The National Museum of Afghanistan: In Times of War
By Joanie Meharry
From a bombed-out window in Darulaman Palace, I turned to scan the horizon. Across the road was the National Museum of Afghanistan, an unimposing two-story structure surrounded by a barbed-wire fence and a rose garden in the back. There was little else. On the outskirts of Kabul, the mountains of the Hindu Kush formed a natural barrier to the south and the long stretch of Darulaman Avenue divided the museum from the bustling city center 8km to the north.
In KabulI was documenting the history of the National Museum since war began in 1979, and had spent several months interviewing the current and previous museum staff. Although the museum collection began in 1919 as a modest ‘Cabinet of Curiosities,’ it was not until 1931 that the collection moved to its current location in the former Municipality of King Amanullah Khan (1919-28). In 1922 the Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan (DAFA) began excavations around the country, which dramatically enriched the museum’s collections over the following six decades. By the time the Soviet Invasion of 1979 halted archaeological excavations in Afghanistan, the National Museum was brimming with finds from Buddhist, Hellenistic, Islamic, and Prehistoric sites, which was well documented in Nancy Hatch Dupree’s 1974 guide book of the museum.
I turned to the guard who had followed me through the dilapidated rooms of the neoclassical palace. “Have you visited the museum?” I asked.
“No, there is nothing left to see.”
The National Museum of Afghanistan After the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, the Mujahideen factions broke into civil war (1993-95), and the front line was drawn along the outskirts of Darulaman District. Each time control over the area changed hands, the various Mujahideen groups looted the museum’s collections. In 1993, a rocket hit the roof and burnt the second floor where the Islamic collection was housed. The museum was subsequently abandoned until the Taliban arrived a few years later.
I descended the palace’s crumbling staircase and crossed the road to the museum. As I passed through the security checkpoint one of the museum attendants greeted me in Persian: “Peace be upon you. How are you? I hope you are well?” all at a rapid-fire pace that did not allow for a response.
Inside I could see Nancy Hatch Dupree was early for our meeting with the Director of the museum. Since the 1970s when she had written a number of guidebooks while living in Afghanistan with her late husband, the renowned archaeologist, Louis Dupree, she had dedicated herself to the preservation of the country’s heritage. In 1994, Nancy founded the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage (SPACH) in Islamabad in order to organize international efforts to protect what remained of the museum.
“These days, this is my husband,” Nancy joked as she waved her hand towards a 2nd Century statue of King Kanishka, which had been missing its upper torso and head long before the Taliban arrived.
Rescued treasures When the Taliban captured Kabul in September 1996, the new Ministry of Information and Culture immediately allowed the museum staff members to recommence their work. In 1999, Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, issued two edicts that protected Afghanistan’s cultural sites and forbade looting. Two years later, the policy was dramatically reversed when the Taliban leader called for the destruction of Afghanistan’s pre-Islamic statues, including the two Buddhas of Bamiyan. The next week a group of Taliban policemen spent several days smashing the museum’s statues.
The Director of the National Museum, Omara Khan Massoudi, led us past Kanishka to the exhibition rooms of the returned artifacts that had been confiscated by British Customs and remained unopened to the public. The collection had returned to Afghanistan months earlier, but as the Director explained, they were still waiting for the British Ambassador to organize a time to open the exhibition. “Shouldn’t this be made available to the public?” I questioned, while inspecting a Bronze Age digging utensil.
“Yes,” the Director agreed, “we want Afghans to know the value of their cultural heritage.”
A valued Buddha A week later I discovered a group of Afghan girls in the same hallway that I had found Nancy. This time, their backs were turned to Kanishka as they admired a display case of Buddhist antiquities. “Are you interested in pre-Islamic artifacts?” I asked.
“No, but my friend has a similar piece at home,” one girl replied enthusiastically as she pointed to an object.
“Why does your friend have a Buddhist artifact at home?”
“He stole it during the civil war.”
Afghanistan has a long history of looting. During the 19th Century, British adventurers collected artifacts from sites around the country. With the advent of modern archaeology in Afghanistan in 1922, excavations were consistently plundered. The most famous case of looting occurred in 1979 when the seventh tomb of the Bactrian Gold treasure was stolen atop the mound of Tillya Tepe, “Golden Hill”, while the Afghan-Soviet archaeological team escaped the harsh winter season. Amidst the chaos of the Mujahideen civil strife, looting was rampant across the countryside. Estimates placed the loss at the National Museum as high as 70% of the total collection, though important finds from Ai Khanoum, Begram, and Tillya Tepe had been safely stored in vaults beneath the Presidential Palace’s Central Bank shortly after the Soviets’ withdrawal. When the Taliban gained power in 1996 they enforced strict punishments for stealing; but after they were overthrown in 2001, looting resumed with even more intensity. Since then, valuable Afghan antiquities have been turning up in high-end art markets across Asia, Europe, and the United States.
“Why hasn’t your friend sold it?” I resumed.
“He is holding on to it in case the situation worsens, and then he will sell it.”
I walked with the girls up the stairs to the Nuristani Room. Dozens of the wooden statues lined the walls, while Turkoman jewelry – often seen in the local Kabul bazaars – sat in the central display cases. With the ongoing war in Afghanistan, the National Museum staff was primarily concerned with the safety of the collections. Without a proper security system, the museum was not equipped to house the country’s rarest antiquities, including the Bactrian Gold, which was on a round-the-world tour sponsored by the National Geographic Society.
A couple months later I helped the museum staff open the ‘Rescued Treasures’ exhibition in collaboration with the British Embassy and the British Museum. The reception was packed with Afghan and expat VIP’s as the British Ambassador made his opening remarks.
Several days later, while I once again wandered the near-empty halls of the museum, I came across one of the museum employees. “What do you think of the new exhibition?” I asked.
“It’s good. We have a few more people coming to the museum each day.”
Given that the museum managed to stay open at all for visitors while the war in Afghanistan approached its thirty-first year, struck me as a good thing too.
“It gives us hope for a future when there is no war in Afghanistan and visitors come regularly to the museum.”
Joanie Meharry is a scholar in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies. She lived in Kabul in 2009 while recording the recent history of the National Museum of Afghanistan for The Aga Khan Trust for Culture and a MSc with the University of Edinburgh. She currently divides her time between Afghanistan and the United Kingdom.