In 1995, a farmer in Tang-e Safedak, a remote area of central Afghanistan, came upon a subterranean chamber where he stumbled upon a treasure trove. In the middle of the three-metre-square chamber was a stone box containing a book, about 20 gold coins, gold and glass ornaments and a diamond, described by its finder as the size of a golf ball.
On the wall of the chamber bore an inscription in the Bactrian language, which, when translated, indicated that the people of the area had sealed the chamber because they were being attacked by Arabs.
The find was noted by the authorities, and in 1996, many of the items were seen and recorded by Jonathan Lee, a British archaeologist. That, however, was the last recorded sighting of anything but the inscription. The fate of the book, the diamond, the coins and the ornaments may well be the same as that of countless other treasures across Afghanistan as looters and smugglers strip the country of its cultural heritage.
Afghan Culture and Information Minister Dr Sayed Makhdum Rahin said every day hundreds of items of illegally excavated antiquities were being taken out of the country. “It is one of the nation’s worst problems. It is my worst problem,” he told IRIN in the capital, Kabul.
Rahin said powerful elements were involved in the trade, and the government lacked the resources to send guards to every valley, mountain or site of archaeological significance. What he desperately needed was for the international community to acknowledge the situation and help stop the illegal trade.
“It is the cultural heritage of all the world, not just Afghanistan,” Jim Williams, the senior cultural programme specialist with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), told IRIN in Kabul.
He noted that Interpol had put the value of the illicit trade at US $32 billion a year. “If it goes on at this rate, there will be nothing left to preserve,” Williams said.
According to UNESCO, the looting started under the mujahidin after 1992, but had increased “1,000-fold” when the Taliban took control of the country. With no strong central authority, local commanders were looking for means to buy arms and munitions and turned to either the drugs or antiquities trade to fund their fighting.
Moreover, the Taliban destroyed innumerable statues and relics, most notoriously the Buddhas of Bamyan, in the name of religious purity. In areas such as Jam in the west of the country, the situation was becoming critical, Williams warned.
“In [the western city of] Herat, in nearly all the shops - even in [Kabul’s] Chicken Street - you can find objects, mostly pottery, that are coming out of Jam,” he said. While these had little financial value, the more precious items were being smuggled out through neighbouring countries, many ending up in London, Williams added.
Louise Haxthausen, a UNESCO programme specialist in Kabul, told IRIN that hundreds of areas across the country were being hit by looters. “The whole of Afghanistan is one big archaeological site.” She said the trade was well organised by networks that had powerful connections with regional leaders.
“There are also professionals involved in this whole thing. What the local population said is that the people that are coming know exactly where to dig. And that means that there are archaeologists who know very well about Afghanistan involved in this, and they know where to come and dig. It’s not amateur. It’s really like a raid,” Haxthausen said.
Using inventories of foreign excavations carried out from the 1920s onwards, the looters used local people to dig quickly, paying them a pittance for anything of value they uncovered.
“It’s not only that the sites are looted but they are also destroyed from an archaeological and scientific point of view,” Haxthausen added. UNESCO was helping the Afghan government ratify international conventions on the trafficking of antiquities with the aim of cracking down on those involved with the trade, she said.
However, many collectors overseas claim they have helped save Afghanistan’s treasures and are sceptical about returning them to their country of origin. The extensive Schoyen Collection of manuscripts contains many precious Buddhist items from the area, which the owners claim were “saved from destruction by Taliban forces”, and argue that “Afghanistan is not the right and safe home for these manuscripts in the future”, despite what UNESCO may order.
Such attitudes infuriate Nancy Dupree, a longtime expert on Afghanistan’s cultural heritage, who labelled the collectors as “so smug”. She told IRIN in Kabul that action was now urgently needed to save what was left of the country’s antiquities. “My sadness is over. I’m telling people to get on the horse and it’s time to go,” she stressed.
She opposes new excavations by foreign archaeologists, saying these would only play into the hands of the looters. “I don’t want to dig up anything until they [the authorities] get security licked [in order]. People come in like Indiana Jones and dig, and it just shows other people where to dig - like a big golf stick.” The exception was salvage excavations, where construction threatened sites, she said.
Rahin, however, disagreed with Dupree, describing her views as out of date as there were many books already detailing where the archaeological sites were. “Believe me, thieves know better than me where to find them,” he said. He strongly supported international excavations as a way of saving the country’s treasures, saying these would give current looters a chance to help with legitimate excavations. On his desk stands a 1,700-year-old figure which was confiscated; it constantly reminds him of the battle he faces.
But there are also successes. In Kabul’s shattered museum, the director, Omar Khan Masudi, examines 92 priceless heads and figures from the second to fourth centuries, which have just been confiscated from smugglers on their way to Pakistan. The find contrasts with the boxes of fragments and powder which is what remains of many priceless statues after the Taliban smashed their way through the museum.
Work on restoring the museum, which lost its roof to a rocket, has just begun. Six storage rooms are being repaired with Greek and British aid, with help from peacekeeping soldiers, has provided more than US $36,000 to create two rooms for the restoration of artefacts. One of the treasures to benefit from the museum’s restoration work will be the seventh century inscription from the underground chamber in Tang-e Safedak. Despite the probable loss of the other items found with it, the persistence of locals, UNESCO, Lee and Rahin has seen it saved.
The other items first found their way into the hands of the area’s Hizb-e Wahdat leader, Abdul Karim Khalili. Khalili, now one of the country’s vice-presidents, allowed Lee to photograph the coins in 1996 in Bamian, but what happened to them in the turmoil of the following years is unclear. However, the inscription remained in the care of Haji Ahmadi, on whose land it had been discovered, until it was seized by the area’s governor in September last year.
Alerted to the situation by Lee, who had returned to the region, and Ahmadi, who travelled to Kabul to contact UNESCO and government authorities, meetings were held with the regional leaders in Bamyan. The governor and Hizb-e Wahdat militia commander refused to hand the inscription over, saying they wanted to keep it for a local museum. In the end, it took Rahin’s personal intervention to rescue it. He flew to Bamyan, retrieved it and brought it back to Kabul’s museum. However, the minister told IRIN that the job was only half done, and he was still trying to locate and retrieve the remaining objects from the underground treasure trove.