UNESCO launches drive to save cultural heritage in AfghanistanKabul/Paris - The debate about whether to rebuild the giant Bamiyan Buddhas continues to rage, sometimes obscuring other aspects of the cultural disaster that Afghanistan has suffered over the past two decades.
Apart from the two unique Buddhas, war and looting also devastated Kabul’s museum and the rest of the country’s rich and exceptionally varied heritage.
It is therefore important to save what remains. To provide the means for this task, UNESCO and the Afghan Interim Administration’s Ministry of Culture and Information will bring together a range of distinguished experts and donors for an international conference on the restoration of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage. The meeting will be held in Kabul from May 27 to 29.
The conference will discuss the conservation of the archaeological remains and the minaret at Jam, the second tallest in the world. Thesite could be inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List as early as June, becoming Afghanistan’s first world heritage site. Afghan government efforts in the early 1980s to get sites onto the List were cut short by war.
Though largely unknown to the general public, Afghanistan’s cultural heritage is one of the world’s richest and illustrates several high points in the history of humanity over the past 6,000 years. One of the earliest urban bronze-age civilisations arose at the start of that period in what is now northern Afghanistan and developed a very active caravan trade, linking the Indus civilizations and Mesopotamia.
Afghanistan was also the birthplace of the Mazdean religion (Zoroastrianism, which appeared in the 6th century BC) and then, after Alexander the Great invaded the region in the 4th century BC, the site of the first great encounter between the East (Indian civilizations) and the West (the Greek world). It notably gave rise to a Greek-inspired Buddhist iconography in the Bamiyan Valley, in Hadda and elsewhere, which later spread to China and then Korea and Japan.
After the 7th century BC, the Afghan oases became extraordinary centres of Islamic civilisation. Architects, writers, painters, calligraphers and miniature artists produced works in Balkh, Ghazni, Jam and Heart, which influenced all the eastern Muslim world, from Turkey to Persia and India.
The magnificent remains of this past and the treasures that survived looting and war until the invasion of the country by Soviettroops in December 1979 have largely vanished, the victim of three kinds of destruction.
Kabul’s museum, some monuments in Herat and a domed bazaar (said to be the most beautiful in central Asia) were destroyed by the war and rocket fire that ravaged the country until 1996.
The systematic theft of Afghan treasures and illegal digs hugely swelled the illicit art trade. From 1991 to 1996, the Kabul museum was looted. Many important pieces disappeared,
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such as the Bagram ivories, the entire numismatic collection, some of the Greek-Buddhist statues and fragments of wall paintings from the Bamiyan Valley. Many archaeological sites, such as Hadda, Aï-Khanum and Tillia Tepe, were cleaned out and sold abroad. This is still happening in some places.
Finally, the decree of Mullah Omar of February 26 last year ordering “all non-Islamic statues and tombs” to be destroyed, led to the demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas and the loss of two-thirds of the 100,000 items in the Kabul museum. Some sites, notably in Hadda and Herat, had been destroyed earlier for ideological and religious reasons.
For the past six months, several experts have been sent by UNESCO to assess the damage. Last December, Paul Bucherer-Dietschi, curator of the Afghanistan Museum in exile in Bubendorf (Switzerland), went to the Bamiyan Valley, where he noted that not only the two giant Buddhas had been destroyed, but also smaller sculptures in Kakrak and Foladi. He had the remaining stones covered up with protective fibre-glass.
In a document presenting 15 projects, which will be considered at the Kabul conference, UNESCO proposes to shore up the cliffs at Bamiyan, the conservation in situ of the remains of the statues, building a museum at the siteand making archaeological test probes to find new caves and another giant Buddha several hundred metres long said to be buried somewhere in the Bamiyan Valley.
The question of reconstructing the two destroyed giant Buddhas is very controversial, including inside the Afghan Interim Administration, and is not mentioned in the document. It will be the subject of a debate during the seminar.
Since late last year, local employees of the national museum in Kabul and Afghan archaeologists have been working, at UNESCO’s request, on an inventory of the remains of the destroyed objects and storing them away. On March 1 this year, a draft cooperation agreement on rehabilitating the museum was signed by UNESCO and the Afghan authorities. Later that month, an expert mission to Afghanistan was carried out by Professor Andrea Bruno of Italy.
Professor Bruno said restoring the museum building, whose splendid 1920s architecture was damaged in the shelling, was “urgently” needed. He also recommended speedy reconstitution of several symbolic items, from remaining fragments, by using digital and virtual assembly techniques.
The museum rehabilitation project to be considered at the Kabul conference follows Bruno’s recommendations. He also suggested extending themuseum building, equipping it with suitable material, including a restoration laboratory, making a computerized inventory and training staff. A programme to bring back items taken abroad illegally will also be started as soon as the museum’s security is considered sufficient.
Mr Bruno also inspected the site of the Jam minaret, which may be made a UNESCO world heritage site next month. The minaret was built at the end of the 12th century in western Afghanistan and at 65 metres is the second tallest in the world after the Qutub Minar in New Delhi.
Mr Bruno noted that the Jam site, which also includes fortifications, a Jewish cemetery and the ruins of a palace, was threatened by water infiltration (having been built at the confluence of two rivers), by vibrations from a planned road-building project that could damage the minaret, and continuing illegal archaeological digs.
“It is vital that this monument and the whole archaeological site be placed under constantsurveillance,” he said, stressing that Jam was just as historically important as the Bamiyan Valley and the country’s other chief monuments.
In the projects document, UNESCO notes that it has been working to consolidate the base of the minaret since 1999 together with the Society for the Protection of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage (SPACH) and recommends new digs, monitoring of the site by specially-trained guards and changing the route of the planned road.
In March this year, a second expert mission, by another Italian, Marco Menegotto, made a preliminary tally of the serious damage done in the southwestern town of Herat during the war.
He looked at five major building complexes in this jewel of Islamic art – the citadel, the minarets (one of which was almost totally destroyed during the civil war), the Friday Mosque, the mausoleums of Gawar Shad and Shah Zadehah and the Tomb of Abdurrahman al-Ansari.
As a result of Menegotto’s report, UNESCO (which started restoring the site in 1975) will submit six urgent preservation projects to the Kabul conference. The projects document also says other sites, such as Balkh, Ghazni and the presidential palace in Kabul, will soon be thoroughly assessed too.
The Kabul conference will be attended by a UNESCO delegation led by the Assistant Director-General for Culture, Mounir Bouchenaki, the Chair of the World Heritage Committee, Henrik Lilius, representatives of 14 countries (Afghanistan, China, France, Germany, Greece, India, Iran, Italy, Japan, Pakistan, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States), Afghan and international experts, and members of NGOs.
The conference will allow an exchange of information about the current state of heritage and enable a list of urgent tasks to bedrawn up, as well as a long-term action plan. The participants will also consider setting up an international coordination committee of countries and international organizations to examine, approve and supervise future projects.
Major points on the agenda include: listing the sites that need emergency work, the future of the Kabul Museum and the Bamiyan Valley site, an inventory of the country’s heritage, training specialists to manage and preserve cultural heritage, creating appropriate infrastructure (including a research centre and a library), preparing legal instruments to protect heritage items and to fight smuggling, and inclusion of cultural matters in Afghanistan’s national reconstruction plan.
For more information, contact UNESCO’s Press Service
Tel: (+33) (0)1 45 68 17 48