Saving the Antiquities

Article excerpt

As far as the Taliban leaders are concerned, the best way to preserve Afghanistan's culture is to demolish antiquities that aren't Islamic-- including the two giant Buddhas of Bamiyan that they blasted to pieces in March. But while the hard-liners are busy destroying, some more moderate Taliban members have found a different way to protect the nation's heritage: they have been sneaking Buddhist and Greek artifacts out of the country for safekeeping. Loading them in trunks and suitcases, they are taking them abroad to escape Afghanistan's ongoing war--and the mounting religious fervor of some of their colleagues.

Their unlikely destination: the prosperous village of Bubendorf, Switzerland, where an Afghanistan expert named Paul Bucherer-Dietschi has been stashing the items in a tiny museum on Hauptstrasse. Inside, a Greco-Bactrian bronze sits in a glass case, near an ancestral figure carved in 1500 B.C. and an ancient life-size glass phallus, presumably a fertility totem. All were carried out of Afghanistan over the past few months by moderate members of the Taliban and its rival, the Northern Alliance. In fact, the only thing the two sides have been able to agree on lately, says Bucherer-Dietschi, is the importance of preserving the past. "Both sides are afraid they won't have anything to put their feet on after the war," he says. "Without [their cultural heritage], the country would be like a swamp."

For years, Afghans had been begging Bucherer-Dietschi, who has good relations with both the warring parties, to hide ancient treasures in Switzerland for safety. He'd always refused, arguing that the country's cultural heritage should remain there. But he changed his mind last summer, after he got funds from the Swiss government and support from UNESCO, and finally opened the Afghanistan Museum late last year. His timing couldn't have been better: Taliban hard-liners began cracking down on Buddhist art last fall after a foreigner visiting the Kabul Museum made a gesture before a Buddha that the hard-liners mistook for prayer. (Idol worship is forbidden in Islam.) The misunderstanding generated a hostility to Afghanistan's non-Muslim heritage, prompting the Taliban's well-recorded campaign to destroy antiquities that culminated in the Bamiyan Buddhas' destruction.

Still, not everyone welcomed Bucherer-Dietschi's move. At a meeting this winter at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, Central Asian antiquities experts "accused me of robbing Afghan culture, of destroying it," says Bucherer-Dietschi. Shortly thereafter, the Taliban began blowing up the Buddhas, provoking a worldwide outcry. At an emergency meeting five days later, Bucherer-Dietschi was treated as a hero. "Everyone applauded me," he says. Even UNESCO, longtime champion of keeping cultural-heritage objects in their historical settings, said the "exceptional" circumstances warranted the removal of artifacts from Afghanistan for safekeeping.

The Taliban's ruthless campaign of destruction stoked a centuries-old debate: is it better for a country's cultural heritage to be exported or to remain in place? The answer, of course, is that it depends on the circumstances. It also depends on whom you ask. Dealers, museums and private collectors tend to agree that the legal international antiquities trade spreads culture and protects artifacts by giving them a market value. For archeologists, preservationists and some national governments, the antiquities market promotes looting, which destroys cultural heritage. (Taliban hard-liners believe that destroying antiquities protects cultural heritage.) James Ede, a London dealer and head of the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art, recalls how the opposing views became clear to him at an international antiquities conference several years ago. A Turkish delegate approached him and said, "When I see Turkish art in the British Museum, I feel sick." Countered Ede: "Won't the fact that they're in a British museum make more people want to come to Turkey? …