Aunohita Mojumdar: 1/30/09
A giant granite bowl standing in the entrance to the newly rebuilt National Museum in Kabul embodies the complexity and richness of Afghanistan’s past. Literally layered with history, the bowl was carved during the Buddhist era and inscribed hundreds of years later, after the advent of Islam. On display, it exemplifies how the country was transformed by centuries of invasion and trade, and how an appreciation of change is essential to rebuilding Afghanistan’s identity. Today the bowl also symbolizes survival in a museum that has lost more than 70 percent of its treasures to the depredations of war. It sits on a gleaming pedestal over polished floors, housed in a museum that is painstakingly restoring itself step by step: renovating the building, restoring the damaged artifacts, re-cataloging a fractured inventory, and introducing modern methods of preservation. What’s more, the museum is also working to reestablish its role as protector of heritage in a society fragmented by years of conflict.
The Director of the National Museum, Omara Khan Masoudi, is well acquainted with the challenges. His association with the museum dates back 30 years, many of them painful. At times he watched as militias looted or destroyed the museum’s treasures. At other points, fighting prevented him from even reaching the site. He finally left the country in 2000, returning two years later when the post-Taliban Minister of Information and Culture invited him to take charge of the museum once again.
Contrary to the popular myth that links the Taliban to the destruction of much of Afghanistan’s art and culture, Masoudi reveals that most of the losses took place during the civil war of the mid-1990s, before the Taliban came to power. It was during the mujahidin’s chaotic rule that many of the museum’s artifacts were destroyed, he says.
“When power changed from communist to mujahidin hands [in 1992], there was a security vacuum. The museum was looted,” Masoudi told EurasiaNet. When the mujahidin factions began fighting among themselves, the South Kabul neighborhood where the museum is located became a battleground. “For two years this area was cut off and we could not reach the museum. Rocket attacks set the museum building on fire, destroying a large part of it.”
Masoudi actually recalls how the Taliban helped the museum in the initial years. Most members of the movement were against the destruction of cultural artifacts and paid attention to safeguarding them, he says. In the late 1990s, even the reclusive Mullah Omar issued edicts calling for the preservation of cultural treasures, including the very Bamiyan Buddhas he would later order destroyed.
“I remember one time a Taliban commander said he would destroy the Buddha statutes,” Masoudi said. “The [Taliban] Minister of Information refuted the idea, saying the Taliban regime would not destroy the pieces in Bamiyan. Up until 2000, they helped keep the artifacts safe. I don’t know what happened after that. I think it was some outside pressure that resulted in the edicts issued in 2001 to destroy the Buddha statues and also all the artifacts in the museum that resembled human figures.”
Many observers have speculated that it was the influence of Osama bin Laden on the Taliban leadership that eventually led to the Buddhas’ destruction. Conservative interpretations of Islam forbid the representation of living creatures.
Much of what is left in the museum was saved through a combination of luck, courage and ingenuity. In 1988, as Soviet forces prepared to withdraw from Afghanistan, and as mujahidin forces advanced on Kabul, the government there decided to store many artifacts in three different places around the capital. These efforts helped save precious collections such as the Bactrian Gold, long thought lost forever, that is currently touring museums in the United States.
Now, thanks to the efforts of Masoudi and others like him, Kabul’s National Museum is restoring damaged pieces and reviewing its inventory. With the help of UNESCO and the International Council of Museums (ICOM), the museum is also identifying stolen treasures and attempting to have known pieces returned. Masoudi describes efforts to develop a “red list” of antiquities, illegal to be owned or traded by individuals. “Last year we got back 5,000 pieces,” he said. But preserving the existing treasures is still a challenge. Officials lack the resources to stop illegal archaeological excavations throughout the country.
The museum, Masoudi adds, urgently needs a security system, climate control, and illumination that will allow light sensitive objects to be stored and displayed according to conservationist requirements.
One of Masoudi’s greatest laments is that the museum’s collection of Afghan heritage is inaccessible to many of the country’s citizens. “It is also important to have museums in the provinces. Not everyone can come to Kabul,” he said. Bamiyan, for example, could have its own museum to display and store artifacts excavated locally, he suggests.
Asked what role the museum will play in shaping Afghanistan’s cultural identity after years of fighting over definitions of identity, Masoudi speaks of the importance of recognizing a multi-layered past. “This country has an ancient civilization. We have to be proud of it, about the pre-Islamic history. We have artifacts which date back 60,000 years or more. When we can display the artifacts belonging to earlier periods in the museum — for example pieces from the Bronze Age — it will be possible for people to understand this very clearly.”
“Educated people try to preserve their culture,” he continued. “Now it is a big challenge.” He believes that it was a lack of education that led to the past looting, and he is keen to ensure exposure to the museum now starts at a young age. “I think every museum has a role in the education of the younger generation. . . . I hope some donors can provide us with one or two buses. Then we could arrange to bring school children here and show them around for free,” he said.
“We could do this everyday. We can host as many as 300 to 400 children at one time,” he continued, as his eyes lit up. “We can show them our country’s rich past.”
Editor’s Note: Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul. She has reported on the South Asian region for the past 18 years.