International 29/08/2021

"They have already destroyed replicas of the Bamiyan Buddhas. If they have done this with replicas, what won't they do with the original pieces?"

Taliban occupy the Kabul Museum building and do not let anyone in

3 min
A woman looks at a work of art exhibited at the Kabul Museum, in a file photo

BarcelonaIn the Kabul Museum there are 80,000 pieces of art, many of which are of incalculable value. In fact, it has only been a few years since the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago had managed to compile the first complete digital inventory of all the pieces. Now all this wealth and heritage is in the hands of the Taliban. The radicals have occupied the museum building and will not let anyone in. Noor Agha Noori, director of the Afghanistan Institute of Archaeology, said by telephone from Kabul that he could not believe that all the work done over the past two decades could be wiped out in just a few days.

Noori explains that the Taliban have appointed a new director of the museum. However, he believes that there is no guarantee that they intend to keep the pieces. In fact, he is rather sceptical: "They have already destroyed replicas of the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan. If they've done this with replicas, what won't they do with the original pieces?"

A past of destruction

When the Taliban were in power in the mid-1990s, they decreed the destruction of all non-Islamic sculptures in the country, including the so-called Bamiyan Buddhas: two huge sculptures, 38 and 55 metres high, depicting two upright giant Buddhas, which had been carved out of a cliff in the 6th and 7th centuries. In March 2001 they were blown to pieces with dynamite. In the previous years of war, 70 per cent of the Kabul Museum's artefacts had already been destroyed or stolen. Many of them ended up on the illegal international antiquities market.

A man looking at one of the wooden statues belonging to a pre-Islamic civilization on display in the museum.

Precisely because of this, a contingency plan had been in place for the past two months in the face of the Taliban's rapid advance, so that history would not repeat itself. "We had talked to institutions in the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom about moving some of the works, and we were also planning to build some shelters to store others. But the arrival of the Taliban in Kabul was so fast that we didn't have time to do anything", laments the director of the Institute of Archaeology.

Unesco Director-General Audrey Azoulay issued a statement on 19 August, when the Taliban had already occupied Kabul, calling for "the preservation of Afghanistan's cultural heritage in all its diversity, and full respect for international law". Unesco declined to comment to the daily ARA. Noori considers that a communiqué is useless. What he hoped for was that the international community would extract some kind of commitment from the Taliban to ensure that they would preserve cultural heritage. "In the same way that the United States got them to commit to not attack American troops again", he says as an example.

Isber Sabrine, who is president and founder of Heritage for Peace - an international organisation that works to preserve cultural heritage - points out that Unesco can only work with internationally recognised governments and, consequently, this also ties its hands and feet to act now in Afghanistan. The Taliban have not yet been recognised as the legitimate government of the country. "In any case, we will have to see how they behave. They will probably behave very differently in Kabul than in rural areas where the archaeological sites are", he says, suggesting that in the Afghan capital they will probably be more restrained.

A rich cultural heritage

Afghanistan has a very rich cultural heritage. In fact, French archaeologists have been excavating in the country for almost two decades, and later Americans, Japanese and Italians joined in. But the war following the Soviet invasion in 1979 brought the work to a halt. The Kabul Museum contains valuable artefacts such as Greco-Buddhist images made of clay, lime or stucco, and wooden sculptures representing effigies of ancestors belonging to a pre-Islamic civilization. Even in recent years, stolen works had been recovered and returned to Kabul from abroad. For example, a spectacular marble foot from the 3rd century BC of a monumental sculpture of Zeus, estimated to be about 4 metres high.

"I don't know who will be in charge of preserving all these works now", says Noori, because most of the museum's experts have either asked to be evacuated or have already left the country. And this is another problem. "I honestly believe that if nothing is done, we will have lost all the work we've done over the years. It's frustrating".