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Museum Under Siege: The Plunder Continues May 26, 1998
by Nancy Hatch Dupree

Peshawar, Pakistan, May 26, 1998.

When describing the looting of the Kabul Museum and our efforts to save its collections for ARCHAEOLOGY (March/April 1996), I ended with the comment that all our plans were tenuous. Little did we then know how momentous the changes would be.

[image] Entrance to Kabul Museum, May 1998, showing war damage and continuing deterioration (left). [LARGER IMAGE] Upper galleries, Kabul Museum, May 1998 (right). [LARGER IMAGE] (Brigitte Neubacher) [image]

The work of securing the collections at the rocket-riddled museum building in Darulaman south of Kabul moved at a turgid pace until May, when President Rabbani finally chose the Kabul Hotel in the city's center as the depot for safe storage. As the hectic packing of what was then estimated to be about 30 percent of the pre-1992 collections proceeded, SPACH, the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan's Culture, assisted in preparing the inventory. The long-awaited shift took place between September 1 and 8, 1996 (for a full description, see SPACH Newsletter 2 [December 1996]).

Nineteen days later President Rabbani's government fled and the Taliban Islamic Movement moved in. The new authorities immediately issued a barrage of edicts including bans on all forms of human and animal figures. The media reported posters being pulled down and photo albums being ripped to shreds; television cameras caught images of exultant Taliban stomping on sculptures torn from the facades of buildings.

SPACH's request for a policy regarding ancient artifacts resulted in an official radio announcement informing the public that all ancient cultural objects were to be protected, warning those in possession of looted museum objects that punishment would follow the dictates of Islamic laws, the Shariah.

[image] This late fifteenth- to sixteenth-century black marble basin with Islamic inscriptions has a lotus blossom carved on the under side, indicating that it was originally Buddhist. Found in Kandahar in 1925, it still stands in the entrance to the Kabul Museum. (Brigitte Neubacher) [LARGER IMAGE]

As of this writing the Kabul Hotel depot has not been disturbed, and no further looting has taken place at Darulaman, where prehistoric artifacts from about 11 sites still remain, along with a few large pieces difficult to move. Among these are the standing figure of King Kanishka from the second-century Kushan temple at Surkh Kotal north of the Hindu Kush and a 25-line Bactrian inscription from the same complex.

Debris of recently collapsed roof over entrance hall. Statue of King Kanishka, right, and Bactrian inscription, back wall, from Surkh Kotal. (Brigitte Neubacher) [LARGER IMAGE] [image]

Of major concern is the condition of the twelfth-century Islamic stucco and cut-brick decorations from the winter palace in Lashkar Gah in the southwest. The stucco panels still affixed to the walls are rapidly deteriorating because repairs to the rocket-torn roof above them are inadequate.

[image] Deteriorating stucco decoration from mihrab of early Islamic Ghoroid mosque from Lashkar Gah. (Brigitte Neubacher) [LARGER IMAGE]

In fact, all work on the museum collections has ceased. The Taliban disapproves of the shift to the Kabul Hotel and wishes to return everything to Darulaman--after the building is renovated. Neither the Afghan authorities nor international sources are prepared to provide the massive funds this would require. Nonetheless, the Taliban doggedly insists, despite the building's continued deterioration, such as the recent collapse of the roof over the foyer that showered Kanishka with debris.

Deteriorating stucco decoration from side wall of early Islamic Ghoroid mosque from Lashkar Gah. (Brigitte Neubacher) [LARGER IMAGE] [image]

While work at the museum is at a standstill, our focus has shifted to the status of objects stashed outside the museum before President Najibullah's government fell in 1992. The museum staff has repeatedly requested permission to ascertain just what is included in these caches. The fabulous Bactrian gold from Telya Tepe, for instance, is said to be still in the vaults of the National Bank below the presidential palace, but it has yet to be examined. Although the Rabbani government tacitly agreed to these requests, as does the Taliban today, somehow the necessary security arrangements fail to materialize. The mystery therefore continues.

With this front closed as well, we have turned our attention to matters of policy. This has proved equally frustrating on several interdependent levels. There is a notable absence of knowledgeable authorities at upper decision-making levels. While outwardly agreeable, no one seems willing to set effective policy or actively support the few surviving departments. A large number of trained professionals have either left or been dismissed. Effective law enforcement is nonexistent.

[image] The 180-foot-tall Buddha at Bamiyan, central Afghanistan, ca. third to fourth centuries (left). (Anonymous) [LARGER IMAGE] Deteriorating wall paintings in niche at Bamiyan, late sixth century (right). (Sandy Gall) [LARGER IMAGE] [image]

In the midst of this lethargy there are, nevertheless, moments which fuel our determination to push on. The incident over the renowned monumental Bamiyan Buddhas was one. In April 1997, a Taliban commander besieging Bamiyan independently vowed to blow up these "idols" once he conquered the valley. Responding to vociferous international protests, the Taliban high command in Kandahar publicly denied any intention of harming the Buddhas and reiterated their commitment to protect all aspects of the cultural heritage. Following this, the leader of the Hezb-e Wahdat party, which controls Bamiyan, responded positively to a plea from SPACH to remove the ammunition depots lodged in the caves at the foot of the large Buddha. They also established a General Office for the Preservation of Historical Sites in Hazarajat.

Meanwhile, the systematic plundering of archaeological sites continues unabated. At the fourth- to third-century B.C. Greek city of Ai Khanoum in a remote area of northeastern Takhar Province, the plunderers, under financial agreements with ruling commanders, gouge out the surface with bulldozers and probe deeply through long tunnels.

[image] Illegal digging through deep tunnels, Ai Khanoum. (Engineer Kabir) [LARGER IMAGE]

A newly exposed site near Herat is disgorging masses of vessels in association with fantastic figurines with unique features that cry out for scientific identification. Visitors have also confirmed that illegal digging continues at Telya Tepa.

[image] Unique figurines from a newly exposed site near Herat, unknown period. (left) [LARGER IMAGE] (right) [LARGER IMAGE] (Maarten van den Dool) [image]

Fabulous rumors of massive quantities of gold from hitherto unreported sites also circulate. At one site near Qaisar, in northern Faryab Province, a golden crown set with jewels, a bejeweled silver decanter, lapis lazuli, and 4.5 pounds of gold dust are reported to have been wrenched from diggings more than 80 feet below the surface. True? We do not know.

The elders of Lalma village in eastern Ningrahar Province must be lauded for protecting a major Buddhist site on their land, but dozens of other monastery sites in the vicinity dating from the early centuries A.D. have been thoroughly ransacked, often with the aid of tractors and bulldozers. Periodic reminders over Radio Shariat that ancient objects must be surrendered to the authorities merely hasten the removal of artifacts.

Architectual detail on newly exposed Buddhist stupa site, Siah Sang, Ningrahar Province, ca. third to fourth centuries A.D. (BBC) [LARGER IMAGE] [image]

Most worrisome is the attitude expressed by the governor of Badghis Province in the northwest, where numerous well-organized networks are said to be directed by professionals of undetermined origin. One group of 40 diggers working in teams of ten are reported to have unearthed coins, statues and unspecified pottery for which they were paid large sums. When queried, the governor stated that the Shariah includes no law prohibiting excavations at ancient sites. As long as the authorities are paid the requisite tax of one-fifth of the artifacts' value, he sees no problem. This of course runs counter to the policy expressed in Kandahar and Kabul, but there is no consistency in Taliban governance.

We shall never know all that has disappeared from these sites. Most pieces make their way to stolen art markets in Pakistan where they disappear one knows not where. A few, very few, come to the attention of SPACH, but, as for the looted museum pieces, the asking prices are astronomical.

(Click on images for larger versions.) Buddhist objects, ca. second to third centuries A.D., from French excavation of 1923-1928 in Hadda, Ningrahar Province, eastern Afghanistan. These were purchased for SPACH in Peshawar in January 1996. (Numbers refer to Kabul Museum inventory numbers inked on objects.) Above, from left: head (62.3.557); 9.5-cm head with damage to the chin (62.3.762); head (62.3.763); 7 cm-head of boy with top knot (62.3.796) (Nancy Hatch Dupree). Below, from left: 9-cm head (62.3.367), and lion head, 5 cm by 1.8 cm (62.3.846) (Ingo Guhr).

Looted and plundered goods arrive in Peshawar via circuitous routes. One looted museum piece was taken to Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, where it crossed the border into Uzbekistan and on to Turkmenistan before making its way back across the Afghan border to Herat and south to Kandahar. From there it traveled into Pakistan to Quetta and on up to Peshawar. Now, if he can be believed, the dealer claims he intends to fly the piece to Russia for onward smuggling into Europe. High transportation costs and many pay-offs are the reason, he tells me, for his grossly inflated prices.

[image] Lion head ivory from Ali Khanoum (359.1257) (left). [LARGER IMAGE] Bronze Age Harappan seal with rhinocerous motif, 2.5 cm, from Shortorgai; 2200 to 1600 B.C. (SH BB 78 76) (right). [LARGER IMAGE] (SPACH Photo Catalogue) [image]

Be this as it may, SPACH has made a few acquisitions (see SPACH Newsletter 3 [July 1997]). On April 23, 1997, SPACH purchased ten antiquities from the Afghan representative of a group of five Pakastani dealers in Peshawar. All of the objects had been in the museum's collection. Six were first-second century A.D. medallions from the Kushan capital of Begram. The medallions (ca. 17.5 cm in diameter) are decorated with a variety of subjects: a youth with a nursling, a standing nude male figure, a standing female figure (possibly Athena), a grape and vine motif, a Bacchanalian scene, and the moon goddess Selene and her lover Endymion. Two carved ivories, a lion and a bull head, were recovered. Both are from Ai Khanoum. The final two objects acquired were Bronze Age seals from Shortorgai, a Harappan outpost or colony near Ai Khanoum. One has a rhinoceros carved on it, the other a stylized ibex. The broken medallions and ivories are now in the Musée Guimet, Paris, for repair and conservation.

(Click on images for larger versions.) Medallions from Begram, Kushan capital north of Kabul, ca. first to second centuries A.D. From left: Standing female figure, possibly Athena, holding long spear with shield to her left. (57.11.51); Bacchanalian scene of dancing figure with head missing, standing male nude, female covering nude torso with arm and clutching at skirt, semi nude male holding long spear pulling at skirt of female, figure bending toward man with spear, male with back turned and baskets on shoulder (57.11.80); erotic tableau with Selene, the Greek moon goddess, and her lover, the shepherd Endymion, second century A.D., broken along old breaks. Formerly displayed in the Begram Room at Kabul Museum (B.39.102.103). (SPACH Photo Catalogue)

Negotiations over such purchases can take a year or more, and the results are never predictable. In addition, SPACH has yet to receive sufficient funds for major acquisitions. How, or even if, to overcome this are questions of concern. We are open to all suggestions.

[image] Seventh-century A.D. head from Kama Dakka, Ningrahar Province, eastern Afghanistan. Excavated by the French in 1948, it was purchased by SPACH in Peshawar, December 1996. Left: front view, wavy hair, 16.5 cm (63.23.2). [LARGER IMAGE] Right: Boy with anklets, anonymous donation (provenance unknown). [LARGER IMAGE] (Ingo Guhr) [image]

Efforts to alert museums around the world about the extent of the losses in Afghanistan have had some effect. Institutions are now more wary, as are dealers. This does not, however, hasten the negotiating processes. Private collectors continue to pay handsomely, and visions of lucrative windfalls drive the majority, within the smuggling networks, as well as individuals on the peripheries.

It would be enormously helpful if knowledgeable observers at the other end of the line could offer their assistance. We are told constantly that pieces from the museum and plundered objects are being sold or auctioned in many different cities. Yet, with very rare exceptions, these reports are uselessly imprecise, less than helpful. What is out there? Who is buying what, from whom, for what prices? As we in the field struggle with increasingly perplexing problems, we look for concrete information. We should be delighted to hear from anyone willing to be our eyes and ears abroad.

Established in September 1994, SPACH is primarily an advocacy organization that seeks to share information about the state of collections, historic monuments, and archaeological sites in Afghanistan. It fosters contacts with cultural organizations and individuals both inside Afghanistan and abroad. It supports lectures, exhibitions, and seminars as a means of raising awareness about the richness and vulnerability of the cultural heritage of Afghanistan. SPACH publishes a newsletter and maintains a photo catalogue on the status of monuments and sites. Contact: c/o ARIC, P.O. Box 1084, University Town, Peshawar, Pakistan. Tel. 92-0351-775-3661. Fax: 92-51-272932. E-mail:


© 1998 by the Archaeological Institute of America