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Lost treasures of Kabul

By Luke Harding, The Guardian,
Friday 17 November 2000

Afghanistan's national museum used to house one of the world's most precious collections. Today it stands empty - its windows blown out, its contents pillaged. So where are the missing artefacts? Luke Harding unearths a compelling tale of intrigue, smuggling and greed

There is not much left to see inside Kabul museum these days, even if you manage to get inside the normally locked front door. There is a giant Islamic bowl, a limestone inscription written in Greek, and a rather fetching statue in the lobby of King Kanishka, who ruled Afghanistan in the 2nd century AD. Kanishka's head and torso were lopped off long ago. But his pantaloons and enormous royal feet have survived, improbably, down the centuries. Almost everything else from the collection has gone: the ivory panels of frolicking half-naked courtesans, the recumbent Buddhas, and the Greek coins. Not only did Afghanistan's civil war claim 1.5m lives, it also swallowed up the country's history.

But the question now preoccupying archaeologists, four years after the Taliban swept into Kabul, is where the artefacts are now. The answer is a compelling tale of smuggling, intrigue, venality and international art fraud. The collection was unique. It reflected Afghanistan's rich history, and its strategic position on the Silk Road between China and Rome.

To their credit, the Soviet troops who invaded Kabul in 1979 took nothing away, even repainting some of the exhibition rooms. But in 1992, three years after they left, the museum found itself on the front line, as rival Afghan Mujaheddin factions fought for control of the city. The museum repeatedly changed hands among different groups, who plundered as they went.

By the time the museum staff managed to get access to the building in late 1994, the collection had disappeared. Some of it had been destroyed. But most of it, it later emerged, had been looted in the early days of the fighting. A series of vans had rolled up at night outside the museum's side door. The two-tonne Buddhist reliefs, for example, were lifted off their iron hooks, piled in the back, and hidden under a series of mattresses. They were then driven across the Pakistan border, via the Khyber Pass, to the frontier town of Peshawar, which is the centre of the illegal trade in Afghan antiquities. From there they were sold in Peshawar's many antique bazaars. The buyers included wealthy Japanese collectors, Afghan warlords and Pakistan's home minister.

With the arrival of the Taliban, whose practices include the amputation of limbs of thieves in Kabul's football stadium, the looting stopped. The museum staff returned. In between selling potatoes in Kabul's markets to make ends meet, they began to compile a list of the few fragments that had survived.

It is really very sad, says Omara Khan Masoodi, the deputy director. But there was nothing we could do. It was unpreventable. The upper stories took a direct hit from a rocket in May 1993 and the museum's facade was perforated by shellfire. The lion sculpture outside the entrance lost its head. Not only has our history been destroyed, but our society and culture as well, says Masoodi.

The exhibits, it seemed, had gone for good. But two years ago a London antiques dealer based in Bond Street received a mysterious phone call. A Pakistani businessman wanted to know if he was interested in buying some newly excavated figures from Afghanistan. The dealer, who does not want to be named, had a look at photos of the objects. I recognised them immediately as some of the Begram ivories, he says. The ivories were the museum's star exhibits - a series of exquisite Indian panels nearly 2,000 years old, dug up by French archaeologists in the 1930s from the capital of what was once King Kanishka's flourishing empire. The dealer bought the pieces. Then he donated them to a Paris museum specialising in Asian art, the Guimet. But the best ivories were still missing.

As photos of the vanished exhibits began to circulate among museums around the world, attention was shifting away from Peshawar to other cities in Pakistan. In Quetta, close to the Afghan border, rumours began circulating that a cultivated Afghan leader now living in exile, Pir Ahmed Gailani, had accumulated his own trove of Buddhist antiquities. An elderly archaeology professor, allowed to look round his living room, hinted that some of the missing treasures were now in Gailani's hands. The professor refused to elaborate.

Like Peshawar, Quetta is a classic Pakistani smuggling town, controlled by fiercely tribal Pathans (one of whom was arrested last week after trying to sell a 2,600-year-old Persian mummy on the black market). Drugs also travel through Quetta to the Makran, Pakistan's lawless southern coast, from where they are whisked away by boat.

The trail also led to the ousted government of Benazir Bhutto, who lost power in 1996 and is now in self-imposed exile in London. Ms Bhutto's minister for the interior, Nasirullah Khan Babar, has admitted buying one of the Begram ivories for $100,000. He defends the purchase, claiming that the sculpture is merely in safe keeping until peace returns to Afghanistan.

Other sources, however, suggest that he has many other things hidden in his basement. They also allege he may have been involved in a plot to sell the ivories back to Afghanistan.

Over in Tokyo, meanwhile, a wealthy private collector is said to have bought several reliefs belonging to the museum from the Gandharan school, a Greek-influenced Buddhist dynasty. There are a lot of Japanese buyers. The prices are completely unreasonable. They go up to $1m for a Buddhist schist [panel], says Robert Kluyver of the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage.

Back in Kabul, western scholars have been trying to persuade the Taliban to solve another mystery. In 1989, Afghanistan's president Najibullah had moved 20 tin trunks, possibly containing the museum's celebrated Bactrian treasures, out of the building for safekeeping. Some went into the vaults of the presidential palace.

The trunks fared better than he did. When the Taliban took Kabul in September 1996, they hanged and castrated Najibullah. But the trunks survived. The Taliban, however, now refuses to open them. No one is sure whether the 1st-century relics, which include 20,000 gold objects, are still there. More trunks are sitting in the Taliban's ministry of information and culture. We were told this summer that the seals are intact. But nobody wants the responsibility of opening them, says a foreign expert, who is trying to retrieve the museum's collection.

Part of the problem is the Taliban's hostile attitude towards Afghanistan's non-Islamic heritage. As a movement, it does not accept the portrayal of any living form, whether human or animal. Two years ago the Taliban seized from a rival faction the remote Bamiyan valley, home to two colossal Buddha statues carved into a sandstone cliff-face in the 2nd century AD. A Taliban commander then blew up the head of the smaller Buddha with explosives, and fired rockets at the groin and dress of the larger Buddha. The attack damaged frescos that had withstood an assault from Genghis Khan. The commander later returned to dump two burning tyres on the larger Buddha's lip. Hardline elements within the Taliban are equally opposed to Kabul museum showing Buddhist sculp tures. In August the museum was symbolically reopened for three days. Afterwards, everything was packed away again. Merely to get inside requires Taliban permission.

There are signs, though, that this attitude may be softening. Three months ago Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban's secretive leader, issued a decree saying the Bamiyan statues should be protected not destroyed. He also released another edict forbidding illegal archaeological excavation, a practice rife during Afghanistan's chaotic war years when Peshawar antiques dealers would despatch gangs to dig among the ruins.

In the face of continuing diplomatic isolation, the Taliban has recently decided to try to persuade foreign tourists to come back to Afghanistan. We would like international visitors to see our war-torn country, said Abdul Rahman Hotaki, the Taliban's deputy culture minister, last month. The Taliban realises the tourists will return only if there is something left to see, not least in the national museum.

Elsewhere in the country, restoration work is being carried out on Afghanistan's crumbling attractions. Over in Herat, an ancient city of learning and culture close to the Iranian border, efforts are being made to stop the remaining five giant minarets of a medieval mosque from toppling over. The 15th-century Musallah complex was one of the wonders of the age, and was described by Byron as the most beautiful example of colour in architecture ever devised. Most of the lapis lazuli tiles have fallen off. Rockets have punched holes in several of the towers. But there are still patches of the dazzling blue of Byron's vision. It is the British, however, who are the true villains here. Fearing a Russian invasion, they demolished most of the old mosque buildings in 1885. The Taliban has other grievances against us, and last month demanded that the Queen hand back the Koh-i-Noor diamond. The diamond belonged to the Afghan royal family for almost two centuries, they argue.

The real scoop would be to get the Begram ivories back. That seems a far-off prospect. The ivories have an unearthly beauty which has never been duplicated, says one awed admirer.