As Afghanistan enters a new period of uncertainty following the withdrawal of US forces from the country this year, many people’s thoughts may be turning to events 20 years ago before the US invasion of the country after the attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001.
Afghanistan at that time was largely under the control of the Taliban group that today has once again been taking over areas of the country. In March 2001, the group decided to blow up the giant statues of the Buddha in the Bamiyan Valley in central Afghanistan, reducing these 6th-century monuments to rubble despite international efforts to save them.
The destruction is being remembered 20 years later in a small exhibition at the Musée Guimet in Paris that places the Bamiyan site within the context of the spread of Buddhism in the region and the work of French archaeological teams in excavating this and similar sites in Afghanistan from the 1920s onwards.
Carved out of the rock of the cliffs surrounding the Bamiyan Valley, the giant statues of the Buddha, one 38 m high and built between 544 and 595 CE and the other 55 m high and built between 591 and 644 CE, were late examples on a monumental scale of the Buddhist art that flourished in the region before its Islamisation from the 8th century CE.
Sometimes called Gandharan art after the name of a region that once straddled areas of what are now Afghanistan, northern India, and Pakistan, it brought together Hellenistic influences, notably in the presentation of the human figure, with the Asian religion of Buddhism to create a remarkable cultural synthesis of east and west.
It was in 327 BCE that Alexander the Great, fresh from conquering the Persian Empire, arrived in what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan, setting up Hellenistic kingdoms in the region which lasted until the 1st century BCE. Following the end of Hellenistic rule in the region, the Kushan and other peoples that succeeded it retained aspects of Hellenistic culture, giving rise to the Graeco-Buddhist art of the Gandharan region and the presentation of the Buddha and Buddhist bodhisattvas in human form.
Much of our knowledge of this unique form of Graeco-Buddhist art is owed to the work of French archaeologists working with the Délégation archéologique française en Afghanistan (DAFA), set up as a result of an agreement between the government of Afghanistan and the French authorities in the 1920s in order to carry out archaeological work in the country and to help to reconstruct its early history.
The DAFA started work at Bamiyan in the late 1920s after leading excavations in the north of Afghanistan, once ancient Bactria, the heart of Hellenistic culture in the region. The exhibition remembers this work through its dedication to French archaeologists Joseph and Ria Hackin, who worked at Bamiyan in the 1920s and later died in the Second World War when they were working for the French Resistance.
It includes photographs and documents from the time, bearing witness to the negotiations that led to the DAFA’s work in Bamiyan and its efforts to make Afghanistan’s early history and successive civilisations better known worldwide.
There are copies of images found in the niches or surrounding caves of the monumental statues of the Buddha, some of which survived their dynamiting by the Taliban in 2001. There is a splendid photographic panorama of the cliffs at Bamiyan made in 2016 by French photographer Pascal Convert showing the empty niches in the rock face where the giant statues of the Buddha once stood as well as the dramatic surrounding landscape.
However, while the melancholy story of the destruction of these magnificent statues of the Buddha may come to many minds as the Taliban prepare once again to take over areas of Afghanistan, it is one that is by no means alone.
Even before Taliban rule, beginning in 1996 with the group’s taking control of the Afghan capital Kabul, the country had been largely destroyed by the civil conflict that had been raging since 1989 after the withdrawal of Soviet troops and the loss of much of the country by the doomed government of former Afghan president Mohammed Najibullah.
The damage inflicted on Afghan heritage and other sites during this civil-war period, characterised by campaigns led by different militia groups, was as great as anything later inflicted by the Taliban.
AFGHAN HERITAGE: Rival groups fought for control, laying waste to vast areas and destroying or looting archaeological and heritage sites.
The National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul had been largely destroyed and almost entirely looted by 1995. Artefacts stolen from Afghan collections and heritage sites could be found for sale throughout the region and across the world.
In the period following the US invasion in October 2001, efforts were made to conserve Afghanistan’s surviving heritage sites and restore damaged facilities, including the National Museum. They included a major project in Bamiyan to conserve as much as possible from the damaged archaeological site, as well as other projects at Hellenistic, Buddhist, and Islamic sites across the country, notably in ancient Bactria, at Buddhist sites such as Mes Aynak and Tepe Sadr, and at Islamic sites in Herat in the west, Balkh in the north, and Kabul in the east of the country.
Today, two Afghan sites are registered on the UNESCO World Heritage List, the Bamiyan Valley, including the remains of the Buddhas, and the Minaret of Jam, a 65-metre Islamic minaret built by Ghurid sultan Ghiyas-ud-din in 1194 CE and located some 215 km east of Herat. Other Afghan heritage sites on the UNESCO tentative list – not all the paperwork has been completed for their inscription – include the ancient city of Herat itself, the ancient city of Balkh in ancient Bactria, Band-e-Amir, and the Bagh-e Babur in Kabul.
Among the most important sites in Herat are the Masjid-e Jami, a 10th-century Ghurid mosque featuring a characteristic entrance portal and huge central courtyard, and the mausoleum complex of Khwaja Abdulla Ansari dating from the Timurid period. Balkh, an originally Hellenistic city developed in the Islamic period, was the birthplace of the Persian poet Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Rumi (1207-1273 CE). It retains vestiges of its ancient mudbrick walls and includes important heritage buildings such as the Timurid shrine of Khwaja Abu Nasr Parsa dating from 1460 CE and the 17th-century Madrasa of Sayyid Sudhan Quli Khan.
Band-e-Amir is an environmental reserve. The Bagh-e Babur in Kabul, the Babur Gardens, were created by Zahir ad-Din Muhammad Babur (1483-1530 CE) in 1504. He went on to conquer northern India in 1526, founding the Indian Mughal Dynasty based in Delhi. According to the UNESCO citation, Babur’s Mughal heirs, notably the emperors Jahangir and Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal, would often pay their respects at his burial place in the Babur Gardens and commission work to preserve them.
One of the most evocative of the earlier Hellenistic sites is Ai Khanoum, perhaps the largest of all the Greek cities built in the region following the conquests of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE. Identified as “Alexandria on the Oxus” by its French excavators between 1964 and 1978, the city, located in northeast Afghanistan, was founded by the Hellenistic Seleucid king Antiochus I Soter in around 280 BCE.
It was one of the best-preserved Hellenistic sites in Afghanistan, presenting the extraordinary remains of a fully-fledged ancient Greek city thousands of miles from the centre of Greek culture in the eastern Mediterranean. The archaeological site was looted and entirely destroyed during the civil conflict in Afghanistan following the Soviet withdrawal, an inestimable loss to Afghanistan and the world as a whole.
Another site entirely destroyed as a result of the civil conflict was Hadda near Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, the site of a series of Graeco-Buddhist monasteries also excavated by DAFA. Some of the finds from these monasteries, including statues of the Buddha and of Buddhist bodhisattvas, are now in the Musée Guimet in Paris, with similar statues once kept in the National Museum of Afghanistan being either looted or destroyed in the 1990s.
One of the most important rediscoveries following the US invasion in 2001 was the intact Tillya Tepe hoard of some 21,000 gold ornaments discovered in 1978 by a Soviet-Afghan archaeological team working at the site of the same name and dating back to the Hellenistic and Graeco-Buddhist period.
Following the Soviet withdrawal, the hoard was hidden beneath the National Bank building in Kabul, where miraculously it survived the warring militia groups that then ransacked the capital. Items from it were first displayed outside Afghanistan at the Afghanistan, les trésors retrouvés exhibition in 2007 (reviewed in the Weekly in January 2007), which, starting at the Musée Guimet in Paris, later travelled to institutions across the world, creating a sensation.
The horde was returned to the National Museum following the building’s reconstruction, as were many of the Bagram ivories, a group of over a thousand decorative ivory plaques discovered by the DAFA near the site of Bagram in northeast Afghanistan in the 1930s. While the Bagram ivories kept at the Musée Guimet in Paris are intact, those housed at the National Museum were looted during the civil conflict in Afghanistan.
The present writer well remembers the excitement in the Afghan heritage community following the 2001 US invasion, as prospects opened up for renewed archaeological work in Afghanistan and for missions to resume to a country closed to almost all foreign teams from the early 1990s onwards and made impossible after 1996 with the advent of Taliban rule.
Travelling in neighbouring Pakistan shortly afterwards, it was possible to get a direct sense of what had been lost, with Pakistani Gandharan sites, such as at Taxila west of Islamabad, exhibiting the kind of careful site management that could, under different circumstances, have been employed to interpret the now forever-lost sites of Ai Khanoum and Hadda in Afghanistan to the Afghan and foreign publics.
The marvelous collections of Gandharan artefacts kept in the Lahore and even more so in the Peshawar Museum in Pakistan were also poignant reminders to this writer of the kind of materials that had been lost or destroyed at the Afghan National Museum during the civil conflict.
Rumours were rife after the US invasion of what might remain hidden from the civil-war period at ruined sites and facilities. Enormous amounts turned out to be lost forever, destroyed or looted and sold abroad, including much of the National Museum’s collections. Irreparable damage was done to sites across the country, in some cases entirely destroying them.
But much of the work of reconstruction, including of the National Museum, has been done over the past 20 years, and material once feared lost such as the Tillya Tepe horde is now once again on display. It would be a tragedy if events of the type that took place in the 1990s in Afghanistan were once again to play out as a result of any renewed lack of security in the country following the withdrawal of US forces.
Des images et des hommes, Bamiyan 20 ans après, Musée Guimet, Paris, until 18 October.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.