Taliban promise to protect Afghan cultural heritage, but fears persist

Taliban officials have promised to protect the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul, and its precious collection of cultural objects...


Taliban officials have promised to protect the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul, and its precious collection of cultural objects, the museum’s director said in an interview on Thursday.

The Taliban posted a small group of armed guards outside the museum to prevent the looting, according to director Mohammad Fahim Rahimi, who said he met Taliban officials on Wednesday.

“If there had been fighting it could have been a disaster and could have destroyed a lot of things here and many monuments across the country,” Rahimi said. “We’re a little lucky so far that the change of power hasn’t cost so much death and destruction.”

“We still have great concern for the safety of our staff and our collection,” he added.

Caution seemed appropriate as scenes of chaos continued to emerge in Kabul, where thousands continue to crowd outside the airport in desperate attempts to leave the country. Cultural preservation experts continue to fear that Taliban militants are targeting Afghanistan’s ancient legacy as they did the last time they took over the country, ransack the museum and notoriously blasting with artillery and dynamite the giant Bamiyan Buddhas, huge statues that had been carved into the mountainside 1,500 years ago.

The museum, considered one of the world’s largest repositories of ancient cultures, suffered greatly in the 1990s as civil war led to the looting and destruction of most of its buildings. After the Taliban were ousted in 2001, museum officials reported that the Taliban confiscated or destroyed several thousand items from its collection, mostly Buddhist statues and other relics deemed un-Islamic or idolatrous.

“There are very real reasons to be concerned about Afghan heritage because of this invocation of the prohibition of idolatry,” said Gil Stein, professor of archeology at the University of Chicago. “Their public statements are much more subdued, but I don’t know if anyone in the West knows how facade it is.”

“I would like them to know that the world is watching,” he added, “and that it really matters.”

And certainly concerns for cultural artifacts extend far beyond Kabul to regional museums and sensitive archaeological sites across the country, such as Mes Aynak, in Logar province, where the remains of an ancient Buddhist town have been found. delivered many archaeological treasures.

Even in cases where artefacts are not immediately threatened, experts worry about what will happen to cultural objects and sites that may be overlooked due to the termination of delicate preservation projects, looting or rejection. fundamentalist by the Taliban of pre-Islamic or other art.

The Taliban have struggled to present a public image that would allay those fears, issuing a statement in February that promised to protect the nation’s cultural heritage and ordering its members to prevent looting.

“As Afghanistan is a country teeming with ancient artefacts and antiques, and these relics are part of our country’s history, identity and rich culture, everyone has an obligation to protect , monitor and preserve these artifacts, “he said. “All mujahedin must prevent excavation of antiquities and preserve all historic sites like ancient fortresses, minarets, towers and the like,” he continued, “to protect them from damage, destruction and destruction. degradation”.

In a meeting last week from Doha with The Daily Mirror, a Sri Lankan news agency, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said: “Buddhist sites in Afghanistan are not threatened; I refute any allegation in this regard.

Some experts are hoping that the Taliban has really changed and that they have a more sophisticated understanding that outrage at any large-scale cultural destruction would harm their international relations.

Cheryl Benard, director of the Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage, said the Taliban are nationalist and religious and should recognize the importance of the country’s treasures to the Afghan people. “Everyone is in wait and see mode,” she said. “The greatest danger is that a renegade individual sets out on a frenzy of destruction, but they seem surprisingly disciplined so far.”

Other experts, though concerned, find some relief in the fact that the documentation of Afghan cultural heritage has improved a lot in recent years. Organizations have spent years “creating catalogs of museum collections, maps of archaeological sites, 3D models of heritage buildings, but also documenting intangible heritage, recording potters ‘movements, masons’ equipment” , said Bastien Varoutsikos, expert in cultural heritage. E-mail.

“All of this data is a record of the current state of Afghan heritage on day 0,” he said. “Although it is far from complete,” he added, it is better than it was two decades ago.

The Taliban also appear to have been affected by the storm of indignation that accompanied their destruction of the Buddhas and are unlikely to be interested in attracting this kind of global contempt again, Varoutsikos said. “The Taliban have a very clear understanding of this and, in their communication, try to reassure both the Afghans and the international community,” he said.

But many remain skeptical, pointing to similar assurances the Taliban last gave and then ignored.

“The Taliban are currently trying to project an image of ‘we are not going to touch anything else’, but knowing that the group is an ideological movement, I think it will be very difficult for them to do so,” said one. head of the US Institute for Afghanistan Studies, who left Afghanistan but requested anonymity due to concerns for the safety of his family still there.

Bijan Rouhani, an Oxford University scholar specializing in the protection of heritage sites in conflict zones, said: The leaders say things they have changed, we don’t know what the situation is with the local groups and warlords who are under the same flag.

During their conversations with Mr. Rahimi outside the National Museum earlier this week, the Taliban said they would not enter the institution where fighters once caused so much harm. During two decades of international occupation of Kabul, millions of dollars were spent to renovate the museum, and Interpol and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization helped recover a few thousand objects. who had illegally entered foreign museums or the international antiques market. .

Today the museum is considered a design gem as well as an important institution. The artefacts have been repaired and the museum contains hand tools and other artefacts from the Stone Age, as well as valuable wood carvings, statues and other artifacts from the Bronze, Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic.

Mr Rahimi said the museum had drawn up a contingency plan to move the estimated 50,000 treasures in its collections to safe locations, but had failed to implement the plan due to the rapid takeover by the Taliban. .

In Bamiyan, the niches of the giant Buddhas are empty today to recall the past contempt of the Taliban for outside cultures. Last March, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the destruction of the Buddhas, UNESCO helped sponsor a Structural Commemoration Day, with a full-size, color 3D projection of the statues in the rock alcoves on the cliff side. .

Restoration work was underway to stabilize the niches and UNESCO, which has labeled the valley where the Buddhas once stood an world heritage site – one of two in the country – was due to open a heritage center telling the story of the region, including what the Taliban did to it.

Ernesto Ottone, deputy director general of the cultural sector at UNESCO, said: “Every day there are Taliban excursions to the site, but at the moment we have no information about the destruction taking place. “

Bamiyan is the unofficial capital of the Hazaras, an ethnic minority persecuted by the Taliban in the past. Since taking power this time around, in a move being watched by experts concerned about cultural destruction, the activists recently detonated a statue in Bamiyan from the Shiite militia leader Abdul Ali Mazari, who was killed by the Taliban in 1995.

For now, experts hope this is an aberration, not an early indication that the group will start destroying cultural treasures again.

“We must remain hopeful that the February declaration declaring a commitment to protect cultural heritage will be honored,” Bénédicte de Montlaur, president of the World Monuments Fund, said in a statement. “The whole world will be watching to see how it is being followed. “

Alex Marshall contributed reporting.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Taliban promise to protect Afghan cultural heritage, but fears persist
Taliban promise to protect Afghan cultural heritage, but fears persist
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