Despite cliched talk of a “graveyard of empires”, what we now call Afghanistan has for thousands of years been an important part of many sophisticated cultures.
Situated along the Silk Road — a tangle of Eurasian trade routes stretching back to the days of the Roman Empire — Afghanistan and its people have long served as a place of connection between Mediterranean, Persian, Indian and Chinese civilisations.
It has been home to Hellenistic cities populated by the successors of Alexander the Great, glittering Buddhist monasteries that served to transmit early Buddhism from India to far away China and Japan, and a series of Medieval Islamic kingdoms at the forefront of the literature and science of their day.
This dazzlingly diverse heritage is preserved in over 2,600 archaeological sites scattered across its rugged terrain, numerous regional museums and galleries, and, most famously, the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul. Refurbished in 2007, the museum holds a collection of over 80,000 artefacts from throughout the region.
All of this is now under renewed threat by Taliban forces, whose fanatical interpretation of Islam forbids representative imagery, and is particularly dismissive of anything it considers to be non-Islamic.
While remaining focused on the plight of the Afghan people, countries such as the US, UK, and Australia need to also start planning how they can reduce the coming assault on Afghanistan’s art, history and material culture.
A history of destruction
In the 1980s, whole ancient sites were illegally excavated with artifacts sold off under cover of war. The Hellenistic Greek city of Ai-Khanoum, dating from the 4th century BCE to the mid-2nd century CE and discovered in the 1830s, was destroyed, including its Greek theatre, gymnasium and temple to Zeus.
During Afghanistan’s civil war in the early 1990s, items from the 12th century palace of Mas’ud III were looted and distributed through international black markets.
The National Museum in Kabul, established in 1919, was extensively damaged and looted in the period immediately following the end of communist rule in 1992.
The “Dead Seas Scrolls of Buddhism” — thousands of scrolls and fragments written on leaves, bark, parchment and copper containing Buddhist sermons and treatises from as early as the 2nd century AD — were smuggled out of Afghanistan and dispersed among various manuscript collections from 1994 to 2001. Some were looted from the Kabul museum, but most were found in caves in the region of Bamiyan in the 1990s.
The Taliban were ruthless in their destruction, but also strategic. They saw Afghanistan’s pre-Islamic art and culture as a resource to be used and abused where possible to aid their international objectives.
Just two years earlier, in 1999, the Taliban Minister of Culture had assured the international community Afghanistan’s Buddhist heritage would be safe under his custodianship. In 2001, the Bayiman Buddhas were held hostage — and ultimately destroyed — while the Taliban demanded international recognition.
What does this mean for Afghanistan today?
The Taliban are again claiming Afghanistan’s heritage will be safe under their rule.
Statements have been released instructing fighters to protect and preserve historical sites, halt the plundering of archaeological digs, and forbid the selling of antiquities on the black market. Guards have been posted at the National Museum to prevent looting.
However, this initial charm offensive could just be the opening move in a longer strategy in which Afghanistan’s history and heritage will be once again held hostage. Priceless cultural treasures may be threatened with destruction.
Archaeologists and curators responsible for preserving Afghanistan’s national heritage were caught off-guard by the Taliban’s rapid advance. Many are now seeking to flee the country or are going into hiding.
The loss of these experts and custodians of Afghanistan’s rich heritage will mean there is nobody to protect its material past from neglect or looting. Nor will future generations of young Afghans be able to learn about their past from fellow citizens who have dedicated their lives to preserving it.
Australia’s part to play in stopping illegal trade
Markets for illegally looted artefacts only exist while international collectors — including museums and galleries — continue to acquire stolen antiquities.
Afghanistan remains, first and foremost, a humanitarian tragedy and we must do what we can to assist the Afghan people.
But now is also the time for Australia and other liberal democracies to put in place stronger legal safeguards to prevent the trafficking of antiquities, in particular much stronger border security and customs measures for the detection and ending of this illicit trade.