Skip to content

Which is worse for antiquities: The Taliban or Looters?

July 21, 2012

File photo: An Afghan walking near the world’s tallest standing statue of Buddha in Bamiyan province of Afghanistan.

The Taliban ‘s demolition of the standing statue of Buddha in Bamiyan (left) was seen as one of the most visible and revolting acts of cultural vandalism in recent history.  Internationally, headlines and opinion decried the destruction and focused attention on the existential threat to Afghanistan’s millennia-old heritage.

Meanwhile, in Pakistan’s northwest Swat region, the Taliban both destroyed revered Buddhist statuary and prohibited digs that would unearth examples of Pakistan’s non-Islamic past.  Fortunately – for now – the Taliban seem to have been flushed from the archaeologically rich Swat region, which would seem to augur well for the safety of sites and artifacts.  But the recent arrest of two alleged smugglers and seizure of hundreds of Gandharan artifacts and statuary indicates that high profile cultural vandalism is being replaced by clandestine looting, which is at least as bad as the Taliban’s depredations, if not worse.

Agence France Presse carries an unsettling account of the latest problems posed by an old nemesis – looters:

“This is cultural heritage and the future of a nation is based on cultural legacy,” said Abdul Azeem, deputy director of Pakistan’s Archaeological Department in Islamabad.

Remnants of Buddhist art and culture can be found at dozens of sites in north-western Pakistan which, in marked contrast to its tolerant past, is in the clutches of radical Islamic fundamentalism.

The Taliban sought to wipe out traces of the Gandhara civilisation that existed 2,000 years ago when Buddhism flourished in the subcontinent.

Islamists are hostile the pre-Islamic heritage and want to erase it. In Afghanistan, they destroyed two giant Buddha carvings in 2001.

The act was repeated in Pakistan in 2007, when militants blew up the face of a 1,500-year-old rock carving of Buddha in the Jahanabad area of Swat, bringing condemnation at home and from abroad.

“The destruction of Buddha was a great loss to our heritage by Taliban, who also later sent suicide bombers to attack Swat Museum during the military operation of 2009,” Azeem said.

The attack forced the authorities to move the rare archaeological treasures from Swat to Islamabad. They were returned this year to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province to be put back in the museum.

The vandalism also hit the region’s once booming tourist industry. The 6-metre tall Buddha image was one of the main attractions for local and foreign visitors from China, South Korea and Thailand before the rebels took control of the area in 2007.

Apart from the systematic destruction of monuments, the Taliban also stopped digging at sites in Swat to keep the non-Islamic past buried.

An army offensive in 2009 cleared out militants, and steps were taken to rehabilitate the damaged sites and the Jahanabad carving is being restored by an Italian team of archaeologists. But nothing was done to check the illegal excavations that restarted.

“I think the illegal digging of the historical structures has increased after the fall of the Taliban. They banned it and strictly punished those involved in it,” said Nasir Khan, a senior official at Taxila Museum, one of the main repositories of Gandhara-period items.

Official apathy, corruption and the mountainous terrain make it easy for small, clandestine digs.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: