The recent past has not been kind to Afghanistan’s pre-Islamic heritage. Will history repeat itself under the new Taliban government?
Just months before the Taliban was ousted from power in 2001, the hard-line Islamist group took a wrecking ball to Afghanistan’s pre-Islamic history.
That spring, the Bamiyan Buddhas that had stood tall for more than 1,400 years were reduced to rubble over the course of a few weeks after Taliban fighters blasted them with artillery before finishing them off with dynamite.
That infamous assault on Afghan history reverberated around the world, but an equally destructive but lesser-known offense had also just been carried out in Kabul, leaving much of Afghanistan’s vast collection of pre-Islamic art in pieces.
“The Taliban in 2001 went through the National Museum of Afghanistan and smashed probably thousands of sculptures,” explained Gil Stein, a professor of Near Eastern archaeology at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute. “And curators of the museum, at very great risk to themselves…waited until the Taliban left the building and swept up all the fragments, and put them in trunks and hid the trunks in the basement.”
It was only well after the Taliban appeared to be safely out of power — and a full four years into their work with outside preservationists — that the curators revealed their secret, according to Stein, who directed cultural preservation efforts in cooperation with the museum and the Afghan Institute of Archeology for more than 13 years.
Golden Age For Restoration
The revelation paved the way for the Hadda Sculptural Project — a painstaking effort to piece together more than 7,600 fragments of rare Buddhist and Gandharian-style sculptures that had been excavated from an archeological site in southeastern Afghanistan, and which the Taliban had destroyed because the group considered representations of living beings idolatrous and un-Islamic.
It was just one of many ambitious archeological and cultural restoration ventures that were launched as funding and resources flowed in after the Taliban was toppled, and more attention was paid to reverse the cycle of destruction that began with the Soviet withdrawal and continued during the subsequent years of civil war and Taliban rule.
Hundreds of new archeological sites were discovered and mapped, cultural treasures were restored, and antiquities that had been held in safe keeping abroad were returned to their rightful home.
The nongovernmental Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), which had begun work in Afghanistan in 2002, launched hundreds of projects, including the restoration of Kabul’s Bagh-e Babur, a garden and park that dates back to the 1500s and holds the tomb of Babur, the first Mughal emperor.
The French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan, whose cooperation with Kabul began in the 1920s, worked with AKDN to restore the oldest mosque in the country, the ninth-century Noh Gonbad, or Nine Cupolas, located in the northern Balkh Province.
The Afghan Museum in Exile, a collection of more than 1,400 artifacts that had been secured in Switzerland since 1999, was returned to the reconstructed National Museum of Afghanistan after UNESCO determined that it was safe to do so. Among the items, some of which had been taken from the museum, was a gargoyle of Alexander the Great’s fighting dog and a foundation stone that is believed to have been laid by the conqueror himself.
The director of the Afghan Museum in Exile, Paul Bucherer, told RFE/RL in written comments that from the inception of the project, it was “clear that one day all the holdings would be returned to Kabul.”
Items that had been smuggled out of Afghanistan to the United States and other countries were also returned, and by 2021 the Oriental Institute had succeeded in partially reassembling more than 480 of the sculptures that had been destroyed at the National Museum, using digital documentation to make 3D models of what had been lost.
The institute, in cooperation with the U.S. State Department, also compiled a database of antiquities for scholarly research and digitally mapped archeological sites across Afghanistan.
And then the Taliban returned.
Even before the Taliban seized power in August 2021, its leadership had affirmed its commitment to preserve and protect Afghanistan’s cultural heritage, and forbade the looting of archeological sites and smuggling of artifacts. After retaking control of Kabul, it established a dedicated police force to monitor heritage sites to prevent looting and illegal excavations.
“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan greatly protects cultural and historical places and monuments,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in response to questions from RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi this month, referring to the formal name of the Taliban government. “All historical sites are safe and there is no danger to them.”
Nevertheless, the Taliban’s failure to fulfil many of its other promises, including upholding women’s rights and press freedom, as well as its track record of destroying historical sites and relics, raised fears that it could return to its old ways.
“We’re all too aware of the history,” said Ajmal Maiwandi, head of Aga Khan Cultural Services, Afghanistan. “For those of us that work in conservation in Afghanistan, we initially held our breath in terms of the [Taliban’s] approach this time around.”
But Maiwandi says his organization has so far been uninhibited in its cultural preservation work. “What we’ve discovered is that there’s a different policy that accepts all heritage, Islamic and pre-Islamic, as part of the national heritage of Afghanistan,” Maiwandi said.
Work Goes On
One current AKDN project is the restoration and development of the Bala Hissar citadel, a fortress that takes up 55 hectares and is believed to date back to as early as the fifth century and is considered one of the oldest continuously occupied locations in Kabul.
In the western province of Herat, the AKDN is repairing one of the five surviving minarets that was on the verge of collapse and is part of a madrasah, or Islamic seminary, complex built by the Timurid Queen Gawhar Shad in the 15th century.
The Swiss Aliph Foundation, meanwhile, worked to restore the Stupa-e Shewaki, a Buddhist shrine from the first century north of Kabul that was once part of a pilgrimage route from India to the Bamiyan Valley in central Afghanistan.
And in October, the Taliban approved a project funded by the Aliph Foundation to prevent the collapse of the Yu Aw Synagogue in Herat Province, built at the turn of the 20th century, although virtually all of the northwestern region’s Jewish population that once numbered in the tens of thousands fled abroad in recent decades.
The AKDN was founded in 1967 by Aga Khan IV, the current leader of the Ismailis, a branch of Shi’ite Islam. Most Ismailis live in Africa and Asia, including in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and Tajikistan.
Asked whether the AKDN’s role as a prominent Shi’ite organization has affected its work under the Taliban, a radical Sunni group, Maiwandi said the entity “consists of nondenominational development agencies working across multiple regions of Afghanistan and our work aims to improve the living conditions and livelihoods of a wide range of Afghans across different communities and ethnicities.”
Despite the efforts of foreign organizations, the preservation of cultural heritage remains in danger.
Funding and resources have fallen sharply and the looting of archeological sites and the smuggling of artifacts plague the country under Taliban rule.
Stein says that satellite imagery has revealed that dozens of archeological sites are being illegally exploited, some at an industrialized scale that involves the use of heavy equipment to uncover artifacts.
“It’s really hard to know what the current status of heritage is in the country,” said Stein, whose Oriental Institute closed its offices in Kabul ahead of the Taliban’s return but continues outreach efforts from abroad. “One thing we’ve continued to do is we get fairly updated remote-sensing imagery. So, we are actually able to monitor the condition of a lot of the major archaeological sites around the country and we’re able to see if they’re being looted.”
Taliban spokesman Mujahid denied that any such looting was occurring. “We don’t have any cases where someone has done illegal excavations at archaeological sites or looted antiquities,” he told RFE/RL, saying that any threats to historical and cultural monuments could be attributed to “natural disasters.”
But Stein says that the reality is that even if the Taliban has issued decrees against the looting of archeological sites, it does not mean they are being enforced across the country.
Development — The Biggest Danger
According to Stein, large-scale projects and the Taliban’s dire need for revenue presents an even bigger danger to the preservation of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage.
He cites Mes Aynak, located just south of Kabul in Logar Province, as the primary example. Mes Aynak is the site of an ancient Buddhist settlement, but it also sits on the second-largest source of copper on Earth, a resource potentially worth billions of dollars that Afghanistan has been trying to capitalize on for more than a decade.
The project to exploit the site, for which a Chinese mining company won the tender under the previous government, was suspended in 2019. But discussions are ongoing, now with the involvement of the AKDN at the Taliban’s request.
Mujahid said the Taliban holds meetings with the AKDN “from time to time.” “Some cultural and historical places the [AKDN] takes care of are also monitored and we work closely with them,” he told RFE/RL. “We want to ensure that the ancient artifacts and historical heritages in Mes Aynak are either safely kept in the same area or transferred to another place more professionally and ensure their complete safety.”
“By having a say it means that we can ensure that, where there is a large-scale salvage operation, that that operation could be done well, it could be done to standard,” Maiwandi said. “It could be done in consultation with different groups and different interests.”
The TAPI pipeline, another long-sought project that would carry natural gas from Turkmenistan to India by way of Afghanistan and Pakistan, also risks endangering archeological sites, leading to efforts by the Oriental Institute to encourage the Taliban to consider allowing a 5-kilometer-wide buffer zone on either side of the length of the pipeline.
And the large-scale Khush Tapa irrigation project, which the Taliban expects will result in what will be Afghanistan’s largest canal funneling water to farmers’ fields in Jawzjan, Balkh, and Kunduz provinces, has led to a push by preservationists to try to convince the Taliban to take into account the possible destruction of ancient sites along the way.
“There’s at least some evidence that this kind of personal approach can work,” Stein said.
Staying Out Of Sight
Stein expresses hope for the future, saying he was “astounded” by the Taliban’s work with the AKDN on the Bala Hissar citadel in Kabul.
“So, there are things that can happen, but it’s not going to be the way it used to be,” he said. “The Taliban will be very selective with who they’ll be willing to allow to work there…. if there were more examples like that, it would be wonderful.”
As for the sculptures that barely escaped the Taliban’s last stint in power, Stein is also cautiously optimistic, saying that the authorities are “behaving themselves.”
Almost all Buddhist and other pre-Islamic art has been taken off display at the National Museum, he says. But from what he understands, the museum is being guarded by the Taliban and the exhibits have been placed in storage, although he is unsure in what condition.
“That’s really the best step one could hope for, that they’re not damaging things, although it’s off display,” Stein said.
He says the Taliban appears to be following an old saying among Pashtuns, the ethnicity of many members of the group: “A shame that is not seen is not a shame.”
Artificial intelligence has reinterpreted this news for you.
As the Taliban assumes power in Afghanistan, questions arise as to whether they will protect the country’s pre-Islamic heritage. The Taliban’s previous regime in the late 90s saw the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas and many pieces of pre-Islamic art from the National Museum of Afghanistan. However, in recent years, restoration efforts have been made to preserve and restore the country’s cultural heritage. NGOs and organizations such as the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) and the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan have worked tirelessly to return cultural artifacts to their rightful home, restore historical sites and promote cultural preservation. Despite these efforts, ongoing threats such as looting and smuggling of artifacts remain significant hurdles to the country’s cultural heritage preservation. While the Taliban has pledged to protect heritage sites and prevent looting, the track record of their previous regime has raised concerns regarding the fate of Afghanistan’s pre-Islamic artifacts.