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CAUT Bulletin Archives

February 1997

Lost Forever - A Nation’s Heritage Looted by its Own People

Christopher Thomas
Kabul, Afghanistan
Afghanistan has lost its past to war. Great palaces and mansions are destroyed, historical monuments have been shelled, the National Museum is rubble. Every item of state treasure has been smashed, sold or stolen. Few countries have been so systematically raped by their own people.

The plunder and destruction began after the former Soviet Union invaded in 1979. The country disintegrated socially and economically, but arguably as disastrous has been the destruction of its heritage — which was unique because of Afghanistan’s position at the crossroads of commerce and conquest for thousands of years.

The National Museum held one of the world’s greatest multicultural antique collections: Persian, Indian, Chinese, Central Asian and beyond. The Russians respected and protected the relics, but American-backed Mujahidin rebels saw them as ready cash, to be blasted out of their vaults and hauled away to buyers across the world. The collection can never be reassembled, or even located. Pottery from prehistory was bundled into bags like cheap china; ivory statues of Indian courtesans from the 2nd century AD were stuffed into the pockets of gunmen and carted off to Pakistan to be sold for a song; eventually turning up on the world’s antique art markets for huge sums.

The Bagram collection, one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century, disappeared — 1,800 lacquers, bronzes, ivories, glassware items and statues from ancient Rome, Greece, India, China, Egypt and Central Asia. The trove, some of it dating from the 1st century, was discovered northeast of Kabul in 1939 in two sealed rooms. This was the site of Kapisa, summer capital of Kanishka, King of the Kushans. In the 2nd century the emperors of Rome and the Han emperors of China avidly exchanged their most exotic products with the Kushan Empire, many of which were found at Bagram. Some were probably from a Kushan national museum. Of this, nothing is left.

More than 40,000 coins, among them some of the world’s oldest from prehistory, vanished. Afghan and Pakistani politicians were key players in the plunder of these and other items from the National Museum, and it is known that one piece is held by Major-General (retired) Naseerullah Babar, the Pakistani Home Minister, who bought it for three million rupees ( 57,000). He says he will return it when there is peace in Afghanistan.

A marble fountain bowl, found near the tomb of Babar (1403-1530), first of the six Great Moguls, has gone. Lorryloads of items from Afghan prehistory — Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic — were carried away like junk, to be sold for pennies or dumped because they seemed worthless. Of the entire vast collection, the whereabouts of only 13,000 pieces was known up to 1994. In and around Kabul the destruction of the architectural heritage is almost absolute. There is one strange survivor: the modest marble tomb of Babar, sitting on a hill overlooking the capital, its marble canopy bullet-holed and broken, but the tomb itself in perfect condition save for some carved graffiti. It is the centrepiece of a once beautiful park, its lush gardens returned to desert, its trees chopped to stumps for firewood. The Persian inscription declares that the remains of Babar, who died in Agra, were returned to Kabul, the town he loved, in 1646 by Emperor Shah Jehan, builder of the Taj Mahal, who also built Babar’s tomb and a mosque alongside it.

The mosque is bomb-damaged and peppered with bullet holes. It is a silent place, set amid mile upon mile of ruination. Ten miles out of Kabul, the Victory Arch, built in the central square of Paghman village by King Amanullah to commemorate victory in the 1919 War of Independence against Britain, is a largely destroyed. The nobility built a profusion of public buildings and palaces in Paghman: all are rubble.

King Amanullah also built Darulaman Palace in Kabul, a masterpiece but now a bombed-out shell. Up the hill are the remains of a castle, now occupied by a dozen Taleban soldiers who have positioned a tank on the front terrace, giving clear fire to anywhere in the city. These buildings have been looted of everything worthwhile. Like so much of Afghanistan.

Reprinted with permission from The Times, London, Oct. 22, 1996.© Times Newspapers Limited, 1996