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Beyond Stone & Bone

What Will Happen to Ancient Art in the Taliban’s Swat?
by Heather Pringle
February 20, 2009

800px-devoteesfrontviewThis week, Taliban forces in the mountainous region of Swat in northwestern Pakistan, claimed a worrying victory. For more than two years now, these forces, led by a ruthless 28-year-old radical cleric, Maulana Fazllulah, have fought a bloody guerilla war. They have brutally kidnapped leading opponents, murdered police officials, and bombed girls’ schools. Desperate to end the anarchy and violence, Pakistan’s government has now struck a peace deal with the de facto Taliban rulers of the region. Pakistan will permit Fazllulah to impose Shariah law in Swat.

What does this have to do with archaeology, you might ask? Well, actually quite a lot. For centuries, the Swat River valley was a Buddhist haven. According to tradition, Buddha himself journeyed to Swat during his last reincarnation, and preached to the local villagers. And by the 6th-century A.D, Buddhist pilgrims from as far away as China flocked to the Swat valley, a beautiful lush land of orchards and rushing mountain streams. One early Chinese account describes as many as 1400 Buddhist monasteries perched along the valley walls in the 7th century.

Devout Buddhist artists left an incredibly rich legacy in Swat. Since the valley lay along a major route of the Silk Road—which stretched from China to the Mediterranean—they were greatly influenced by ideas from elsewhere, and gracefully blended foreign styles in their art. They chiseled beautiful, haunting statues of Buddha into the cliffsides, and left many stupas and other Buddhist relics scattered across the countryside.

The region’s new Taliban rulers regard this legacy, and particularly the images of Buddha, as an affront to Islam, and they have already taken action against them. In 2008, they set off dynamite charges to erase the face of a 23-foot-high Buddha carved into a cliff near Jehanabad in the Swat River valley, an act of terrible vandalism that recalled the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by Afghanistan’s Taliban. In a separate attack, they badly damaged parts of the Swat Museum—which which holds an important collection of Buddhist art—and issued threats to the staff of the museum.

None of this, of course, bodes well for the fate of the Swat’s rich cultural legacy in years to come. But the international community was outraged by the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, and in 2003, UNESCO issued a “Declaration concerning the Intentional Destruction of Cultural Heritage. In part, this declaration stipulates that “States should take all appropriate measures to prevent, avoid, stop and suppress acts of intentional destruction of cultural heritage…. “

Pakistan’s government is clearly caught between a rock and a hard place now, with Taliban militants breathing down its neck, less than 100 miles from Islamabad. But I, like many others, sincerely hope that it will not abandon its responsibility to protect Swat’s rich cultural legacy, particularly in these very trying times.

Comments posted here do not represent the views or policies of the Archaeological Institute of America.

12 comments for "What Will Happen to Ancient Art in the Taliban’s Swat?"

  • Reply posted by Daniel Molitor (February 22, 2009, 8:27 am):

    This depresses me to no end. I had a knot in my stomach for days after the bearded bigots blew up the Bamiyan statues. That these people are threatened by the past is proof they themselves offer nothing for the future.


  • Reply posted by Heather G. (February 24, 2009, 1:20 pm):

    Its always disheartening to watch the destruction of cultural heritage. I’m not quite sure why, but the loss of the Bamiyan Buddahs made me especially sad. It’s my sincere hope that historical and cultural sites such as these will be spared.


  • Reply posted by Jon Ciliberto (February 27, 2009, 8:19 am):

    Thank you for linking this unfolding story to archaeology and cultural artifacts.


  • Reply posted by Richard Stallman (March 1, 2009, 8:15 am):

    If the Buddha were aware of the barbaric destruction of Buddhist art,
    he would probably advise people not to be attached to such material
    things. Secular humanists, who do not see evidence for souls,
    reincarnation or nirvana, may well have a different opinion. I hope
    the government of Pakistan will convince the new Sultan of Swat to
    leave these sites alone.

    Meanwhile, would it be possible to evacuate the materials of the Swat
    Museum to a safer place?


  • Reply posted by PaulR (March 2, 2009, 4:11 pm):

    If you believe in Karma – the Taliban celebrated the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, and 6 months later, they lost their country.


  • Reply posted by Arkeoloji (March 3, 2009, 2:12 am):

    “Meanwhile, would it be possible to evacuate the materials of the Swat
    Museum to a safer place?”
    This is the target question of archeology.


  • Reply posted by Gwynneth (March 12, 2009, 1:53 pm):

    How easy it is to destroy. How much more difficult it is to build something of lasting worth.


  • Reply posted by Rupa Abdi (March 26, 2009, 12:51 am):

    It is difficult to believe that the Taliban brand of Islam can dehumanise a person to such an extent – making him insensitive to even the sublimest of art form….


  • Reply posted by ali m.m. khan (June 30, 2009, 9:21 pm):

    Today the so called taliban is out of swat, thanks to the military action being taken by the Pakistan armed forces, so the Swat’s budhist heritage is safe again. Pakistan is rich with ancient cultural heritage (Pre-Indus, Indus Valley, Aryan, Budhist, Kushan, Greek, Hindu, and Islamic) but unfortunately all these sites are mostly neglected and in dire straits. Though Some research and archeology work is being conducted their are alot of security hindrances in the prevailing conditions.

    Hopefully the criminal element posing as Taliban can be eliminated and once again a fresh start can be made on these sites.

    TO PAUL R: maybe there is some truth to what you state.


  • Reply posted by Heather (July 1, 2009, 7:33 am):

    Unfortunately, I am not nearly as confident that Swat’s Buddhist heritage is safe. I am in sporadic contact with an archaeologist from the region, who is deeply worried about the situation there.


  • Reply posted by Blue Buddha (July 24, 2009, 4:19 pm):

    What we think, we become.


  • Reply posted by Cuerpo y Mente (August 4, 2010, 6:02 am):

    Wow, 1400 Buddhist monasteries is a lot!


About Our Blogger:

Heather Pringle is a freelance science journalist who has been writing about archaeology for more than 20 years. She is the author of Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust and The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead. For more about Heather, see our interview or visit

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