Taliban officials have pledged to protect the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul and its valuable collection of cultural artifacts, the museum director said in an interview on Thursday.
The Taliban have placed a small group of armed guards outside the museum to prevent looting, its director, Mohammad Fahim Rahimi, said he met with Taliban officials on Wednesday.
“Had there been fighting, it could have been a disaster and destroyed many things here and many monuments across the country,” Mr Rahimi said. “For the time being, we are a bit lucky that the change of power did not cost such death and destruction.”
“We are still very concerned about the safety of our staff and our collection,” he added.
Caution seemed appropriate as chaos erupted from Kabul, where thousands of people continue to crowd outside the airport in desperate attempts to leave the country. Culture preservation experts still worry that the Taliban militants will attack Afghanistan’s ancient heritage, as they did the last time they checked the country, looting the museum and the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan, huge statues that were carved into a mountainside 1500 years ago.
Considered one of the world’s greatest repositories of ancient cultures, the museum suffered greatly in the 1990s when the 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 seized or destroyed many thousands of objects in its collection — largely Buddhist statues and other relics deemed un-Islamic or idolatrous.
“There is very real cause for concern about Afghan heritage because of this call for the outlawing of idolatry,” said Gil Stein, a professor of archeology at the University of Chicago. “Their public statements are much more moderate, but I don’t know if anyone in the West knows how much of that is window dressing.”
“I wish they knew that the world is watching,” he added, “and that this really matters.”
And concerns for cultural objects certainly extend well 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 city have yielded many archaeological treasures.
Even in cases where artifacts are not immediately threatened, experts worry about what will happen to cultural objects and sites that may be neglected because delicate conservation projects are halted, or because of looting or the fundamentalist rejection of pre-Islamic or other art by the Taliban.
The Taliban have worked to present a public image that would allay such fears, issuing a statement in February pledging to protect the nation’s cultural heritage and instructing its members to prevent looting.
“Because Afghanistan is a country filled with ancient artifacts and antiquity, and because such relics are a part of our country’s history, identity and rich culture, they all have a duty to vigorously protect, guard and preserve these artifacts. ,” it said. “All Mujahideen should avoid the excavation of antiquities and preserve all historical sites such as ancient fortresses, minarets, towers and other similar sites,” it continued, “to protect them from damage, destruction and decay.”
In an interview last week from Doha with The Daily Mirror, a Sri Lankan news agency, a Taliban spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, said: “Buddhist sites in Afghanistan are not at risk; I reject any claim in this regard.”
Some experts hope that the Taliban have really changed and that they have a more sophisticated understanding that outrage over large-scale cultural destruction would damage their international relations.
Cheryl Benard, director of the Alliance for the Recovery of Cultural Heritage, said the Taliban are nationalistic 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 some apostate individual will turn to destruction, but they seem amazingly disciplined so far.”
Other experts, though concerned, find some relief in the fact that much has been done in the field of documentation of Afghan cultural heritage in recent years. Organizations have spent years creating catalogs of museum collections, maps of archaeological sites, 3D models of heritage, as well as documenting intangible heritage, recording the movements of potters, equipment of masons, said Bastien Varoutsikos, a cultural heritage expert, by email.
“All of this data is a record of the current state of Afghan heritage on day 0,” he said. “While it is far from complete,” he added, it is better than it was two decades ago.
The Taliban also appear to have been hit by the storm of indignation that has accompanied their destruction of the Buddhas and are unlikely to be interested in that kind of global disdain, Mr Varoutsikos said. “The Taliban have a very clear understanding of that and are trying to reassure both Afghans and the international community in their communications,” he said.
But many remain skeptical, pointing to similar assurances that the Taliban gave last time and then ignored.
“The Taliban are now trying to project an image of ‘we’re 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 that,” an official at the United States said. Institute of Afghanistan Studies, who has left Afghanistan but has requested anonymity due to concerns for the safety of his family who are still there.
Bijan Rouhani, an academic at Oxford University who specializes in protecting heritage sites in conflict zones, said: “I know that the Taliban are not one group – they are many different groups and factions – so even if the central power and leaders say things that they have changed, we don’t know what the situation is with local groups and warlords who are under the same banner.”
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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 damage. During two decades of international occupation of Kabul, millions of dollars were spent refurbishing the museum, and Interpol and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization helped recover several thousand artifacts illegally held in foreign museums or entered the international antiquities market.
Today, the museum is considered a design jewel and an important institution. Items have been repaired and the museum contains hand tools and other artifacts dating back to the Stone Age, along with valuable carvings, statues, and other artifacts from the Bronze, Buddhist, Hindu, and Islamic periods.
Mr Rahimi said the museum had prepared a contingency plan to move the approximately 50,000 treasures in its collections to safe locations but had not implemented the plan due to the swift takeover by the Taliban.
In Bamiyan, the niches of the giant Buddhas stand empty today as a reminder of the Taliban’s past disregard for outside cultures. Just in March, on the 20th anniversary of the Buddha’s destruction, UNESCO helped sponsor a day to commemorate the structures, with a life-size, full-color 3D projection of the statues in rocky alcoves on the cliffs. .
Restoration work was underway to stabilize the alcoves and UNESCO, who declared the valley where the Buddhas once stood a World Heritage Site – one of only two in the country – was set to open a heritage center recounting the history of the area, including what the Taliban did it.
Ernesto Ottone, deputy director general for the cultural sector at UNESCO, said: “Every day there are Taliban excursions to the site, but at the moment we have no information about destruction.”
Bamiyan is the unofficial capital of the Hazaras, an ethnic minority persecuted by the Taliban in the past. Since taking power this time, in a move viewed by experts concerned about cultural destruction, the militants recently blew up a statue in Bamiyan of Shia militia leader Abdul Ali Mazari, who was assassinated by the Taliban in 1995. .
For now, experts hope that’s an anomaly, not an early indication that the group is going to destroy cultural treasures again.
“We must remain hopeful that the February declaration committed to protecting cultural heritage will be honoured,” 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 to the reporting.