۱۸ شهریور ۱۴۰۰

The Taliban's return to power in Afghanistan will be a risk for Cultural Heritage



Due to its geographical location, Afghanistan is one of the richest lands in the field of cultural heritage and historical places and monuments. But, the long war, religious intolerance, lootings of important artifacts, and arbitrary excavations by non-professionals, have destroyed Afghanistan's cultural legacy. Afghanistan's cultural heritage is now in danger as the Taliban regain power.
Since ancient times, Afghanistan has been the confluence of cultures reflecting history marked by complex indigenous encounters between the Achaemenid empire (ancient Iran empire), Greece of Alexandria, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam.
In this report, I will briefly explain what Afghanistan's heritage is, and what dangers it poses to its cultural and historical heritage.
What is cultural heritage in Afghanistan?
Afghanistan's two cultural and historical heritage sites are inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, and four more have so far been added as test examples in the UNESCO World Heritage Site. During the 40 years of war, a huge section of Afghanistan's cultural heritage was looted and destroyed. Buddha statues in Bamiyan were among the artefacts destroyed by the Taliban, but what remains of its artefacts are listed on the UNESCO Cultural Heritage List.
Buddha statues:
On March 11, 2001, the Taliban blew up two large Buddha monumental statues in Bamiyan Province in Afghanistan. Salsal with a height of 53 meters and Shahmameh with a height of 35 meters, carved into the side of a cliff between 300 and 700 CE. The two statues were destroyed under the order of the then-Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar who issued a fatwa against the monuments. The Statue of Shahmama was created in 507 CE and the Statue of Salsal in 554 CE, when the city of Bamiyan was the center of Buddhism and was on the road to the Silk Road.
These two statues represent a rare combination of Ancient Greek art and Buddhism.
After the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 1996, they looted and destroyed many antiquities, art, and cultural artefacts. Taliban leader Mullah Omar considered these symbols, sculptures, photographs, and artworks contrary to Islamic sharia and ordered their destructions. Although UNESCO and several countries around the world tried to stop the Taliban’s 2001 destruction of Buddhas at Bamiyan, Mullah Omar went ahead and issued a fatwa on these artefacts which were subsequently destroyed. Even though there are currently only holes left where both statues once stood, UNESCO has included them in a list of world cultural heritage sites and have made some efforts to protect them.
After the fall of the Afghan government on August 14th by the Taliban, UNESCO issued a statement on August 17th urging the Taliban and other groups in Afghanistan to stop the destruction of cultural heritage: “Afghanistan is home to a wide range of rich and diverse heritage, which is an integral part of Afghan history and identity, as well as of importance for humanity as a whole, that must be safeguarded. This includes sites such as the Old City of Herat, the UNESCO World Heritage sites of the Minaret and Archaeological Remains of Jam and the Cultural Landscape and Archaeological Remains of the Bamiyan Valley, where UNESCO has been working for several decades, as well as museums including the National Museum in Kabul. It is crucial for the future of Afghanistan to safeguard and preserve these landmarks.”
Minaret of Jam, the second tallest brick minaret in the world
The 65 meters tall Minaret of Jam is in a village called Jam in Ghor province. Minaret was built in 1194 and, after the Minaret Pole in New Delhi, India, is the second world’s tallest brick minaret, which in 2002 was included in the list of the world cultural heritage sites. Minaret of Jam is under threat of collapsing due to its location along the river and among the mountains. As the Taliban returns, the concerns about its destruction have increased.
Herat and Balkh cities
Kabul, Bagram, Sheberghan, Hadda, Surkh Kotal, Balkh, Ai Khanum, Kunduz, Herat, Logar, Mes Aynak and Bamiyan are among the most important historical sites in Afghanistan; each of them is evidence of Afghanistan's fruitful history. I will briefly explain the two cities of Balkh and Herat.
The city of Herat was established in 500 BC, an ancient city in the fertile plain beside the Hari Rud river. The city has a long and fascinating story in various periods of the14th century during the era of Alexander the Great of Macedon. By the time of its capture by the Ghorids in 1175 AD, Herat had become renowned for its production of metalwork, especially decorated or inlaid bronze.
In the late 14th century CE, under the rule of Timur's son, the destruction of the Genghis Khan was partially repaired. Queen Gowharshad, who ruled the city in the 15th century, carried out many constructions that led to the formation of the Timurid monuments in the city. Although Herat was damaged in the war, during the Taliban's rule from 1996 to 2001, it remained an important city with regards to its cultural heritage.
While the city of Balkh has endured devastating and long wars, it still holds more than 100 historical and cultural heritage sites. The ancient monuments in Balkh are relics of Zoroastrian, Buddhism, and early Islamic periods. Balkh is referred to as the center of production and promotion of the Zoroastrian faith, which later became one of the major commercial cities along the Silk Road. From 250 to 125 BC, Balkh was the capital of the Greek state of Balkh (known as the Diodotid Bactrian Kingdom). The kingdom ruled the vast geography that included Afghanistan, Uzbakestan,Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and regions of Iran, Pakistan and India. Balkh was one of the richest cities of antiquity at that time and was known as “land of a thousand golden cities”.
Balkh, in all periods of history, has been one of the key cities in the region. During 40 years of the devastating war in Afghanistan, many of the cultural and historical heritage of the city were either destroyed or looted.
Plundering Afghanistan's cultural heritage
In 1924, for the first time in Afghanistan, the National Museum was established. Afghan archaeologists, with the help of archaeologists from France, Italy, Germany and Russia, regularly explored different parts of Afghanistan. As a result of archaeologists' discoveries, the Kabul Museum became one of the world's largest collections of Asian- European art and of Islamic art.
The Greek Shisha, the Bronze Roman sculptures, the highlights of Buddhist marble, Indian tusks, and Greek statues each attested to the enduring relations between east and west in the early centuries. The prehistoric stone, which dates back 40,000 years, also included an incarnate statue that was expected to be the oldest statue of a human face. Also, an old pebble from 15,000 years ago was discovered in Balkh in 1965 and was kept in the National Museum of Kabul looted in 1992.
The National Museum of Kabul, one of Afghanistan's most important sources of cultural heritage, was destroyed and looted by jihadist groups after the collapse of the Afghan government in 1992 and the outbreak of civil war. Statues, stone objects, antiques, ivory, precious and Precious and expensive objects were sold by gunmen to antiquities smugglers. Some of these artifacts, including tusks, were later found in the home of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in London, which was never returned to the National Museum of Afghanistan.
Afghanistan's precious historical monuments and cultural heritage are exhanged from hand to hand between smugglers around the world, and some of them have been returned to the National Museum of Kabul in the last 20 years with the help of some countries, including the United States and Britain.
“Everything is allowed but, within the framework of Sharia law…”
The Taliban's logic is summed up in the "Sharia framework". They destroyed the huge, monumental statues of Buddhas of Bamiyan with the same argument. After August 14th when the Taliban took over Kabul, Zabiullah Mujahid, the group's spokesman, announced at a press conference that “everything is allowed but, within the framework of Sharia law”. With this Taliban’s interpterion of Sharia Law he said, “Artists should look for another job if their activities are against Sharia law”. Music is forbidden in terms of Islamic sharia. It was another new order that was mentioned by the Taliban’s spokesman.
On July 25, the Taliban arrested and executed Nazar Mohammad Khasheh, a well-known comedian in Kandahar and on Friday, August 27th, they shot Fawad Andarabi the local singer in Baghlan Province.
The Taliban went door-to-door to track down artists, painters, singers, journalists, writers and, human rights activists across Afghanistan. Although they had declared a general amnesty,
prominent figures in the media and human rights organizations are still subjected to torture and murder.
The second Taliban government is on its way and without doubt, Afghanistan's antiquities and cultural heritage are once again at risk and threatened. The Taliban have so far not made any clear position regarding Afghanistan's cultural heritage and monuments. Mullah Omar, the group's previous leader, considered sculptures and paintings against sharia law which led to no cultural or artistic activity under his rule.
Will the current Taliban leader also order the destruction of statues and antiquities? There is no guarantee that the tragedy that was the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan will not be repeated. People in Afghanistan expect organizations, including UNESCO and all countries that respect cultural heritage as the heritage of humanity, to stop the destruction of Afghanistan's cultural legacy.
The Taliban must be subjected to additional pressure to stop destroying the history of humanity.
- Translated from Farsi to English: Parvin Ardalan

- Published: Dawit Issak Library 

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