Published: December 2004

Saving Afghan Culture

By Andrew Lawler
Photograph by Kenneth Garrett
Carved from ivory, mythical creatures of India adorned an elaborate chair in about the late first century A.D. This masterpiece belonged to a cache of luxury goods—including Roman glassware and Chinese lacquered boxes—that was discovered in the 1930s near the modern town of Begram. The National Museum in Kabul displayed the ivory for years, but it disappeared in the late 1970s as civil war rocked the country. This and similar objects were feared to have been smuggled out of the country and sold, but were recently found hidden in the same vault as the Bactrian gold.

He feared for his life, all because he found an inscribed slab of stone near his village. Mohammed Mokhtar Ahmadi had challenged a warlord's demand that he turn over the valuable object, and so he was hiding out in Kabul, afraid to return to his home in the central highlands of Afghanistan. "Everywhere I walk, I worry they will kill me—kill me!" he said as we plowed slowly through the capital's traffic of honking cars, belching trucks, ramshackle donkey carts, and daring pedestrians.

Ahmadi's trials began in 1995 when he and his brother stumbled on an ancient Buddhist shrine near their small town of Tangisafedak. Inside they found a stone box with a book, gold coins, and a gemstone; an outer wall bore an inscription with strange letters. Word of the discovery spread, and soldiers loyal to the local warlord, Abdul Karim Khalili, took away the box and its contents.

After the stone inscription was removed from the wall, Ahmadi, a village leader, held on to it for safekeeping. By 2002 Khalili had become a vice president of the post-Taliban Afghanistan, and his private militia returned to demand the stone. Ahmadi only relented when they agreed to give him a receipt. Then he promptly went to Kabul to notify the Ministry of Information and Culture. When Khalili was questioned by local media, he initially denied knowing about either the box or the stone. A Kabul newspaper, however, published a copy of the receipt backing up Ahmadi's story, and Khalili delivered the stone to the National Museum. The whereabouts of the box and its contents remains a mystery—and Khalili has refused to discuss the matter.

Ahmadi was afraid that the artifacts from his country's breathtaking cultural heritage would be sold and vanish from Afghanistan forever. In an interview before the October elections, a senior government official shared his concern, saying that Khalili was only one of many warlords with a taste both for antiquities and vengeance. Upstanding citizens who complained about looting, he added, could face arrest or worse. Ahmadi was right to fear for his life.

And Afghans are right to fear for their country's treasures. Yes, in a stunning piece of good news last April, the famed Bactrian gold—more than 20,000 pieces feared to be missing—emerged intact from a sealed underground vault at the presidential palace in Kabul (see "Gold Rush" sidebar). But still at risk are thousands of works of art and archaeological artifacts—evidence of the area's rich and complex history.

Long a hub of trade flowing from east to west and north to south, Afghanistan is where caravans of bundled Chinese silk passed camels loaded with glass from ancient Rome. It's where classical Greek art fused with the sinuous sculpture of India. The storied city of Balkh at the foot of the central highlands is the legendary home of the great prophet Zoroaster, who lived here centuries before Alexander the Great arrived. And it was in this region that Buddhism was transformed into a vibrant world religion.

Nowhere is the past so evident as the remote valley of Bamian, northwest of Kabul at the edge of the Hindu Kush mountain range. A vast Buddhist community of devout monks and nuns thrived here in the early centuries a.d. Two giant Buddhas once towered over the valley and its sprawling monasteries, gleaming in gilt and bright paint, possibly gesturing with wooden arms and attracting pilgrims from as far away as China. Rain and snow and marauders robbed the Buddhas of their faces and arms, but they remained magnificent sentinels of the province until 2001, when the ruling Taliban blasted the Buddhas into dust, causing a global outcry.

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