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Museum Under Siege: Full Text April 20, 1998
by Nancy Hatch Dupree

* Update, May 26, 1998: The Plunder Continues
* Click here for a list of artifacts among the stolen or imperiled treasures of the National Museum.
* Map of archaeological sites whose artifacts formed the collections of the National Museum


Pottery and debris litter a storeroom after
a 1993 rocket attack. (Jolyon Leslie)

When Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 1988, all but the capital of Kabul had fallen to the resistance, known as the mujahideen. When Kabul itself was taken in April 1992, ending the 14-year rule of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA), mujahideen factions began warring among themselves for control of the city. Attacks were often launched from the south, and the National Museum in Darulaman, six miles south of Kabul, was often on the front line. Each time a new faction triumphed, it would loot the ruins. On May 12, 1993, a rocket slammed into the roof of the museum, destroying a fourth- to fifth-century A.D. wall painting from Delbarjin-tepe, site of an ancient Kushan city in northern Afghanistan, and burying much of the museum's ancient pottery and bronzes under tons of debris. Last November 16 another rocket hit the northwest wing of the museum, exposing storerooms to winter rain and snow and further depredations of the combatants. Despite efforts to mediate factional rivalries, the fighting and looting continues.

About 70 percent of the museum's collections are now missing. Most of its vast gold and silver coin collection, which spanned the nation's history from the Achaemenids in the sixth century B.C. through the Islamic period, has been looted. Also gone is a Greco-Bactrian hoard of more than 600 coins from Kunduz, in northern Afghanistan, dating to the third and second centuries B.C., including the largest Greek coins ever discovered. Pieces of Buddhist stucco sculptures and schist reliefs dating between the first and third centuries A.D. and Hindu marble statuary from the seventh and ninth centuries have been taken, as have carved ivories in classic Indian styles from Begram, site of the summer capital of the Kushan Empire in the early centuries A.D. Also missing are many of the museum's prized examples of the renowned metalwork of the Ghaznavids, whose sumptuous capital flourished 90 miles southwest of Kabul during the tenth and eleventh centuries. Many of these pieces are destined for sale in Islamabad, London, New York, and Tokyo.

[image] Ivories from Begram, capital of the Kushan Empire in the first century A.D., are among the museum's prize possessions now for sale on the international art market. Left, a river goddess (Josephine Powell) [LARGER IMAGE]

Afghanistan's first national museum was inaugurated by King Amanullah in November 1924 at Koti Baghcha, a small palace built by the founder of Afghanistan's royal dynasty, Amir Abdur Rahman (1880-1891). In 1931 its holdings were transferred to the present building in Darulaman. By this time the collection had been enriched by the work of the Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan, which began after a treaty was signed with France in September 1922. After World War II, numerous archaeological missions, including those of the Italians, Americans, Japanese, British, Indians, and Soviets, conducted excavations. The first Afghan-directed work was carried out at a Buddhist site at Hadda in eastern Afghanistan in 1965. Foreign archaeological missions were bound by agreements guaranteeing that all excavated objects would be deposited with the government of Afghanistan. In 1966 the Afghan Institute of Archaeology was established in Darulaman to receive these finds; exceptional items were placed in the museum. A unique feature of the museum was the fact that more than 90 percent of its exhibits were scientifically excavated inside Afghanistan.

Claims that the Soviets had carted off the museum's treasures to the Hermitage in Leningrad arose from the April 1979 removal of the museum's collections to the center of Kabul for safekeeping. They were returned in October 1980, when the museum reopened. British and American friends still living in Kabul checked the exhibits against the 1974 museum guide and found that only two small gold repoussé elephant masks, pilfered in November 1978, were missing. According to another rumor, Victor Sarianidi of the Soviet-Afghan archaeological mission, which had excavated a hoard of more than 20,000 gold ornaments from six burial mounds called Tillya-tepe, had taken the gold to the Soviet Union. The first-century B.C. to first-century A.D. hoard, however, was shown to an international conference on Kushan studies in Kabul in November 1978. The Kabul government also displayed it to the diplomatic corps toward the end of 1991, after which the gold was packed in boxes and placed in a vault of the National Bank inside the palace, where it is said to be today.

[image] A double decadrachma (ca. 120 B.C.) of the Macedonian ruler Amyntas was one of six found in a hoard at Kunduz. They were the largest Greek coins ever minted (3.4 ounces); one is reportedly for sale in London. (Josephine Powell) [LARGER IMAGE]

As unrest threatened Kabul in February 1989, following the departure of Soviet troops, the museum staff crated, packed, and stored the bulk of the collections in the museum's storerooms. Only objects too heavy to move were left in situ. Astonishingly, one of the largest and heaviest pieces, a 32-inch-high second- to fifth-century A.D. Buddhist schist relief from Shotorak, disappeared one night from an upper corridor. How thieves managed to steal it without being detected remains a mystery. Still, the museum survived the rule of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan and the Soviet occupation relatively intact.

The subsequent breakdown of law and order has been disastrous for the museum. Although united in ridding the country of the Soviets and their DRA clients, the seven major mujahideen factions that founded the Islamic State of Afghanistan in April 1992 never formed lasting alliances, and the accord establishing the new government under President Burhanuddin Rabbani had little substance. With no common enemy, the factions have fought one another for power. In May 1993 Hezbe Wahdat, a group led by Abdul Ali Mazari, took control of the Darulaman valley. Museum staff--civil servants in President Rabbani's government--were forbidden to visit the museum because it was in enemy territory. One staff member, Najibullah Popal, risked a visit and found crates and boxes in place, but could not check their contents or that of the many cabinets. He noted, however, that two schist reliefs were now missing. The rocket attack came the following week as fighting between Hezbe Wahdat and Rabbani's government troops intensified. Popal returned and found the Delbarjin-tepe wall painting burned beyond repair. The boxes and crates of artifacts in the basement, however, seemed untouched. At the beginning of September, CNN and BBC reporters found that the seals on the basement doors were intact, but in mid-September Popal risked another visit and saw the remains of packing cases on the ground outside the museum. Shortly thereafter a BBC correspondent returned and noted that cases had been moved and emptied; a small Buddha head had been placed near a storeroom window where protective iron bars had been bent. Outside, tire marks led directly from the window.

A terra-cotta figure from an ancient Buddhist monastery at Tepe Maranjan depicts a Bodhisattva, an enlightened follower of Buddha, in a pose of seated meditation. (Josephine Powell) [LARGER IMAGE] [image]

In late September 1993, at the request of Sotirios Mousouris, the United Nations secretary general's special representative in Afghanistan and Pakistan, I flew to Kabul to investigate these reports. Mousouris then decided to seek the support of Mazari, leader of Hezbe Wahdat, so the museum could be protected and repaired. In November the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance to Afghanistan (UNOCHA) requested the United Nations Center for Human Resources (HABITAT) to assess the museum's condition. Investigators led by Jolyon Leslie, head of HABITAT, found that cases stood open inside every room. Barred windows in a new wing were badly damaged, providing thieves easy access. Photographs of the interior showed artifacts strewn among the rubble, and filing cabinets of museum records and catalogs indiscriminately dumped, much of the paper badly charred. Hasps had been unscrewed and locks ripped off steel storage boxes, and drawers and crates had been methodically emptied onto the floor. It appeared that most of the storage rooms had been thoroughly ransacked. HABITAT recommended securing windows with masonry, weatherproofing the flooring over the storerooms, and fitting the rooms with steel doors and stout locks. Mousouris called an emergency meeting of experts in Islamabad on November 27 at which a contribution from the Greek government, earmarked for securing the museum, was announced. Two days later he flew to Kabul. Visiting the museum, Mousouris found all 30,000 of the museum's coins missing. He secured Mazari's support for immediate repairs, and, most important, Mazari assured Mousouris that security would be provided for museum staff and workmen. Work began on December 21, 1993, under the supervision of HABITAT and with assistance from UNOCHA.

In May 1994 I returned to Kabul. The work that had been done at the museum was impressive considering the appalling conditions--intense winter cold with no electricity or heating and only a small kerosene lantern for light. The building had been weatherproofed, windows blocked, steel doors installed, and all of the corridors cleared of rubble. Some 3,000 ceramic objects recovered from the debris had been placed in storerooms. One room contained charred, melted, mangled, and otherwise disfigured Islamic bronzes that will require extensive conservation.

[image]This copper tray with mythological figures, animals, and Kufic inscription, comes from excavations at Ghazni, capital of a powerful Islamic kingdom in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Many Islamic copper and bronze pieces were melted in a fire after a rocket attack in 1993. (Josephine Powell) [LARGER IMAGE]

As of July 1994 the staff had inventoried about 16,000 objects remaining in the storerooms. Many of these, however, are mere fragments. Some 70 percent of the finer objects were missing. The looters in 1993 were discriminating in what they took and apparently had both the time and the knowledge to select the most attractive, saleable pieces. For example, they removed from wooden display mounts only the central figures (depicting voluptuous ladies standing in doorways) of the delicate Begram ivory carvings. It is also telling that although some 2,000 books and journals remain in the library, volumes with illustrations of the museum's best pieces are missing. This suggests the museum was not plundered by rampaging gangs of illiterate mujahideen. In 1992, while the various factions fought for control of Darulaman, government soldiers guarded the museum. In early 1993 they were replaced by soldiers loyal to Hezbe Wahdat. One, or perhaps both, of these groups is probably responsible for the looting.

Some of the larger and more important pieces remain. These include a second-century A.D. statue of the Kushan king Kanishka and a Bactrian inscription written in cursive Greek, both from the temple at Surkh Kotal, 145 miles north of Kabul; a third-century marble statue of a bearded figure, possibly Hermes, from the Greek city of Ai Khanoum far to the northeast; and a large, seated, painted clay Buddha of the third to fourth century from Tepe Maranjan, near Kabul. Also in place is an eleventh-century A.D. ornamental wall panel from the Ghaznavid winter palace at Lashkari Bazaar in southwestern Afghanistan. Delicately sculptured stucco decorations with borders of Koranic inscriptions from a mosque, possibly added to the Lashkari Bazaar palace by Ghorid successors in the twelfth century, remain, but they are still partly buried by debris. A black marble basin, 50 inches in diameter and embellished with fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Islamic inscriptions, found in Kandahar, still dominates the foyer. About a dozen rare pre-Islamic grave effigies from Nuristan also survive.

Hadda, an important seventh-century pilgrimage site, was known for sculptures such as this head of Buddha. These pieces have been favorite targets for looters. (Josephine Powell) [LARGER IMAGE][image]

Some 16 metal trunks containing artifacts were removed by the government to safe areas in Kabul before the mujahideen arrived. These are still untouched but their contents remain a mystery; lists of what they contain were burned in the fire caused by the 1993 rocket attack. The government assures us that the 20,000 or more gold ornaments from Tillya-tepe are still safely guarded within the presidential palace in Kabul, but because of the political instability no attempt has been made to examine these objects, although the temptation to do so is great.

Soon after the fall of Kabul in 1992, rumors claiming that the museum had been systematically emptied by gangs of mujahideen began to circulate. The bazaars of Peshawar, Islamabad, and Karachi were reportedly filled with objects. At one time I was assured that the "entire" contents of the museum were in Chitral, Pakistan, awaiting the highest bidder, but a group of European travelers who went to Chitral reported seeing only "dreadful junk." I am frequently shown pieces, but most of those I have seen have been fakes; the genuine pieces are mainly from recently looted sites.

There is no doubt that the ivory panels excavated at Begram, located on the ancient Silk Route some 40 miles northeast of Kabul, are on the international art market. These extremely fragile pieces originally decorated various pieces of furniture dating from the first to the middle of the third century A.D. Ten small panels were shown by an unidentified Afghan to an eminent Pakistani scholar in April 1994 in Islamabad. The seller claimed to have others, including several large ivories known to be missing from the museum. The asking price for the ten panels was $300,000; later it was rumored they were being offered for $600,000 in London--or perhaps Tokyo or Switzerland. Last summer more Begram ivories were seen in Islamabad, but accurate information is nearly impossible to obtain since the highly organized Pakistani underground network for stolen art is naturally secretive. Last September the Karachi-based Herald Magazine quoted General Naseerullah Babar, Pakistan's Federal Interior Minister, as saying that he had purchased one Begram ivory carving for $100,000, which he would return when the political situation in Afghanistan had stabilized. The general's fondness for antiquities is well known. The magazine also reported that Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan intends to provide substantial funds for obtaining artifacts to be "returned to the Afghans as a gift as soon as peace is established."

[image] Wooden ancestor figure from Nuristan, pre-twentieth century (Josephine Powell) [LARGER IMAGE]

While I have seen few museum pieces for sale in Pakistan, there are a number of artifacts on the market that have recently been dug up in Afghanistan. Mujahideen commanders in all parts of the country are involved in this illicit activity, most notably in the east near the Hadda museum. An important Buddhist pilgrimage site in the second through seventh centuries, Hadda has been totally stripped of its exquisite clay sculptures in the Gandhara syle, which combines Bactrian, Greco-Roman, and Indian elements. Looted artifacts from Faryab and Balkh provinces in the north allegedly include jewel-encrusted golden crowns and statues, orbs (locally described as "soccer balls") studded with emeralds and all manner of exotic ephemera, as well as fluted marble columns similar to those found at Ai Khanoum in the northeastern province of Takhar. These are being carted away to embellish the houses of the newly powerful, according to witnesses. As far as I know, no reputable archaeologist has examined any of these finds. According to reports, one stone figurine of a winged female is similar to the gold "Bactrian Aphrodite" from Tillya-tepe. This is particularly intriguing because such reports began surfacing last June, at the same time that ornaments from Tillya-tepe were said to be for sale in Islamabad and Peshawar. An expert in antique gold confirmed that the gold jewelry in Peshawar is of the same period as the Tillya-tepe ornaments (first century B.C. to first century A.D.). Are these artifacts from the museum? Are they from new sites? Could they be from the unexcavated, seventh mound at Tillya-tepe? We have no reason not to believe the Kabul government's assurance that the Tillya-tepe collection is safe, even though no experts have been allowed to examine it.

In Darulaman relative calm extended through the first half of 1994, but at the end of July a splinter group from Hezbe Wahdat overran the area and began a seesaw contest with Mazari's forces. At the same time, gunners of the Hezbe Islami faction, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and headquartered at Chahrasyab 15 miles to the southeast, occupied the heights overlooking the valley. For the remainder of the year fierce battles destroyed the southern edge of Kabul. Then, last February, a new force calling itself the Taliban ("religious students") seized Chahrasyab, drove out Hekmatyar's forces, and captured Mazari, who was killed in Ghazni on March 13. Government troops routed Taliban on March 23, 1995. During these eight unsettled months guards were posted at the museum by whichever faction happened to be holding the area. With each changeover, the fleeing guards took what they could. Some of the guards may have been cooperating with dealers who capitalized on the fact that the guards had the opportunity to identify saleable pieces as the museum staff worked at sorting and organizing the objects.

Five months of relative calm followed, and the central government assumed responsibility for the protection of the museum for the first time. Last April representatives of the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage (SPACH), an advocacy group formed in Islamabad in September 1994, met in Kabul with Sayed Ishaq Deljo Hussaini, the Minister of Information and Culture. Hussaini acknowledged the government's commitment to moving the museum to safe premises in Kabul, and SPACH agreed to seek assistance for the preparation of an inventory. The Minister also announced that government police had recently recovered 28 looted pieces, including schist reliefs, packed for shipment to Pakistan. Four pieces--two schist reliefs and two stucco heads--had been purchased by Abdullah Poyan, the ministry's President of Art, for return to the museum. In Kabul the Commission for the Preservation of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage was organized, consisting of Afghan members of the National Museum, the Institute of Archaeology, the Academy of Sciences, Kabul University, the Ministry of Information and Culture, HABITAT, and Afghan experts. The commission advises the government, coordinates efforts with SPACH, and receives recovered artifacts, either through donation or purchase. Last September, 43 pieces, which had been purchased in Kabul, were presented to the commission by HABITAT head Jolyon Leslie. In addition to a Bronze Age steatite seal, schist reliefs, and stucco heads, this donation included four fragments of a large Bronze Age silver bowl combining Indian and Mesopotamian stylistic characteristics in depicting a frieze of bulls. The bowl is part of a hoard of five gold and 12 silver vessels found at Tepe Fullol in northern Afghanistan in 1966. Tepe Fullol, not far from the famous lapis-lazuli mines of Badakhshan, was probably on an early trade route. Badakhshi lapis adorns luxury artifacts of the same period found at Ur in Mesopotamian Iraq. The commission purchased eight additional pieces last summer with funds provided by the government.

[image] Stucco figure of worshiper from Hadda, second-seventh centuries A.D. (Josephine Powell) [LARGER IMAGE]

Last June in Kabul a joint mission of Unesco and the Musée Guimet in Paris arranged for museum specialists to spend September in Kabul preparing a photo inventory of the objects remaining in the museum. On September 3, however, the Taliban captured the western city of Herat, and security in Kabul crumbled once again. Instead of flying on to Kabul from Peshawar, the mission returned to Paris. On the night of October 10 the Taliban recaptured the military base at Chahrasyab, and rockets fell in the museum's narrow front garden. Miraculously the building did not take another direct hit. Outside the entrance, however, the head of a lion on a Kushan schist throne from the Buddhist site of Khum Zargar, 40 miles north of Kabul, was split in two. During the attack, according to an eyewitness report by Armando Cuomo, an archaeologist from the University of London, government soldiers frightened away the government police guarding the museum, blasted open doors, and ransacked the storerooms unmindful of being observed by a foreigner. Because of the ongoing fighting, the museum staff has been unable to ascertain what was taken then.

By the time of my last visit at the end of October 1995, government guards were once again on duty, and the commission was feverishly preparing its response to President Rabbani's order that the collections be removed to Kabul immediately. The professionals on the commission are against the move. Packing and moving cannot be done in a hurry without causing much damage, and most feel that it would take from two to four months to pack adequately. They also feel that Kabul is now no safer than Darulaman; on November 20, jets dropped two 1,000 pound bombs on the center of Kabul near sites under consideration for storage of the museum collections. Despite months of searching, the government has yet to decide on a suitable new location. Meanwhile, HABITAT has drawn up plans for further work to secure the museum in Darulaman, which can be carried out with additional funds contributed by Portugal and Cyprus, along with a second donation from Greece. The commission favors accepting an offer by the president of security at Khad, the secret police, to take over responsibility for protecting the museum. But the war continues; all plans are tenuous.

* Update, May 26, 1998: The Plunder Continues
* Click here for a list of artifacts among the stolen or imperiled treasures of the National Museum.
* Map of archaeological sites whose artifacts formed the collections of the National Museum

Nancy Hatch Dupree is a senior consultant at the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief in Peshawar, Pakistan, and is vice-chairperson of the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage. From 1966 to 1974 she participated in prehistoric excavations in Afghanistan conducted by her late husband Louis Dupree.

Several years have passed since Nancy Hatch Dupree wrote this assessment of the destruction of Afghanistan's national museum and the plundering of its collections. A few objects have been recovered, bought from the black market, but most are unaccounted for. Dupree has agreed to provide a comprehensive account of the current state of Afghanistan's cultural heritage in the near future; meanwhile ARCHAEOLOGY will update her original report, taking note of the recent recoveries and describing the efforts of the Society for Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage to preserve what remains. For a large selection of objects photographed at the museum in 1970 by John and Susan Huntington, see Lost and Stolen Images: Afghanistan at the The Huntington Photographic Archive of Buddhist and Related Art on Ohio State University's web site.--The Editors

© 1998 by the Archaeological Institute of America