War-torn Afghanistan needs world’s help to preserve cultural heritage

A view of the citadel in Herat

June 05, 2011, Sunday/ 13:50:00

It is hard to believe that the city we recently visited once inspired Jelaluddin Rumi to write: "If someone asks you which city is the most beautiful; Say it is ‘Herat,' if you want to give him the correct answer; Think of this world as a river, and Khorasan a shell; Inside the shell Herat is the pearl."

Sponsored by the US government last week, a six-day “Cultural heritage tour” to Afghanistan for a small group of international journalists, including those from Sunday's Zaman, proved once more that war and occupation devastate not only the people and infrastructure of a country, but also its cultural heritage, which actually belongs to all of humanity, as was obvious in Afghanistan.

We started our tour in Herat in northwest Afghanistan. Once the pearl of Khorasan, it was the scene of a deadly attack last Monday, as an explosion killed at least four people in a bustling downtown area and a car bomb at the gates of a NATO base injured several Italian soldiers inside. But when we were there the situation was relatively calm, especially in the Musalla complex, which explains why Rumi adored Herat, although the complex is almost completely destroyed now.

Herat’s Musalla complex dates back to the 15th century. Once upon a time it had 10 minarets, of which only five remain because British forces occupying the area destroyed some of them at the end of the 19th century, claiming the minarets were blocking their view of the road they expected the Russians to come from. The Russians did not come, at least at that time, but the minarets, which were described by British travel writer Robert Byron as “an array of blue towers rising haphazard from a patchwork of brown fields and yellow orchards,” were destroyed. In addition to that, an earthquake and the later Russian occupation greatly damaged the rest of the complex.

Today five minarets and the mausoleum of Goharshad, the daughter-in-law of Mughal Emperor Timor and founder of the complex, are all that remains of a grand mosque and seminary complex once decorated with brilliant glazed tiles.

Today, the Afghan government is trying to get the Musalla complex on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, but UNESCO has some conditions for inclusion, such as the closure of a road that runs through the complex. The Afghan government is about to fulfill that requirement by constructing a bypass road with the help of the US government.

Laura Tedesco, an archaeologist working with the US State Department, underlines that they are trying to help the Afghan government raise funds for the preservation of the Goharshad mausoleum and building a small bridge on the new bypass road, which will replace the former road between the minarets. She adds that the US government is also encouraging a number of other countries to support long-term projects for the preservation of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage.

But Ayamudin Ajmal, Herat province’s director of historic monuments, points out that $85,000 has been donated for the complex so far; however, most of that has been spent on hiring foreign experts, a general problem not only for Musalla but for other projects in Afghanistan.

However, our second stop in the citadel of Herat, Qala Ikhtyaruddin, was more promising because its renovation fit the concept of “Afghan ownership.” According to Ajmal Maiwandi, an Afghanistan-born architect, the reconstruction of the Qala Ikhtyaruddin created an estimated 30,000 work days. The workshops they established to produce bricks for the walls of the citadel are still in use, since the bricks are suitable as a construction material in Herat. When we were there, some carpenters were restoring windows of the citadel dating back to the time of Alexander the Great. Maiwandi proudly said that some of the carpenters were trained in their profession because of this project.

The Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture took over the site, which was full of land mines, in 2005 and it took several months just to remove all of them. The ministry worked very closely with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) on the citadel’s preservation. The restoration, which is nearing completion, is the biggest cultural project supported by the US government outside of the US and their contribution is $1.2 million. Qala Ikhtyaruddin will be home to a provincial archaeological museum and archive with funding and technical assistance from the German Archeological Institute and the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin.

Proud of what has been achieved in the citadel, Maiwandi hopes that the citadel will serve as a symbol of unity for the nation and that its amphitheater will be a stage for many cultural events. We had a chance to talk to him about the Afghan diaspora also, as he was a member of it.

“The Afghans who might contribute to the reconstruction of the country are either not interested, they come here with projects that do not fit the realities on the ground or sometimes they are not able to stand the conditions and again leave the country. But I had the citadel to hide in,” he told Sunday’s Zaman.

‘A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive’

At the entrance to the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul, which lost 70 percent its collection to looting and destruction during the wars, a placard reads “A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive.” But even a quick look at the 30 percent of the collection that is exhibited there gives an idea of what cultural genocide means and shows that no matter how painstaking they are, efforts to revive a cultural heritage that has lost so much are bound to be limited.

The history of the National Museum is a reflection of modern Afghanistan, although it exhibits the country’s ancient culture. It was established in 1919 and first looted during riots in 1930. Another serious blow came during the coup of 1978, when the museum was closed. It was reopened due to political stability but was closed again between 1992 and 1994, during the Afghan civil war. Most of the museum’s inventory has been destroyed by looters. When the Taliban seized the city, its pre-Islamic era collection was also damaged. Since 2002, approximately 15,000 works of art, including 8,500 from outside the country have been returned to the museum. The museum currently hosts an exhibition of items that were brought back after British police captured smugglers trying to bring them into England in 2009.

There are now efforts to construct a new national museum next to the existing one. The new building will one day serve as the home of the “Hidden Treasures of Afghanistan” exhibition currently travelling the world. The new building will hopefully provide better conditions and a state-of-the-art security system and administrative space, as well as beautiful new exhibition spaces. The Ministry of Culture will commit $2 million to support the new museum and the US government recently pledged $5 million.

Another restoration effort in Kabul is at the Babur gardens, a peaceful park with plenty of trees and plants that serves as the final resting place of its founder, the Mughal Emperor Babur. Constructed in the 16th century, the garden was described by Babur in detail in “Baburnama,” the founder’s memoirs, which proved very useful when reconstruction was started in 2002, after it changed hands several times and was greatly damaged during the wars. Just clearing out the garbage and debris took six months but today, with its wonderful view of Kabul, it is frequently visited by many residents, especially young people.

The third stop on our tour was Ghazni, which was declared the Asian capital of Islamic civilization for the year 2013 by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). This is one of the reasons for the reconstruction efforts in the city, which we visited under heavy security measures provided by the Polish army. The citadel of Ghazni lies in ruins and we have been told that what remains will be preserved with the help of Germany. The Museum of Islamic Art in the city is under construction with the assistance of the Italians and the project to preserve one of its most important monuments, the minarets dating back to the 12th century, will be developed by the Americans. Ghazni Provincial Governor Musa Khan says that they have been unable to get enough support from Islamic countries, including Turkey. Officials from Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Sunday’s Zaman that they had already contributed much to the cultural projects of Afghanistan and they are still considering constructing a mosque with a capacity of 5,000 people and a cultural center.

Economic development versus historical culture

Afghanistan is in desperate need of economic development and, in this respect, it needs the income that can be generated in Mes Aynak, Logar province, the world’s second-biggest unexploited copper mine, which is at the same time home to an ancient Buddhist monastery. Within a year, the copper mine would be able to generate $1.2 billion for Afghanistan annually but because mining has the potential to destroy what remains of the monastery, Buddhist archaeologists are rushing to salvage what they can from the major seventh century B.C. religious site. The monastery complex has been excavated, revealing hallways and rooms decorated with frescoes and filled with clay and stone statues of standing and reclining Buddhas, some as tall as six meters, but there is still much to do.

The copper mine will be exploited by China, whose investment in Mes Aynak is the largest foreign investment in Afghanistan. The Chinese government wants to start building the mine within one year; however, archaeologists working at the site worry that that might not be enough time to excavate the artifacts and bring them to a secure place.

“That site is so massive that it’s easily a 10-year archaeological campaign,” says Tedesco. Philippe Marquis, a French archaeologist advising the Afghans, adds that they lack the archaeologists necessary to finish the work on time. He says it is one of the most important archaeological projects currently being undertaken.

International efforts, with the help of the World Bank, to save the site are a race against time but at the same a duty to Afghanistan, which has been devastated by the wars and occupations imposed on it. The world owes Afghanistan this.

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