Afghanistan has a rich heritage. As a crossroads of trade it spawned numerous civilizations that were influenced by cultures as far away as Macedonia. There was even a thriving Buddhist culture in Afghanistan that created art inspired by Classical Greek models.
It’s also been rocked by decades of war that saw the destruction of many of its ancient sites and museums. The National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul was especially hard hit. During the 1990s it was shelled and caught fire. When the Taliban took over, they destroyed about 2,500 of the museum’s statues for being un-Islamic. Gold and silver artifacts were stolen and melted down or sold on the international antiquities market.
Now the museum is slowly rebuilding, Art Daily reports. An international network of police forces and museums has been tracking down the museum’s stolen artifacts, as well as those illegally excavated in lawless parts of the country, and returning them to Kabul.
The museum staff surprised the world in 2003 by producing a wealth of artifacts they had hidden during the years of Taliban rule. These included thousands of pieces of gold jewelry and coins from the Bactrian era, more than 2,000 years ago. Those pieces are now on tour around the world as part of the exhibition “Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul.” The exhibition just closed in Norway and is now headed to Australia.
There are still problems for Kabul’s museum. Power cuts are a regular occurrence, and the Taliban still threaten countryside. They and other Islamic extremists would love to smash a few thousand more statues. Moderate Muslims, like the staff at the museum and the locals who come to visit, see the Buddhist statues and other pre-Islamic artifacts as the heritage of their nation, not threats to their religion. One hopes that moderate Islam wins out in a country flattened by warfare, and that Kabul’s archaeology museum, once the finest in the region, can keep its doors open without fear.
Check out the photo gallery for a sample of Afghanistan’s magnificent ancient heritage.