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Saving Afghan Culture On Assignment

Saving Afghan Culture On Assignment

Saving Afghan Culture
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Saving Afghan Culture @ National Geographic Magazine
   
By Andrew LawlerPhotographs by Kenneth Garrett



The fabled Bactrian gold is back, but other antiquities are quickly disappearing from Afghanistan. With the country trying to rebuild after decades of conflict, can its past be part of its future?



Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

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. But still at risk are thousands of works of art and archaeological artifacts—evidence of the area's rich and complex history.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.


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Photographer Kenneth Garrett describes how Afghanistan is slowly recovering its lost antiquities.

Flashback
Flashback to 1922 when journalist Lowell Thomas and his team decided to ignore the dangers posted on a sign at the Afghanistan border.


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In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
…that some eight months passed between the moment the safes with the suspected Bactrian gold were found and when they were actually opened? The primary reason for this delay was because no one could find the keys. Or their keeper, anyway. A vital member of an honor system for holding property that dates back to the Ottoman Empire, the talwildar, in this case "the keeper of the keys," was the only one allowed by law to open the safes. This system helped protect these treasures from an outsider's grasp.
           
But no one had known of this talwildar's whereabouts for at least a decade, or that of his sons, who were next in line to assume responsibility for the keys. A lengthy appeal process took place resulting in a decree that a representative from the Ministry of Justice could assume the talwildar's role. Only then could the safecracking begin.
 
— Karen Courtnage
Did You Know?

Related Links
Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage
spach.info
This nonprofit organization based in Afghanistan provides educational resources on cultural heritage issues affecting that nation.

UNESCO: Afghan Cultural Heritage
portal.unesco.org/en/
Go to this website to get additional resources for Afghan cultural preservation.

Institute for War and Peace Reporting: Afghanistan
www.iwpr.net/afghan_index1.html
Keep informed on daily news in Afghanistan with this website.

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Bibliography
Baidar, Walid. "Looting of Antiquities on the Rise." Institute for War and Peace Reporting, April 9, 2002. Available online at www.iwpr.net/index.pl?archive/rca/rca_200204_114_4_eng.txt.
 
Bopearachchi, Osmund. "Vandalised Afghanistan." Frontline (March 16-29, 2002). Available online at www.flonnet.com/fl1906/19060660.htm.
 
Dupree, Nancy Hatch. An Historical Guide to Afghanistan. Afghan Air Authority and Afghan Tourist Organization, 1977.
 
Dupree, Nancy Hatch. "Museum Under Siege." Archaeology (April 20, 1998). Available online at www.archaeology.org/online/features/afghan/index.html.
 
Dupree, Nancy Hatch, Louis Dupree, and A. A. Motamedi. The National Museum of Afghanistan: A Pictorial Guide. Afghan Air Authority and Afghan Tourist Organization, 1974.
 
Institute of Archaeology of the USSR Academy of Sciences & National Museum of Afghanistan. Bactrian Gold: From the Excavations of Tillya-Tepe Necropolis in Northern Afghanistan. Aurora Art Publishers, 1985.
 
Lawler, Andrew. "Afghani Restoration Lags; Looting Proceeds Apace." Science (July 4, 2003), 25.
 
Lawler, Andrew. "Reclaiming Afghanistan's Past." Science (November 8, 2002), 1195-1204.
 
Lee, Jonathan, and Nicholas Sims-Williams. "The Antiquities and Inscription of Tang-i Safedak." Silk Road Art and Archaeology (2003), 159-84.
 
Romey, Kristin M. "The Race to Save Afghan Culture." Archaeology (May/June 2002), 18-25.

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NGS Resources
Girardet, Edward. "A New Day in Kabul." National Geographic (December 2002), 90-103.
 
Edwards, Mike. "Central Asia Unveiled." National Geographic (February 2002), 108-23.
 
Zackowitz, Margaret. "A Kid's Life: Afghanistan." National Geographic World (January/February 2002), 26-7.
 
Belt, Don. "The World of Islam." National Geographic (January 2002), 76-85.
 
Belt, Don. The World of Islam. National Geographic Books, January 2002.
 
Girardet, Edward. "Eyewitness Afghanistan." National Geographic (December 2001), 130-7.

Miller, Peter. "Afghanistan: Land in Crisis." National Geographic (December 2001), map supplement.
 
Edwards, Mike. "The Adventures of Marco Polo." Part I, National Geographic (May 2001), 2-31.
 
Junger, Sebastian. "The Lion in Winter." National Geographic Adventure (March/April 2001), 76-86, 88, 90, 135-9.
 
Mackenzie, Richard. "Afghanistan's Uneasy Peace." National Geographic (October 1993), 58-89.
 
Sarianidi, Viktor Ivanovich. "The Golden Hoard of Bactria." National Geographic (March 1990), 50-75.
 
Denker, Debra. "Along Afghanistan's War-torn Frontier." National Geographic (June 1985), 772-97.
 
Edwards, Mike. "Kabul, Afghanistan's Troubled Capital." National Geographic (April 1985), 494-505.
 
Abercrombie, Thomas J. "Islam's Heartland, Up in Arms." National Geographic (September 1980), 334-45.
 
Abercrombie, Thomas J. "Afghanistan: Crossroad of Conquerors." National Geographic (September 1968), 297-345.
 
Williams, Maynard Owen. "Back to Afghanistan." National Geographic (October 1946), 517-44.
 
Williams, Maynard Owen. "Afghanistan Makes Haste Slowly." National Geographic (December 1933), 731-69.
 
Hussein, Haji Mirza (Oscar Von Niedermeyer), and Frederick Simpich. "Every-Day Life in Afghanistan." National Geographic (January 1921), 85-110.
 
Huntington, Ellsworth. "The Afghan Borderland, Part I: The Russian Frontier." National Geographic (September 1909), 788-99.
 
Huntington, Ellsworth. "The Afghan Borderland. Part II: The Persian Frontier." National Geographic (October 1909), 866-76.

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