Afghanistan’s national treasure under war

  ”It was really difficult at the beginning and we paid a lot to protect the safety of the museum. Now I am very happy that we protected it at the beginning.” On August 21, Mohamed Fahim Rahimi replied in an email ” “China News Weekly” said, “Now, some Taliban members have provided protection for the museum. The current situation has not returned to normal, and it is still unclear. We are waiting for what the Taliban will say.”
  Rasimi is the director of the National Museum of Afghanistan, 5 days Earlier, on the day the Taliban entered Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, he was in shock. The National Museum of Afghanistan urgently posted on social media that the city has fallen into unprecedented chaos. They worry that if the chaos continues, the safety of museum collections will be threatened, and they call on the armed forces, the international community, the Taliban and other influential organizations to pay attention to the safety of cultural relics.
  The National Museum of Afghanistan has a history of one hundred years, and has been at the center of war repeatedly in the turmoil in Afghanistan for nearly half a century. In every war, the museum is like a treasure chest that has been snatched from each other, occupied, robbed, stolen, and destroyed. Lasimi hoped to spend this time in peace, as the text on the stone tablet in front of the museum said: “A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive.” When culture exists, the country survives.
Half of the museum people return to work

  Lasimi said that currently about half of the museum staff have returned to the museum, and his family is very worried about his safety. The National Museum of Afghanistan is managed by the government, and the staff are all former government employees. They are worried about being harmed by the Taliban. Some female museum staff have resigned.
  Since the political changes in Kabul, Jiang Ruixia has been keeping in touch with friends in the cultural relics industry in Afghanistan. She is the head of the International Department of Beijing Jianzhong Culture Communication Co., Ltd. She has participated in many cultural relic exchanges between China and Afghanistan, and was invited to visit Afghanistan three times. “Nothing is known.” Her tone was worried. “The curator and some staff have returned to the museum on August 19, but the situation is still unclear. It is still unclear who will pay the salary in the future.”
  Lassi Mi said that some female museum staff also returned to the museum. But female museum staff are waiting in panic. Whether they can keep their jobs depends on how the Taliban policy is formulated. They still remember the dark history of women being banned from education and work during the Taliban’s power from 1996 to 2001. The Taliban’s public statement after entering Kabul this time expressed respect for women’s rights, but did not eliminate doubts and fears. A Taliban spokesperson said at a press conference that the Taliban will protect women’s rights within the scope of Sharia law without discrimination. However, according to media reports, there have been some restrictions on women’s rights, and female teachers and students in some cities have been barred from entering schools.
  Zhu Yongbiao, director of the Afghanistan Research Center of Lanzhou University, said in an interview with the media that the Taliban’s statement was very clear and vague, allowing women to receive education, but did not make it clear what kind of education is. This makes many people guess that what they allow and accept is the female version of religious school education. He believes that at least some of them, especially some young people with relatively high levels of education and Baradar, who are traditionally “relatively moderate” Taliban members, have been trying to show others in a more gentle face in recent years. This is both strategic and practical, and it is also based on past historical lessons. Judging from the current situation, the Taliban has changed a bit from the past at least on the surface. However, some Afghan female cultural relics workers worry that the Taliban will keep their promises.
Over the past 20 years, the collection has been safe and sound

  Lasimi graduated from Kabul University with a major in archaeology and completed a master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States. In the year of graduation, he made a map showing all the important archaeological sites in Afghanistan. “In the past 20 years, we have made a lot of achievements. We have allowed the department to run, improved the capabilities of the staff, opened the museum to the public, and added more collections.” Lasimi told China News Weekly, “The most important thing is that we keep the collection safe and sound.”
  The Taliban regime disintegrated in 2001, the new Afghan government was established in 2004, and the Afghan National Expo was reopened that year. In a relatively peaceful environment for 20 years, people in the Afghan cultural relics field have resumed archeology, exhibitions, cultural relics restoration, and international exchanges.
  In June 2019, the National Museum of Afghanistan invited the Tsinghua University Art Museum and the Beijing Jianzhong Exhibition team to visit Afghanistan. The colleagues of the two countries talked about the future cooperation plan with anticipation. The most mature talk was the Aynak Cultural Relics Exhibition. The Aynak site is the most important archaeological discovery in Afghanistan in the past ten years. A Buddhist temple 2600 years ago has reappeared. The unearthed cultural relics have been exhibited only once in the Czech Republic, and more boutiques have not been exhibited in a concentrated manner. But then, when the epidemic came and the war came again, the matter was put on hold.
  At that time, the Chinese delegation accompanied Afghanistan to many famous sites, reaching Panjshir as far as Panjshir, which is where Ahmed Masood, son of the current Afghan Vice President Saleh and anti-Taliban fighter Masood, was preparing to fight the Taliban to the end. . Tan Shengguang, curator of the Art Museum of Tsinghua University, remembers that Pan Jieshir is all mountainous, with only one road along the river. The water is fast and easy to defend and difficult to attack. Tan Shengguang and his Afghan counterparts talked about the 1990s, and their memories were very painful, “I didn’t do anything, I couldn’t do anything.” At that time, the National Museum was bombed and the institution ceased to exist.
  In the past 20 years, Afghanistan’s cultural heritage has undergone a difficult process of rebirth from the ruins. After taking power in Kabul and several other major cities in 1996, the Taliban has not been recognized by the United Nations. The Taliban were so upset about this and issued a warning in 1997, threatening to destroy Bamiyan’s “pagan idols”. In 2001, as the UN Security Council voted to adopt sanctions against the Taliban, the Taliban subsequently launched a retaliatory action, blowing up two Bamiyan Buddhas to attract the attention of the international community.
  The two Buddha statues are 1,500 years old and are carved on sandstone cliffs. The West Giant Buddha is 55 meters high and the East Giant Buddha is 38 meters high. When completed, it was the two tallest Buddha statues in the world. The tallest statue in Yungang Grottoes is 17 meters. Two magnificent Buddha statues make Bamiyan a holy place in the hearts of Buddhists. From 629 to 630 AD, Master Xuanzang of the Tang Dynasty also came to Bamiyan for a pilgrimage.
  ”Due to its special geographical location, Afghanistan is a meeting point of civilizations and a melting pot of culture. One aspect of the importance of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage is that it reflects the history of the world to some extent, because it has had an impact throughout the ancient world. “Lasimi said.
  Before becoming an “imperial cemetery,” for thousands of years, Afghanistan was the crossroads of world civilization, the heart of Europe and Asia, and the only place that the Silk Road must pass through. This is particularly clear in the development trajectory of Buddhist art.

  The art of Gandhara, born in eastern Afghanistan and northeastern Pakistan, is a key step in the birth of Buddha art. Central Asia, including the Gandhara region, was conquered by the Greek King Alexander at the end of the first century BC and implemented the Hellenistic policy. When Buddhism was introduced from South Asia in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, Buddhist culture was influenced by Greek culture here. The most important influence was the Greek tradition of creating statues for gods, which opened up the Buddhist “imagery movement”. After the art of Gandhara spread eastward to China, it was absorbed by Buddhist grottoes such as Dunhuang and Yungang. Typical Greek images such as wavy curly hair and towering nose bridge appeared in the statue.

The Jam Minaret, one of the two world cultural heritage sites in Afghanistan. Photography/Liu Tuo

  Afghanistan used to be an important hub for the spread of Buddhism from India to Central Asia, West Asia and China. In addition to the world’s largest Buddhist grotto group, the Bamiyan Grottoes, in nearly 100 years of archaeology, the Gandhara-style Hatha Temple, Aynak Buddhist Temple, and important relics such as the ruins of Begram, Xia Du of the Guishuang Dynasty. Xuanzang once described the “Buddhist Kingdom” in “The Western Regions of the Tang Dynasty”, the “Buddhist Kingdom” Fulidun Sahuan, and some archaeologists believe that the “Buddha Kingdom” that has disappeared may be in Afghanistan. However, since Afghanistan converted to Islam 1200 years ago, these Buddhist relics no longer have religious functions and become cultural heritage.
  In 2017, Jiang Ruixia visited Bamyan for the first time in Afghanistan. What she saw at the time was only two huge and empty Buddhist caves. Steps were dug into the mountains on both sides of the East Big Buddha. The guide led them to climb along the steps. On both sides, one could see layers of grottoes, which were very magnificent. Climbing to the top of the mountain is where the head of the East Buddha Buddha is located. You can look out over the Kabul River Valley, and further afield is the Hindu Kush Mountain that traverses Afghanistan. “It’s a pity that Bamiyan is the most glorious peak of Gandhara culture, and I can’t see it anymore. Afghanistan is a crossroads of civilization, which is very purely reflected in Bamiyan.” She told China News Weekly.

In 2019, Jiang Ruixia (left) and Tan Shengguang visited the restoration room of the National Museum of Afghanistan. Picture/Jiang Ruixia

  In addition to the famous two big Buddhas, the Bamiyan Grottoes also have hundreds of small grottoes with exquisite Buddha statues and murals. These caves were destroyed one by one during the war. Jiang Ruixia saw twenty or thirty grottoes in succession, and only architectural components such as arch coupons remained. “Even if there is nothing, it is still awe-inspiring.” She recalled. At this time, the Bamiyan Buddha has been surrounded by iron fences and iron gates, and is guarded by special cultural protection personnel.
  In 2014 and 2017, Dr. Liu Tuo from the School of Archaeology, Arts and Sciences of Peking University visited Afghanistan twice and took pictures of cultural relics. He saw that the Afghan cultural department has taken overall measures for the protection of cultural relics. He has seen the cultural relics cards issued by the government uniformly on the cultural relics in many cities. In big cities like Kabul and Herat, there are as many as dozens of cultural relics. An introduction to cultural relics is written in English and local characters on the sign, and a cross-sectional view is also drawn.
  He went to two world cultural heritage sites in Afghanistan-the Bamyan Caves in Bamyan Province and the Jam Minaret in Ghor Province. Both sites are very remote, but there are also dedicated clerks and military guards. The Jam Minaret is a five-hour drive from the provincial capital of Ghor Province. The surrounding area is deserted. The clerks live alone in a lonely hut under the tower. “I don’t know how he persevered, so I am willing to guard it like this.” Liu Tuo said, the main danger they faced was personal safety.
Afghan business card touring around the world

  After the political turmoil in Afghanistan, some Chinese people remembered the Afghan cultural relics exhibited in China in previous years and worried about their safety. The Afghan cultural relics exhibition group composed of 231 treasures has been exhibited in more than 20 museums in France, Italy, the Netherlands, the United States, Canada, Germany, Britain, Australia, Japan, South Korea and other countries. After landing in China in March 2017, it appeared in Beijing, Dunhuang, Chengdu, Nanjing, Hong Kong and other places.
  According to Lasimi, these cultural relics are currently in good condition. “I think the international tour of Afghan treasures has played a key role in increasing the awareness of Afghan cultural relics.” Lasimi told China News Weekly. “Now more people know that Afghanistan is geographically, historically, and culturally. It is such an important country, and it is expected to enhance our tourism industry in the future.”
  After the global tour of this batch of cultural relics entered China, they were once called “national treasures wandering”, giving them the tragic color of avoiding war and being homeless. The touring exhibition is considered a touching act of “relay protection”. “That is the wishful thinking of some of us.” Tan Shengguang commented on this statement, “Afghanistan has expressed objections several times, and it hurts their self-esteem.” In fact, the opposite is true. The cultural relics exhibition is at a time when the situation in Afghanistan is stable. This is a cultural exchange they launched in peacetime, hoping to reshape the international image of Afghanistan.
  When these cultural relics were exhibited in the Forbidden City in Beijing, the exhibition was named “Bath of Fire and Light”, which accurately described the experience of these cultural relics over the past few decades. In 1989, the Islamic Jihad Group resisted the invasion of the Soviet Army. The situation in Kabul was very severe. The National Museum of Afghanistan decided to decentralize the preservation of cultural relics. Ministry of Culture and National Museum. This strategy was very effective, and the first-level cultural relics were therefore completely protected. Rasimi once told this story in China. He said that there are rumors that the cultural relics were looted by the Soviets, sold by the Islamic Jihad, or stolen by the Taliban, but in fact they have not moved this batch of objects. Grade cultural relics, “because no one knows where they are stored”.
  In 2004, after the establishment of the new Afghan government, the first-class cultural relics in the central bank’s vault returned to the National Museum. French President Jacques Chirac heard that he hoped to exhibit in France. This is the beginning of the tour. Since then, many countries have proposed exhibition wishes one after another.
  ”In the beginning, we did not intend to tour the world.” Lasimi said, but they were willing to show the cultural relics to the world to spread the culture and history of Afghanistan, so they responded to the invitations of various countries one by one. These cultural relics unexpectedly traveled the world for 13 years, and only returned to the motherland in 2020. Before these cultural relics returned to China, many young staff members of the Afghan National Museum had not seen them.
  However, in addition to these first-class cultural relics, more Afghan cultural relics have suffered catastrophes, the National Museum has been looted many times, and 70% of the 100,000 items in the collection have been lost. During the Taliban’s ruling from 1996 to 2001, the Buddhist relics in the museum were extensively destroyed. They entered the museum vault and smashed any cultural relics with images of people and animals, including a large number of Buddha statues.
  Tan Shengguang remembered that when handing over to the Art Museum of Tsinghua University, the Afghan National Museum carefully counted one by one. The beads on the jewelry were counted one by one, and it took at least 4 days to complete the handover. The normal delivery time for cultural relics exhibitions of the same scale is generally one to two days.

  At every stop of the Afghan Treasures Exhibition in China, the curator Lasimi came to attend the opening ceremony in person. Taking the opportunity, he visited many Chinese museums and cultural monuments, in addition to the well-known large museums, there are also some small local museums. Even an ordinary local museum made him feel shocked, and then sad.
  Jiang Ruixia visited the National Museum of Afghanistan several times. It was a small two-story building that was transformed from an office building with decades of age. It is not a modern museum building. The offices, exhibitions and cultural relics of the National Museum of Afghanistan are all crowded in. in. The bidding plan for the new museum has long been collected around the world, but there has been no conditions to start construction, and there is still a large open space.
“Why did we become Afghans”

  For Lasimi, this year has been an eventful year. Before the war, in May of this year, his teacher died of new coronary pneumonia. Rasimi’s teacher is Mohamed Rasul Bawari, the former Deputy Minister of Information and Culture of Afghanistan. He is also a very well-known archaeologist who has devoted his life to protecting Afghan cultural relics. Before the unrest broke out, he personally went to various provinces to inspect cultural heritage protection. He has also led the Afghan Culture Week and promoted Afghan culture to the world. When visiting China, he always emphasized the cosmopolitan nature of Afghan culture, saying that Afghan culture belongs to all mankind. It has nothing to do with a certain individual or a specific group, but is part of the history of the world.
  In Rahimi’s eyes, Afghan cultural heritage means the identity of Afghans. “It means how we become Afghans and how we are proud. Every fragment of cultural heritage is part of Afghanistan’s history and achievements.” In the hearts of other Afghans, cultural heritage and personal life are even more deeply connected.
  There is a famous story among Chinese scholars studying cultural relics in Afghanistan. The protagonist of the story is called Abbas, the head of the young Bamiyan Cave Management Office. His father used to do security work in Bamyan. After the Taliban captured Bamyan in the 1990s, his father was killed by Taliban extremists and his mother passed away in grief. The 12-year-old Abbas became an orphan, and later he inherited his father’s career and worked for the Bamiyan Grottoes. A few years ago, at the age of 30, he finally raised enough tuition to go to university.
  Shao Xuecheng, a special researcher of the Dunhuang Academy, first saw his photos in various Bamyan archaeological materials. He was young and physically strong. He served as a worker for the archaeological team. Shao Xuecheng once wrote that although Bamiyan’s research has been going on for nearly a hundred years, there are often surprises and accidents, and there are still many grottoes and secret spiritual temples that have not been ascertained. Abbas lives here and has accumulated knowledge of these caves. Bamiyan, who is in the world’s attention, is the only one who has been conducting archaeological investigations for a long time. In 2018, the Dunhuang Academy organized an investigation group to Afghanistan, and Abbas as a guide led them to see many rare sites. That year, Abbas got the opportunity to come to Dunhuang to learn professional knowledge of grotto protection.
  Rahimi said that the more people around the world see Afghanistan’s heritage, the better. This is a must to introduce Afghanistan to the world and is also helpful to economic development. However, what was placed in front of him was still huge uncertainty. Before the political changes, they had made many plans for outbound exhibitions, “but now we are not sure whether we can continue to go on.”