Cultural devastation in Kabul


KABUL, Afghanistan - Nural Hak can't forget the February day a year ago when the pickup trucks with the tinted windows braked in the dust outside the Kabul Museum and young men piled out carrying AK-47s.

The building had been looted eight years earlier. Its walls were scorched by fire, pierced by bullets and rockets. All that was left were ancient sculptures, too heavy to haul away. Why had they come?

"They didn't tell us anything," recalls the 45-year-old Hak, who wears a sheepskin hat and flowing Afghan garments.

He didn't know it, but Hak was witnessing the start of an effort to obliterate Afghanistan's history.

When workers were slow to move, the nervous Taliban broke the locks on some of the doors. None of the staff was allowed inside, but they heard the sound of breaking stone. Using hammers and axes, the intruders were reducing millennia-old statues to gravel and dust.

"It was impossible to say anything to them," Hak says. "They would have killed us."

About the same time, the Taliban broke into a storeroom at the Ministry of Culture. As the staff watched, they smashed hundreds of smaller statues, figures and other artworks - anything that dared to depict humans, birds or other animate beings.

A few weeks later the Taliban would make headlines around the world when they used bombs and explosives to systematically destroy two colossal statues of Buddha carved into a mountainside in remote Bamiyan province.

But the earlier destruction of the museum's collection was the start of the cultural massacre.

A second-century statue depicting Prince Kanishka, a leader of the ancient Kushan civilization, stood just inside the museum entrance. Jim Williams, an expert on Central Asian art with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, sat in his Kabul office pointing first to a photo of Kanishka's statue, and then of a pile of rock.

"This is one of the most famous statues in the world," he says. "And that is what is left."

Afghanistan's art is a banquet of cultures. For thousands of years, this arid country served as a crossroads for caravans plodding along the Silk Road. The road brought with it a succession of would-be conquerors who marched through the rocks of its mountains and the dust of its deserts.

The armies of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan swept through here. Greek, Hindu and Buddhist societies rose and fell before the coming of Islam. As new cultures rose, they absorbed those that came before.

Afghanistan's ancient history was recorded in stone, ivory and clay. Over the past 20 years, much of that history was destroyed by warfare or lost through looting. When the Taliban seized most of the country six years ago, the lawlessness came to an end. But in their puritanical zeal, the Taliban went a step further. They deliberately set out to destroy their nation's last physical links to its past.

"They just wanted to wipe out the whole cultural heritage of the people of Afghanistan - everything we had," says Omar Sultan of Raleigh, N.C., an archaeologist with the museum who fled the country 24 years ago.

Sultan has returned here to serve in a $2.5 million United Nations-led effort to reclaim some of that heritage. In the next few months, UNESCO plans to build a restoration lab in the basement of the old museum, where experts will try to rebuild the smashed statues.

The agency is also trying to find and recover stolen art and, with the help of the interim government, stop the continuing looting of remote archaeological sites.

Aid officials hope that restoring Afghanistan's art treasures can help restore its identity as a nation and help it resist splintering into warring ethnic factions.

The Kabul Museum started as an exhibit of archaeological artifacts at a restaurant in Kabul in 1919. As archaeologists excavated sites around the country, the collection grew large enough to require a permanent home. The museum was built in 1932 in a new cultural district near a former royal palace.

Soviet troops, who invaded in 1979, killed tens of thousands of Afghans. But during its 10-year occupation, Moscow nurtured the country's cultural institutions. By 1989, the museum held more than 100,000 artifacts, including sculptures, rugs, coins, paintings, pots and jewelry. Some of the pieces were 5,000 years old.

"Our national museum was one of the richest in the world," says Omar Khan Massoudi, the museum's director.

Massoudi, the son of a farmer, is a historian trained at Kabul University who has worked for the museum for the past 23 years. He became assistant director in 1992, just as the fighting ignited between rival ethnic and religious factions of the mujahedeen over control of the city. Over the next three years, vicious urban warfare would level most of the neighborhood around the museum.

On May 15, 1993, a rocket hit the second floor, starting a fire that destroyed thousands of precious artifacts, including a collection of ancient Afghan rugs. After the museum staff fled, looters flocked to the ruined structure and carted off most of its easily disposable treasures, including its collections of ancient jewelry and coins.

When he heard the news, Massoudi says, he did not cry. "Afghans have a tradition of honor and pride," he says. "A man should not cry, even when a close member of his family dies. But it was the saddest news of my life."

Looters grabbed a unique and delicate vase from the second century A.D. depicting the great Pharos Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. They took a collection of exquisite Indian works called the Bagram Ivories, including a box depicting young women in a garden. "The Bagram Ivories are probably some of the world's finest carved ivories," Williams says.

Other treasures were taken, too, Massoudi says. When the fighting slackened, the museum staff returned and discovered that despite the huge loss, some of the collection remained, including thousands of sculptures. Staff members packed up the artworks and took them to the Ministry of Culture and Information for safekeeping.

Under the Taliban, the museum was protected from bandits and thieves. But in their quest for religious purity, the radical Islamic militia outlawed photographs, movies and television. Depictions of living beings, they decreed, were sacrilegious.

For months, Massoudi argued against destroying the statues and other works. And there were some Taliban officials who seemed sympathetic, he says. But the Taliban's Arab allies - including those running training camps inside Afghanistan - urged the authorities to follow through with their plans, cultural experts say.

After the Taliban removed Massoudi from the director's job, their leader - Mullah Mohammed Omar - issued a decree condemning the offending artworks. The same day he signed the decree - Feb. 26 - the iconoclasm began.

Some museum employees say 2,700 statues might have been lost. Others aren't sure. "I don't know," Williams says. "I don't think anybody knows."

Massoudi and his staff had already moved many items - perhaps thousands - to a location that the Taliban's bureaucrats knew nothing about. Without Massoudi, Sultan says, the entire collection might have been shattered.

"He's a real hero," Sultan says. Williams called him "the most dedicated person in Afghanistan."

In an interview, Massoudi would talk only about his failures. "I was not able to succeed in stopping the Taliban," he says sadly. He credits his staff with acting heroically, saying their defiance of the Taliban could have cost them their lives.

Today, about 70 percent of the museum's collection has either been stolen or destroyed. The ruined building is closed, except for official visitors who come to assess the damage. And the damage is horrific.

Fourteen wooden crates in the basement serve as coffins for magnificent artworks. One statue of Buddha is so badly damaged that the pieces of the feet sit in one box, the torso in another and the head in a third.

Experts say there is evidence that the Taliban helped finance their regime by selling some of the nation's ancient art treasures. At the Ay Khanom Greek ruins in northern Afghanistan, near the Amu Darya River, the site has been excavated by looters trained in archaeological methods.

"They sank wells 3 meters apart and 3 meters deep, with passages connecting them," Williams says. "It's complete excavation directed by someone with archaeological training."

Judging from the piles of dust and gravel in the 14 boxes sitting in the museum basement, it's hard to believe that any of the statues can be saved. But Williams says it is possible to restore many of the damaged works. Many Afghans hope that he is right.

"These are national treasures for all our people," Hak says. "I love my country and its history. It would have been better if they had destroyed me, and not the statues."

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