Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Ancient Afghanistan, Smuggled in Pieces

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Ancient Afghanistan, Smuggled in Pieces

Article excerpt

Across the border in Afghanistan, the Taliban government has destroyed every Buddha it can get its hands on, images it considers idolatrous. Demolition of the massive standing Buddhas of Bamiyan, confirmed by dramatic photographs last week, sent a shock wave through academic and religious circles as these icons of the Afghan Buddhist civilization were consigned to dust.

But in Naseer Ahmed's shop in Peshawar's antiques market, relics are still trickling in and finding refuge. Like the displaced Afghans who bring them, Afghanistan's endangered Buddhist and Hellenic statues are coming to Pakistan for shelter and safety - and to be sold.

Opening a false door in his show room and walking into a dark, musty chamber, Mr. Ahmed says, "you come into my museum." A Greek terra cotta head is one recent arrival that could date back to the invasion of Alexander the Great. Others are altarpieces that tell the life story of Buddha. "You want big Buddha, small Buddha, it's no problem; but take to your country, it's a big problem at airport," says Ahmed.

Afghanistan's Taliban rulers prohibit anyone from transporting, possessing, or selling religious idols. Pakistan's customs department also restricts their transport into the country, regarding them as stolen goods. But as the hammers and explosives of Afghanistan's religious rulers continue to do their work on their country's historical legacy, the trickle of antiquities may become a flood. Many statues may end up in the hands of people who have little idea of their importance.

"This region, from Peshawar to Bamiyan, played a vital role in the development of Buddhism," says Fidaullah Sehrai, an archaeologist and former director of the Peshawar Museum, and a specialist in the art of the Afghan Buddhist, or Gandhara, culture, which combines Asian and Greco-Roman influences. "It was here that Buddhism was transferred to China, Korea, Japan, along the old Silk Route," says Mr. Sehrai. "It was here that the image of Buddha becomes an important source of worship, and where the mass production of statues begins. And it was here that Tantric Buddhism takes the form of Buddhism that is still practiced in Tibet.

"It is significant, because it is on the crossroads of cultures," he adds. "This is the history of the people of Afghanistan, and it should be maintained as a colorful example of pre-Islamic Afghan culture."

In the US, Taliban officials have said that the destruction was angrily ordered after international aid offers were made specifically to save statues, instead of ease Afghanistan's famine. As photographs pour in from various parts of Afghanistan - the final destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, rubble in Ghazni where a reclining Buddha used to be - it is clear that this pre-Islamic history is disappearing day by day, statue by statue. …

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