Speaking with Greece's Minister of Culture: Greek Efforts in Afghanistan - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Greek Efforts in Afghanistan "Speaking with Greece's Minister of Culture"
March 19, 2002

Greece has long been involved in efforts to protect Afghanistan's cultural heritage. In the ultimately futile efforts to secure the national museum outside Kabul, Greece donated funds to increase security in 1993. There were plans in early 1996 for further work to safeguard museum with funds from Portugal, Cyprus, and a second Greek contribution (see "Museum under Siege," April 20, 1998). In late September of that year, however, the Taliban took over the city. More recently, Greece was rebuffed in its offer to purchase objects from the museum when the Taliban ordered the destruction of non-Islamic antiquities (see "Destructive Frenzy in Afghanistan," March 2, 2001, and "Cultural Terrorism," May/June 2001).

[image] A double decadrachma (ca. 120 B.C.) of Amyntas, the king of Bactria, was one of six found in a hoard at Kunduz. The largest Greek coins ever minted (3.4 ounces), several were in the collection of Afghanistan's national museum. (Josephine Powell)

Greek assistance to Afghanistan will continue according to Minister of Culture Evangelos Venizelos. "As you know we have special concern about the situation in Afghanistan because of the historical interconnection between Greece and Afghanistan," he said, refering to the fact that after conquering the region in 328 B.C., Alexander the Great establish the kingdom of Bactria and settled some of his soldiers there. "Because of that, we are very active in the team of countries working for the reconstruction of Kabul museum and the organization of an Afghan archaeological service. One of the most preeminent specialists about Afghan history and archaeology, Victor Sarianidis, is working with our own archaeological service on issues pertaining to Afghanistan. We have prepared, in cooperation with the Greek Foreign Ministry, the first archaeological mission to Afghanistan to assist not just financial but also with material aid under the auspices of UNESCO."

The mission--led by Secretary General Lina Mendoni and including Sarianidis, engineers with museum construction experience, and conservators--was to have gone to Kabul in February, but with the renewed fighting has been delayed. "For us," says Venizelos, "the most important thing is restitution of the archaeological service in Afghanistan and also the organization of an international search for the most important archaeological items from the museum. We can participate not only financially, with an initial commitment of about $200,000, but also with Greek personnel to train, reorganize exhibits in Kabul, and, eventually, organize new excavations. We have also offered to receive in Greece archaeological items from Kabul for preservation and restoration."

Undoubtedly, the Greek mission will also be anxious to determine the fate of the 20,000-piece "Bactrian Treasue" that Sarianidi excavated in 1978 at Tilya Tepe in northern Afghanistan. In 1991, the treasure was known to be in a steel-doored vault beneath presidential palace in Kabul. Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, in one of the last interviews before his assassination two days before the September 11 attacks in the United States, said that it was still there when the Taliban took over in 1996.

"We have a special concern Greek cultural heritage around the world," says Venizelos placing his country's efforts in Afghanistan in a larger context, "but always in cooperation with the country, for example with Italy, Egypt, and the new Afghanistan government. Northern Cyprus is another area of concern."

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© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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