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Date: Sat, 23 Sep 1995 10:35:40 -0700
Sender: H-Net list for Asian History and Culture <>
Subject: H-ASIA: Looting of the Kabul Museum
H-ASIA September 23, 1995
(x-post from Indology)

From: Ganesan Looting of Kabul Museum
Article: 90700 of soc.culture.indian

Looting and destruction in the Kabul Museum

Far Eastern Economic Review, 23 September 1995

[This has to be the single biggest loss of ancient Indian artifacts, dating from the Kushan, Gandhara period, in this century. I'm suprised that this issue has not hit the mainstream press as of yet (or maybe I missed it, anyways I am stunned by the loss.)]

When rockets slammed into the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul in May 1993, a fire melted supporting beams holding up the ornate vaulted roof, sending it crashing down on the upper galleries. The next day, Najibulla Popol, the 37-year-old museum curator, peddled his bicycle through the fighting to the shattered building. He and a few staff members transferred what they could salvage to vaults in the museum's basement.

Factional fighting had been swirling around the museum since the mujahideen captured Kabul in April 1992, but until that devastating rocket attack, it had managed to avoid major damage. Thereafter, however, the museum was on the front line of the vicious struggle between mujahideen factions for control of the capital, repeatedly coming under rocket and machine-gun fire. Within months, the main museum building was gutted and weeds were sprouting in the rubble-strewn upper galleries.

But the destruction of the museum building and part of its collection-the sole comprehensive record of Central Asian history-was only the first stage in a larger tragedy. In the months following the first rocket attack, a stream of mujahideen soldiers repeatedly breached the steel doors of the vaults and systematically looted their contents, often guided by detailed instructions from Afghan and Pakistani antiquities dealers. In January 1994, when the United Nations agency Habitat bricked up the museum's windows and repaired the doors, the move only appeared to encourage more looters to break in. When new padlocks were again installed in March 1995, soldiers simply shot them off.

Leading a party of journalists recently, museum director Popol opened door after door of the vaults, revealing cupboards ripped open, doors hanging on their hinges and empty drawers scattered on the floor. Crates had been torn open and emptied and mounds of packing material lay strewn around. To force their way in, looters had blasted walls and doors with explosives, leaving some vaults knee deep in rubble. In one room, stacks of empty metal trays that had held one of the largest and oldest coin collections in the world-some 40,000 coins-covered the floor.

Soldiers stole all the most precious objects, Popol said. Less-important artifacts were left smashed on the floor, while those too heavy to carry out such as life-sized statues of Kushan warriors from 200 BC and the largest Buddhas were badly damaged. According to Sayed Delju Hussaini, Afghan minister of information and culture, 90% of the museum's collection has been looted. "It was one of the richest museums in the entire region, covering 50,000 years of history in Afghanistan and Central Asia," Hussaini laments.

"The collection of ivories, statues, paintings, coins, gold, pottery, armaments and dress from the pre-historic period to the Bactrian, Kushan and Gandhara civilizations, through to the Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim periods, was unimaginable," concurs Pakistani academic Hasan Dani, a leading archaeologist and historian of the Pakistan-Afghanistan region.

Interviews in Pakistan and Afghanistan with Western experts and diplomats, Pakistani intelligence and customs officials, mujahideen warlords and smugglers have revealed a trail of looted artifacts stretching from middlemen and antiques dealers in Kabul, Peshawar and Islamabad to private art collectors in Tokyo, Islamabad Jeddah, Kuwait, London and Geneva.

"The trade in Afghan antiquities has become the biggest money earner after the heroin trade, and it is often the same mafias who are doing both," says a senior Western diplomat who is involved in tracking down some of the lost pieces. Adds a Western antiquities expert: "Twenty percent or the cream of the collection has already been sold off outside the region. The rest is in Pakistan and Afghanistan awaiting buyers."

In Peshawar, two 2,500-year old heads of the Hindu god Shiva that were once on display in the museum are currently available for $7,000 each. Exquisitely carved ivory statues of Indian courtesans from the 2nd century AD are for sale in Islamabad for $35,000 each. Twelve such ivories were sold in London to a Tokyo collector for $600,000, according to diplomats and government officials. The rape of the Kabul museum and the scattering of its collection is more than just a litany of smashed and stolen antiques. Although there are still large unexplored archaeological sites in Afghanistan which could turn up more treasures, archaeologists and historians say the losses from the museum amount to the destruction of a major part of Afghanistan's cultural heritage.

"If new artifacts are dug up, they will be disconnected with the past because the record here has gone," says Clara Grissmann, an American art historian who worked with Popol in the 1970s to create the first complete inventory of the museum. Aged 66, she has recently returned to Kabul to help Popol catalogue the few pieces that remain.

Now that the museum's treasures and records have been destroyed, there is little from which a younger generation can learn. Everything has been cut off from its history," Grissmann says. Only a handful of educated Afghans know how, when and from where the museum acquired its treasures. They alone can recognize the stolen pieces and pinpoint the country's archaeological sites. "There are perhaps 15 Afghans left who know the museum and its contents. After they go, that's it," Grissmann adds.

"We have notified Unesco to put the world's museums on alert to see if anything turns up," says Information Minister Delju Hussaini. "We are looking inside and outside the country. But there was clearly great expertise involved in the robbing." Because of the professionalism and thoroughness of the collection's ransacking, few Afghans are optimistic about recovery. It is very unlikely that much will return," agrees Grissmann.

For thousands of years, Afghanistan was at the crossroads of conquest and commerce for ancient Iran, India and Central Asia, and the museum's collection was an unmatched testament to that rich legacy. The story of the Bagram Collection is a typical case. Forty miles north of Kabul lies the village of Bagram, which the Soviet invaders turned into the largest air base in the country during their struggle with the mujahideen. Bagram is built over the 2nd century AD city of Kapisa, the famed summer capital of the Kushan King Kanishka, whose empire stretched from north India deep into Central Asia. It was a period of peace from Rome to China, and commerce, art and religion moved freely along the Silk Road, with the Kushans at its crossroads.

In 1939, while excavating in the citadel of the Kushan fort, archaeologists stumbled across two sealed rooms which contained "the most spectacular archaeological find of the 20th century," according to Nancy Hatch Dupree, co-author of the authoritative Guide to the National Museum of Afghanistan, published in 1974. There were 1,800 lacquers, bronzes, ivories, glassware and statues from Rome, Greece, Egypt, China, India and Central Asia.

The Bagram collection was at the top of the list for the looters. At its heart lay 100 or more Indian ivory statues and reliefs, many of them exquisitely rendered depictions of dancing courtesans and goddesses. In attempting to track down the ivories, the REVIEW has learned from Afghan government officials and other mujahideen leaders that during the fighting, they were stolen by the Hizbe Wahadat and the Hizbe Islami parties guided by expert Pakistani and Afghan dealers.

These two opposition parties held the area around the museum after Kabul fell to the mujahideen. The ivories were flown to the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, into the hands of their ally, Uzbek warlord Gen. Rashid Dostum. From there they reached Peshawar and later Islamabad and Europe. Twelve statues were sold to a London dealer for $300,000. The dealer in turn sold the statues to a Japanese collector for $600,000. Several dozen ivories are still available in Islamabad. A Pakistani art historian who has seen ands authenticated some of the statues says the asking price is $35,000 each.

The museum's collection of 40,000 coins, ranging from the 8th century BC the late 19th century, was one of the more extensive in the world. It included t largest Greek and Roman coins ever found and the spectacular Mir Zakah Hoard. The hoard was discovered under a spring near Kabul. It yielded 11,500 coins, or 2,000 kilograms of gold and silver, and spanned four centuries and numerous civilizations from Rome to China. Every single coin has now disappeared, sold to private collectors around the world, experts say.

According to Western diplomats, prominent Afghans and Pakistanis living in Peshawar and Kabul are working as agents for both wealthy Middle Eastern collectors looking for Islamic coins and artifacts and Japanese tycoons wanting Buddhist statues. In one particular case, they suspect that a solid gold Buddha from Bamiyan weighing 2,012 kilograms is now in Japanese hands. The museum was also renowned for the fabulous collection of Bactrian gold, 21,000 gold objects-jewelry, plates, plaques and decorative pieces-dating from 100 BC to 100 AD. Russian archaeologists discovered the hoard in 1978 at Tillya Tepe, or the Golden Mound, in northern Afghanistan.

To discount rumors that the retreating Soviet army had taken the gold in 1989, former communist President Najibulla displayed the Bactrian gold to Western diplomats in Kabul in 1991. The gold was then packed into crates and moved for safety to a vault in the Presidential Palace in central Kabul. The Bactrian gold is now under the direct control of President Burhanuddin Rabbani's military commander, Ahmad Shah Masud.

However, no independent witnesses have confirmed that the collection is intact, leading to fears that it may have been sold off piece by piece. Perhaps confirming those fears, the REVIEW was recently offered a gold cup and plate allegedly from the Bactrian gold collection for 600,000 rupees ($19,000) in Lahore.

The Kabul government of President Rabbani is attempting to retrieve artifacts still inside Afghanistan, but with the country divided and still at war, it has little chance of doing so. Information Minister Delju Hussaini says only 52 artifacts have so far been retrieved by the government and restored to the museum. "Our aims are to restore what is left, transfer the collection to a safer area and then construct a new museums he adds.

All that is still in the future, however, and there is little doubt that the fight for funds to rebuild the museum will be an uphill battle. Notes one Afghan art historian: "When Afghans are suffering from the ravages of war, are hungry and without schools, it is not easy to persuade them that this task is very important."