the-south-asian.com NOVEMBER 2002
NOVEMBER 2002 Contents
- a review
AFGHANISTAN: AN EMPIRE OF BLOOD AND ASH
- the cultural plunder
From the pillar erected in the memory of Abdul Wakil Khan, a Nuristani general who died fighting the conservative followers of Bacha Saqao, we drove on Jadi Darulaman, a broad, 6-km-long tree-lined avenue laid out by King Amanullah when he was building, during the 1920s, Darulaman, the city of Amanullah. During his time, trolley cars plied the length of the road. Over the years, sprawling schools, government offices, embassies, institutes, the National Assembly and other modern buildings were raised on both sides of the road. Today, the entire stretch is lined with the ghostly, devastated remains of these structures, bombed and shelled beyond repair during the bitter civil war between Dostum, Masood and Hikmatyar. In eerie silence, we scanned the deathly scenes. An Alice in Wonderland-palace, perched on a hilltop appeared in the distance, at the end of the straight road. Built by King Amanullah, it was intended to be the National Parliament, but like all the doomed king’s grandiose plans, it never saw the light of the day. As we got closer to the strikingly impressive structure, we noticed its destitution and misery – gaping holes in walls, caved-in roofs and shattered windows. Its façade was pockmarked with sprays of bullets emptied from countless guns. We drove up to the top of the hill and stood on the vacant courtyard of the palace wondering how could people so completely destroy the assets of their nation and massacre their own kith and kin. Yonder, in the distance, on top of another hill, hazy under the noon sun, loomed large in cold aloofness the Tepe Taj Beg, King Amanullah’s new palace that he never saw completed. There, far below us, were the picturesque villages of Rishkor and Gulbagh that our guides discouraged us from visiting, saying they were inhabited by clear-cut fundamentalists with uncertain moods.
Below the ruins of the intended National Parliament was the famous Kabul Museum acknowledged as one of the world’s most opulent depositories, housing elegant antiquities from Alexandria, Ashokan, Akhamansheed, Greek, Buddhist, Kanishkan, Zoroastrian and Muslim periods. We parked our car in shade and hurried through its gate to see its fabled treasures. A headless lion sculpture guarded the door. On seeing us, the museum staff was jolted out of it stupor. Three ladies chattering at the reception ran helter-skelter looking for a man who knew a smattering of English. Meanwhile, we examined some artifacts displayed in the lobby: a limestone inscription written in Greek, a 2nd century AD statue of King Kanishka with its head and torso chopped off, and a Shivalinga. When the man arrived, he informed us that there were no exhibits in the museum. I did not believe him and scouted the end of the corridors, trying to open doors – all of which were padlocked. He assured me that there was nothing inside. Looking through the gaps in the doors, I saw they were all empty.
"Where is the collection of Begram ivories, the Bactrian treasures, the half-naked courtesans, the Buddhas, and the Greek coins? Did the Taliban thugs steal them all," I asked.
"No," he said. "It were the Afghan Mujaheddin factions who plundered the museum as they fought for control of Kabul after the withdrawal of the Soviets. Many of the artifacts were whisked away to the Pakistani smuggling towns of Peshawar and Quetta from where they were sold to international mafia of art collectors. Even the Government of Pakistan made budgetary allocations for buying off the loot."
"Why! That is disgraceful. Selling off your country’s heritage, its civilization. They must have made millions," said I, heatedly.
"The Mujaheddin sold much of it for a song. The sword of Ahmed Shah Abdali, I am told, was sold in Peshawar for $ 6 – and resold to a European businessman for $120,000," said the man without any emotion.
"President Najibullah had taken away 20 tin trunks full of relics…"
"Before he was hanged?" I asked.
"Of course! The Taliban, when they seized the government, took custody of the trunks. But not keen to promote Afghanistan's non-Islamic heritage, they left them locked. Meanwhile, they destroyed the priceless Bamiyan Buddhas with rockets and tanks. Now with the Taliban snuffed out, the contents of the trunks will be brought back to the Museum next week. As you can see, we are in the process of welcoming back these artifacts to the museum."
I could only nod in disgust at the cultural suicide.
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