Heritage Crisis in Syria: a call for a moratorium on the antiquities trade

The world has been closely following the tumultuous political upheaval behind the devastated state of cultural heritage preservation in Syria. A recent New York Times article describes “a feeling of impotence” that academics and archaeologists are experiencing in the face of the sheer magnitude of the danger threatening the cultural heritage of Syria.

What will it take to stop the relentless destruction of Syria’s cultural heritage?

It is tempting to seek comparable remedies that suit other nations in the Middle East, where political unrest has also rendered cultural heritage exceptionally vulnerable.

In 2008, the United States implemented Import Restrictions Imposed on Archaeological and Ethnological Material of Iraq without proper documentation. This protection (although less robust than what was originally proposed in H.R. 2009/3497) is in place to this day. Since 2011, there have been highly publicized efforts to enact similar regulations for Egyptian antiquities, including an attempt to pass a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to impose restrictions on the U.S. importation of certain categories of Egyptian archaeological artifacts.

What about Syria? Could antiquities be banned from entering the United States? Would such import restrictions reduce the economic incentive to loot (the very purpose of the 1970 UNESCO Convention)? How are current circumstances in Syria different from the situation in Iraq, which led to the passage of trade restrictions between 2003 and 2008?

U.S. representatives Philip English (R-PA) and James Leach (R-IA) proposed the bill H.R.2009 (later modified to H.R. 3497) and initiated a momentum that led to the passage of S.1291. Could the other parties who contributed to H.R.2009 help draft and enact legislation to protect Syrian cultural heritage?

Unfortunately, both congressmen have left public office since, and it has been difficult to find out who else originally mobilized this legislative effort. Given the opposition that the bill faced from the art market community, and the eventual passage of a less restrictive bill, a similar political push for the protection of Syrian antiquities might be difficult to come by.

Given that the U.S. has suspended diplomatic relations with Syria, no MoU request has been made by the Syria government to the U.S. State Department to enable import restrictions of antiquities into the U.S., which has proven an effective means to curb the incentive to loot ancient sites.

On October 2013, the EU implemented this Regulation “to facilitate the safe return to their legitimate owners of goods constituting Syrian cultural heritage which have been illegally removed from Syria… and to provide for additional restrictive measures in order to prohibit the import, export or transfer of such goods.” In the UK, I reported that the Export Control Syria Sanctions Amendment Order 2014 SI 2014 1896 (the Order) was made on July 16, 2014, laid before the Parliament on July 18, 2014, and came into force on August 8, 2014.

On the international level, Syria is a member of the UN. But despite a petition initiated by The Syria Campaign, which collected nearly 17,000 signatures and asks the UN Security Council to “ban the trade in Syrian artefacts,” no resolution toward comprehensive protection of Syrian cultural heritage has thus far been enacted. Last May, UNESCO held an international meeting to decide about the creation of an Observatory to “the state of buildings, artefacts and intangible cultural heritage to combat illicit trafficking and collect information to restore heritage once the fighting is over.” This is not the same as the UN Security Council Resolution 1483 which called on all UN member states to prohibit trade in cultural heritage objects and to adopt other means to ensure the return of said objects to Iraq, which facilitated the passing of the Iraq Cultural Property Protection Act in the U.S.

The UN cannot take action utilizing the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict; that task is the responsibility of the International Criminal Court. Syrian leaders should keep in mind that the Republic of Syria remains a party to the 1954 Hague Convention and its First Protocol and has signed the Second Protocol. Non-state actors in Syria should also be aware that they, too, may be held accountable under the 1954 Hague Convention even though they never signed or ratified the Convention. The reason is that Hague ‘54 is considered customary international law and “will therefore bind not just states but non-state actors such as rebel factions or secessionist groups,” according legal expert Zoe Howe.

Key provisions of Hague ’54 include Article 4 (which obligates combatants to refrain from attacking cultural property unless required by military necessity and to prevent all theft, pillage, or vandalism of cultural property) and Article 19 (which applies the Convention to non-international armed conflicts, also known as civil wars). Sobering thoughts, to be sure.

Meanwhile, a New York Times op-ed piece published yesterday states that Syrian locals are being encouraged to loot sites under a kind of licensing arrangement referred to as an “Islamic khums tax,” which is supposedly based on the monetary value of their finds. It is difficult to understand how this system actually works. I hope that one day more details will be revealed. The op-ed indicates that sources are withheld for security reasons.

So, what can we do?

As stated in 2011 regarding Egyptian cultural heritage protection, SAFE believes that in order to curb looting in Syria, the demand for looted objects must be eliminated.

In his recent interview with the New York Times, Samuel Hardy, Honorary Research Associate at the Institute of Archaeology at University College London (and writer of the Conflict Antiquities) said, “There’s a huge amount coming out of Syria. The rebels have teams dedicated to looting and refugees are using portable statuettes, pots, and glass as an international currency.”

Here’s a thought:

Could museums and collectors agree to a moratorium on Syrian antiquities until order is restored? For a day … half-a-day?

In fact, since looting to feed the illicit antiquities trade is a global concern affecting even “first-world” countries such as France and Finland, why not take a pause from acquiring ALL antiquities without proper ownership history post-1970?

A broad-based moratorium would alleviate the burden of proof that artifacts have indeed been freshly looted, in the spirit of the 1970 UNESCO Convention. The ICOM Red Lists provide guidance as to which specific categories of objects from around the world that are most at risk, should assistance be needed in determining which objects to avoid — if only for a moment!

This would be a symbolic gesture of good will on the part of those who engage in the buying of antiquities which are being destroyed en masse, in some cases to fund the activities of the very destroyers themselves. After all, museums and collectors are the ones who create the demand. Could they be persuaded to take a step back to honor the need to protect, not destroy, the rich heritage in which these relics of our past were created?

Can we all stand together in a symbolic moment of silence to acknowledge such tragic moments as the damaging of the Citadel of Aleppo and nearby monuments by explosives, the raiding of archaeological sites throughout the country, and the looting of more than five museums?

This will send a clear message to the world that wanton destruction of cultural heritage must be condemned and stopped. Regardless of which side of the trade we are on, we can demonstrate our collective commitment to save the past for our future by not aiding and abetting the destruction of our shared heritage — with or without the presence of rules and regulations.

Featured Image: UNESCO Safeguarding Syrian Cultural Heritage at http://www.unesco.org/new/en/safeguarding-syrian-cultural-heritage/.


Abdulamir Hamdani on the implications of the current fighting for Iraq’s cultural heritage

The following is Dr. Abdulamir al-Hamdani’s presentation on the destruction of Iraq’s heritage made on July 18, 2014 at the Iraqi Cultural Center. The event was also live-tweeted by Dr. Damien Huffer (#ICHpanel) and reported here by Dr. Alex Nagel. SAFE is grateful for this collaboration, allowing us to raise awareness about these critical issues.

Confrontations: A Young Boy’s Temptation

SAFE blog’s new series “Confrontations” invites everyone to share firsthand experiences with looting and the illicit antiquities trade. These personal accounts will illustrate the on-going problems of these issues within a global context. 

When I was young, before I gained an interest in archaeology and the ancient world, my knowledge of artefacts was merely limited to the Indiana Jones Trilogy. Though having such knowledge at a young age was purely overwhelming, especially for a young boy like myself in a country enriched with an ancient past spanning over thousands of years, it understandably got me into a lot of trouble.

Till this day, I still look back to the 1990s, when I nearly ventured into the sinister world of the illicit antiquities trade, with conflicting thoughts of morality. For a person trying to feed his or her family, on one side, there is sympathy for the person’s actions. However, on the other, there is real pent-up anger towards that person as he or she is either destroying or illegally selling what represents a valuable past that we can truly learn from.

Now, you are wondering what happened to me back in the 90s…? How did I nearly enter the uncharted waters of such illicitness that has haunted me to this present day?

It all happened during the summer holidays, when my family decided to travel to Egypt for two weeks. Unlike being expected to visit Cairo, explore the pyramids of Giza and the Valley of the Kings, and perhaps take a relaxing boat ride down the Nile river, we ended up in Sharm el-Sheikh that, for us Brits, was a stereotypically ideal place for a family vacation.

A recent photography of the entrance to Sharm el-Sheikh's Old Market, Egypt A recent photography of the entrance to Sharm el-Sheikh’s Old Market, Egypt
Flickr user Kareny13 (taken: 25/11/2010)

During our time, we went to Sharm el-Sheikh’s infamous old market on numerous occasions. The market was infused with a magical eastern vibe, various smells of spices and incense, Arabic music, and the haggling of goods, and it made me feel like I was in sheer heaven. With the exception of seeing dead carcasses dangling on every rack, there was one particular part of the market that ended my blissful experience.

Hidden away in the distance, I remember seeing an outline of this rugged man standing next to a stall with a large quantity of ancient coins. These coins looked as if though they had been recently removed from the ground… Though my Indiana Jones knowledge of artefacts proved to be limited, all I saw were these coins being beautifully displayed on this decaying wooden table.

Immediately, my whole body froze. Alarm bells were ringing. Warning signs were gathering in my head, trying to pull me away from the absolute power of these coins that continuously sparkled in my day-dreamt eyes. Yet like a child being let loose in a sweet shop, there was an irresistible urge to personally own such artefacts. This desire also lifted me off my feet, like a person floating off towards the mouth-watering smell of a delicious meal, and, within a matter of seconds, I found myself face to face with the very man who was standing right next to this collection of coins.

He appeared to be frail looking– shabbily dressed but presentable enough to look like a respectable business man. Suddenly, this man began to talk. At first, it was very unclear as to what exactly he was saying. He spoke in a mixture of Arabic and broken English, asking me if I wanted to buy priceless coins that had historical and archaeological significance.

“Hlan wa sahlan! Kayfa Halak? Taf-fadal! Special price! Coins came earlier today for you my friend. What do you want?”

At this time, I was gob-smacked.  Was this man talking to me? Was I that special someone to whom he was offering a special price…? I looked around and saw that I was the only bystander facing his direction. How could this be? Why were other people purposely avoiding this man?

Obviously, there were many reasons behind this. One could have been that that he was coming from outside the city, and therefore the locals did not know him. Another reason could have been that he was a dodgy character selling illegal artefacts, and it was thus unwise to get involved in his business.

As a young boy, it was likely that my understanding of the illicit antiquities trade was non-existent. I had never had a confrontation like that before in my life– not until that day. If I had bought a coin from that man, who knows what could have happened to me. According to Egyptian law (1983 LPA), all antiquities – be they cultural, historical or archaeological – are strictly regulated and actually owned by the State; and if  I was caught red-handed by a police officer, I could have gone to prison for my involvement, and I would not have a great life ahead of me.

While those very thoughts were in my mind, I felt a heavy hand placed on my right shoulder. My shadow began to amplify, and a low voice began to speak out from nowhere.

“Michael!…Stop what you are doing Shamah Junior! You are meddling with powers you cannot possibly comprehend!”

Without a doubt, I recognised that quote from one of the Indiana Jones Trilogies, The Raiders of the Lost Ark… (The best Indian Jones film that was ever made, I must say), and I knew exactly who it was.

I looked round and saw my father, looking stereotypically Middle Eastern with an Arab moustache, his big body with broad shoulders, and with very tanned skin; indeed, he was known for using film quotes in his sentences.

Without a word, I was tugged away, leaving this unfortunate man behind, not knowing where he would be in the course of time.

Me at a young age, back in the 1990s Me at a young age, back in the 1990s
Michael Shamah

As stated earlier, I still look back to that exact scene in Sharm el-Sheikh’s old market. In addition, you will find me exploring and dealing with similar confrontations in the upcoming blogs– especially those regarding the desecrations of various sites, or, as in this particular instance, a confrontation with a person selling a priceless artefact which has “illegal” written all over it.

Since this first experience, I have had conflicting thoughts, a broader understanding of the illicit world, and I am better at recognising potential signs of looting or at least something illicit. As an archaeologist, I have begun to care more about the preservation of cultural heritage, and it has been rather upsetting to think of how sites which convey significant cultural and historical meaning, have been affected by human activity. Although in the eyes of some, these actions might be considered as a good thing… It is now understandable why these motives take place.

Especially in an unstable Middle East – which I am quite familiar with, due to my heritage and the focusing of my speciality in this specific region – and for sectarian, political or economic reasons, countless sites have, unfortunately, been targeted. Nevertheless, as seen from my first encounter, there are some sheer beauties of the past that attract potentially irrational visitors who may just want to fill their pockets.

From what consequently ends up in the illicit antiquities trade, this beautiful memorabilia of the past has become absorbed into a sinister world which is loathed by most of us.

Thus, I would like to end this blog with the very questions that hang in the back of my mind.
What were the motives behind the act? Were they rational?

But also, what may be seen as an act for survival or greed and is believed by some as a person’s worst nightmare,  it may sequentially be seen by others as a heavenly treasure trove.

If you have had similar experiences that you would like to share, it would be great to hear from you; and for my next shareable experience…Stay tuned. 

Ten years after, Juan Cole takes us to the Iraq Museum

In observance of the 2013 Donny George Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage, the following article originally posted here by Juan Cole, is reposted here with Professor Cole’s permission.

Juan Cole is Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. For three decades, he has sought to put the relationship of the West and the Muslim world in historical context. His most recent book is Engaging the Muslim World (Palgrave Macmillan, March, 2009) and he also recently authored Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). He has been a regular guest on PBS’s Lehrer News Hour, and has also appeared on ABC Nightly News, Nightline, the Today Show, Charlie Rose, Anderson Cooper 360, Countdown with Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, the Colbert Report, Democracy Now! and many others. He has given many radio and press interviews. He has written widely about Egypt, Iran, Iraq, and South Asia. He has commented extensively on al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the Iraq War, the politics of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Iranian domestic struggles and foreign affairs. He has a regular column at Truthdig. He continues to study and write about contemporary Islamic movements, whether mainstream or radical, whether Sunni and Salafi or Shi`ite. Cole commands Arabic, Persian and Urdu and reads some Turkish, knows both Middle Eastern and South Asian Islam. He lived in various parts of the Muslim world for nearly 10 years, and continues to travel widely there. A bibliography of his writings may be found here.

My Visit to the Iraqi National Museum (Photo Gallery)

Posted on 05/25/2013 by Juan Cole

Here is a photo gallery from my visit on May 9, 2013, to the Iraqi National Museum, courtesy the Ministry of Culture. Ancient Iraq or Mesopotamia was, of course, the cradle of civilization, and the treasures on display are breathtaking.

Donald Rumsfeld allowed thousands of items to be looted from the museum in 2003. (US soldiers watched the looting happen but were ordered not to intervene). Many artifacts have been recovered but 3000 – 7000 are still missing. Most of the really important and striking pieces are back on display. Some things, including precious cuneiform tablets chronicling the dawn of civilization, were forever destroyed. The damage to the museum and its collection is yet another black mark against the Bush administration and, sorry, the United States of America, which by its illegal and brutal invasion and occupation diminished our store of knowledge about a crucial period of world history.


FROM THE FIELD Knowing Nancy: An Interview with Afghanistan’s Grandmother, Nancy Hatch Dupree

In a country where news typically conjures images of warlords and Talib fighters, ambassadors and international forces, the 85 year old Nancy Hatch Dupree, has stood as an emblem of the country’s rich and ancient cultural heritage.  A force in her own right, her strength has been cemented in her singular, unwavering commitment to the culture of Afghanistan before, during, and after the more than thirty years of war.

Arriving in Afghanistan from the US in the 1960s she fell deeply in love with the country, and not long after, the renowned Harvard archaeologist, Louis Dupree. Together they worked side by side, him studying pre-historic sites and her writing numerous guidebooks. With the great loss of Louis in 1989, Nancy re-doubled her commitment to their work. She expanded the Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University (ACKU), a rich source of regional information, which Louis had established in Pakistan before his death and which she moved to Kabul University in 2006. In 1994, Nancy founded the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage (SPACH) in Islamabad in order to organize international efforts to protect the National Museum of Afghanistan during the Mujahideen Civil War.

Today, Nancy Hatch Dupree is affectionately known as “Afghanistan’s grandmother” for her decades of dedication. Never one to withhold her opinions, the following interview is a candid conversation about her experiences and insights into preserving Afghanistan’s cultural heritage. It is by listening and learning from these lessons – along with those of her colleagues interviewed for the Untold Stories series – that we may hope to ensure the country’s heritage for the next generation.

Q: For the sake of the film, could you just introduce yourself?
My name is Nancy Hatch Dupree and I am working with the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University. It is a collection of 60,000 documents related to Afghanistan.

Q: What brought you here? You have been working here for many years.
Well, I came first with the American Embassy, but that was many years ago. And then I married Louis Dupree who was an archaeologist and we spent many years here going to various places in Kandahar, and also in Balkh province, and also in Badakshan province, excavating pre-historic caves. Louis Dupree, my husband at the time, was the only one who was primarily interested in the prehistory of Afghanistan.

You have here the extremely rich cultural heritage; it goes from very early ages: beautiful things from the Kushan period and the Islamic periods. These are your spectacular periods. But if you want to understand the history of man in this area, then you start from the beginning, which is in pre-history. So he was primarily interested in pre-history and found that there was a very active association of peoples primarily in the north during the very, very early times, during the Upper-Paleolithic. And then in the Dasht-e Nawar we found Lower-Paleolithic, and this is a whole new period which has to be studied in greater depth.

Q: What was your own first project on Afghanistan?
I was working with the Garzandoi (Afghan Tours). I went to Bamiyan and this was when there was no paper guides, no two-legged guides. And this is now of the wonders of the world, so I spoke to Wahab Tarzi, who was then the first president of the Garzandoi, which had just been established.

And I said, “You know what? This is a scandal. You are trying to attract tourists but you don’t have any information about the most important tourist site in Afghanistan.”

So he smiled, and he said, “Well, you do something about it.”

I said, “Well, I will not write anything unless I see it, so you send me back to Bamiyan. So I spent a good part of a month in Bamiyan going to all the caves and studying everything. And then I wrote the guide to Bamiyan.

After that I became a guide writer. I wrote not only on Bamiyan but on Kabul and then the next one was on Herat and then the next one was on the north, the provinces in the north. And then finally, I published a general guide to all of Afghanistan.”

Nancy Hatch Dupree Nancy Hatch Dupree
Jake Simkin

Q: For me as an Afghan woman who lives now in Afghanistan and finds it very difficult to travel on her own, it is very interesting to see that you traveled to all these places at that time. How was it? How did people behave?
NHD: People, you know, the Afghans, they respect Harijis, foreigners, number one. Or they used to. They respect women also. And, so, I had no trouble travelling alone. People were always very, very hospitable and they wanted to help me.

And then much of the time I was traveling and getting my information for the guide books. I was traveling with my husband after I married him here and he was looking for pre-historic caves. I was looking for interesting material for the guide book, so we worked together. It was a very nice, cooperative relationship. And also he was my photographer. And that was, I think, it was very solidifying as far as the relationship was concerned. It brought us closer together because we were working on things together.

Q: Were you able to continue your work once the civil war began with the Soviet invasion?
I was thrown out before the Soviets came, when Taraki (Nur Muhammad Taraki) came. During the Taraki regime we were thrown out and my husband was put in jail. By then we were living in Peshawar. He was coming back with the Mujahideen. I didn’t come with the Mujahideen. I thought it was not fair because, again, the Afghan character, they respected an old lady, and if there was a helicopter coming he would stay in order to help me. And I was endangering his life and I had no right to do that.

So my husband, he was like a goat with the Mujahideen. They could find shelter. But, so, he was covering the Mujahideen. I was covering the growth of the refugees in Peshawar. You know, it grew from nothing. We have a picture; I have a picture, of one of the largest refugee camps when it had one tent.

And it became a big city, you know, hundreds and hundreds of houses. But we were there from the beginning. I was studying the development of the refugees and while he was travelling with the Mujahideen.

Q: Were you doing some preservation work as well when you were in Pakistan?
Well there wasn’t much preservation except for the preservation of information. Now this is very important because it’s not very well developed here. And that’s one of the reasons for ACKU, my center. I’m collecting the things that everybody is working on, all the research that is being done now. Because usually what happens, with these big agencies, they bring a reporter or a consultant, pay them big money, and they write a report and they circulate it for a short time and then it disappears. So all that information is wasted. So we collect, or try to collect, all the reporting that is being generated by the NGOs, by the bilateral governments, by the UN agencies, anything that describes what is going on, and what is the situation here in Afghanistan. And the reason we do this is because I am convinced that if you give the people of Afghanistan access to the information they need, that they themselves will do 80% of all this specific development.

People seem to think that just because people in the rural areas can’t read and write, they’re stupid. They’re not! They’re very, very bright and they showed that during their time in exile. They learned a great deal. Their minds were open and they are thirsting for things. They will pick up what they think is useful for them. If you give them information they don’t think is useful they won’t take it. But if it’s useful they’ll take it.

I had a recent experience with this. I’m profoundly bleak that this is true, because one time I was living in a village in northern Afghanistan next to my husband’s excavations. Two ladies came with a baby and the eyes were all stuck-up. They wanted penicillin and I said, “you go home, make some very, very strong tea and I will come. And they were laughing at me.”

They said, “ha, ha. We come, we ask this woman for help, and she said go make tea.”

Shaharzad interviewing Nancy Hatch Dupree Shaharzad interviewing Nancy Hatch Dupree

So, they were laughing at me and off they went. So when I got there they had the tea and we washed the baby’s eyes with the tea. And about two days later they came back, and this baby with these big beautiful eyes wide-open. There is nothing more beautiful than Afghan eyes.

They said, “Look at this!”

I said, “Yes, you see, the tea was better medicine than the penicillin. There is tannic acid.”

So then about a month later I was at a fatia, and we were all crammed into this room, and suddenly a woman with a baby with all stuck-up eyes, she began crawling towards me. And the women sitting around, they could see she was coming to me, they knew what was going to happen. And immediately, before she got to me, all the ladies were saying, “tannic acid, tannic acid, tannic acid! Go home and make tea!”

So, you know, this was learning. Not learning in a dull way, just learning practically, learning with good humor. And this is why I have a program where I publish books that are made for new literates. It is very simple but with very strong messages, not only about health, but about geography, about history, about home management. We have a hundred and twenty-two – oh no, now we have more – two hundred and seven titles in something called the ABLE box library extension, which goes into a district high schools and into village communities.

And this is part of what I do here at ACKU, because ACKU, they’ve got 60,000 documents. OK. They’re all catalogued. That takes a long time. And they are also all digitized. They’ll be coming, but they’re not all done. But anyway, about three-quarters of them are digitized. And the reason for digitizing is to preserve them, right? But also, you know, it’s very nice to have them on the shelves. I’m very proud and they’re very neat and everything. You can find what you want. You can search for it and you can go and find it.

That’s all very good, but actually, those documents are no use unless somebody takes them off the shelves and reads. So in order to distribute more widely, we’ll put all of this digitized material on DVDs, and we send them to Herat, Mazar, Kandahar, Khost, wherever there is a university, wherever there is the facilities to use it.

We will share this information with the whole of Afghanistan. The motto of ACKU is “sharing information for nation building,” because you can take this information and build on the livelihoods of the people. And I’m convinced that this is very, very important: access, access to knowledge.

What Afghanistan needs is a national information network, because there is lots of information here.  And we know, for instance, one very interesting thing. You know, Afghanistan is very high in child mortality, very, very high. And the mothers, the maternal mortality rate is also very high. And you know 87% of that high rate is caused by the fact that the people don’t know they are preventable. You can prevent the causes of that high mortality rate. Prevent by giving them information about what causes disease, what are germs, where they lurk in your house, and how to avoid them. Simple things like washing your hands. So we have books on that.

And also, we don’t like to work in isolation. We like to work in a parallel with the government ministries. For instance, on health: they are lowering the mortality rate – one of the accomplishments, achievements of this government. And they are doing it through community health workers. They bring the community health workers for training and they send them home. But they don’t give them anything in their hand. So, when the community health workers think, “my god, was I supposed to put one teaspoon or two teaspoons of salt in this medicine?” Can’t remember and there’s nothing to tell. So we write a book that goes exactly according to the messages that the Ministry of Public Health are teaching. Nothing else, just reinforcing the same messages. But it is something that they can have in their hand. So we do this for veterinarians, we do this for agriculture, we do this in addition to the history, which they like very much.

Q: How long has the center been in place and how many people work for you? Are these Afghans?
All are Afghans, except me. And I’m going to be replaced very soon with a very superior Afghan who will be joining us in October. So I’m very happy about that. I have about 23 people who are working: the digitizers, the catalogers, and there’s the finance, and there’s the IT. And we have a reading room also in the library. You can take pictures of the reading room if you like, where the students and the professors, they can access our documents. And now we are building because we have very little space here, because there is more to sharing information than just cataloging books: exhibitions, lectures, films, all of kinds of events.

And, as I say, I look about this as one step, one step towards the establishment of a national information network, which we should have, because there is a lot of information here. But there is no way to get it out. It is really concentrated here. For instance, we have the boxed libraries, the ABLE libraries; we have in the provincial councils.

You know, the basis of democracy is your provincial councils. And I went to Charikar and I saw the provincial council. They didn’t even have a copy of the constitution. Now how can you be an effective provincial council if you don’t even know what your rights are?

So, initially we were only sending books to the community. And the community, they manage these. We don’t – we deliver the box and the community selects who is to be the custodian. They decide where they are going to put it. Some of our ABLE boxes are mobile boxes. Some of them are in schools and some of them are in clinics. The mullah’s like them very much. They’re in the mosque and sometimes in the shop because, you know, they’re lending libraries. So when somebody comes to return a book and take a new book, they see something to buy, so the shopkeepers like them also. So it depends, if the community makes the decision and manages it.

Q: What do you think about the ongoing preservation projects that are going on in Ghazni, Herat, Mes Aynak and the groups working there?
Well I’ve been working with the museum for…I don’t like to say for how many years because it makes me look very old. But the Kabul museum is very dear to my heart, and to see it being looted the way it was during the war was very disturbing. But the soil of Afghanistan is so rich that we now have Mes Aynak, which we didn’t know anything about then.

The video, “Who is the Historian?,” is available on YouTube and Kabul at Work.

Joanie Meharry is director of Untold Stories: The Oral Histories of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage with grants from the Hollings Center in 2011-12.  She has conducted fieldwork on Afghanistan’s cultural heritage with fellowships from the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies at Boston University in 2012 and the Global Heritage Fund in 2011, and an oral history project on the National Museum of Afghanistan with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in 2009. She writes often on Afghanistan’s culture and politics. Joanie holds a double-master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies and International and Comparative Legal Studies.

Shaharzad Akbar is partner and senior consultant with QARA Consulting, Inc. in Kabul, Afghanistan. Shaharzad studied anthropology at Smith College and recently completed an MPhil in Development Studies at University of Oxford. Shaharzad has extensive media and development work experience in Afghanistan. In 2005, she was the journalism intern for the book Women of Courage. Reporting for the book, she traveled across Afghanistan to meet and interview active Afghan women in all sectors. She has also worked as local reporter for BBC for Afghanistan, producer and host of a youth talk show on radio Killid and writer and editor for several Afghan magazines and newspapers.

FROM THE FIELD: Change of Time, An Interview with Abdul Wasay Najimi, Conservation Architect for the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and Professor at Kabul University

In the summertime, thousands of visitors flock to Bagh-e Babur, “Babur’s Garden”, an historic park in the heart of Kabul. Presiding over the garden is the entombed 16th-century Emperor Babur the Conqueror, founder of the Moghul Empire in India, for whom the garden is named. In the emperor’s memoir, the Baburnama, he praises the location for its scenery, gardens, orchards, and semi-arid climate. “Within a day’s ride it is possible to reach a place where snow never falls,” he observes. “But within two hours one can go where the snows never melt.”

Five centuries later, the public enjoys this same ambiance. Enclosed by perimeter walls, fertile rows of cypress, hawthorn, and cherry trees adorn the cascading terraces of the garden. Groups congregate on the pavilions. Couples stroll lazily along the water channels. Families picnic beneath the shade of the trees, eating kebabs, chatting, and resting in the dry heat.

Babur’s Garden did not always paint so splendid a picture. By the end of the Mujahideen civil war (1992-95) much of the garden was destroyed. It lingered in this state of disrepair through the Taliban regime (1996-2001).  And it was not until 2003 that restoration work was begun by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), joined by Dr. Abdul Wasay Najimi, a conservation architect. Most of the work was completed by 2007 with facilities for cultural and recreational activities, including a caravanserai (inn with large courtyard and area for caravans), garden pavilion, swimming-pool, and Queen’s Palace complex.

It was at the garden that we filmed an interview with Dr. Najimi about his work as a conservation architect as part of the series, Untold Stories: the Oral Histories of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage. The interview can be watched in the short video, Who is the Conservation Architect?, which showcases Dr. Najimi’s work for AKTC, including conservation of the eighteenth-century Timur Shah Mausoleum. Today, Dr. Najimi is instructing in the history of the architecture of Afghanistan full-time at Kabul University, teaching a younger generation to appreciate their cultural heritage, so that in time, more of Afghanistan’s remarkable architecture may be preserved.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about your work experience with the Babur’s Garden project?

AWN: The first time I saw Babur’s Garden was in the Taliban’s time. It was in 2000. One of my former students was involved in the project. He had some funds from HABITAT to plant some trees that you can see at the lower part of Babur’s Garden. He also wanted to build a door for the garden.

Generally, the garden was completely destroyed. All its old trees were cut down. The place we are sitting at was destroyed. The structure was in place. The garden was ruined and there were no windows or doors or anything. All the surrounding houses were in ruins. I came with him to see what his plans were and what he was doing. For the second time, when I came in 2002, we started a deep survey and study of Babur’s Garden. Naturally, it was as I described before. Slowly we surveyed and developed a design and we implemented the plans. Now you see the results.

Q: When you were abroad (working towards your PhD), were you following the issues related to Afghanistan?

AWN: Since 1986, I have had direct working relations with Afghanistan. But not all my activities were related to historical sites and buildings. There were no such projects then, and also, there was no funding or budget for this kind of work. To earn a living, I worked with other organizations working in Afghanistan, organizations for development of cities and rural areas and such. But throughout this period, there were projects and missions once in a while from UNESCO or something organized by myself, where I traveled and studied historical sites closely, and wrote on them.

From 1991 or even 1990, I became more involved and I went to Bamiyan on behalf of UNESCO once or twice. Once, I went to Munar-e Jam. From ’93 onwards I was in Herat for two years with a Danish organization. We reconstructed some of the significant sites there. For a while after that, I was not very involved. But since 2002, after AKF (Aga Khan Foundation) opened an office in Kabul, we identified some sites/projects for reconstruction in Kabul. After 2005, I also got involved with Herat. Since then (2002), I have been directly involved in different projects.

Q: How many important projects did you work on at this time?

AWN: In Kabul, one of the most important projects was the revival and reconstruction of Bagh-e-Babur. Others were repairing, strengthening, and restoring the Timur Shah Mausoleum and garden, and reviving and repairing a residential area known as Ashiqan wa Arifan, in the old city of Kabul.

We further developed to include [restoring] a series of historical mosques, historical public baths, fixing roads and streams, and helping provide drinking water. Similarly in Herat, our important projects included reconstruction of an area in Herat, close to the center of the city; we reconstructed some of the houses as a sample.

Q: What role did Afghans have in reconstruction of the garden?

AWN: Generally, all we have done has been done through Afghans. To the extent possible, Afghans have also done the expert and technical work. AKF (Aga Khan Foundation) is an international organization and naturally wants to work with international standards. For this reason, we occasionally had international observers or experts whom we consulted with in case of need and asked for advice… Thus, it was both satisfactory and enjoyable. During these talks, my colleagues and I learned a lot academically and they (the international experts) also admired the restoration of old building material, the style, and the way of old work. They would see how to reuse the material that had been used before, again, and get a good result out of it.

Q: What are the plans for the future of Babur’s Garden?

AWN: Babur’s Garden, after its reconstruction was completed in 2006, I think towards the end of 2006, found a new administration. We tried to form a trust or administrative organization for the garden. It would be run by an executive board with help from the municipality, which used to run the garden, and the Ministry of Information and Culture, which is responsible for preservation of historical sites and buildings. The executive board members are representatives of AKF, the Kabul municipality, and the Ministry of Information and Culture.  The day to day management of the garden is conducted by the trust or organization called “Organization for Protection and Preservation of Babur’s Garden”.  The organization is registered with the Ministry of Economics and is run according to regulations of NGOs.

Q: And the idea is that the garden will be independent in future?

AWN: No. The idea is that in the past, many years ago, the garden was run by the municipality, and they sold tickets for entrance to the garden. Now, the garden is at the beginning of its reconstruction, and it has some expenses to be paid occasionally for its preservation and protection. The decision was made that the garden can have revenue from selling entrance tickets, from renting out for cultural events, and if there is a shortage of money/budget, it will ask for help from aid organizations so that it can manage its own expenses. According to government regulations, the municipality did the same thing. So it is permitted. The organization/trust is a non-profit. They need to manage all their expenses and income themselves. At the end of each year, their accounts are audited by auditors that have so far been international auditors and a report is made on their expenses.

Q: Was the team from Babur’s Garden involved in the restoration of Timur Shah Mausoleum as well?

AWN: Our team was really big. One team worked with Babur’s Garden. The other worked on Timur Shah Mausoleum and then on the walls and the gardens there. We had another team that was working in the old city. Some of the engineers, who gained work experience here, went and worked with other organizations, or made their own companies. Some of them went to Herat with me. We had the same program there regarding training of young people and such. For now, our work has decreased in Kabul, and we try to go and work in some other provinces where we didn’t have access before.

Q: How has the collaboration from local people been? How much do they know about historical sites?

AWN: Local people know about the value of historical sites and buildings… Unfortunately, during the war, there were many limitations. Poverty was increasing and roads were closed. Many people started to think that if they dig the historical sites, and find some historical or antique artifacts, and sell them, they can earn a living. Unfortunately, this led us to lose some of our important and historical artifacts.

When there is no specific responsible organization, the local people also slowly become careless, especially when it comes to buildings and such. In some places, historical buildings and locations have been misused, and that may have caused their destruction. In other places, lack of any preservation efforts and existence of snow and rain has led to destruction. Sometimes, it has been a case of military use or buildings being employed in some manner during the fighting. Or the government has used the structures for military purposes. The people have often used buildings as shelters. The important point is that there is little public knowledge about historical artifacts of our country. And the officials, even if they are responsible, they are not fully active and accountable on raising awareness. We still have the problem that on one front, we need to raise public awareness through radios and TVs and through schools and teaching, and on the other front we need to work to improve the organizations that are responsible for this job of preservation.

Q: What was the worst period for cultural heritage in Afghanistan?

AWN: It is now and it was in the past 30 years of war. The main reason is that it was hard to preserve historical sites, traveling was difficult, there were few professionals and experts of historical artifacts in the country, everyone was on the move, everyone was a migrant. But the problem still continues.

Q: What is the impact of security on preservation work?

AWN: Security impacts everything. If there is fear and worry somewhere, there is lack of certainty. Any work, from business to personal and governmental activities, will be harmed. Luckily, since we have so far worked in Kabul and Herat, and also, the way we worked, we had very close relations with the public. We also occasionally have consulted the government offices that were responsible for preservation. We have never had any (security) problems. If you are working in a place that is hard to access, and is not safe and secure, sending professional staff and required material and equipment would be difficult. I have to say this, that the history has proved that civilization will grow in a place where there is security. Where there is peace among a community or in an area, the civilization has grown, progress has happened and economy has grown. During the war, all decisions are quick decisions, and while taking quick decisions, one can’t make useful decisions for the future.

Q: How do you see the future in three or four years?

AWN: Well, God knows better about the future. We can’t predict. But, from a personal and professional commitment viewpoint, I can only say that for me, it has been proved that in implementing such projects, we need to educate the youth. So that, we can train architects that are interested in the profession, have an understanding of the profession, and can work for the future, so that we can offer these people to our society.

It is for this reason that since 2009 we have had a more serious collaboration with Kabul University. I have gone there regularly on behalf of AKF and have taught there in the section related to history of architecture for Afghanistan, specifically regarding conservation and preservation. Also, this year we will invite some people from abroad to hold short term, expert classes for students in Polytechnic University Kabul and Kabul University simultaneously to restore the motivation for professional work, the style of professional work.

This interview is part of a series, ‘Untold Stories: the Oral Histories of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage’, funded by a Hollings Center for International Dialogue Grant. The series will be available on video, made in collaboration with Kabul at Work, and available on their website at: http://www.kabulatwork.tv/

Joanie Meharry is currently completing an MA in International and Comparative Legal Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She is a 2012 John F. Richards Fellow for the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies and is directing the project, Untold Stories: the Oral History of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage, with a Hollings Center for International Dialogue Grant. She also holds an MSc in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Edinburgh.

Shaharzad Akbar is partner and senior consultant with QARA Consulting, Inc. in Kabul, Afghanistan. Shaharzad studied anthropology at Smith College and recently completed an MPhil in Development Studies at University of Oxford. Shaharzad has extensive media and development work experience in Afghanistan. In 2005, she was the journalism intern for the book Women of Courage. She has also worked as local reporter for BBC for Afghanistan, producer and host of a youth talk show on radio Killid and writer and editor for several Afghan magazines and newspapers.

FROM THE FIELD: Significant historic and cultural site in Afghanistan restored

Origins and background

The ancient religious site of Gazur Gah is one of the most significant in Afghanistan. It lies near to the city of Herat in western Afghanistan, on an ancient trade route between Central Asia and the West, and marks one of last halting stations before the deserts of Kuhistan. Its recorded history begins around 1000 years ago, with the lives of a local Sufi, Shaikh ‘Amu, and his pupil Khwajah Abdullah Ansari. Following the death of Shaikh ‘Amu, who was buried in the nearby hill of Zangir Gah in 1049 CE, Khwajah Ansari became a prominent Sufi religious personality in the region of Khurasan. He founded a Sufi institution at Gazur Gah, and was buried at the site following his death in 1089 CE.

Gazur Gah was one of a number of medieval settlements in Khurasan that developed around a religious institution and funerary complex of a Sufi holy-man. Other such sites were founded in the mountainous regions to the east of Gazur Gah at Chisht and Jam, and in eastern Iran at Turbat-i Shaikh Jam. Gazur Gah became home to a brotherhood of Ansari’s descendants and disciples, and the site of pilgrimage for Sufi devotees from Herat and beyond.

The complex of buildings at Gazur Gah has been the focus of a recent restoration project undertaken by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

Historic Development

The site’s structures developed over several historic phases following the death of Khwajah Ansari. The Ghurid rulers added a religious school in the 12th century, whilst the last Ghurid king – Sultan Mahmud – was buried at the site following his death in 1212 CE. The subsequent Kart dynasty also restored and added to the site though few, if any, architectural features remain from this medieval period.

The 15th century Timurid rulers of Khurasan viewed Ansari as the pir or ‘wise man’ of Herat, and drew close association with the saint in establishing their rule. They constructed a more elaborate funerary complex at Gazur Gah, focused on the form, function and meaning of the saint’s grave.

The burial site itself is identified by a low platform, surrounded by a pierced stone screen, and a lone, gnarled tree. Around this, Timurid patrons constructed an impressive courtyard enclosure with high arched portals or iwans, burial chambers and graves of members of the ruling family, together with spaces for prayer, residence and communal meeting, and gardens, pavilions and a water cistern beyond.

The resulting funerary courtyard and Namakdan Pavilion are fine extant examples of Timurid monuments. A royal residence and gardens were built adjacent to the site, confirming Gazur Gah’s religious, political and social significance during this golden Timurid age. The complex also received endowments that have lasted, in some cases, to the present day.

The Safavid ruler Shah Ismail conquered Herat in 1510 CE. Although these new rulers were Shi’ite, they allowed Sufi customs and practices to continue at the site, and ordered further amplification of its buildings. The importance of Gazur Gah was nevertheless reduced through the Safavid focus on the Shi’ite sanctuaries of Mashhad, Ardabil, Qum and Mazar-i Sharif. The ruling Chingizid clan made further embellishments in the 17th century, and undertook restoration of the cistern. Members of the clan were also buried at the site in the early part of the 18th century. Beyond this, little repair had been undertaken in more recent times, leaving many of its buildings in a state of disintegration and collapse.

Recent Restoration Activities

Given its long history and religious and cultural significance, Gazur Gah has been the focus of recent remedial works by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) in Afghanistan, funded by government of Germany. The project forms a part of AKTC’s wider cultural heritage activities across the country (see below).

Following an initial survey of the complex in 2005, the AKTC signed an agreement with the department of Historic Monuments, to commence work.

Initial activities included the removal of modern concrete and earth materials from historic buildings, and roof repairs, alongside stabilization of the south side of the Khanaqah-i Zarnigar in 2006. In 2007, as part of documentation of the complex’s artistic and architectural history, a group of students from the faculty of Fine Arts at Herat University prepared full-scale drawings of the most significant historic graves – recording decorative stone techniques from 15th to 19th centuries. In the same year, focus also moved to stabilizing the main, eastern iwan of the central courtyard, which was showing signs of structural settlement. Surveys of the brick structure revealed a number of historic interventions made over the centuries to prevent its collapse. 2008 saw the construction of a brick buttress that now provides full support for the iwan.

Restoration took place alongside at the Namakdan Pavilion, a 12-sided brick structure that once stood in the midst of formal gardens. As with the other buildings, layers of concrete, earth and rubble were removed. This revealed the central dome’s rib structures for repair. Tensile steel ring-ties replaced original timber reinforcement that had since been consumed by termites. External footings were also repaired, using materials and techniques found in the original structure. With the structure strengthened, a modern intermediate floor could then be removed, to restore the original double-height interior space. During the course of works, the base of an octagonal pool was also discovered in the central space, along with traces of a water channel and a marble waterfall on the western side. Local craftsmen restored decorative traditional plaster and ceramic tiles to the building’s exterior.

Parallel landscaping was undertaken throughout the complex. This included re-laying of marble and brick paving in the courtyard, installation of subtle external lighting, and improvements to drainage systems.

Project Management

Effective management was emphasized by the AKTC throughout the project, maintained through regular consultations held by AKTC staff with the Historic Monuments department, and the Head of the religious order that oversees the shrine. Local craftsmen, masons and laborers were employed throughout, utilizing traditional skills and knowledge, and providing incomes to families in the area.

The 4-year restoration program was completed by 2009. An opening ceremony, presided over by HE the Governor of Herat, Yusuf Nooristani, and attended by religious and community leaders, was held 8th October 2009.

Widely regarded as one of the most important surviving Timurid architectural complexes in the region, and a significant site of Sufi pilgrimage and prayer to this day, the restoration of the buildings at Gazur Gah is a significant landmark in the on-going safeguard of Afghanistan’s architectural heritage.

Further details of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture’s activities in Afghanistan and around the world can be found at http://www.akdn.org/afghanistan_newsletters.asp and http://www.akdn.org/AKTC

With grateful thanks to Jolyon Leslie and Hadi Jahanabadian for providing guidance with sources and information on the site’s restoration.

Thalia Kennedy‘s academic training is in art and architectural history, in which she holds her PhD.  Her area of research and teaching has been the Islamic and South Asian spheres.  She has held visiting lectureships at the School of Oriental & African Studies, the Victoria & Albert Museum, and the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London.  From 2007 to 2010, Thalia was the Director of the Turquoise Mountain Institute for Afghan Arts & Architecture in Kabul, and is now a member of the Institute Board.  In 2011, she was a Guest Scholar at the Getty Conservation Institute, and Scholar in Residence at the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.  Currently completing consultancy and research, Thalia has recently been selected for a museum position in Qatar, where she will be moving later this year.

FROM THE FIELD: Speaking with Omara Khan Massoudi, Director of the National Museum of Afghanistan

Omara Khan Massoudi is more of a permanent feature at the National Museum of Afghanistan than many of the collections that are housed there. Now the director, he has worked at the Kabul museum for more than three decades: a tumultuous period that bore witness to the Soviet occupation, Mujahideen civil war, and Taliban regime, when irreplaceable collections were relocated for safekeeping, damaged, or destroyed.

These days, Mr. Massoudi is overseeing a period of progress. Stunning relics from the current excavation at Mes Aynak, an ancient Buddhist complex located in Logar province, are on display in a new exhibition, Mes Aynak: Recent excavations along the Silk Road. Plans are also underway to erect a new National Museum building with state of the art equipment on the lot next door with funding from the United States Embassy and the World Bank.

The director has given countless interviews in English about the history and future of the museum. But this time around my Afghan colleague, Shaharzad Akbar, interviewed Massoudi in his native tongue of Dari, so that little was lost in the conversation. What follows is Massoudi’s beautifully told account of his experiences in his own words. The interview can also be watched in the short video, Who is the Museum Director?, which includes rarely seen historical footage of the museum.


Q: When did you become interested in the cultural heritage of Afghanistan?

OKM: Thanks. When I joined Kabul University, the faculty of literature and human sciences, I studied the history and geography that is closely linked to museums and archaeology. In 1973, when I graduated, I worked as a teacher in Ibn-e-Sina for four years. Afterwards, I came to the Ministry of Information and Culture. For four months, I worked on Kushani international research. Then I came to the National Museum of Afghanistan (also known as the Kabul Museum) and I have been working in different parts of the museum since. It is closely linked to my field of study. You know museums are linked to history and geography both, and fortunately, I have been working in a small part of the museum since.


Q: When you came to the Kabul Museum, what was the situation?

OKM: The museum was in a good place then. The museum was exhibiting 10% of the artifacts from the collection of the artifacts stored in the museum. Storage was full of historical objects. There were lots of viewers and the exhibition was designed very gloriously. Until 1992, this museum was open to the viewers. In that time, not only Afghans, but also some foreigner friends visited the museum, and as days passed, the museum was making more progress.


Q: When did things change for the museum?

OKM: You know that in May 1988 (Afghan calendar: 1367), when the Russian troops began to withdraw from Afghanistan, rebels in Kabul’s surrounding areas began firing rockets on Kabul through the summer and fall of that year. The authorities decided to end the museum’s exhibition, because there was fear that rockets may hit the museum. The possibility of fire was also predicted.

One year later, we not only withdrew the exhibition of the objects, but we also proposed a plan to the Ministry of Information and Culture to move some of the important objects belonging to different historical areas to the center of the city for protection. Power was shifting from the communist government to the Mujahideen. And, naturally, it was predicted that transfer of power would create a power vacuum. And with a power vacuum, we predicted that some dangers or risks may face the museum. Fortunately, the Minister of Information and Culture accepted this proposal, and he shared it with the president, Dr. Najibullah, who also accepted it.

President Najibullah instructed the members of the museum to indicate a place that they deemed appropriate and safe for preserving the objects. Members of the museum studied all of the government buildings in the center of the city. At our last analysis, we chose an appropriate place, where in that small area; they specified two cabins for us. According to the capacity of the space, we chose important and unique objects from different historical parts or different historical areas. Then we packed them.

In the presence of a delegation of authorities, consisting of members of the museum and some individuals from the honorable Institute of Archeology, we moved it in 1368 (February-March, 1989). The purpose was that if there are any incidents or problems in one area, the second or third area may stay safe. Fortunately, this decision led to some very good and pleasant results for us. But unfortunately, for the objects that were mostly in the National Museum, which is in Darulaman area (southwestern Kabul), they were really damaged. Especially when the civil wars started during early 1992 until the end of 1994, many horrible battles happened here, and the objects from the museum were looted. Also, due to a rocket, on May 12, 1993, the upper level of the building was set on fire. Fortunately, the fire did not spread to the lower level. Most of our storage was in the ground floor.

Jake Simkin
Omara Khan Massoudi

The objects that were looted from the National Museum found their way to the black markets here. But the very unique objects, fortunately, did not come to the market. The looters were always looking, they always asked, ‘what happened to the Bactrian treasure?’ Because in 1357-58, these objects were excavated by Afghan and Russian archaeologists. When Viktor Sarianidi submitted these objects to the museum, there was instant attention. And it is worth mentioning that in 1980, we put some of these objects on display in the National Museum. Due to security issues, we collected these objects and put them in storage.

In this time, what I think is important is that when national and international journalists asked about the Bactrian treasure, museum staff decided not to give any information about the objects to the media. The concern was to keep it safe. Because we predicted that if, god forbid, any information about these objects gets out, they will face danger. This decision ensured protection of the objects that were placed in two locations inside the city, and they were safe till 2003. At that time, when H.E. President was visiting the central bank of the Presidential Palace, he was visiting the bank storage, I think the bank staff told him that the Bactrian treasure is safe; it is here. The president, who was extremely happy, shared with the media that the Bactrian treasure is still safe. At that point, we didn’t have any other option.

Several countries showed interest in having an international exhibition of these saved objects in their countries. Finally, I remember, in 2005, H.E. President had an official trip to France. Mr. Chirac, President of France, asked him to send an exhibition to France, based on previous relations between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. During the kingdom of Amanullah Khan (1919-1929) and in the period of Zahir Shah (1933-1973), we had very friendly relations with France. You might know that after 1923, based on an agreement signed between the governments of Afghanistan and France, French and Afghan archeologists had excavations in various parts of Afghanistan. Thus, H.E. President agreed to Mr. Chirac’s suggestions.

President Karzai instructed for a selection of some of the saved objects by experts from both the Guimet Museum and the National Museum of Afghanistan. We selected 231 saved objects that belonged to the following four historical periods: objects from the Fullol hill that belong to the Bronze Age, Ai-Khanoum objects that belong to the 3rd or 4th Centuries BC, objects from the Bactrian treasure that belong to around the 1st Century BC through the 1st Century AD and also objects from the Bagram treasure that belongs to the 1st-2nd Century AD. We chose 231 objects that consisted of 1,441 individual pieces. Before the objects were sent there, we created inventories. We computerized the details and created documentations for them in both Dari and English, and in international standards. First, these objects were restored here for three weeks. French experts came. They were restored, fixed, and were made ready to be transferred. Then for more than two months in the Guimet Museum in France, they were cleaned by experts of both museums: the Guimet Museum and the National Museum of Afghanistan. They were made ready for exhibition, which was opened at the Guimet Museum in October 2006. Several countries put in requests (for future exhibitions), for example: Italy, Holland, Germany, and the USA. The Ministry of Information and Culture signed contracts with each museum.

I think this is a good message to the whole world. Especially to Afghans who are immigrants in a different world, in different countries. Afghanistan is always in the media. Reports are published that lead people to know Afghanistan as a country of terror, murder, bombs, explosions, and these things. But I think this exhibition at the National Museum of Afghanistan is a good message to the world, that Afghanistan is not only a country in war. Three decades of war have destroyed different aspects of people’s lives. It is a good message for the world that Afghanistan is a country with past civilizations, rich history, and also was and is rich with artifacts. This message introduces another face of Afghan people, and Afghan culture to people. Many countries have requested (the exhibition) so far and we are hopeful that it can show the authentic face of Afghanistan’s long living culture to the world. It is very effective in introducing our culture.


Q: This exhibition increases interest in Afghanistan.

OKM: Certainly. This exhibition, as I mentioned before, is not only a good message, but it also allows the international community to also learn about our history. And fortunately, I am very happy, that until now, more than one and a half million people have visited this exhibition. Good publicity has been done.

One of the advantages of this exhibition for us is that in addition to generating some income for the Afghan side, we have tried to get each country to print a catalogue. We have requested 1,000 catalogues from each country, translated in our national languages, in Pashtu and Dari. The Ministry of Information and Culture sends these free catalogues to all the public libraries of Afghanistan, and to libraries of all universities. We have sent them so that our youth access the research done about objects of Afghanistan in their national language, Pashtu or Dari. We have even distributed some in English for friends who know the language. We have another catalogue that we plan to officially send to libraries of all teacher-training institutions and to centers of education for teachers so that they can learn about their history and culture in their own national language.

Many books written by international archaeologists about the history and culture of Afghanistan have been published in their own language. Unfortunately, as you know, Afghan people, particularly youth, can not access all foreign languages. Russians have written in Russian, Japanese have conducted research in Japanese, Germans in German and British or American experts or archaeologists have published in English. We send these (Pashtu and Dari) catalogues to libraries as donations, to encourage young people to become interested and read. In future, if we had the capacity, we plan to send these to libraries of high schools not only in the capital but also in the provinces so that our people know that their country has had a valuable history and precious objects, and it still has them. This should become clear and comprehensive for them, and they should study. I think this is another advantage of this exhibition.


Q: When can we bring the objects from this exhibition to Afghanistan? Is the security situation ready for this? And are you optimistic about the future of Afghanistan in this area?

OKM: The objects were here. They were sent for exhibition in 2005. Fortunately, they were saved. Today, it is every Afghan’s wish to have real security in the country. One of the main responsibilities is also to put our objects on display for our own Afghans. And now, these objects are in an international exhibition. We hope that this tour will end after all the countries send their requests. Naturally, it will return to Afghanistan.

The Ministry of Information and Culture aims to construct a new building on the west side of the National Museum, for the National Museum. This building will meet all the requirements of a modern museum that is standard globally. These requirements are security signals, humidity control system, and heating system, as well as good lightening, good storages, and good display halls. Naturally, we will display these objects in here so that all our countrymen learn about their rich history.

The current building of the museum is, unfortunately, not built for a museum. It is a historical building that was built simultaneously with Darul-aman Palace in H.E. King Amanullah Khan’s period. It was used as a municipality building. The objects of the museum were transferred here in 1931, or 1309 solar year, from the city center to here. We use this building as a museum since then. The requirements I mentioned earlier do not exist in this building and it is a historical building. Even if we bring the humidity control system, strong security signals, and also heaters and such to this building, I don’t think it can respond to needs of the National Museum in future. It was based on this need that the Ministry of Information and Culture and Islamic government of the Republic of Afghanistan decided to have a new building, a bigger building that would be a model for the whole region. We hope that these objects will be exhibited for Afghans who are interested as well. We will wait for these facilities to be put in place, so that these objects are preserved in the best possible way in the National Museum.


The Director of the National Museum, Omara Khan Massoudi, overseeing restoration of a statue

Q: What was the situation of the museum in the aforementioned crisis periods in Afghanistan? Was the museum closed during the Taliban-controlled period?

OKM: Unfortunately, when the civil wars started, the museum building burnt down and its objects were looted. The museum was in bad shape, but it was not closed. It was always open for visitors. At least our countrymen could come and see the destroyed museum.

During the Taliban period as well, only a few objects were on display, but visitors would come. After the fall of the Taliban, the Ministry of Information and Culture decided to reconstruct the museum as soon as possible to reconstruct the National Museum of Afghanistan. Not only the National Museum, but all of our cultural aspects had been greatly damaged. Most of our historical buildings have been destroyed during the war. Our historical sites have been looted.

I am very happy that in May 2002, the Ministry of Information and Culture took an initiative and invited an international conference with financial support from UNESCO. It was for two days. More than a hundred Afghan and foreign experts attended the conference. This seminar studied issues in all aspects of Afghanistan’s culture. The participants in the seminar visited the National Museum of Afghanistan, the destroyed museum, and fortunately, this drew considerable attention to the reconstruction of the museum. Reconstruction was financially supported by friend country Greece, the US Embassy and also UNESCO. Reconstruction work started in 2003 and ended in September 2004.

At the same time, we tried to establish departments for the National Museum from scratch. We especially paid attention to the Restoration Department, the Photography Department, and other things. The objects that were left from war were mostly damaged. They needed serious restoration. They needed to be restored, cleaned, fixed. The destroyed objects needed to be reconstructed. We took positive steps in this regard. And I am happy that staff of the museum worked and worked seriously with courage and a sense of responsibility and dedication. More than 3,000 objects needed serious restoration, and were fixed and restored. From the destroyed objects, we reconstructed 300, and some of it is put on display.

But the work is on-going. We still have big responsibilities in front of us. The objects that were left from war generally need restoration, cleaning, and reconstruction. But we have limited facilities. Our efforts have continued and, fortunately, the National Museum has been able to expand its exhibition now. We have put some objects on display and the museum is open every day to visitors.

I am especially pleased that our visitors increase every year. The majority of our visitors are school and university students. I can provide you with a small statistic. In 2002, we had 2,000 visitors for the whole year, but last year in 1389, we had more than 24,000 visitors. This year, in the first three months, we have had more than 9,000 visitors. We are hoping to have more than 30,000 visitors by end of year. I think this is still insignificant.

Our services are also limited. I hope we can offer more services one day. And I hope there will be a time when the National Museum of Afghanistan has visitors in the same proportions as advanced countries. I hope that our youth take interest. Although, we do understand the problems of our people, the problems of our school students, that they have many problems. They do not have the financial means to come from provinces to center to visit and to come to the museum. But I am optimistic that a bright future awaits us. Our youth will take interest. Our people will take interest. They will even come with their families. They will visit the National Museum. The museum is open to visitors every day, especially on Fridays, when our people can come and visit the museum without a ticket. There is lots of hope.


Q: Do you have any agreements with the Ministry of Education to encourage the students (to visit)?

OKM: As I indicated earlier, the doors of the museum are open to everyone. My expectation from the Ministry of Education and Higher Education is to bring school and university students here. We do not require them to buy tickets. Not only do we not distribute tickets to them, but also our guide is there for them to serve them in our national languages, Pashtu and Dari. I understand that, unfortunately, the Ministry of Education also has some economic problems to provide transport. But, still our education system is improving. The Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Higher Education are slowly overcoming problems. They have international support. I hope that in future there will be an opportunity for school students to visit regularly. Every day, in every moment, the National Museum is ready to host 200-300 visitors with several breaks. We are ready to provide any service to our visitors, to our countrymen. One of the important functions of a museum is education. We are ready to provide these services.


Q: What were the difficult moments in the history of the museum? Have you ever lost hope in future of the museum?

OKM: Unfortunately, in the history of Afghanistan, these instances have repeated themselves. I am very disappointed when cultural issues are overshadowed by medium or big political policies. Unfortunately, there has been damage. During the earliest unrest, as you know, the National Museum of Afghanistan was in Koti Baghcha, the Presidential Palace. In 1308, it was damaged. The objects were looted. During the civil wars in years 1992-1995, and also in the unfortunate incident in 2001, the objects in the museum were destroyed.

The National Museum of Afghanistan has seen many ups and downs. I personally, serving the museum for 33 years, have witnessed these up and downs. But the sacred religion of Islam always promotes hope to individuals. One has to be hopeful. Our people should try. They should face every problem and struggle with it. Having hope is essential for life. We witnessed very difficult moments at the museum. We saw its destruction. But we did not lose hope. One has to be hopeful to serve his countrymen in all circumstances. One has to take steps with determination. They say that if you feel compassion, a blind eye also sheds tears. We did not lose hope. The big problems that were facing us are fortunately being solved slowly and day by day. And I am optimistic that in future, real peace will come to this country. The mistakes Afghan people made must not be repeated. They should beware that war does not bring happiness to any nation. War has no outcomes but destruction.

In a peaceful environment, one can focus on knowledge, on education, and serve one’s people. I am hopeful that our culture can play a big role in creating peace. It can restore national unity. We have the best examples in the National Museum. The objects of the museum, if one pays proper attention, are storytellers of different aspects of lives of Afghan people, be it political, social, economic, and cultural in different periods. We have great examples in this country. This country has seen up and downs in the period when it was great Ariana, or in the period of Khorasan, when this country was called Khorasan for 1,500 years, or when it was named Afghanistan. Fortunately, this country has offered artists to society. It has been influenced by all different civilizations. It has used them positively and has merged the influences within its own culture.

The product of this, when offered to the world, is very beautiful. It has amazing power. The objects in the National Museum tell us about all aspects of social, political, culture, and even religious aspects of life in different periods of Afghanistan’s history. We hope that in future our people hang on to their past culture, that they go back and search their past, that they pay attention to the present, and predict the future and that this long-lived Afghan culture plays its appropriate role in the national unity of Afghanistan.


Q: Do you have anything else to say? Any messages?

OKM: My wish, and my message to the nation of Afghanistan and to international friends, is to not forget Afghanistan’s past culture, that they help us with reviving it, that they help us with all hardships and problems we face, and help us with reconstruction. My wish from Afghans is that they pay attention to themselves. They should make an effort to preserve their objects as their national pride and national wealth. They shouldn’t cause the destruction and ruin of these objects, because the identity of a country is made of its history. We wrote a small slogan at the front of the museum, it is encrypted on a stone: a nation stays alive only when it can keep its history and culture alive. This seems like a small sentence but it has wider meanings. They should hang on to this and pay more attention to preserving their cultural wealth that is a source of pride for every Afghan.

This interview is part of a series, ‘Untold Stories: the Oral Histories of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage’, funded by a Hollings Center for International Dialogue Grant. The series will be available on video, made in collaboration with Kabul at Work, and available on their website at: http://www.kabulatwork.tv/

Jake Simkin

Joanie Meharry is currently completing an MA in International and Comparative Legal Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. This summer she lived in Kabul while researching the archaeological site of Mes Aynak with a Global Heritage Fund Fellowship and a Connecticut Ceramics Study Circle Grant, and directing the project, Untold Stories: the Oral History of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage, with a Hollings Center for International Dialogue Grant. She writes often on Afghanistan’s culture and politics. Joanie also holds an MSc in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Edinburgh.

Jake Simkin

Shaharzad Akbar is partner and senior consultant with QARA Consulting, Inc. in Kabul, Afghanistan. Shaharzad studied anthropology at Smith College and recently completed an MPhil in Development Studies at University of Oxford. Shaharzad has extensive media and development work experience in Afghanistan. In 2005, she was the journalism intern for the book Women of Courage. Reporting for the book, she traveled across Afghanistan to meet and interview active Afghan women in all sectors. She has also worked as local reporter for BBC for Afghanistan, producer and host of a youth talk show on radio Killid and writer and editor for several Afghan magazines and newspapers.

Field Report: Vietnam – Another Source Country?

As followers of the antiquities trade in general will be well aware, the illicit looting, smuggling, and display of artifacts from prehistoric and historic sites truly remain a global problem. Yet, the on-the-ground situation in certain regions, such as Mainland Southeast Asia, remains under-reported. Although UNESCO conventions, better monitoring and conservation, and increased calls for repatriation by Southeast Asian countries such as Cambodia has curtailed the trade in historic period frescoes and statuary from the regions’ numerous early states and empires (from Funan, to Dvaravati, to Champa and Angkorian Khmer), the trade in prehistoric artifacts continues unabated. Since at least the 1980s, the looting of innumerable archaeological sites throughout the region, primarily in Cambodia and Thailand, has continued to mar the landscape and enrich the profits of middle-men at the expense of local interests. Furthermore, the mid-later prehistoric (c. 3,500-1,500BP) sites most commonly targeted belong to a very poorly known time period, during which profound changes in daily life, contact with the outside world, and the rituals of death were occurring. A more accurate understanding of these developments is crucial to explaining the origins of the states mentioned above, but every site looted before archaeologists can reach it, or salvaged after the fact, is another piece of the puzzle lost.

For my initial contribution to this blog, as an early-career archaeologist and physical anthropologist with connections to ongoing excavation and outreach projects in Vietnam and Cambodia, I would like to share my observations and opinions about the sale of authentic antiquities in Vietnam, as observed and documented over several trips, the most recent of which ended only one week ago. On the surface, it might appear that the looting problem there pales in significance to the more organized situation in Cambodia, Thailand, or other world regions. However, it appears that this situation is changing. To explain, let me share some brief observations from my most recent research trip (November 2009-January 2010).

Through excavations, classwork and my own reading and research, I have begun to familiarize myself with the diversity of artifacts one might encounter in archaeological sites of various locations and time periods throughout Vietnam, and the contexts they likely derived from, if encountered on the open market. During my latest trip, I stayed in an area of Hanoi (West Lake District) in which many “souvenir” or “antiquities” shops have opened in recent years, primarily along the main street connecting this district to the center of the city, or “Old Quarter” (see above left). Although national heritage law stipulates on paper that any authentic object older than 100 years can not be openly sold, the enforceability of this mandate is very difficult.

It is important to note that most objects sold in antiquities shops in Vietnam’s cities are either Vietnam (American) War relics (real and fake), antiques from family collections indeed made in the 20th century, or replicas of historic-period Chinese ceramics, and even some private collectors and shop owners seek to work with officials to create a national registry where vendors can register family collections as authentic pieced with provenance in order to legally sell them. However, not all urban dealers are in favor of this plan, as the State has supreme confiscation rights, even though international treaties apply to illegal exports from Vietnam, and individual “possession rights” for “heirlooms,” “national treasures,” etc. are recognized. Of course, the vague definition of what might constitute a “national treasure” ensures that many important historic period objects are still sold without provenance, salvaged from shipwrecks, or even sometimes looted from sites or monasteries…to say nothing of prehistoric artifacts. The current situation as I’ve encountered it on the ground in my investigations suggests that the trade in small items from prehistoric/early historic contexts continues unabated…anywhere these items can be mixed into larger antiques collections, and find a ready (and GROWING!) tourist market.

While in Hoi An, an ancient port city on the central coast of Vietnam, I was browsing the many side streets of the city’s “Old Town” district, itself a World Heritage site (as much of the architecture dates from the 1500-1800s). Although the number of shops catering to tourists inside the Old Town itself (supposedly a more commerce-free zone than the newer section of the city outside of the World Heritage boundaries) has increased markedly since my last visit in 2005, the ambiance of the place felt the same. I was saddened, however, to come across several “souvenir” shops openly selling metal, glass and stone artifacts (see above right), including several quite beautiful restrung necklaces, clearly deriving from late prehistoric Sa Huynh and early Cham cultural sites (most likely burials), as the central coast region has long been known as the archaeological heartland of these consecutive cultures. As more excavation, research, and museum display of these artifacts has been done by international teams, the more that accidental finds have been recognized as valuable, and the more deliberate looting has increased.

According to the shop’s owner (from whom I received permission to take artifact photographs), new shipments would come into his store every couple of months, mixed in with other objects…from an area no more specific than “around My Son.” It’s likely that the middleman delivering the artifacts was never told himself, if the original discoverer even knew. No, seeing such objects for sale does not guarantee that they were deliberately looted (as opposed to accidental field finds), but the contexts of many Sa Huynh glass and bronze items as grave goods makes it likely…and does that even matter when an artifact is offered for sale to an unsuspecting tourist? I think not… How much? $70 would get you a small bronze bell (at that shop), $250 a medium sized one, $80 a corroded bronze spear point or fragment of spiral bracelet, beads for $10 a pop. By my reckoning on that day, this was one of six or seven similar shops in the area… An ever-present problem indeed!

What can be done? It’s hard to say. While collaborative excavation and student training and outreach is increasing, life remains difficult, and still centered around agriculture, ensuring both continued supply and incentive. Likewise, tourists and expatriates continue to pour into the country (and region). Many provincial museums remain small, under-visited and under-funded, although I’ve noticed this changing, at least in the north. While some tourists do buy replicas of some of the more elaborate historic bronze and iron objects, it remains too easy to acquire the real thing, and while those I’ve talked to on the street (motorbike drivers, food vendors etc.) might be both impressed and baffled that one would devote their life to “ancient things” (the literal translation of archaeology in Vietnamese), I have rarely gotten the sense that prehistoric times/artifacts are thought of as “heritage” to most people. This, I feel, has to be the first step, or else more direct intermediary measures such as closing legal loopholes to the local trade or increasing monitoring, will not be enough. For my part, I will continue to work in the area; excavating, educating and sharing all I can about ancient life in a country I feel privileged to explore.

Firsthand account of looting in southern Iraq

On July 1, 2008 The Art Newspaper reported “Archaeological sites in south Iraq have not been looted, say experts”(See Larry Rothfield’s response here).

Video here shows images presented on April 12, 2008, at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute Symposium Looting the Cradle of Civilization: The Loss of History in Iraq by Abdulamir Hamdani, Director of Antiquities in Nasiriya Province in southern Iraq, in his first hand account of the situation there. (Courtesy: Abdulamir Hamdani)

To view in higher resolution, click here for Quicktime 7 and here for Windows Media Player