Afghan Archaeology on Road to Recovery

Continuous domestic and international turbulence has left Afghanistan's cultural sites severely damaged, especially after the mass plundering by the Taliban. As Afghans start to rebuild, the country is attracting archaeological researchers back to restore its cultural heritage; the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), along with many other foreign research institutions, has stepped in to offer support. In order to provide better support for research and enhance Afghanistan's historic heritage, comments this article, technical training for young professionals and international cooperation will greatly aid in the monument and museum restoration. – YaleGlobal

Afghan Archaeology on Road to Recovery

International teams help troubled nation restore cultural heritage after decades of strife
John W. Betlyon
Tuesday, October 12, 2004

KABUL, Afghanistan: Persian and Hellenistic strata uncovered in Bagram (ancient Kapissa) were bulldozed into the ground and destroyed. The Great Buddha from the Bamiyan Valley was dynamited. Everywhere the Taliban destroyed anything that told a story about Afghanistan's cultural and historical heritage, predating their particularly sectarian version of "history."

Now Afghanistan is recovering from years of war and civil strife. Seventy years of hard work and research have been lost through the chaos and anarchy of war. The central government had become so weak that it was not in a position to protect any public or state properties. In the early 1990's, over 60,000 citizens of Kabul died in the fighting, and nearly 70 percent of the objects in the National Museum were plundered.

Now in 2004, one finds new construction everywhere, as foreign investment and returning Afghan refugees rebuild and refashion a new country, constructed on a new set of laws.

At the same time, the Afghan National Army and forces from a coalition of over 25 other nations remain in the field fighting remnants of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Troops are also working hard to build a secure, stable environment in which infrastructure and commerce can resume and thrive.

In this dynamic matrix, the Afghan people are learning what it means to be "Afghan" and not Pashtun, or Tajik, or Turkomen, or Hazzarat, or Dari, or Uzbek.

The world reacted swiftly to the terrible news of the destruction of the Great Buddha of Bamiyan, when Taliban forces dynamited the colossal statue in 2001.

This was, however, a part of the Taliban's strategy. Excavations that had unearthed Persian and Hellenistic levels at Bagram were bulldozed. The once-proud Afghan National Museum in Kabul was looted and the building destroyed.

Fortunately many of the museum's treasures are apparently still in the country, and the building is being refurbished. Soon the National Geographic Society and the French government will assist the Afghan Culture and Information Ministry to take an inventory of the museum's objects as rehabilitation continues.

In a recent interview in Kabul, the Deputy Minister of Culture and Information, G. R. Yusufzai, spoke about the current state of archaeological research. "Our rich cultural heritage is still largely buried under the ground," said Yusufzai. "The opportunities for excavation and research are boundless."

Excavators from Japan are working to map an important Buddhist temple complex in the Bamiyan valley. A team from the Republic of Korea is assessing sites for excavation in and around the capital city of Kabul. Australian and Italian archaeologists are considering sites for new excavation elsewhere in the nation.

However, infrastructure problems include a lack of electrical power and clean water, and the disrepair of the nation's highways makes travel virtually impossible, except by helicopter. Security concerns are an issue everywhere except in Kabul. Provincial reconstruction teams from the United States and other NATO and European Community nations are rebuilding schools, mosques and highways in all the provinces.

Current prospects for reopening excavations in and around Bagram are complicated by one of the largest minefields in the world. More and more areas are being cleared of mines and explosives, but renewed excavation in this area remains a future hope only. Site security and safety of excavation personnel remain serious issues at this time in many parts of the country.

The future, however, is brighter and intimately linked to the past. Afghanistan was a crossroads for the major powers of the ancient and modern world. Cyrus the Great of Persia founded Bagram. Alexander the Great founded a town in his own honor near the edge of the Registan Desert, now called Kandahar. Alexander lived in Bagram (Cyrus' Kapissa) for two years and married Roxanne, a young woman from the area west of modern Mazar-I Sharif. Ghengis Khan would later ravage the country, purposefully destroying the elaborate waterworks which lined the Helmand River. Those waterworks have still not been rebuilt more than a millennium later, but their remains are extant.

Afghanistan has an incredibly rich cultural and historical heritage. With the help of UNESCO and a consortium of universities from the U.S. and the European Economic Community, progress and research will proceed. Mr. A. W. Feroozi, Director General of the Afghan National Institute of Archaeology, reported that there are over 2,800 known archaeological sites.

The biggest problem currently facing the transitional Islamic republic government is the looting and destruction of these sites. There is an urgent need for more excavation, for cultural and historical preservation of the excavated sites, and for financial assistance to fund these efforts. For example, the Interior Ministry wishes to deploy up to 500 guards for antiquities sites, but has no budget to hire and train the required personnel.

The Culture and Information Ministry is negotiating agreements with several nations at this time. Using the UNESCO protocols as a model, Afghanistan is seeking help from other governments, including the U.S. Opportunities for research, fieldwork and investment abound because so much of this nation's past remains buried beneath the sands and dust of Central Asia.

Afghanistan's past is part of the world's cultural treasure. This land was the limit of Alexander's Hellenistic empire. These mountains and valleys are where London and Moscow played "the great game" for control of central and south Asia. Here Babur built lavish gardens, splendid shrines and magnificent Islamic schools and mosques, some of which still sparkle in the brilliant sunshine.

Opportunities for research will grow as peace and stability are gradually restored and strengthened in all provinces of the nation.

Until then, archaeological institutions and foreign governments are asked to help in the renewal of Afghanistan's cultural heritage. UNESCO and Interpol, for example, can assist in the return of stolen and lost archaeological treasures which have surfaced on the international market.

Training for new, young professionals is needed to provide the technical support for restoring Afghanistan's museums and historical monuments. The ratification of new protocols will enable scientific and academic cooperation between Afghan and international archaeological organizations, enhancing research into Afghanistan's historical and cultural heritage.

Afghan officials hope that other international institutions will join the Free Archaeological Institute of Berlin, the Oriental and African Research Institute of Rome, the Cultural Heritage Research Institute of Tokyo and the University of Sydney, which have all recently signed protocols with the Afghan National Institute of Archaeology.

The possibilities for future work are virtually unlimited, and are very exciting.

This article is published in the Daily Star with the cooperation of the American Schools of Oriental Research, the leading North American scholarly body for the study of the ancient Middle East. The article was originally published in Near Eastern Archeology, Volumes 67-68, 2004.

Copyright © 2004 The Daily Star


I do not mean to criticize, i am merely curious. What is the source which shows Cyrus the Great founded Bagram. Is this based in archaeological explorations?

This is an article reprinted from The Daily Star in Lebanon and so we cannot provide the source.  The original source for that article was Near Eastern Archeology, Volumes 67-68, 2004, and a note has been added to that effect.