Afghan Heritage: Time for Exile?

By Barry, Michael | UNESCO Courier, April 2001 | Go to article overview

Afghan Heritage: Time for Exile?


Barry, Michael, UNESCO Courier


Despite unanimous indignation, the Taleban destroyed the statues of Bamiyan. The international community now has the responsibility to save what it still can

On February 26, 2001, Mullah Omar, the Taleban's self-proclaimed emir, ordered the destruction of all figurative monuments and art works on Afghan soil. This unprecedented step touched off a unanimous international reaction.

Why such an outcry? Why has it fallen on deaf ears? If the Taleban regime had helped to ease the plight of Afghanistan's people in one area or another, I think their iconoclastic wrath would not have sparked such an uproar. Of course, the cultural vandalism has mobilized public opinion. But in this specific case, worldwide indignation was fueled by concern about all the hardships imposed on the Afghan people before crystallizing over the issue of heritage.

Since the Taleban's 1996 seizure of power in Kabul, the regime's unfathomable scorn for the Afghan people has taken many shapes. First, discrimination against the Shiite minority. Then requiring women to wear netted chadors and outlawing school for girls upwards of eight years old. Hundreds of thousands drought-stricken farmers have been forced to leave their land and homes, while poppies are grown in the eastern and southern parts of the country. One single feature sets the destruction of the heritage apart from such other acts of violence: this time, the message is addressed to the international community, and it has been heard.

Investing statues with fearful powers

In 1989, a few weeks after Soviet troops pulled out of Afghanistan, a group of Hezb-i-Islami fighters ransacked the Buddhist monastery of Hadda in the eastern part of the country and destroyed its outstanding art works without sparking any international reaction. These same fighters, who have since joined the Taleban, laid the groundwork for further destruction based on ideological motives.

Mullah Omar's edict gives a formal underpinning to these acts. It demonstrates more than a theoretical scorn for the culture of other communities, especially Buddhist culture: the Taleban's rejection is so radical that they want to wipe it out because they still invest the statues with magical, malevolent and fearful powers.

The earliest depictions of the Buddha occurred in present-day Afghanistan. And since the artists of the first-to fifth-century Gandhara civilization were influenced by Hellenistic sculpture, they gave him the face of Apollo. Japan, Sri Lanka, China, Burma, South Korea and Thailand view Afghanistan as the Athens of Buddhism.

Later, during the 15th century, Herat, in western Afghanistan, was the Florence of Muslim painting. Several centuries earlier, advocates and adversaries argued over whether Islam permitted the depiction of human figures. The caliphate of Damascus settled the dispute, forbidding the depiction of God, but authorizing the portrayal of princes and their power.

The miniatures and illuminated manuscripts that flourished at the court of Herat were heirs to that tradition and determined the canons of the genre, which spread from Istanbul to Agra in the 18th century. Most of these masterpieces were taken to Persia after the kingdom's annexation in 1510, while others accompanied Kabul's Timuride princes, cousins of the Herat court, when they conquered India and set up the Moghol dynasty there. The latest figurative illuminated manuscripts kept in a library north of Kabul were burned after 1996. Moving this heritage outside its area of origin sometimes has positive effects!

Making inventories of plundered collections

In the 20th century, all Muslim countries, without exception, like all other states, adopted the principle that preserving and enhancing archaeological heritage is vital for building a modern nation and represents a base for cultural identity. As all the European powers did after Pompei's discovery in the 18th century, they turned their backs on the holy terror that works of a foreign religious tradition had inspired until then. …

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