of the looters will depend on the transitional administration's ability to enforce laws that have been ignored in recent decades.

“People come in here all the time offering coins, pottery, bronze and Gandharan statues. I don't deal in these things but they just sell it elsewhere in the market,” said Zahir Wahid, who runs a tribal jewellery shop in Peshawar. “Mostly these items are found by villagers digging on their land but some of the business is run by the local commanders. It is up to the government to stop it. These treasures belong to all Afghans.”

But while demand is still high, dealers will continue to take risks in order to turn a profit. And another set of people is sensing a way to make money.

Gulam Shah is an artist. He chisels away at marble, shaping the folds of a cloak, then picks up another stone to put the final touches to a graceful head. He has created a perfect copy of a 2,200-year-old statue from the Greek civilisation Alexander the Great left behind on the fringes of the Hindu Kush mountains.

The looting of Afghanistan's cultural heritage has helped to create a thriving industry in fakes. There are undoubtedly more copies than originals on sale in Peshawar's bazaars.

“I use light stone for Greek statues,” Shah told IWPR at his home in a village in the area of Taxila, a centre of the Gandharan civilisation that Alexander visited before his final conquests in India.

“Black stone is good for Gandharan statues. And sometimes I use a rock taken from the surface or dug up because it looks old,” he said, pointing to a deeply weathered piece with patches of brown staining that gives the impression of a centuries-buried Buddhist carving.

Shah presents his products quite openly, saying that he does most of the work on commission to Pakistanis and foreigners. While some of his carvings may be used to embellish a local residence, there are suspicions that others are passed off as genuine antiquities and resold.

“Two men came to my shop and showed me an original statue, saying they had 100 more that they had dug up from their own land,” said a tailor in Nothia district of Peshawar. “They took me to the place and I bought all the statues. A year later when I took them to the antiques market to sell, the experts told me they were worth nothing.”

A dealer in Peshawar's Shinwari gold market told IWPR that most of the shops also have real antiques stored away. If the salesman believes he is dealing with a serious buyer he will produce real treasures. Experts claim to have seen statues for sale that they recognise from a thirty-year-old guide to Kabul's national museum. But many shopkeepers have disputed this claim.

"All the statues, ivories and other antiques available here in these markets are fakes and newly-made objects because under the strict policy of the Musharraf government no one is allowed to sell or buy the original antiquities,” asserted a dealer in Sardar market, one of Peshawar's main antiques areas.

That is an overstatement and such uncertainty can only help craftsmen such as Shah. In a storeroom off his courtyard, he shows 30 carved heads that vary in asking price from 500 dollars for a life-size “Greek” sculpture to just over 100 dollars for a Gandharan-style piece. A metre-high statue is available at 1,150 dollars - perhaps one per cent of what the real thing would command in New York.

He works quietly at the edge of a serene village beside fishponds and fields rich with wheat ripening in the sun. The far side of the field is marked by a five-metre-high stone wall dating from the Gandharan era, when the area was alive with craftsman creating fine art for an appreciative population. As Shah proves, in many ways little has changed.

Jack Redden assembled this report from contributions by Fazal Malak and Zarlashta, participants in an IWPR training programme in Peshawar.

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