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.