The National Museum has been a powerful symbol in the portrayal of Afghanistan’s recovery since 2002 and focus of intense international attention. However, the ‘narrative of loss’ that runs through portrayals of the museum’s recent history tends to displace serious discussion as to its role as an institution in today’s Afghanistan. After more than a decade of efforts to take stock of losses and re-build the damage inflicted on what had been one of the richest collections in the region, and with funding being sought for the construction of a state-of-the-art new building in Kabul, it is time to explore and debate what the museum means to the Afghan population at large today, says AAN guest author Jolyon Leslie*.The photo shows the head of a Boddhisatva found in Ghazni (it bears scars inflicted by Taleban in 2001). But while pieces like this in the eyes of outsiders have been effectively neutralized as objects of worship and become ‘art’, the veneration with which they are treated might be perceived by some Afghans as a form of idolatry, writes Jolyon Leslie. Photo: Jolyon Leslie
It is commonly asserted that the National Museum somehow contributes to ‘a sense of national identity’ for Afghans but, as long as most of them know virtually nothing about the collection, it is difficult to understand how this might be the case. If the exquisite objects in its collection are to have some relevance in the lives of the diverse communities that make up the Afghan nation, the possible significance of artefacts to their own histories needs to be explained more effectively.
Objects of stone, earthenware, bronze, gold, silver and ivory that make up the National Museum’s collection shed light on the diverse and rich cultures that developed through thousands of years in the territory now known as Afghanistan. While of use or significance to their makers or original owners, objects without obvious practical or material value were in all likelihood considered as mere curiosities by those who subsequently came across them. An impoverished Afghan farmer who, when ploughing his fields, unearths an unfamiliar stone or pottery object that is of no recognisable use is unlikely to attach to it any particular significance – even though today he or she may well be aware that he could sell his find. Metal objects, on the other hand, are likely to have a higher material value and, being generally recyclable, tend to be more prized. In recent decades, however, the increase in illegal digging of historic sites suggests that such artefacts have become a commodity whose potential value on the international market is now widely known, even among Afghan villagers.
The bulk of valuable found historic artefacts from Afghanistan are trafficked abroad, mainly to Europe, the US and Japan but, like the narcotics trade, smugglers and their customers keep a low profile. On the scale that it now operates, the trade in antiquities is a relatively recent phenomenon, but portable precious objects have played a significant role in Afghan history. It was the prospect of plunder that motivated the Ghaznavids and subsequent Afghan dynasties to launch raids on the treasuries and shrines of northern India, enabling them to accumulate considerable wealth. Some of the plunder was used to assert political and religious dominance; Sultan Mahmud re-used a stone linga (symbol of the generative power of the Hindu deity Shiva, often in the form of a post) taken from Somnath in India, as the threshold of a mosque in his capital at Ghazni.
By the late 19th century, certain artefacts from Afghanistan began to be considered as more than commodities for sale, exchange or transformation (through melting down) and came to be recorded and collected for their artistic or historic value. Early accounts by foreign travellers, such as George Forster (1798), tend to describe the rugged landscape, the ‘barbarous insolence’ of Afghans they encounter, or in the case of Moorcroft and Trebeck (1820) and Alexander Burnes, stupas and other monuments they visit, but rarely mention historic artefacts.
The public museum – an alien concept
The first attempt to systematically record and collect historic artefacts seems to have been by Charles Masson who from 1832 embarked on a series of archaeological surveys and ‘excavations’ in eastern Afghanistan. His findings were subsequently published, with an analysis of coins and other objects from this area, as well as Kabul and Bamyan (1). Just as the collections assembled by enlightened officers and civil servants from the British East India Company contributed to scholarship on the early history of India, Masson’s discoveries shed new light on the spread of Buddhism into eastern Afghanistan during the first century. After 1833, Masson’s work was funded by the British Indian administration in Bombay who in return claimed possession of his finds – an arrangement not unusual at the time. An excerpt from his journal from 1836 while in Bagram, north of Kabul, brings home the indifference with which most Afghans at the time treated historic artefacts and heralds the beginnings of a commercial trade in antiquities:
The whole extent is covered with fragments of pottery, lumps of iron and other indications of a numerous population… superficial excavations of the Afghan shepherds, who conduct their flocks to pasture on this plain during the summer months, have for many years redeemed from the ground vast quantities of copper coins… which, until they became objects of European search, were melted in the mint of Kabul, or by the coppersmiths of that city of Charikar… who purchase them by weight.
Unlike the discarded pottery fragments and copper coins of which Masson wrote, fine objects have long been valued and made use of by the Afghan elite, who may have inherited items from their forebears or acquired them – often by force – from elsewhere. As in other countries, the survival of precious historic artefacts depended in part on wealthy and cultured families, whose status was in turn affirmed by their possession. Some Afghans may have had collections they safeguarded (2), but Amir Abdur Rahman in the late 19th century took the step of assembling assorted miniatures, documents, regalia and weapons that had belonged to his royal predecessors and putting these on display for his guests. After Abdur Rahman’s death in 1901, the collection was housed in a pavilion in Baghe Bala until it was moved in 1919 to the building in which the Amir received foreign guests, Koti Baghcha in the Arg palace. It was not until 1931 that the collection was installed in the new quarter of Darulaman in southern Kabul, where it has remained since, being supplemented by objects excavated by archaeologists, or confiscated from illegal digs or smugglers.
Just as Amir Amanullah Khan’s attempt to create a European-style urban layout in Darulaman was alien to most Afghans at the time, so, too, was the notion of a museum as a public institution. Part of broader efforts at modernization, the National Museum was intended, by providing a showcase for national patrimony, to bolster a sense of cultural identity in relation to the Afghan state. For a population whose sense of cultural identity has been largely established within their communities (as a result of limits on communication, disrupted education and a tendency towards insularity in places) however, this concept was and remains problematic. No less so have been attempts by successive regimes since to portray the museum’s collection as an embodiment of ‘national culture’ that somehow serves to unite Afghans in relation to a shared heritage. While the objects can certainly help to shed light on the accomplishments of its many communities and their place in the world at a particular time, unless ordinary Afghans are able to situate themselves in relation to this heritage, such claims seem rather far-fetched.
“Melted objects in the rubble”
My first impression of the National Museum was during a visit in 1990, shortly after the withdrawal of Soviet troops from the country. Like elsewhere in Kabul, the museum seemed to be in suspended animation; it was eerily quiet, with a few objects on display in dimly-lit cases that were covered in dust. The next time I was there, the place lay in ruins, after weeks of intense fighting between rival mujahedin factions in the area during the second half of 1993. In response to reports of damage to the building, we negotiated safe passage (a very relative notion in Kabul at that time) from the warring factions to cross through the ‘frontlines’ to reach the museum on the southern edge of Kabul. Nothing prepared me or my Afghan companions for what we found; the upper floors were blanketed in ash and soot from the burned roof, with sections of scorched metal sheeting folded like cloth over the crumbling brick walls. In the storerooms, coin cabinets stood with their drawers open, stripped bare; traces of objects that had melted in the intense fire lay in the rubble, along with fragments of smashed pottery. In a corridor, tiny fragments of what looked like ivory on the floor gave us an idea of what the looters were actually after – and had spirited away.
We could at that time do little more than record what we saw and returned later carrying materials to make up sandbags to block the shattered windows and doorways – subsequently replaced with steel doors and brickwork. Between each of our visits, mujahedin fighters returned to loot, despite assurances from commanders who controlled the area that they would intervene to prevent this. The objects that we saw for sale on the roadside on the way back to the city after such visits, brought home to us that our appeals had fallen on deaf ears. Then as today, almost as great a tragedy as the destruction and looting of heritage is the fact that Afghans themselves are largely responsible for such acts.
So focussed were we during that bitter winter in 1993/4 on measures to secure the building, that it was difficult to comprehend the scale of losses from the collection. It was in order to draw attention to these losses that a group of us set up in 1994 the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage (SPACH), which enabled an initial assessment, undertaken in freezing temperatures by the light of kerosene lamps, of what was left in the museum.
The story of what happened to the collection next has been recounted in detail elsewhere (3). Watching the museum effectively ‘rise from the ashes’ in the ensuring years, I have often wondered whether the damage and looting was simply a quest for plunder – as in previous times – or whether those responsible were motivated by a desire to destroy objects that were perceived to threaten their values. Claiming that these were ‘shrines of unbelievers’, it seems to have been this perception – perhaps mixed with a fear of the unknown – that in 2001 motivated the Taliban zealots to destroy some figurative objects in the museum collection (There is little evidence that the Taliban sold any objects – and they only destroyed some of the figurative objects they found, despite some sensationalist accounts).
Together with the destruction in 2001 of one of the buddhas in Bamiyan, this senseless act is routinely used to illustrate just how ‘beyond the pale’ the Taliban were at the time. Whether we wish to acknowledge it or not, however, other Afghans are likely to remain deeply ambivalent about certain objects in the museum collection (the lascivious female figures carved in ivory panels from the throne excavated at Bagram, for example (4)) that they perceive to be contrary to ‘Islamic values.’ During efforts in 1993/4 to persuade a factional leader – by most accounts an educated man – to put a halt to the looting of the museum by fighters under his command, I recall his bemusement at my suggestion that the collection was part of his heritage, and therefore worth safeguarding.
Such ambivalence is not a thing of the past; during a recent visit to an exhibition of Buddhist objects, a member of the museum staff was overheard remarking to a group of Afghan visitors that such ‘idols’ would be best kept in the stores rather than being on public display. While the National Museum in Kabul may no longer be on the front-line of actual conflict, we should not forget that it remains on a cultural fault-line.
What is cult and what is culture
While a Nuristani horsemen or schist Bodhisattva in a display case in Kabul may in the eyes of outsiders have been effectively neutralized as objects of worship, and become instead ‘art,’ the veneration with which they are treated might be perceived by some Afghans as a form of idolatry. Being constantly reminded by politicians and mullahs that their culture is somehow under siege, and without an effective programme of cultural education to counterbalance such claims, it is little wonder that many Afghans today may struggle to distinguish between cult and culture. In this context, assertions that culture is in itself a balm that will heal decades of animosity and mistrust ring rather hollow.
For this reason, there needs to be much greater focus on reaching out to the museum’s primary constituency, the Afghan public, to bring the collection to life and give it meaning in their lives today. As things stand, the citizens of New York, San Francisco, London, Paris and Melbourne (among many others who have benefited from the ‘Hidden Afghanistan’ exhibition that has been on tour since 2006) arguably know more about some of the most precious items in the collection – the Tillya Tepe horde, excavated in 1978 by Victor Sarianidi – than Afghans at home, where investments in public education have been negligible. Few Afghans, for example, are probably aware that a Buddhist settlement at Mes Aynak in Logar derived its wealth (which enabled the production of fine objects presently being excavated and sent to the National Museum) to a rich seam of copper, which is the focus of renewed interest from a Chinese mining conglomerate. In addition to using the media and classrooms, there would seem to be a real opportunity to reach out to the half of the Afghan population now under 15, many of whom are avid users of social media.
For Afghans to connect with this important part of their material heritage, the collection should be imaginatively interpreted and presented. This ‘bringing to life’ of what is, educational terms, a significant national asset presents as formidable a challenge as safeguarding the artefacts that make up this and collections elsewhere in the country. Without this, the National Museum will fail to live up to the catchy slogan that has been introduced above its entrance: ‘a nation stays alive when its culture is alive.’
*Jolyon Leslie is an architect who has lived in Afghanistan since 1989, working primarily in the fields of urban development and preservation.
(1) Wilson H. H. Ariana Antiqua: A Descriptive Account of Antiquities and Coins of Afghanistan (with a memoir on the buildings called topes by C. Masson Esq) East India Company 1841
(2) There were Afghans who had an interest in their material culture; Sheikh Keremat Ali, political agent in Kabul for the British, and Mohun Lal, who accompanied Alexander Burnes on his travels, both submitted their collections to the Asiatic Society in 1834
(3) Grissmann, C. The Kabul Museum: its turbulent years in van Krieken-Peters, J. (ed.), Art and Archaeology of Afghanistan: Its fall and Survival, 2006, The Netherlands, Brill.
(4) At the inauguration of an exhibition of Afghan antiquities in Amsterdam in 2007, a senior Afghan official was overheard explaining how ‘ashamed’ he felt to see a display with an enlarged image of one of the female figures from these ivory panels from Bagram.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020