Vandalised Afghanistan

The destruction of Afghanistan's cultural treasures during the period of the civil war in looting and illegal excavations has caused a huge loss of human heritage.

Published : Mar 16, 2002 00:00 IST

The Red Mountain range in Bamiyan that once housed two giant statues of the Buddha, on cliff faces, besides smaller structures of archaeological significance. The two big statues, dating back to the 5th or 6th century A.D., were the largest of all Buddhist statues so far attested in the world.-NOEL OLIVIER/GAMMA

The Red Mountain range in Bamiyan that once housed two giant statues of the Buddha, on cliff faces, besides smaller structures of archaeological significance. The two big statues, dating back to the 5th or 6th century A.D., were the largest of all Buddhist statues so far attested in the world.-NOEL OLIVIER/GAMMA

WHAT is once destroyed from mankind's collective cultural heritage can never be restored. In the midst of the continuing human suffering in Afghanistan, it is impossible to suppress the sense of pain, despair and above all anger at the destruction of the cultural heritage of a land that was one of the great meeting points between the East and the West, a crossroads of Central Asia. As the reconstruction effort begins in Afghanistan, there is a crying need for the global custodians of cultural heritage to step in to assess the magnitude of the destruction thus far and catalogue the surviving elements that would need to be restored and preserved on a priority basis.

Spent artillery shells, lined up like sentries, stood at the base of the mountain alcove where the world's tallest Buddha statues once stood. The statues' outlines and piles of rubble are all that remain today. Broken pieces of the statues and some fragments of the beautiful paintings, which once decorated the niches, were briefly offered for sale in the Peshawar bazaar. The two big statues of Bamiyan, dating back to the 5th or 6th century A.D., were no doubt the largest of all the Buddhist statues so far attested in the world. Aesthetically, compared to other forms of art, the Bamiyan statues, which were considered by art historians as belonging to an experimental phase, were not the most beautiful works of art that Afghanistan, the cradle of many civilisations, has produced. However, the destruction of the statues was nothing but an act of sheer barbarism.

The prolonged phase of civil war and unrest in Afghanistan since the fall of the Communist government led to the systematic looting of ancient sites such as Ai Khanoum, Begram and Hadda. All traces of a glorious past have disappeared for ever. Over the past 10 years, a great number of antiquities such as statutes, jewellery, bronzes, faience, ivory carvings and thousands of coins have been discovered accidentally or as the result of clandestine digging. Planned destruction of archaeological sites and museums, illicit digging and vandalism in the pursuit of material gain have completely destroyed the sculptures and paintings of the region.

In May 1993, the National Museum of Kabul was destroyed by several rockets and subsequently looted. Explosives pulverised the roof, the top floor and most of the doors and windows. A month later, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance to Afghanistan began reinforcing the building to prevent additional damage. But this did not prevent the looting of the museum, which had among the finest collections in the whole region.

Not a single coin is left in the cabinets where over 30,000 coins were stored. Coins from the first Mir Zakah hoard, the Kabul hoard, and the Qunduz hoard (627 Graeco-Bactrian coins and their imitations), those from the excavation of Ai Khanoum, the finds of which included two major hoards, and coins from Begram were among them. Most of the artefacts from the Kabul Museum, discovered in the Begram, Ai Khanoum and Hadda excavations, surfaced in the Peshawar bazaar a few days after the plundering of the museum and then entered private collections. Among them are the most valuable ivory plaques found in the Begram excavations by French archaeologists in 1937.

The museum was restored to a certain extent and was inaugurated in the summer of 2000 by the Taliban Minister for Cultural Affairs. The large statues, especially the statue of Kaishka and the 7th century Bodhisatva image from Tepe Maranjan, which the looters could not move, were among the exhibits.

The largest deposit of ancient coins ever attested in history was accidentally discovered in 1992 in Mir Zakah village, 53 km northeast of the city of Gardez in Afghanistan. According to my inquiries, it must have consisted of three to four tonnes of gold, silver and bronze coins, or in other words about 550,000 specimens. It also consisted of more than 300 kg of silver and gold objects. It is not known under what circumstances the deposit was found. The gold coins and jewellery were sold to Japanese, British and American collectors for millions of dollars. My knowledge of this hoard is limited to coins in private collections and the six sackfuls of coins, each weighing at least 50 kg, that I rapidly examined in February 1994 in the Peshawar bazaar. The hoard consists of a number of early Indian coins. Then there are Greek, Graeco-Bactrian, Indo-Greek, Indo-Scythian, Indo-Parthian and Kushan coins. The coins of the Indo-Scythian Azes II and the posthumous imitations of Hermaeus constitute the largest portion of all.

The second Mir Zakah deposit brought to light an unprecedented number of new coins - including a tetradrachm of Attic weight of Menander I with unknown types and a legend arrangement. This coin has to the right the diademed bust of the king, wearing a crested helmet and is seen from the back thrusting a spear with his raised right hand, and to the left on the reverse Athena Alkidemos and a Greek legend in semi-circular form. The most sensational numismatic discovery in the second Mir Zakah deposit was the coin of Nasten, a hitherto unknown Iranian ruler in India. The Greek legend reads: Nastenes/ Xatrannou. So this coin was probably issued by a ruler named Nasten, son of Xatran. Presumably, Nasten is not a Greek but an Iranian, most probably a Bactrian Iranian.

Almost all the pre-Islamic archaeological sites have been looted and destroyed in clandestine digging over the past 12 years. The Buddhist pillar Minar-e-Chakari, also called the Alexander pillar, dating back to the first century A.D., tumbled to the ground in March 1998 following a rocket attack.

The Buddhist monastery and stupa of Tep Shotor at Hadda, close to Jalalabad, was excavated by Afghan archaeologists. It was also extensively excavated by the French archaeological delegation to Afghanistan under Jules Barthoux. It has been pillaged and looted now. The monastic complex is situated halfway along the road from Kabul to Kandahar. This site had the ruins of the ancient town as well as a number of Buddhist stupas and caves. Among the remains atop the broad plateau are such Buddhist temples sites as Tapa-Kalan, Tapa-i-Kafariha, Bagh-gai, Chakhil-i-Gundi, deh-Ghundi and Gar-Nao.

At the ruins of Tapa-i-Shator outside the northern edge of this plateau, a large and well-preserved monastic complex was excavated between 1974 and 1979 by Prof. Zemaryalai Tarzi, who was then the Director-General of Archaeology and Conservation in Afghanistan. He and his team were able to unearth a beautiful stupa complex with stucco figures, dating from the second century A.D., depicting the Naga king in the Fish Porch and a realistic figure of Heracles. Looters systematically destroyed the huge statues that could not be removed, while the smaller ones were taken to the bazaars in Pakistan.

THE ancient site of Ai Khanoum was for the past 10 years the target of systematically planned illicit digs. This is little less than tragic for our contemporary understanding of ancient cultural interactions. One of the most significant contributions towards an understanding of Greek presence in Bactria was made through the Ai Khanoum excavations led by French archaeologists under Prof. P. Bernard.

The ruins of Ai Khanoum stand on the left bank of the Oxus river at its meeting point with its tributary, the Kokcha. This triangular area at the confluence of the Oxus and the Kokcha was a strategic choice the Greeks made. It was a well-placed military outpost to control the eastern territories of ancient Bactria. The topography of the site, with a natural acropolis about 60 m higher than the surrounding areas and protected by the two rivers from the west and the south, made it an ideal choice for the Greek city planners. The residential quarters and public buildings - namely the gymnasium, the temple, the fortifications, the royal palace and the administrative apparatus - were built in the lower part of the site, which was less exposed to the winds than the acropolis.

The discoveries made at Ai Khanoum by the French archaeologists demonstrate how the Greek artists of Ai Khanoum not only remained attached to the Greek traditions but also in some ways perpetuated a classical style. For example, the mosaic floor of the palace bathroom displaying dolphins, sea horses and sea monsters was made by setting a field of dark red pebbles, instead of the square-cut stones of the later style.

Some of the finds in Hadda made by the French archaeological team led by Barthoux in 1929:(Left) Part of the high relief depicting the life of the Buddha; (Right)The statue of a divinity throwing flowers on the Buddha.

This remarkable city, which bore the distinctive imprint of cultural currents from the days of Greek civilisational glory, does not exist anymore. Prospectors for treasure seem to have used the metal detectors originally brought into the country to detect landmines, for quite another purpose. Some photographs taken by the Japanese Professor Hin Ichi Ono show the lunar-like surface of the city. The lower city is completely devastated. The place where once the big temple stood is today a crater. Some of the Corinthian and Doric capitals unearthed by the French archaeologists were taken away, and they now serve as the base for the columns in a tcha-khan, or a tea house.

Hundreds of ivory pieces, jewellery, intaglios, plaster medallions and bronze items from Ai Khanoum have reached Pakistani bazaars and private collections. A gold bracelet in the form of a snake was found in Ai Khanoum. The treatment of the head of the snake, probably that of a cobra, is realistic and reflects the workmanship of a Greek artist. Many ivory items were unearthed in the legal excavations at Ai Khanoum, especially in the palace treasury, which have been documented by Paul Bernard and Claude Rapin. To this list, illegal excavations have probably added the following items: hairpins, votive sculptures and perhaps part of a sword case.

Pieces of gold and silver jewellery similar to the ones found in the legal excavations have reached the market. They comprise rings, bracelets, pendants and earrings. Hundreds of cornelian, agate and cut stones (similar to the ones already published by Claude Rapin) were seen in the bazaars. All these items add to the Greek and Graeco-Oriental art already attested in Ai Khanoum. Three items that can certainly be considered as new evidence for the Greek contribution to the art and culture of Bactria and India were found in recent years in Ai Khanoum: a bronze statuette of Heracles, an ivory plaque depicting a seated Aphrodite and a faience head of a Graeco-Bactrian king.

The bronze statuette of Heracles has a height of 21 centimetres, with the pedestal. The figure is solid cast, with a fully fashioned back. It represents a naked, beardless, young Heracles, standing holding in his left hand a lion's skin, and his right hand resting on a club. He wears a broad-leaved wreath. His left knee is slightly bent, leaving the weight of the body on the right leg. It is not at all surprising to find so many images of Heracles in Ai Khanum, because, as revealed by an inscription found in situ, the gymnasium of this Greek city was dedicated to this divinity.

The ivory plaque depicting Aphrodite has a diameter of 8.3 cm. It was also unearthed in Khanoum in 1999. It was found in pieces and was restored in London. The whole scene is composed of three figures: Aphrodite in the middle, a winged female figure to the left and Eros to the right. Aphrodite is represented semi-nude, seated on a pile of rocks, the left hand resting on a rock while the other hand is on her right thigh. Her body is in three-quarter view, but her legs are almost in profile. She wears a himation loosely draped around the lower part of her body, leaving the torso bare. The winged female figure, wearing a sleeved chiton, stands on a capital, holding what is probably a mirror box. At the extreme left of the plaque, winged Eros stands on the same pile of rocks on which Aphrodite is seated. His right arm is raised while the other is making a gesture as if to unveil the himation of the goddess from the back.

The faience head of the Graeco-Bactrian king was found in June 1998 in unrecorded circumstances. It certainly belongs to an acrolithic statue. On close examination, it becomes obvious that the horizontally cut border at the bottom of the head was meant to fit into a wooden structure. So the rest of the body would have been of wood. The fragments of the cult statue found in the cellar of the main temple of Ai Khanoum, and the faience head, are the only examples of acroliths that have so far been found in Bactria.

These discoveries add much to our knowledge of the political and economic history of Bactria and India from the conquest of Alexander the Great, until the end of the Kushan period. The reconstruction of the history of the Greeks and their nomadic successors in Bactria and India depends mainly on numismatic evidence. The other sources - ancient texts and inscriptions and various data obtained in archaeological excavations - are, though important, secondary compared to the vast and rich information conveyed by coins. Because of the scarcity of ancient texts and of available archaeological data, numismatic evidence constitutes the main source for the reconstruction of the history of the Greeks and their successors in Bactria and India.

But the exciting possibilities offered by this, as also the second deposit of Mir Zakah, have now been irretrievably lost. According to some reliable sources, two and half tonnes of coins of the second Mir Zakah deposit have been taken to Switzerland for sale. If organisations such as UNESCO do not take the initiative, all the coins may one day go into the melting pot.

The world owes its most profound sympathies to the Afghan people, who were chased from one frontier to another and who suffered the vicissitudes of civil war, famine and drought. They were the hapless victims of political ideologies that reduce the human condition to a position subordinate to international economic interests. But in promoting the cynical game of realpolitik in Afghanistan, humankind itself has lost a part of its collective cultural heritage - a loss for which the world bears collective responsibility.

Osmund Bopearachchi is Director of Research, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris.

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