The fate of Afghanistan’s rich archaeological history, art and artefacts remains uncertain
By Ardha Srinivas Patel
An often neglected but fundamentally important victim of a conflict is the physical manifestations of a community, a people, a nation, their heritage. Conflicts in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria continue to be characterised by the destruction of cultural heritage.
International law to protect cultural heritage has developed reactively, responding to conflict and destruction in the hope that it will not be repeated. An understanding of this law, its strengths and shortcomings, requires its contextualisation within the conflicts of the past century.
On March 24, 2017, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) unanimously adopted Resolution 2347 relating to the protection of cultural heritage. This was an unprecedented victory.
It has taken nearly a century and a half for the idea to mature. The process began at the end of the 19th century, when 15 European states met in Brussels on July 27, 1874, to examine the draft international agreement concerning the Laws and Customs of War. Twenty-five years later, in 1899, on the initiative of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, an international peace conference was held in the Netherlands with the aim of revising the Declaration and adopting a Convention with Respect to the Laws and Customs of War on Land.
The year 2015 marked a real turning point in the attitude of the international community to cultural heritage. In February that year, with the backing of UNESCO, nearly 50 nations adopted UNSC Resolution 2199, prohibiting trade in cultural property coming from Iraq and Syria. “This resolution acknowledges that cultural heritage stands on the frontline of conflicts today, and it should be placed at the frontline of security and political response to the crisis”.
At present, Afghanistan has two UNESCO World Heritage sites: the area around the Minaret of Jam in Ghor Province and the archaeological site in the Bamiyan Valley. These represent two disparate but equally significant epochs in Afghanistan.
The cultural landscape and archaeological remains of the Bamiyan Valley represent the artistic and religious developments which from the 1st to the 13th centuries characterised ancient Bakhtria, integrating various cultural influences into the Gandhara school of Buddhist art. The area contains numerous Buddhist monastic ensembles and sanctuaries, as well as fortified edifices from the Islamic period. The site is also testimony to the tragic destruction by the Taliban of the two standing Buddha statues, which shook the world in March 2001.
The minaret is a legacy of the Ghurid Empire, which spanned Afghanistan and parts of Central Asia, Iran, Pakistan and India, and whose rulers converted to Islam from Buddhism in the 12th century. They erected the monument in honour of their newfound faith. What they did not do was destroy Buddhist relics, which they would have found idolatrous.
As such, the Bamiyan Valley on the famed Silk Road contains archaeological remains layered with Roman, Greek, Indian and Sasanian cultural inputs. These hybrid influences are evident in the Buddhist art that developed during the Gandharan civilisation circa 500 BC in modern-day northern Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The relations between the people of Afghanistan and India traces to the Indus Valley Civilisation. Following Alexander, the Great’s brief occupation, the successor state of the Seleucid Empire controlled the region known today as Afghanistan. In 305 BCE, they ceded much of it to the Indian Maurya Empire as part of an alliance treaty.
Since the late 2nd century BCE, much of Afghanistan was influenced by Buddhist, Hindu and Zoroastrian cultures until the arrival of Islam in the 7th century. In the timeless Buddhist symbols of Aynak and Bamyan of Afghanistan and in the majestic monuments of Delhi, in Indian cultures, arts, languages, literatures, foods and festivals, both nations see the imprint of bilateral timeless relations. The Afghanistan-India relation is unique and dynamic prefacing shared vision of economic, social and cultural periphery.
Over the past few years, a growing awareness of the role that cultural heritage can play in fostering security was strengthened. These have led to an increase in the destruction of historic sites by terrorist groups and an explosion in the trafficking of cultural artefacts. The international community has responded actively to the destruction wreaked by ISIS, with a much wider range of instruments at its disposal − making it possible to enhance its protection of the cultural memory of humanity.
The National Museum of Afghanistan urged the security forces, international community, Taliban and other influential parties to pay attention to the safety and security of objects and not let the opportunists to use the situation and cause the deterioration and smuggling of the objects and goods of this institution. Established in 1992, the museum in Kabul houses various items from Buddhist, Persian and Islamic dynasties, reflecting Afghanistan’s history as a crossroads for a number of civilisations. Over the years, it has endured lootings and bombings, which have led to the loss and damage of its collection.
The Taliban’s history of cultural destruction leaves many sceptical. Under their rule from 1996 to 2001, the group attacked and looted museums and libraries in the country. In addition, artistic and cultural expression was mostly banned. One of the biggest archaeological losses was the destruction of the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan, bombed by the Taliban in 2001. Considered idols by the Taliban, the works were destroyed by the Islamist group in several stages using dynamite, anti-tank mines and rocket launchers.
The fate of Afghanistan’s rich archaeological history, art and artefacts remains uncertain. Protecting cultural heritage from the devastating effects of war or internal conflicts is the need of the hour.
(The author is media and communication professional)
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