Unesco stops unauthorised reconstruction of Bamiyan Buddhas

Article by Alessandro Martini and Ermanno Rivetti in the Art Newspaper, 06 February 2014

The international community has reacted furiously to news that a German-led team of archaeologists has been reconstructing the feet and legs of the smaller of the two Bamiyan Buddhas, the monumental Afghan sculptures blown up by the Taliban in 2001. News of this reconstruction, which has taken place without Unesco’s knowledge or permission, was revealed during the 12th meeting of Unesco’s Bamiyan working group, in Orvieto, Italy, in December.
A team of archaeologists from the German branch of Icomos (the International Council on Monuments and Sites), led by Michael Petzet, who himself served as the head of Icomos from 1999 to 2008, spent most of last year rebuilding the smaller Buddha’s lower appendages with iron rods, reinforced concrete and bricks, an operation that Francesco Bandarin, Unesco’s assistant director-general for culture, describes as “wrong on every level”. He says: “Unesco has nothing to do with this project. It was undertaken without the consent of the Afghan government and has now been stopped.”

Andrea Bruno, the architectural consultant to Unesco for the past 40 years, confirms that the work was carried out “against Unesco’s decision [taken in 2011] not to rebuild the Buddhas” and says the organisation was never made aware that the project was going ahead. Bruno says the work has caused “irreversible damage, bordering on the criminal”. He adds that the work had not yet started when he visited Afghanistan last March.

Petzet told The Art Newspaper that he and his team “just wanted to preserve what can be preserved”. He says: “Everything we have done was discussed with the Afghan authorities: this [project] is nothing new.” However, Bandarin says that the Afghan minister of culture was not aware of the work when Bandarin asked him to put a stop to it.

Petzet says that his team’s funding was originally provided by Unesco. Bandarin has confirmed that Unesco “has a contract with Icomos Germany to build a platform [where the smaller Buddha once stood] to protect visitors from falling rocks”, but reiterates that the reconstruction work was not part of the deal and that Unesco wants to dismantle the results.

The question is: how did Petzet’s team manage to carry out such extensive work without anyone noticing? “Things like this can happen in such a remote Afghan province,” Bandarin says, “especially since they have worked there for years before this.” Icomos, which was founded in 1965 and works to conserve and protect heritage sites around the world, advises Unesco on World Heritage Sites, but Unesco remains in charge of their management, conservation and restoration. Experts at Unesco asked the central Icomos office to file a report to the Afghan authorities by the beginning of this month, and an additional report on the matter is due to be presented to the World Heritage Committee in June.

The Buddhas once stood along the ancient Silk Route in the remote Hazarajat region of central Afghanistan, around 250km west of Kabul. The sculptures—53m and 35m tall—were carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamiyan valley in the sixth century, at the height of the Kushan empire and before the Islamic invasion of the late seventh century. Several attempts were made to destroy the statues during centuries of Islamic rule, until the Taliban brought them down with anti-aircraft guns, artillery and dynamite.

When less is more

The future of the site was formally decided at a Unesco meeting in Tokyo in 2011. The organisation reviewed numerous plans for the site’s conservation or restoration, ranging from laser projections of the Buddhas onto the cliff face to Michael Petzet’s proposal to reassemble the surviving fragments of the smaller Buddha in its niche using metal frames. But the final decision was to leave the niches empty. Andrea Bruno told The Art Newspaper in May 2012 that “the void is the true sculpture” and that the Buddhas would be best remembered through their absence. Rebuilding them could also cause offence to the country’s Muslims, because Islam forbids religious images.

Nevertheless, their destruction was a disaster for the local population of Shia Muslims, who have been persecuted by the Taliban, because it deprived them of what little income they had from foreign visitors. A Unesco-led project aims to encourage visitors in the future with a series of initiatives.

The future of the Afghan sculptures

Unesco has asked Andrea Bruno’s architecture studio in Turin to supervise four projects:

• The largest initiative is a cultural centre and museum devoted to the area’s rich Buddhist and Muslim history. This “goes beyond the missing Buddhas”, says Andrea Bruno (below). The building, inspired by the traditional Afghan “fortress-house”, will sit on a plateau that faces the cliff into which the statues were hewn. South Korea has said that it will foot the $5.4m bill. The building is expected to be finished in October 2016, if conditions on the ground permit.

• A concealed underground viewing chamber will be built at the foot of the larger Buddha. A small replica of the statue will stand at the end of the chamber and visitors will be able to see the empty niche through an opening in the ceiling. “This construction will be discreet and unobtrusive,” says Bruno, who adds that it can be built with just a fraction of the South Korean funds.

• A bazaar is being planned along the remains of the ancient Silk Route, on the esplanade that lies between the cliff face and the plateau where the museum will stand.

• Three interconnected caves in the nearby ancient site of Shahr-i Ghulghulah, a 13th-century city in the Bamiyan valley that was conquered by Genghis Khan, are to be restored with a $1m grant from the Italian government. Bruno hopes they can be used to host temporary exhibitions and other cultural events.

Kabul Museum restores Taliban-smashed ancient Buddha statues

Article published in Zee News, 05 February 2014

Kabul: Archaelogists and restoration experts have reassembled and restored several statues, including the magnificiant and ancient (Bamiyan) Buddha statues, smashed by the Taliban in 2001 during their rule.

The painstakingly reassembled objects include the cross-legged, 2nd or 3rd century A.D. Bodhisatva Sidhartha, which has now been restablished at a place of pride at the top of the Kabul Museum’s staircase. The larger than life-size beautiful statue had been reduced to shards by Taliban fanatics.

People like veteran restorer at the museum, Abdullah Hakimzada, who has spent the past 33 years working at the museum, are proud to have collected pieces of the statues smashed by the Taliban.

Immediately after the Taliban madness, they had hurriedly sorted out the fragments and put them into sacks and boxes that later would help the re-assembly work.

Hakimzada’s favourite restoration is the statue of King Kanishka of the famed Kushan Dynasty that ruled much of South Asia from its Afghan base at Kapisa near Kabul between the first and fourth centuries AD.

Afghans take pride in Kanishka, describing him as one of their greatest kings. They consider the Kushan period as a golden period of their history.

“During that time, Afghanistan was at peace, and society was very tolerant and religiously inclusive,” says Hakimzada.

A series of restored statues from the centuries after Alexander the Great’s invasion, look like perfectly muscled Greek gods-except they are Greco-Bactrian Buddhas, among the earliest representations of the Buddha in human form.

They are compelling evidence that ancient Afghanistan was not just a crossroads for the cultures of its powerful neighbors-China, India, Persia-but also contributed greatly in its own right. Two of them have deep gouges from hammer blows, and missing faces, but still remain exquisite.

“Archaeological artifacts are our national identity,” says the museum’s archival head, Mohammad Yahyeh Muhibzada.

“It’s our national responsibility to protect them so future generations will know who we are and who we were,” he said.

A team of archaeologists from the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute are halfway through a three-year-long grant from the American Government to register every object in the museum’s collections, creating a digital record.

Intended to guard against any future theft, the project will also help with restorations, and serve as a resource for scholars worldwide.

“If you don’t know what you have, you can’t protect it,” says Michael T. Fisher, the American archaeologist heading the Chicago team.

“When you do, the whole story opens up, and it’s incredible what you can see. A lot of the collection is world class,” he adds.

A recent security upgrade at the museum financed by the United States Government has just completed, at least some hedge against the kind of pillaging that has plagued the museum over the past three and a half decades.

The head of the museum is Omara Khan Masoudi, who does not have a degree in archaeology, but has even more impeccable credentials.

He is one of the key keepers who hid from Taliban, the keys to the vaults where some of the museum’s greatest treasures were hidden, including the Bactrian Hoard, a collection of exquisite gold and silver artifacts dating back more than 2,000 years.

Through guile and deception, Masoudi and his key colleagues kept many such valuables-the ones most easily melted down-safe during the country’s wrenching civil war and the following stretch of Islamist rule.

They hid some of the best statues in rooms at the Ministry of Culture, or in obscure corners of the storerooms scattered around the museum, preserving many before the Taliban’s rampage in March 2001.

In those few weeks of fury, Islamist fighters raced to destroy images of people or animals, which they considered sacrilegious, including the giant ancient Buddha statues of Bamiyan Province.

Every piece of antiquity that is restored to the halls of the bombed, pillaged and now rebuilt National Museum of Afghanistan sends a message of defiance and resilience.

These are messages to the Taliban, who in 2001 smashed every museum artifact that they could find that bore a human or animal likeness.

But these are messages for others as well to the warlords who looted the museum, some of whom are still in positions of power in Afghanistan and to the corrupt custodians of the past who stood by while some 70,000 objects were taken away.

Just a few years ago, the National Museum here was defined by how much it had lost-some 70 percent of its collection destroyed or stolen, including precious objects dating back to the Stone and Bronze Ages, through Zoroastrianism and Buddhism to early Islam, and documenting some of the world’s most mysterious ancient cultures.

Now, it might better be defined by how much it has regained.

Some of the most satisfying successes, though, were restorations of objects smashed by the Taliban. Often the archaeologists did not know even what object the pieces belonged to.

“It’s like taking 50 jigsaw puzzles all mixed up, the tough ones, that you don’t know you have all the pieces to, with no picture to work from, and putting it together,” says Mr. Fisher.

Mr. Hakimzada says, “If we had enough time and resources at our disposal, we could restore everything.”

He was also one of the key keepers of three safes inside the Presidential Palace that the Taliban could never find. After years of damage by the Taliban and the warlords, many of whom looted the museum’s collections on demand for wealthy collectors, the museum was a mess when it reopened in 2004. Its store rooms were stuffed with boxes and bags of fragments, and even intact objects had deteriorated during the years the museum’s roof was largely missing.

Since then, a series of archaeological teams, mainly French, have helped put it back together again. Restorers like Mr. Hakimzada were sent abroad to study techniques at museums in Europe and America.

When Mr. Fisher’s team went to work registering and digitizing the collection in 2012, it was like doing archaeology on the museum itself.

“Sometimes we feel like we’re excavating the present, going through the museum and seeing what has happened,” he said.

Along the way there have been striking discoveries, many not on display for lack of exhibition space and resources.

A new home for the museum is planned, but it is still in the fund-raising stage.

A stone tablet with lines of cuneiform writing, originally unearthed in an ancient trash dump in Kandahar, long thought lost, was found in a basement storeroom by the Chicago team. It is evidence that the sixth-century B.C. Persian civilization of Cyrus the Great had reached that far east.

Returned were some of the Bagram ivories, stunningly intricate, carved decorations believed to have been stolen from the museum. Some resurfaced in the museum’s own collections, others were confiscated by border police.

While the emphasis is on the ancient, there are more modern artifacts as well-including several rusting steam locomotives in the gardens. “We have them to remind people that at the end of the 19th century, Afghanistan had railroads, while at the end of the 20th, it had none,” Mr. Masoudi said.

Hardly a day goes by that the Chicago archaeologists do not discover some intriguing new object in the storerooms-like a clay lid, with an inscription from the extinct Kharoshti language, found in December 2013.

“There are so many things that are very, very, very beautiful,” said Mr. Masoudi, the museum director. “First we need a new building.”

The crown jewels of the museum’s collections are the Bactrian Hoard, recovered from ancient burial mounds in northern Afghanistan in 1978 by Russian archaeologists.

They have been on tour since 2007, seen in France, the Netherlands, Britain, North America and Australia, and have provided the museum with an important source of revenue of about USD 3.5 million so far.

But as the war against the Taliban has stretched on, some here see another good reason to keep them on tour. “I personally hope they never return,” Mr. Hakimzada said. “At least where they are now, we know they are safe.”

Three hundred of the most important of the 2,500 objects the Taliban had smashed have been painstakingly reassembled in recent years, and many of the others are arrayed in boxes and trays, awaiting their turn for restoration.

The looted objects have also been returning, as word has gotten around to customs agents worldwide about how to identify Afghan artifacts.

In recent years, Interpol and Unesco have teamed up with governments around the world to interdict and return at least 857 objects-some of them priceless, like 4,000-year-old Bactrian princess figurines that had disappeared from the National Museum.

Another 11,000 objects have been returned after being seized by the border authorities at Afghanistan’s own frontiers.

The views expressed in the above are that of Mr. Gurinder Randhawa, former AIR Correspondent in Kabul.

Unrest forces archaeologists to take a break in Balochistan, Pakistan

Article in The News by Anil Dataa, 05 February 2014

No more excavation can be carried out in Balochistan because of the prevailing unrest in the province, said French archaeologists on Tuesday.

Members of two archaeological teams, one from Makran (Balochistan) and the other from Bhanbore (Sindh), met the media and exchanged views at the Alliance Française de Karachi.

The leader of the Makran team, Dr Aurore Didier, said she and her team had carried out diggings in Makran between 1987 and 2007.

She said a lot of discoveries pertaining to the rich archaeological heritage of the area and evidence of a highly advanced civilisation had been unearthed during this period and it would soon be published in detail.

Prof Dr Roland Besenval, also from the Makran team, said they had made some sensational finds, especially from the end of the 5th millennium BC to the present day. He said the diggings were conducted in Turbat and Kalat.

Asked what they were engaged in presently, he said they would only be collating the information of the 20-year excavation because right now, with the prevalent conditions, disturbed as they were in Balochistan, it was impossible to continue with any more archaeological work.

Paul Wormser, the leader of the Bhanbore team, said they had unearthed important artefacts from the site, dating from the 1st century AD to the Mughal period.

He said they had found evidence of an important port that was used as a trading post for dealing with countries of the Persian Gulf, including Iran. Besides, he added, they had found exquisite clay pottery and other everyday articles.

 

International campaign for Syrian cultural heritage at risk

Article by by Silvia Lambertucci for ANSAMed – ROME

FEBRUARY 11 – From the Old Cities of Damascus and Aleppo to Bosra, Palmyra, the crusaders castle Crac des Chevaliers and the archaeological sites of Mari, Ugarit and Ebla, much of the cultural and archaeological heritage of Syria has been heavily damaged, bombed or destroyed. The horrors of the hundreds of thousands dead over the past three years of conflict are linked to those of this less discussed tragedy. A campaign launched in Rome on Tuesday by Francesco Rutelli aims to draw greater attention to the risks to Syria’s cultural heritage. The former culture minister and former Rome mayor told the media that ”it wasn’t like this for Iraq”. This was one of the reasons inducing him and the Italian archaeologist Paolo Matthiae – who excavated the ancient Roman ruins of Ebla and its invaluable cuneiform tablets – to call on European scholars to take part in the campaign sponsored by the Berlin-based Institute for Cultural Diplomacy (of which Rutelli is honorary chairman) and the Italian Priorità Cultura (of which he is the founder).

The aim is to inform the public and support international programs already initiated on the model of an agreement between UNESCO and the European Union to work together to restore the damaged heritage. The campaign will include a European exhibition debuting in Rome on the ‘Splendor and Drama of Syria’ and aims to ”award the courageous” who – a bit like what happened during WWII for European heritage, as George Clooney’s recent ‘Monuments Men’ narrates – struggle every day to save Syria’s cultural heritage.

Some 10,000 dollars are at stake for 2014, and the prize money will be awarded by a committee under France’s former culture minister Jack Lang. Potential candidates include Syria’s director general for antiquities, who Rutelli said ”is able to engage in dialogue even with opposition groups”. A documentary with background music by Ennio Morricone has been made by Matteo Barzini to help spread the message of the campaign. The images have a strong impact on viewers, important – as Matthiae noted – to remind everyone that the dramatic events taking place in Syria, ”a country of extraordinary historic and cultural significance”, ”concern us all”. Prior to 2011, the Italian archaeologist had been conducting archaeological digs in Syria since the 1960s, and the discovery of Ebla was made in 1964. He has not been back since the autumn of 2011, however, when the local authorities convinced him not to return to the site in the northern part of the country. When he speaks about the Middle East, so important in history and ”the place where the model for the city we live in today came from”, words rush out of his mouth. He notes that it is also the place where the first Neolithic attempts at sedentary life took place, as well as the birthplace of agriculture and the oldest alphabet in history and the fatherland in the Roman Era of such important figures in history as Apollodorus of Damascus, the architect of Trajan’s Forum.

Later it was ”the center of the magnificent Umayyad caliphate, heir to Arab, Byzantine and Persian influences, and then for centuries the bridge between the Christian West and the Islamic East”. The approximately 70 archaeological missions working in Syrian territory until 2010 have now been shut down for security reasons. The country’s invaluable heritage is suffering enormous damage through pillaging, clandestine excavations and smuggling.

The international community as well as citizens, he said, have the duty to take action to save and safeguard the history, identity and daily life of a population.

Libya to curb Antiquities smuggling

By Ali al-Gattani in Shahat for Magharebia News

Libyan authorities, with the help of their international partners, are getting serious about preventing antiquity theft and smuggling.

Workers in the sector just gathered in Shahat to learn about ways to confront the criminal threat to their country’s cultural heritage.

The Libyan Department of Antiquities, in collaboration with the United Nations Organisation for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO), Interpol, and the World Customs Organisation (WCO), organised the 9-day event, which wrapped up on Tuesday (November 26th).

There were panel discussions about the theft of archaeological heritage, how to build international co-operation and implement international laws to reduce these thefts, as well as methods of classifying and archiving artefacts.

The training targeted workers in the Libyan antiquities service.

There were panel discussions about the theft of archaeological heritage, how to build international co-operation and implement international laws to reduce these thefts, as well as methods of classifying and archiving artefacts.

Trainees accompanied by officials from UNESCO visited the archaeological area of Shahat, which was built circa 631 BC by the Greeks. The team also paid a visit to the local museum.

UNESCO Libya contributed to two other similar workshops during this year in the fight against Libyan antiquities theft, especially after an increase in robberies.

The most famous stolen items were the Quryna treasures, a collection of gold and silver coins, beads, agate necklaces, earrings and bronze statues housed by the commercial bank of Benghazi. They vanished in May 2011.

The protection of such artefacts from theft is a complex process requiring many overlapping organisations in order to combat it, UNESCO official told Magharebia.

“This kind of support, such as oriented training, can be provided by UNESCO. One of the main outcomes of the 1970 Convention was to create awareness among citizens,” she said. “That’s one of those areas where we are willing to co-operate”.

In his turn, Ahmed Faraj, Archaeology Professor at the Omar Mokhtar University, considered that such workshops contribute to raising the awareness of the importance of antiquities.

He objected however to the level of planning saying, “The preparation was bad and I still don’t have an explanation of why the workshop was not advertised and invitations were not sent around.”

“Personally, I heard of it from my friends,” he added.

“Unfortunately, neither the Antiquities Authority nor the Ministry of Culture nor the UNESCO Delegation in Libya announced the event,” he said.

Sarah Ferjani, an employee in the Department of Museums monitoring antiquities in Benghazi, also took part in the workshop with interest.

“In Benghazi we are suffering from lack of security since the work site and the stores are in an unsafe area (Souk Arrabia) – this of course without minimising the role of tourist security forces,” she noted.

Ferjani added, “I have always said to the head of the department, why don’t you have a group trained by the security forces that can become competent in the protection of sites and artefacts in museums and stores?”

“The workshop played a very important role, especially in these times. Holding this session is a solution to the problems existing in historic cities, the lack of security, and the lack of awareness among the community,” she told Magharebia.

 

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Disasters exacerbate inequalities. The same natural catastrophe will have tragic consequences in certain contexts, while in other contexts it will be managed effectively. Factors which affect the outcome include institutional strength and organization, available expertise, and resources.