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Pakistan's Heritage at Risk November 6, 2007
by Mark Rose

Is it too late to bar the door?

This past Saturday, President Musharraf declared a state of emergency Saturday, suspending the Pakistan's constitution. He had won election to another 5-year-term by a wide margin on October 6 (his current term ends November 15), but the Supreme Court was considering legal challenges questioning his eligibility to run for re-election as president while army chief. Some believe Musharraf's declaration of emergency was to pre-empt the court from ruling against him. He says it was to save Pakistan from extremists. Opposition members have been detained and private news media shut down. Foreign governments are protesting the declaration and the ousted head of the Supreme Court has called for a popular uprising to topple Musharraf. The clear winners in all of this are people like Maulana Fazlullah and his followers.


Local residents sit near a defaced Buddha after Islamic extremists attacked the historic sculpture at Jehanabad in Pakistan's Swat Valley. (John Moore/Getty Images)

A radical cleric, Fazlullah has launched a Taliban-style campaign in the Swat Valley less than 100 miles northwest of the capital Islamabad. The leader of the banned Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law, he has called for a jihad against the government and his followers have bombed girls' schools and attacked video and CD stores. Fazlullah effectively blocked a UNESCO polio vaccination program because, according to one account, he said "it was a ploy by the West to sterilize Muslim babies." Of course, barbers cannot give haircuts in styles deemed un-Islamic and women must wear the burqa. In late October, open warfare between Fazlullah and government forces broke out. Hundreds have died, including captured security personnel and civilians who were beheaded by militants, and thousands of civilians have fled. Having fended off attacks by 2,500 Pakistani paramilitaries backed by helicopters, Fazlullah has not yet been dislodged from Swat.

The turmoil in Pakistan, especially the situation in Swat, has scholars concerned about the safety of the country's artistic and archaeological heritage. Relatively peaceful until recently, Swat was a tourist resort with spectacular mountain scenery. It also has a rich cultural heritage, especially Ghandaran art and Buddhist monuments. Adriana Proser, John H. Foster Curator of Traditional Asian Art, at the Asia Society in New York explains, "This area of what is today northern Pakistan was along a major route of the Silk Road. Gandhara was one of the major sites of the Kushan period (first through third centuries). The art of the Gandhara area is extremely important because it shows the impact of Hellenistic and Roman influence ushered in through the conquests of Alexander the Great. The stylistic impact of Gandharan Buddhist art traveled vast space and time, reaching places as far away China, Korea, and Japan. The Gandhara region became part of the Sasanian Empire (224-642), which preceded Islamic rule in Persia, and consequently the arts of the region also influenced artistic developments in the Middle East."

The consequences of prolonged political infighting in Pakistan, leaving Taliban-like militants unchecked may have dire consequences for this heritage. On Monday, October 8, dynamite was used to obliterate the face of a of 23-foot-high seventh-century seated Buddha carved into a rock face near the village of Jehanabad in the Swat Valley. This was the second attack on the Buddha. In early September, militants detonated explosives placed above and below the Buddha, but only damaged the stone rather than the sculpture. It appeared, according to police chief Mohammad Iqbal in an AFP story, "to be the work of the local militants who condemn these relics as being un-Islamic. It looks more like a symbolic attack to embarrass the government internationally." A witness in Jehanabad says that the armed group entered the village Monday evening and announced their intention to destroy the Buddha. According to Aqleem Khan, a provincial archaeology department official who spoke to Reuters, the militants drilled holes into the rock, filled them with dynamite, then set off the explosion the morning of Tuesday, September 11. Abdul Nasir, a curator at the Swat museum, known for its collection of Ghandaran sculptures, told AP that "Islam teaches us to respect other religions and faiths, but unfortunately some elements are disturbing the peace in the Swat valley."

"Any destruction of archeological and artistic sites such as this Gandharan Buddhist relief are an enormous loss for all who treasure historical records and significant and rare works of art," says the Asia Society's Proser. The attack recalls the March 2001 destruction of two giant Buddha statues in central Afghanistan by Taliban militants. "The destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas was a political act in religious guise, greatly increasing the reputation of the Taliban among its target audience," says Archaeological Institute of America vice president John Russell. "The AIA calls on all governments, and particularly in this case the government of Pakistan, to protect our shared world heritage from groups that exploit heritage for political gain by destroying parts of our common past." Adds AIA president C. Brian Rose, "Destroying icons in the name of religion has unfortunately been a component of human behavior since antiquity. In areas of conflict, archaeological institutes throughout the world need to work in unison to document and protect cultural property that is at risk."

Two years after the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, UNESCO issued a "Declaration concerning the Intentional Destruction of Cultural Heritage." Among the stipulations of the Declaration are

The international community recognizes the importance of the protection of cultural heritage and reaffirms its commitment to fight against its intentional that such cultural heritage may be transmitted to the succeeding generations. States should take all appropriate measures to prevent, avoid, stop and suppress acts of intentional destruction of cultural heritage.... When involved in an armed conflict...States should take all appropriate measures to conduct their activities in such a manner as to protect cultural heritage.... A State that intentionally destroys or intentionally fails to take appropriate measures to prohibit, prevent, stop, and punish any intentional destruction of cultural heritage of great importance for humanity, whether or not it is inscribed on a list maintained by UNESCO or another international organization, bears the responsibility for such destruction, to the extent provided for by international law.... States should take all appropriate measures, in accordance with international law, to establish jurisdiction over, and provide effective criminal sanctions against, those persons who commit, or order to be committed, acts of intentional destruction of cultural heritage of great importance for humanity, whether or not it is inscribed on a list maintained by UNESCO or another international organization.

The question today is, can Pakistan fulfill those responsibilities or is it no longer able to do so? During the ongoing political crisis, as Musharraf and the opposition fight, militants have an open field. In an old ballad, a husband and wife argue about who should get up and bar the door for the night. Both refuse to do it, saying it is the other's turn. Finally, the obstinate pair agrees that the first to speak will be the one to bar the door:

They made a paction tween them twa,
  They made it firm and sure,
That the first word whaeer shoud speak,
  Shoud rise and bar the door.

But only after robbers enter their home and begin discussing assaulting the couple does the husband object--and when it is far too late gets up to bar the door.

Mark Rose is Online Editorial Director, Archaeological Institute of America.

© 2007 by the Archaeological Institute of America