In Doha, representatives from the Afghan Government continue to meet with the Taliban, seeking to negotiate an end to what is now regarded as the world’s deadliest conflict. Naturally, these discussions center on Afghanistan’s future, and how to create a more secure, prosperous nation. With some optimism, those involved are hoping to build on the agreement successfully brokered between the US and the Taliban earlier this year.
But aside from Afghanistan’s destiny, what of its past? What of its many ancient shrines, monuments and relics? Indeed, the need to protect Afghanistan’s rich heritage has been notably absent from the discussions so far, despite the many cultural atrocities committed by the Taliban regime. Yet the memories of destruction, most notably of the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001, still haunt the Afghan, and global, conscience. And more recent examples of ‘idolatrous’ monuments being destroyed by ISIS have demonstrated just how far Islamic extremists will attempt to erase human history. Even today, as Afghans mourn the horrific attack on Kabul University, they are reminded of how their country’s cultural and intellectual fabric is under attack.
Afghanistan’s rich history has made it a source of fascination with heritage experts from all over the world. Given its strategic position along the Silk Road, the country is blessed with a melting pot of historical influences and legacies. The Citadel of Herat, for instance, dates back to the time of Alexander the Great’s invasion (c. 330 BC) and has served as fortress for the many empires that have ruled the country since. Later on, the arrival of the nomadic Kushans added a new element to the eclectic architecture of the region, heralding an era that has been richly explored by archaeologist Warwick Ball. It was at the height of Buddhism during the Kushan Empire, for example, that many artificial cave structures such as those at Bamiyan emerged, dating from the 4th century. With the spread of Islam during the 8th century, Afghanistan became a center for Islamic civilization, giving rise to an abundance of mausoleums, mosques and minarets, such as the renowned 12th-century Minaret of Jam, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Despite this extraordinary record of civilization, however, many of Afghanistan’s archaeological relics are threatened by violence and decay. The Minaret of Jam and the two Ghazni Minarets are often cited as exceptional examples of medieval Islamic architecture, yet neither is well preserved nor protected. Some 14 of the 36 original towers at the Ghazni Fortress have now foundered due to violence and neglect, and the Minaret of Jam has been on the UN’s list of World Heritage in Danger since 2002. It was reportedly close to collapse last year as a result of flooding from torrential rains. At the time, the Afghan government had been attempting to bring preservation workers to the site with the backing of security personnel; however, Taliban militants seized control of several surrounding checkpoints, cutting off access and killing 18 government workers. The horror at such violence was heightened by fears that the site could become another victim of the Taliban’s bombs. Thankfully, the area is now back under government control, but serious work on rehabilitating the minaret has yet to begin, leaving it vulnerable to the harsh conditions of Afghanistan’s climate.
But it is not only heritage sites that have been targeted by the Taliban. At the height of their power in the 1990s, they looted museums throughout the country and pawned off priceless relics to passing traders. It was part of the regime’s desire to eliminate any Afghan history that might be deemed inconsistent with their Islamist vision. Moreover, incidents such as those at Bamiyan give the Taliban what they crave most of all – notoriety. Their barbarous acts of cultural desecration attract international condemnation because they are seen not just as an attack on Afghanistan, but an attack on the world.
Tragically, however, Afghanistan’s heritage continues to be lost not only to terrorism but also to neglect. Just last week, the once famous Cinema Park in Shahr-e-Naw of Kabul City was demolished, following a decision by the local authority. Although many have lamented the loss of such an iconic landmark, one that happily recalled the ‘golden age’ of pre-war Afghan cinema, it demonstrates the extent to which the country’s heritage is threatened by carelessness as well as violence.
What we need now is a common humanitarian effort to preserve Afghanistan’s heritage, something now acknowledged by the Afghan government but not always been acted upon. But with the backing of the international community, there is a chance to save these remarkable sites from the destruction of war. UNESCO has finally pledged $2 million to preserve the Minaret of Jam, and the Indian government has donated $1 million towards the restoration of the ancient Bala Hissar fortress in Kabul. These projects are vital; however, they must be complemented by an educational drive to secure their legacy. It is also paramount that the money goes towards work on the ground, rather than simply being passed to officials in the hope of progress.
Afghanistan remains a conflict zone that is riddled with ethnic tensions and sectarian divides, but its abundance of cultural heritage – its extraordinary collection of sites and artefacts spanning the ages – offers a route to peace and prosperity. It has the unique capacity to promote tolerance and understanding between communities, whilst also generating global interest and tourism revenue. Fundamentally, it should be acknowledged that the fight to save Afghanistan’s magnificent history is not a romanticized task of low priority. Preserving a nation’s heritage is central to its cohesion and identity. Amidst ongoing peace efforts, these characteristics are all the more important as Afghans hope for a return to stability.
Rabia Nasimi has graduated from Goldsmiths University with a BSc in Sociology and Politics before joining LSE as a postgraduate student. This year, she had graduated from the University of Cambridge. Twitter: @rabianasimi
Thomas Peet is a future trainee solicitor who has recently joined the ACAA as their legal affairs intern. He read music at the University of Oxford, graduating in 2018. Twitter: @ThomasPeet96
The views expressed in the opinion pieces are not endorsed or necessarily shared by TOLOnews.
Contributors are responsible for the accuracy of the information in an opinion piece, but if it is discovered that information is not factual, a correction will be added and noted.