New legislation introduced to protect international cultural property

SAFE applauds the introduction of a new legislation aiming to improve the efficiency of the U.S. federal efforts to protect international cultural property. On November 13, Representatives Eliot L. Engel (D-NY) and Christ Smith (R-NJ) proposed the Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act (H.R. 5703) in response to the terrible state of affairs brought by ISIL/ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

The legislation aims to appoint a White House Coordinator for International Cultural Property Protection, a position that will be responsible for amassing all the federal efforts to address cultural heritage protection issues by coordinating diplomatic, military, and law enforcement efforts.

Representative Smith said, “Our global cultural patrimony has all too often been targeted by extremists who want to wipe out the collective memories of ethnic and religious minorities from lands they seek to control and conquer . . . The fight to preserve our common cultural heritage, as well as to deny extremists such as ISIL resources from the sale of blood antiquities, is yet another front on the global war against terror.”

The legislation is admirable for its attempt to encompass all the major countries suffering from cultural heritage destruction. Section 3, Findings and Statement of Policy, lists major Middle Eastern countries (Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan), as well as Mali, Cambodia, China, and Haiti. It also proposes federal agencies to liaise with the Smithsonian Institution, which has been an integral part of the protection efforts in the Middle East, as SAFE previously reported here.

But those who have followed the legislative efforts for cultural heritage protection might remember what happened a little more than a decade ago. In 2003, the Iraq Cultural Heritage Protection Act (H.R. 3497/H.R.2009) ended up not being enacted and replaced by a lesser resolution.

So the question for H.R.5703 is, will this bill see a swifter resolution?

Looting is everyone’s concern

SAFE is grateful to Marni Walter for sharing this reflection with us in observance of the 2013 Donny George Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage.

During the early years of the new millennium, the scope of antiquities looting and destruction of cultural heritage seemed to drastically expand. To all the archaeological damage done for profit to feed the demands of various art markets, we were forced to add incalculable threats from political unrest and wartime conflict.

At that time I was working as an editor at the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) for the American Journal of Archaeology, while also enrolled as a graduate student in archaeology at Boston University. In heritage management courses, we would compile statistics on the unprovenanced antiquities (most of them!) in the high-end auction catalogs, scrutinize the collections of prominent collectors, and report on the imbalances in wealth of the “source” countries versus the places of import. At the AIA, we debated about whether we should continue to publish using the longstanding von Bothmer publication fund (as Dietrich von Bothmer, a former curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, became increasingly criticized for acquisitions, such as the Euphronios krater, in an earlier era of museum practices).

Marni Walter at prehistoric site The author recording excavation details at a prehistoric site in New Hampshire, U.S.A.

We were thrilled when a hefty manuscript by Christopher Chippendale and David Gill landed on the AJA editorial desks: this important and thorough study was published in July 2000 as “Material Consequences of Contemporary Classical Collecting” (AJA 104:463–511). In fact many excellent studies were published in the early 2000s onward that showed the cold hard numbers on archaeological losses. It has been gratifying to see the growth in academic attention to many aspects of cultural heritage protection, with entire conferences (like the subject of my last post) dedicated to the subject. Sharing research among specialists is vital to moving forward, but we also need to talk to everyone else, and gain the support of the widest possible range of people.

When in 2001 the Taliban destroyed the giant Buddha statues at Bamiyan and many others throughout Afghanistan, and in 2003 thieves looted and vandalized the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, the need for broad support (including military personnel among many others) was suddenly more obvious. These events were not at all accidental or collateral war damage, but deliberate actions of hostility. Of course war, and its spoils, have been around since antiquity itself, but now unprecedented levels of media attention followed. Ten years later the reports and the images from the ransacked museum are still vivid. Many people recognized—even in the midst of the human tragedies of war—the dramatic loss of knowledge and spirit of the “cradle of civilization,” and the senseless, destructive impulses that caused it.

As archaeologists, art historians, or other related scholars, we cannot dismiss the issues by saying “looting is not my specialty.” If we believe that our research is important enough or inspiring enough to do in the first place, then doing something about destruction of cultural heritage is simply a fundamental part of our work.

We are fortunate that SAFE was borne out of these circumstances, founded as a response to a dramatic event, but recognizing that the problems would require more ongoing and widespread attention. No single solution will stop or curb looting to any significant degree, but one common thread will help greatly: the public, anyone with any interest in archaeology, history, art history, cultural diversity, etc. So many people are just as fascinated, if not more so, after learning how we gleaned a whole story, an entire village or camp scenario, from mapping the locations of all the stone tools, or bits of ceramics, and whatever small puzzle pieces we found. Many of them will sympathize, and help, if they are aware of the issues.

As archaeologists, art historians, or other related scholars, we cannot dismiss the issues by saying “looting is not my specialty.” If we believe that our research is important enough or inspiring enough to do in the first place, then doing something about destruction of cultural heritage is simply a fundamental part of our work. It could be showing a community the importance of context for what local excavations revealed, or writing in support of a bilateral agreement, or contributing stories or research summaries to SAFE. Whether working on public awareness and action, legislative and policy changes, improved security, or research on causes and effects, SAFE, for ten years running, is an ideal venue to bring all these approaches together.

We can hope that all our efforts will add up to a broad change of public attitude. Convince the next generation of would-be collectors that it’s so old school to hoard priceless artifacts in their houses as knick-knacks on the mantle. Modern “collectors” would rather support an excavation and its related museum displays or public programs. These collectors will find it so much more satisfying to potentially have an excavation or museum display in their name, along with all the information and discoveries that were revealed from it. Future vandals will know that plundering their country’s museums will only rob themselves and their own people of a collective source of wealth. It’s an ideal world, but one worth working toward.

Ultimately, it’s not about saving every individual artifact on the planet. It’s about cultures of all varieties and sizes flourishing and retaining their uniqueness, the pieces that tell their story. It’s about respecting cultures and environments that are not our own, and, to paraphrase SAFE founder Cindy Ho, choosing to live in a world with a rich cultural heritage.

Photo: “The opposite of looters’ pits. Scientific excavation is key to a wealth of information about the past,” by Marni Walter

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:

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.

UNESCO mourns loss of cultural heritage in Bamiyan valley

The Bamiyan Buddhas will not be rebuilt.  Instead, UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, has decided instead to transform the site into a sanctuary where the international community can meditate on the losses of cultural heritage and contemplate how to change the pattern of destruction that leaves the world without a past.  They have chosen Andrea Bruno, an architect who has been involved with the project since 2001, to spearhead the site design.

The decision not to reconstruct the Bamiyan Buddhas, which were bombed by the Taliban in March 2001, is practical for many reasons.  The site is more than just rubble– rubble weighing more than 60 tons– it is tied like a spider web to political, religious, economical, and archeological issues.  As I discussed in my article, Ten years later: The Buddhas of Bamiyan, UNESCO was faced with a myriad of plans.  It has taken 11 years for UNESCO to come to some conclusion about the future of the site and not rebuilding is a heartbreaking choice.

The site will focus on the empty space left behind by the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas.  Bruno describes his plan as “ecumenical,” “aiming to enhance the emotional and aesthetic experience of viewing the empty niche.” (Anna Somers Cocks, “The victory of the void, a defeat for the Taliban,” The Art Newspaper, May 31, 2012)  He explains, “The void is the true sculpture.  It stands disembodied witness to the will, thoughts and spiritual tensions of men long gone.  The immanent presence of the niche, even without its sculpture, represents a victory for the monument and a defeat for those who tried to obliterate its memory with dynamite.” (Andrea Bruno, Id.)  A viewing platform and lighting will be built to allow visitors to take in the full beauty of the site.  Bruno emphasizes that the construction will be minimal, easy to remove without harming the site, and built by local laborers in mere months.

Bamiyan Valley
The Bamiyan valley with two empty niches where the giant Buddha’s once stood.

The community of the Bamiyan valley consists mostly of Shia Muslims. For them the decision not to rebuild the Buddhas is beneficial both economically, religiously and politically.  In fact, the new plan takes into account their needs.  Rebuilding the Buddhas would be incongruous with the Muslim tenant against using images and could make the community vulnerable to a second Taliban attack.  The Bamiyan valley has been peaceful since the Buddha bombings, but suffers economically from the decrease in tourism.  The new site will bring international travelers to the valley and promises to increase the poor standard of living in the valley.

The new Bamiyan site is just one part of UNESCO’s new campaign to bring about peace and protect heritage sites.  In an April 6, 2012 letter to The New York Times Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO, quite convincingly described this mission.  She wrote: “It may seem incongruous to denounce crimes against culture and call for their protection at a time of political instability and humanitarian crisis, but it isn’t.  Protecting culture is a security issue.  There can be no lasting peace without respect. Attacks against cultural heritage are attacks against the very identity of communities.  They mark a symbolic and real step up in the escalation of a conflict, leading to devastation that can be irreparable and whose impact lasts long after the dust has settled.  Attacks on the past make reconciliation much harder in the future.  They can hold societies back from turning the page toward peace.  So protecting cultural heritage is not a luxury.  We cannot leave this for better days, when tensions have cooled.  To lay the ground for peace, we must act now to protect culture, while tensions are high” (Irina Bokova, “Culture Under Fire,” The New York Times, April 6, 2012). As I read these words I reflect on cultural heritage we have lost, a past gone forever, and the plans for the new Bamiyan site.  At first I am brought to tears, but then the drum beat of battle enters my ears.

The new Bamiyan site will be a symbolic reminder to us all that cultural heritage is a powerful force.  It emboldens us, as human beings, to become involved and join organizations such as Saving Antiquities for Everyone.  The new Bamiyan site can and will ignite the international community to take action against the cycle that perpetuates the destruction of cultural heritage.

Bamiyan Community
The New York Times
Residents of the Bamiyan Valley hope that the UNESCO site will bring positive changes.


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 and

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:

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.

Kabul: "Who is the Museum Director?"

This short, but fascinating video is the first of a series produced by Kabul at Work and Untold Stories: the Oral Histories of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage funded by the Hollings Center for International Dialogue. In an interview with Omara Khan Massoudi we hear his first-hand account of the struggle to save Afghanistan’s cultural heritage throughout its tumultuous history. He talks about the famous Bactrian treasure and the future of the National Museum of Afghanistan. The video includes some wonderful old footage of the National Museum.

For more information on the situation in Afghanistan read Joanie Meharry’s story,  “Looting Afghanistan’s cultural heritage: A conversation with Abdul Wasey Ferozi”.

Ten years later: The Buddhas of Bamiyan

In March 2001, more than a decade ago, the Taliban army dynamited, mined and gunned down two 1,400-year-old Buddhist masterpieces. Named “one of humanity’s most notorious cases of art vandalism” by the Wall Street Journal (July 21, 2011), the Taliban leveled the 125-foot-tall Eastern Buddha dating from 544-595 and 181-foot-tall Western Buddha dating from 591-644. The Buddhas, located on the historical Silk Road, are testimonies to the exchange between Indian, Hellenistic, Roman and Sassanian influences in Buddhist art. The monuments have been defaced throughout their history–heads and legs removed–but their total annihilation at the hands of the Taliban is stomach-churning. Ten years later the future of the sites is still under debate. 

A UNESCO-sponsored team headed by Erwin Emmerling began working on the sites in 2002. By 2004, the site, stone walls, and rubble fragments weighing up to 60 tons were secured. However, portions of the site remain inaccessible due to “antipersonnel missiles.” Now, the debate over the next step continues. There are currently three options: 

(1) Do nothing. Secure the rubble and pieces to prevent further damage. In his International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) publication The Giant Buddhas of Bamiyan: Safeguarding the Remains Michael Petzet writes: “Preserving the stature after the deconstruction could be combined with the idea of refraining from any intervention, keeping the site unchanged as a kind of memorial to the act of vandalism by the Taliban, which upset the world.” It has been suggested that leaving the rubble could in-fact be the best option since it would encourage tourism and be economically beneficial to the area. 

(2) Total reconstruction, which would include the creation of replacement parts lost over thousands of years of cultural war-fare dating back to Genghis Khan. Emmerling noted: “For centuries the Buddhas’ heads have been lost, so it would not be a reconstruction, it would be a new head. No restorer wishes to do this kind of work.” 

(3) Anastylosis. Article 15 of the Venice Charter by ICOMOS states: “Only anastylosis, that is to say, the reassembling of existing but dismembered parts can be permitted. The material used for integration should always be recognisable and its use should be the least that will ensure the conservation of a monument and the reinstatement of its form.” This option would both secure the site, prevent further destruction by recreation attempts, and guarantee reversibility– all tenets of modern conservation theory. Anastylosis is favored by both Erwin Emmerling and Michael Petzet. 

It should be noted that some positive discoveries have come about from the cultural destruction. New discoveries on the statue’s materials and construction, as well as original coloration have been made by analyzing over 300 fragments from the two Buddhas. 

The Bamiyan Buddhas are emblematic of cultural heritage in danger, and have become a galvanizing image for the preservation movement. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, and in this case, that holds true. The media coverage and press images of exploding rock and empty caverns are forever burned into our consciousness.

Treasure-Hunting in Afghanistan

This 2009 photo essay by Adam Ferguson entitled “Treasure-Hunting in Afghanistan” offers a graphic depiction of the world of looting and the illicit antiquities trade, all too familiar not only in Afghanistan, but the world over. The essay accompanies “Afghanistan: A Treasure Trove for Archaeologists” by Aryn Baker. Some quotes from the essay:

The ancient heritage has fallen victim to an epidemic of pillaging on par with the depredations of Genghis Khan’s army that in 1220 left the city of Balkh in ruins.

“Looters dig because of international demand,” said Brendan Cassar, UNESCO’s culture specialist in Afghanistan. “It’s the same as opium in this country – we grow it because junkies want heroin.”

For more about the rampant pillaging of Afghanistan’s archaeological sites that continues to this day, read Joanie Meharry’s latest SAFE feature story “Looting Afghanistan’s cultural heritage: A conversation with Abdul Wasey Ferozi“.

How the Illegal Trade of Afghan Antiquities is Funding Terrorism

Spotlight, a weekly presentation of investigative reports from around the world for Link Tv, reported recently on the European art trade. The selling of stolen or smuggled art in Europe has been a problem for as long as the trade has existed. However, the looting of archaeological sites in Afghanistan has now become a major concern. Spotlight reports that the exploitation of Afghanistan’s rich cultural heritage is helping to finance terrorism and the Taliban.

The report begins in The Royal Museum of Art & History in Brussels where crates of illicit antiquities are being kept – they had been impounded by customs. Items from looted sites in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including examples of Nal ceramic art and Buddhist art from the Indus plain, had found their way to Belgium. Artifacts from the 3rd millennium BC, the Islamite period and the Buddhist period, valuing hundreds of thousands of Euro, had all been confiscated. These pieces were allegedly headed for the large antiquities market in Brussels. Belgium is reported to be a centre for illicit antiquities due to its strategic location in Europe, easy access to wealthy dealers and most significantly pieces can be sold without documentation. According to Spotlight, artifacts from freshly looted sites with sand still visible on them can be seen for sale in a city where the EU’s headquarters is based.

Spotlight’s reporters made good use of hidden cameras during their research and one art dealer explains on camera how he knows that certain items have been looted, adding that “it is obvious if a piece comes from Afghanistan it is stolen”. Ancient artifacts quickly become little more than merchandise once they have been looted. Art dealers usually claim that items for sale are legal and have been bought from an old private collection. Another dealer emphasizes the disregard shown for what these artifacts could tell us. He says he does not care where an item comes from and he describes one example as originating in Northern Pakistan which in reality he admits came from the Pakistan/Afghanistan border.

Another individual admits his source to the reporter, “I have a friend in Afghanistan” he says, ” I trained him, he is an Afghan”. When asked about how they clear customs, he tells us that if it fits in a suitcase no one will stop you. He also tells us that the customs officials in Afghanistan can be bribed if you get caught. The next dealer secretly interviewed for camera tells us he used to go to Afghanistan himself but now his contacts come to him making it much easier- he no longer has to take the risk of being kidnapped. Things are not so easy for a French archaeology team working in the war torn country; the team has to carry weapons and the threat of land mines is a very real danger. Indeed, it is reported that many archaeological sites in Afghanistan look like they have been shelled due to the number of holes dug in the landscape by looters.

Most of the looters are local villagers who give varying reasons for being involved. Some say it is better than doing nothing at home while others tell us they have to put food on the table. Sometimes heavy rain has exposed pottery that has been buried in the soil and it is easily lifted out. One local villager shows the camera a 3,000 year old artifact he had found.

The wider problem of illicit antiquities dealers generally is underlined by one particular individual who would not disclose his sources. He argued, unconvincingly, that “there will come a time when Afghanistan is again rich and powerful and it will buy back its heritage”. This statement completely misses the point that important archaeological context is destroyed when a site is looted therefore limiting what a piece can tell us about the past. Unfortunately, stolen art does not appear to be a priority for the police or the legal system in Belgium or Holland. Spotlight speculates that powerful public figures and aristocracy are involved in the illegal art trade and so authorities cannot dig too deep.

The FBI and Interpol have linked the antiquities trade to terrorist organizations; 5 billion dollars of stolen antiquities is traded each year with a large proportion of this allegedly funding terrorists. For example, Mohamed Atta, who flew an aeroplane into the Twin Towers in New York in 2001, was known to have financed, or intended to finance, his operations by trading stolen Afghan art in Germany. It was revealed in 2005 by Der Spiegel (a German magazine) that Atta had visited an art professor in Germany in the early part of 2001, prior to the 9/11 attacks. He had reportedly brought with him numerous pieces of stolen art and wanted to know where he could sell it; his reason for wanting to sell the collection was that he intended to buy an aeroplane.

The Taliban are reportedly funded by the sale of heroin and illicit antiquities and this is what gives them the resources to continue a war. One local villager describes how the Taliban would come and dig tunnels into tombs. The locals did not know what they had found but the Taliban had stayed digging for over a month. They then went house to house confiscating what the villagers had previously found. Sites such as these were looted over and over again by locals once the Taliban had left (see above photograph; taken from Spotlight).

Local Afghan dealers photograph their merchandise and send them to potential buyers to generate interest. Pilots and government officials are allegedly bribed and illicit antiquities are smuggled together with heroin. Customs officials in Brussels do not have the expertise to recognize looted items and have to call embassy officials if they find something suspicious; airport security can not be expected to recognize all world art. One dealer tells the report that shipping an illegal artifact can cost 500-800 Euro in bribes but this is all included in the selling price. The UNESCO treaty of 1970 was meant to make it more difficult to sell looted pieces but it is proving very hard to establish that a phantom dealer who died 30 years ago and whose collection is now for sale did not actually ever exist. It is reportedly still business as usual in many countries that ratified the treaty long ago.

Wall Street Journal: The Keeper of the Keys and the Mystery of the Bactrian Gold

Afghan Banker Who Risked His Life to Save Treasure from the Taliban Finally Gets His Due

This WSJ article sheds light on the remarkable history of the Bactrian Gold—an Afghan cache once feared to be lost, but actually kept hidden until a few years ago in a presidential palace vault. A collection of this gold is now on display at the Met as part of the “Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures of the National Museum, Kabul” exhibit. You see the Bactrian hoard and hear the fascinating back-stories of other objects from Kabul if you sign up for a SAFE Tour with Nadia Tarzi at the Met this weekend. Friday is selling out fast, but there still lots of room on the Saturday morning tour!


Chronicle of Higher Education Q and A with Larry Rothfield

From the issue dated April 17, 2009
A Fragile History, Besieged
A post-mortem examination of the cultural disaster in Iraq

Six years ago this month, the National Museum of Iraq was extensively looted amid the chaos of the U.S. invasion of Baghdad. Among the stolen objects was the Mask of Warka, a 5,100-year-old Sumerian artifact that is believed to be one of the earliest surviving representations of a human face. The mask was found buried on an Iraqi farm five months later — but thousands of other precious objects were destroyed or disappeared into the black market.

“We do not know, and we may never know, a great many lessons about how human civilization first arose, because of this disaster,” says Lawrence Rothfield, an associate professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Chicago and a former director of the university’s Cultural Policy Center.

In his new book, The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum (University of Chicago Press), Rothfield examines the sacking of the museum and the “slow-motion disaster” of the looting of archaeological sites across Iraq since 2003.

Rothfield recently spoke with The Chronicle’s David Glenn. An edited transcript of their conversation follows.

Q. Why should the world care about Iraqi antiquities? Doesn’t this issue pale in comparison to the war’s political struggles and tens of thousands of deaths?

I hear that question sometimes: Why should we care? Why should we worry that all of this material is being brought onto the black market? After all, isn’t this making available to the rest of the world the beauty of all these objects that otherwise would not have been available for us to see?

One reason to worry is that this material is being ripped out of its context. The individual intact pieces that fall into the hands of collectors might be beautiful. But most of what we know about the origins of civilization has come from piecing together fragments and reconstructing contexts. The Epic of Gilgamesh was pieced together from fragments that looters today would have crushed underfoot.

Q. Before 2003 the National Museum of Iraq was regarded as one of the best in the region. Despite all of the cruelties and travails of Saddam Hussein’s regime, this institution thrived. Why was that?
Saddam thought of the Mesopotamian past as a propaganda tool — which meant that at least he cared enough about it to impose severe penalties on looters, and to spend the resources needed to support the work of the museum. And even before Saddam came to power, Iraq had some longstanding relationships with European and American archaeological institutions, including the Oriental Institute here at Chicago. So for decades, they had been training archaeologists to produce work that was of very high quality.

Q. Why did the United States do such a bad job of protecting the museum in 2003?
Before the war, nobody except archaeologists was worried about civilians looting the archaeological sites and the museum. And that includes the Iraqi exiles who were advising the State Department’s Future of Iraq Project, which was supposed to develop plans for the postwar period. They set up working groups on all sectors of society — but they forgot about culture.

Q. But would it have made a difference if the Future of Iraq Project had paid attention to culture?

No, it wouldn’t have made any difference at all, given that the military threw all of their plans in the garbage can anyway.

Now, the military itself was very interested in doing its job in terms of protecting cultural sites and museums. But under international law, its job is defined as not destroying or looting cultural sites itself — not as preventing civilians from destroying sites.

So before the war, they reached out to archaeologists, and they did a perfect job of identifying sites to put on a no-strike list. None of those sites was destroyed in active combat operations.

Unfortunately, they ignored warnings from the same archaeologists they were working with that the museums and sites might be looted by Iraqis. The Pentagon should have known about that issue. Nine museums were looted after the 1991 Gulf War. The military did not learn its lesson from that experience.

Q. There were reports last year that the military had asked archaeologists to develop a similar no-strike list for cultural sites in Iran. And some archaeologists have argued that it is unethical to cooperate with that project, because they say an American attack on Iran would be immoral. Have you been part of those debates?
My thought is that requiring the military to spend time and effort to protect cultural sites actually makes the cost of war higher for the military than it would otherwise be. So if you’re interested in doing what you can to discourage the U.S. from going to war, raising the cost of war is one way to do so.

There’s no contradiction between speaking out publicly against the war and making sure that the military protects cultural sites if it does go to war.

Q. Do you believe the American military has learned lessons since 2003?
It’s a mixed picture. The new Army Field Manual includes on its task list the imperative to secure and protect cultural sites and museums. That’s a huge step forward in itself. They’ve also been developing excellent cultural-awareness training programs to sensitize soldiers heading into war zones, working with the Archaeological Institute of America.

But there is also the separate question about what to do going forward in Iraq — and in Afghanistan, where matters are arguably even worse. There is still severe looting in both countries. The British recently returned several tons of Afghan antiquities that had been seized at London airports since 2003, just to give you some sense of the size of the problem.

The looting of the Iraq museum was terrible, but the amount of material lost from the slow looting of Iraq’s archaeological sites dwarfs the amount that was taken from the museum. Estimates are that roughly half a million pieces have been destroyed or taken from the ground since 2003.

Q. If you had half an hour to talk to people at the Pentagon or the State Department, what would you say?

Archaeologists have been asking for years now for the military to share satellite photographs of the Iraqi archaeological sites so that they could count the number of holes and track the rate of looting around the country. They’re still waiting.

I would also urge the Pentagon to form a task force to develop operational plans to inject resources into those areas where it’s possible to make a difference. In some cases that might mean providing cars, weapons, and walkie-talkies to the civilians who are supposed to be protecting sites.

And I would suggest a tax on all sales of antiquities from Iraq and Afghanistan. The proceeds could be used to help finance anti-looting efforts in those countries.

Q. At the end of your book, you wrote that you didn’t expect the Iraq museum to reopen “for years to come.” But in February, after your book went to press, a part of the museum reopened. Were you surprised?
Well, I was dismayed by it, as were [the museum’s former director] Donny George and a number of other Iraqi archaeologists. Conditions in Baghdad are still very fragile. And the museum is nowhere near ready to be open to the public, even if the situation weren’t so touchy. The recent reduction in violence is heartening, but it only brings us down to levels that are equivalent to other long-running civil wars.

David Glenn is a senior reporter at The Chronicle.

Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 55, Issue 32, Page B17

Tons of Looted Afghan Antiquities Heading Back– Why Now?

National Geographic has an interesting story about England’s return of literally tons of Afghan antiquities seized at Heathrow over the past six years since the destruction of the Taliban regime. Although the story notes that

Poor villagers lacking other sources of income use shovels and wheelbarrows to cart off precious objects from historic spots around the country, while criminal gangs smuggle the loot to Pakistan and onwards.

The Kabul government remains too cash-strapped, and too caught up fighting the Taliban-led insurgency, to do anything about it. (Afghanistan’s own Ministry of Culture was the target of a suicide bomb attack last October.) And despite efforts to raise awareness among Pakistani customs and law enforcement officials, the situation is no better across the border.

What is missing from the article is any indication of what, if anything, is being done by overstretched coalition forces to assist the Afghan government to protect some small fraction at least of its sites. Nor is there any indication whether the criminal gangs smuggling the loot to Pakistan might be linked to the Taliban, as Matthew Bogdanos has argued the antiquities smugglers in Iraq were also supplying insurgents there with weapons and even taxes on their revenues from antiquities sales.

Afghanistan offers an opportunity for all those who did far too little to protect Iraq’s sites — the military, the State Department, UNESCO, cultural heritage NGOs, collectors, dealers, and the museum community — to develop a coherent, focused, and cost-effective set of initiatives. Granted, the task in Afghanistan is more formidable than in Iraq, for a number of reasons: the sheer size of the country; its not having developed the kind of well established cultural heritage protection bureaucracy that Iraq had over many decades; the lack of pizzazz associated with fabled Biblical names like Babylon, to name just a few. But surely a task force given modest resources could come up with some measures that could make a real difference. Is anyone working on this problem?

ICOM Releases Red List of Looted Afghanistan Antiquities

The International Council of Museums (ICOM) has released a “Red List of Afghanistan Antiquities at Risk.” ICOM distributes red lists to museums, professionals, law enforcement, and customs to raise awareness about trafficked and looted antiquities. It is well known that the cultural heritage of Iraq and Afghanistan have suffered as results of instability following the respective invasions. Some people have taken advantage of the instability as means to loot historically significant sites and museums and spirit that material out of the country.

It is hoped that this new red list will promote the return of illicitly removed goods Afghanistan and raise awareness about the problems of looting there. The effectiveness of past red lists is chronicled in the current list of antiquities from Afghanistan. Already there are some optimistic signs coming from the international community following the release of red list on Afghan antiquities since a squad from the Metropolitan Police of London have volunteered to “clamp down” on looted Afghan art (“Police to clamp down on trade in looted Afghan art,” Telegraph, 21 October 2008).

It is also interesting to note that ICOM named SAFE as one of its partners in the current red list. For a complete list of partners, see page 4 of the red list.