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Site of the smaller Buddha of Bamiyan after the statue’s destruction, 2005. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
Site of the smaller Buddha of Bamiyan after the statue’s destruction, 2005. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Afghan Museums Imperiled as Taliban Assumes Control of Government

Museums and arts institutions across Afghanistan, blindsided by the Taliban's swift ascent to national power, are scrambling to save the country's artifacts and artworks, National Geographic reports. The group on August 15 ousted the US-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani as American troops began their scheduled withdrawal following a roughly two-decade occupation of the country. “We didn’t expect this to happen so quickly,” Noor Agha Noori, head of Afghanistan’s Institute of Archaeology in Kabul, told the magazine. In 2001, the Taliban destroyed the historic Buddhas of Bamiyan, two massive statues carved into a mountainside and dating to the sixth century. The militant organization variously cited the idolatrous nature of the sculptures and the offer of foreign aid to restore them as the reason behind their actions.

Fears today center around the 800,000 objects currently held in the collection of Afghan's National Museum. “We have great concerns for the safety of our staff and collections,” said Mohammad Fahim Rahimi, the institution's director. At present, there is no plan for moving the items out of harm's way. “The question is how to find a safe location,” said a government source, additionally noting, “There is no way for them, or the staffs, to leave the country.”

Also at risk are museums in the Herat citadel, and those in Kandahar, Ghazni, and Balkh, as well as Mes Aynak, one of Central Asia's most prominent Buddhist monasteries, located just outside Kabul. Contained within the monastery are numerous stupas and statues as well as 10,000 cultural artifacts. Additionally, the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan, which is tasked with inventorying the country’s archaeological heritage, is working to export objects to Paris for a planned museum exhibition there. The organization's director, Philippe Marquis, underscored the urgency with which staff were working to get the items to safety, noting, “The situation is very unpredictable.”

To date, the Taliban have reportedly not harmed any artworks or artifacts in their drive to consolidate power across the country. In February, the group's leaders issued orders to its members to “robustly protect, monitor and preserve” relics, put a stop to illegal excavations, and safeguard “all historic sites.” The group additionally banned the selling of artifacts on the art market. Lower-level staff of both the Institute of Archaeology and the National Museum in cities outside Kabul have been told they may stay in their jobs, as confirmed by Noori and Ghani, respectively, but because they are confined to their homes, they have no way of knowing the status of the objects held by their employing institutions.

“If [the Taliban] have bad intentions,“ said  Cheryl Benard, director of the Washington, DC–based Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage, ”it will become obvious down the road.”

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