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Taliban Took an Ax to Antiquities

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There was something sadistic about the way two Taliban government ministers and their shock troops destroyed many of Afghanistan’s precious works of art. They did it with smiles on their faces.

They walked through the National Museum here in the capital last year, inspecting each object to determine which ones depicted living beings. And then they raised their axes and brought them down hard, smashing piece after piece of Afghan history into oblivion.

It was such a high priority that the Taliban minister of information and culture, Mullah Qudratullah Jamal, and the minister of finance, Aqajan Motaseb, led the wrecking crew, witnesses said.

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Over three days, as the Taliban ministers walked from one artifact to another, an Afghan archeologist and a historian followed at a respectful distance, pleading for mercy as if begging for the lives of their own children.

The Taliban’s war on Afghan art got world attention in March, when its soldiers blew up two enormous Buddhist statues sculpted from a cliff overlooking Bamian, the Hazaras’ ethnic heartland.

But the destruction of the Bamian Buddhas--dating back to the 3rd and 5th centuries--was only the most widely publicized event in the Taliban’s systematic campaign to destroy Afghanistan’s cultural heritage, which went largely unnoticed in the rest of the world.

“I don’t know why they changed and became the enemy of our ancient things,” said Mir Abdul Rauf Zaker, an archeologist and director of the Institute of History at the Afghan Academy of Science.

“It was their own idea. I don’t think they were trying to punish the outside world, though, because if a father faces a difficult condition, he never kills his own child.”

Zaker and historian Yahya Mohebzadah had spent years trying to keep thousands of Afghan cultural treasures at the National Museum from ending up in the ruins of war.

One Buddhist statue was among the most precious. It was a clay image of a bodhisattva, a Buddhist who seeks complete enlightenment, made 1,600 years ago.

“Before, when we needed to move the bodhisattva, we were afraid it would break and didn’t touch it,” Mohebzadah said. “So it was difficult for me to see it being smashed with an ax.

“I was crying,” he continued, and tears welled up in his eyes all over again. “One of the Taliban saw me, and I pretended that my hand was hurt, and that I was cold. They asked me if I was crying, and I said, ‘No.’ ”

The Taliban found more than 2,750 items that were renderings of living things and therefore had be destroyed because, according to the regime’s interpretation of Islam, they were idols that offended God.

Zaker, 50, and Mohebzadah, 38, were ordered to act as guides for the two Taliban ministers. The officials simply wanted a tour of the museum, they were told.

“But when they entered, they were like a hungry tiger looking for prey,” Mohebzadah said. “The minister told us that if we tried to stop the destruction, they would break our heads with the same ax.”

On the first day, the delegation arrived about 4:30 p.m. and spent about two hours in the museum, breaking objects with stones. The next day, they returned with axes. When Taliban soldiers from the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice joined in, they used sledgehammers, Mohebzadah said.

Destruction Amused Minister, Historian Says

It meant nothing to them that the Islamic world has produced some of the most beautiful art--including depictions of living beings--in the history of humankind, he said.

“The Taliban wanted to have a superior Islam in Afghanistan,” Mohebzadah said.

The culture minister himself singled out the remains of a limestone statue of King Kanishka, whose realm around the 2nd century included present-day Afghanistan.

It was under Kanishka that Buddhism reached its peak in Central Asia, and during his reign, art and literature flourished. The National Museum’s statue of Kanishka, dating from the time he ruled, was already missing the top half of his body on the day of the Taliban tour.

The only thing left that resembled a human form were his two feet. Mohebzadah and Zaker gently suggested to the minister that he need not destroy an ancient statue that was half ruined already.

The mullah raised his ax and pounded it to pieces, amused by his own work, Mohebzadah said.

Museum staff had managed to hide crates full of other museum pieces, but the Taliban found and destroyed them too. Mohebzadah and Zaker were able, however, to conceal a few statues, such as a delicate 7th century Buddhist male deity.

A tourist guide to the National Museum, printed by the Afghan government in 1974, is now Mohebzadah’s pocket guide to all that has been lost. Most of the items listed in its glossy pages are gone, he said.

When the Taliban seized Kabul in the fall of 1996, ancient Afghan art was at first left alone. The Taliban concentrated instead on what it considered the pollution of Western culture and banned music, films and television.

The regime allowed the museum to continue its preservation and storage work with the support of a European-funded organization called the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage.

The organization, along with the United Nations, supported the museum’s effort to catalog and restore artifacts damaged by the four years of vicious fighting in Kabul that preceded the Taliban takeover.

Those very catalogs--its photographs now littering the museum compound--helped the Taliban search for things to destroy as the regime became more isolated and more extreme.

“When the Taliban came to power . . . the process of cataloging and collecting items continued for another two or three years,” Mohebzadah said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t know that a time would come when all would be destroyed.”

The two-story National Museum opened in 1979, the year of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, Mohebzadah said. The museum exhibited prehistoric rarities, such as a sculpted stone head made about 20,000 BC, unearthed by archeologists at Aq Kupruk, and displayed a range of artworks spanning thousands of years, right up to modern times.

Museum Looted, Burned During ‘90s Civil War

In 1992, three years after the Soviets withdrew in defeat, the district became the front line between fighters of two of Afghanistan’s most brutal factions: the Hezb-i-Islami, the biggest recipient of covert U.S. aid during the moujahedeen war against the Soviets, and Hezb-i-Wahdat, an ethnic Hazara militia.

The two sides blasted each other from 1992 until the arrival of Taliban troops four years later, and as the front line shifted, one side or another looted and burned the National Museum, which lost most of its roof and second-floor exhibition galleries.

After the civil war began in 1992, the museum cataloged all the museum pieces and counted about “34,000 items that were packed and categorized and saved in good places,” Mohebzadah said. Many were moved to the Kabul Hotel for safekeeping in 1995.

By the time the Taliban seized power a year later, the museum estimated it had lost 70% of its ancient items, including some that were 4,000 years old, Mohebzadah added.

The museum might have added some new discoveries to replace the lost artifacts, but the Taliban stopped that too, he said.

Three years ago, Mohebzadah and Zaker got wind of a secret excavation near the town of Khost, where the Taliban were said to be digging up idols that were at least 1,700 years old, Zaker said.

He and Mohebzadah saw that Taliban soldiers, perhaps working for smugglers, were making a mess of what could be an important archeological site. So they asked the Taliban government for funds to do a proper dig.

They got nothing and finally gave up. The only government help the treasure hunters wanted was from the Ministry of Mines, Zaker said. That was the only place they could get a free bulldozer.


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