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18 September 2014
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Afghanistan: At the Crossroads of Ancient Civilisations

By Dan Cruickshank
Restoration and regeneration

'...looters are 'an organised mafia' and they are now the biggest threat to Afghan culture...'

But what of the future? International efforts are being made to conserve the historic artefacts and buildings that survive, and help is needed urgently. The minarets at Ghazni and Jam are near collapse, partly as a result of the depredations of looters who have recently undermined the foundations of these minarets in their search for treasure. As Dr. Mohammad Popal, the chancellor of Kabul University said, looters are 'an organised mafia' and they are now the biggest threat to Afghan culture, since the relative peace in the country has made it easier for thieves to operate in remote regions.

Minaret at Jam
The minaret at Jam ©
On the positive side, the British Museum, with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, has launched an initiative to establish and fund a conservation studio in the Kabul Museum, so that damaged objects from the collection can be repaired. The Greek Government has also offered to pay for the reconstruction of the museum. The Aga Khan Foundation has agreed to take responsibility for the restoration and regeneration of the early-19th-century Timur Shah district of Kabul, with its traditional houses and mausoleum, and of Babur's Mogul Garden - also in Kabul. In addition, it intends to survey and produce a conservation plan for the old city of Herat.

And the myths continue - the Bactrian Gold may still survive as a collection. I visited the vaults of the presidential palace in Kabul, where it is said to have survived, but I was given no assurance it was there, and certainly not permitted to see it. The country is still too unstable to confirm the existence and location of such a tempting treasure.

'The problem is that the looters are currently working faster than the archaeologists.'

As if to confirm the cultural richness of the country, and the possibility of recreating the Kabul Museum, a little-known 2nd-century Buddhist site in south Afghanistan - Kaffir Got - has recently been investigated. It is said to be rich in artefacts, and may even include a buried giant Buddha to rival those destroyed at Bamiyan. The problem is that the looters are currently working faster than the archaeologists. Much more may soon be discovered - and much may soon be lost through looting. It is to be hoped that the international community will control the western art market, which encourages looting through the appetite of collectors for Afghan art, and will make further money and expertise available - urgently - to protect and conserve the artefacts that have so far survived.

Back of Kabul Museum
The back of Kabul museum after the looting ©

Published: 2002-09-01

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