Ancient art brings new hope for war-weary Afghanistan
Kabul — In his spacious office at the National Museum of Afghanistan, overlooking the bombed-out shell of the former royal palace in Kabul, Omara Khan Massoudi draws heavily on a cigarette and relaxes into a sofa.
He has just spent more than an hour showing local dignitaries a new exhibition of a selection of some 2,000 Afghan artefacts which were illegally smuggled out of the country during three decades of conflict and civil war.
Their return, he said, was a "good beginning."
"We lost a lot of things from our museum and from illegal excavation in different parts of Afghanistan. This is very important," said Massoudi, who was appointed the museum’s director-general in 2002, after the fall of the Taliban.
Along a gloomy corridor and up a grand staircase, visitors peered into glass cabinets of stone carvings dating back 10,000 to 15,000 years, copper-blue jugs and dishes, faded coins and light terra cotta-coloured Buddhist period pots.
Taking pride of place in the two rooms set aside for the exhibition is a copper oil burner from the Ghaznavid empire of the 10th to 12th century, fashioned into the shape of a magnificent plumed peacock.
No less remarkable than the craftsmanship on display is the story of the antiquities’ return to Afghanistan, known more recently for destruction and human suffering than thousands of years of artistic creativity and innovation.
Three years ago, customs officials stopped smugglers trying to take the looted goods through British airports, sparking a huge international effort to trace their origin, catalogue and repatriate them.
In all, 2,098 pieces weighing 3.5 tonnes were recovered and returned earlier this year. Half belong to the pre-Islamic period before the seventh century and most were illegally excavated and smuggled out of the country, said Massoudi.
"Each piece is priceless," he added.
Britain’s ambassador to Afghanistan Mark Sedwill, who attended this week’s unveiling, said the antiquities’ return was a "good day for Afghanistan" and an important step in the country’s development.
"Afghanistan still faces an enormous challenge, as we all know," Sedwill told dignitaries.
"But today we have the opportunity to put back in place one of the building blocks of Afghanistan’s future — that’s rebuilding Afghanistan’s cultural heritage."
About 70 percent of the museum’s 100,000-piece collection was looted by mujahideen fighters during the civil war of the 1990s and exhibits were damaged by rocket fire.
The Taliban, who in 2001 destroyed the giant carved Buddhas in Bamiyan, central Afghanistan, also smashed the museum’s pre-Islamic Buddha figures, deeming them un-Islamic.
But Afghanistan — a crossroads of civilisations on the ancient Silk Road influenced by centuries of trade, invasion and migration — is not an isolated case.
Iraq saw thousands of ancient artefacts, some dating back to the birth of civilisation, looted from museums or destroyed in the anarchic aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The UN’s heritage body UNESCO described the situation as a "disaster."
Interpol’s database of stolen works of art and cultural property is 34,000-strong, with regular reports of theft and disappearances from across the world.
A raft of international conventions exists to prevent the illicit trafficking in cultural property, with the focus on theft prevention and identification of stolen goods through awareness campaigns with museums and art dealers.
A "red list," similar to that for endangered animals, exists and UNESCO is pushing better cataloguing as the key to fighting the black market trade and making detection easier.
But Amareswar Galla, chairman of the International Council of Museums’ cultural task force, said more still needs to be done.
"Stopping the illicit trafficking in cultural property can’t be done by one country. Two countries can’t do it. We all have to do it," he told AFP in Kabul.
Impoverished Afghanistan in particular needs more help to protect its rich array of archaeological sites from illegal excavation and trafficking of artefacts, he said.
Nevertheless, the return of the Afghan treasures is "extremely significant," he said.
"It sends the message out that the motto is ‘no’ to illicit trafficking and in order to do that we need to promote repatriation and know that objects are being repatriated," he added.