Context & Culture

Museums and Massacres


A new exhibition at the Kabul Museum has opened with the display of some exquisitely beautiful exhibits, newly found at the archaeological dig which is preceding the development of the Mes-e Ainak copper mine in Logar. Ambassadors, generals and ministers gathered with curators and archaeologists for the opening and an announcement that a new Afghan National Museum is to be built. AAN’s senior analyst, Kate Clark, remembers not only the destruction of statues in the museum, but also the Taleban’s massacres of civilians ten years ago.

The Kabul Museum, battered and abused by successive conquerors of Kabul during the 1990s and early 2000s, may finally be about to be resurrected. Five million US dollar have been promised by the Americans, to be matched by three million from the Ministries of Information and Culture and Mines. The plan is to rebuild and extend the museum so that, among other national treasures, it will be able to house Afghanistan’s most precious objects – the Bactrian Gold and Bagram Ivories – which remained hidden during the war and are currently on special exhibition at the British Museum in London, as part of a world tour* (see also an earlier blog on the show in Bonn).

The Kabul museum also has a new exhibition housing some really fine pieces dug up at the Mes-e Ainak copper mine in Logar. Beautifully lit and presented, with useful information about the dig and the history of the area, the room contains a rare, wooden seated Buddha, a relief of the Buddha walking serenely while a follower puts his hair on the ground to save the Buddha from muddying his feet – the sculptor from almost twenty centuries ago has captured the movement of the figures and expressions on the faces quite movingly. More pieces will be coming: there is a three year window for the archaeological dig in Logar as the contractors prepare to start mining for copper (see also our guest blog ‘Mining the “Intangible Cultural Heritage”’ here).

The Logar pieces give a sense of what the museum might have looked like in its hey day. It lost the bulk of its exhibits to looting by the mujahedin during the civil war in Kabul in the 1990s. The museum itself was rocketed and the records burned. When I first visited, in 2000, the staff were stoically sitting in the cold, ruined building, re-cataloguing and packing safely away what remained of the collection: shards and what the mujahedin had physically been unable to carry away (see also here).

The museum staff work was rewarded on Afghan Independence Day in August 2000, with the re-opening of the museum. There were many boasts by the Taleban that they, unlike the mujahedin, were protectors of the nation’s culture.** Six months later, I discovered the Taleban were secretly smashing up the statues in the museum – on the grounds that they were un-Islamic (read my report from 2001 here). That dreadful winter and spring of 2000/01, with the poor of Afghanistan struggling to survive not only civil war, but the worst drought in a generation, the Taleban actively pursued destruction. They massacred civilians in Yakowlang, stacking the bodies, survivors said, ‘like firewood in the snow.’ Just to the east, in their garrison town of Bamian, they spent several weeks working hard to blow up the colossal statues of the Buddha (see our earlier blogs on the subject here, here and here). When they had finished, the Taleban sacrificed 100 cows; according to Mullah Omar, it was an atonement to God for the Taliban’s delay in destroying the idols.

Ten years ago, I was breaking these stories, but the world was much more interested in the statues than the people. I and other unnamed people risked a lot to get reports of the Yakowlang massacre out. The Taleban had always denied they killed civilians, but we managed to smuggle film of the aftermath out, the dead bodies, the orphans watching their father being reburied as snow fell, the desperate tales of the survivors; for the first time there was undeniable evidence of a Taleban massacre. The BBC World Service and BBC World ran the story as headline news, but the domestic part of the BBC thought it was less interesting than a ‘funny’ story about a Taleban ban on ‘foreign’ hair cuts. I and other friends wondered how much air time the editors serving a British audience would have given if only the Taleban had killed donkeys or dogs instead of people.

A few weeks later, the destruction of the Buddhas at Bamian was – quite rightly – an event of global media interest for several weeks. But until 9/11, the world was not really interested in attacks on Afghan civilians. That year, specialised military units of the Taleban worked hard to burn whole villages to the west of Bamian, using a type of tar as an incendiary because it is so difficult to burn mud houses. Attacking civilians because they from the same ethnic group and sect as opposition factions***, the Taleban burned food stuffs, homes, mosques – even Qur’ans – creating a scorched earth area, in which anyone who remained behind was shot (read a contemporary report here).

This week, for the first time since 2001, I met one of the Afghans who worked heroically to bring news of the massacres and the Buddhas out. Talking about the hundreds of lives lost at that time and the smashed statues in the same breath still makes me feel uneasy and yet they always felt linked. The Taleban’s destructive bender was as much against (certain communities of) their own people as against (selected bits of) the nation’s history.

Curators and foreign experts have painstakingly put together the smashed statues in the museum and some of the looted exhibits have been returned and the museum itself rebuilt. Even so, the museum always seemed to be lacking – so much had been stolen and much of what was left looks like battered remnants. This week, visiting the museum and marvelling at the beauty of some of those newly dug pieces from Logar, I felt that something good was happening. It was a sign that the Kabul Museum, once one of the finest small museums in the world, may be about to see a renaissance. And Afghans will finally be able to see the most precious part of their national collection for the first time in twenty years.****

* The exhibition is currently in London as part of its world tour, so it is possible to get an idea of what Afghans will eventually also get a chance to see.

‘One of the display cases in the exhibition will show the first tomb to have been discovered at the first century AD site at Tillya Tepe [golden hill],’ says Constance Wyndham, the assistant exhibition curator. ‘The skeleton was of a woman aged between 20 and 30 years, buried lying on her back. Her clothes were covered in hundreds of gold ornaments, stitched on to the cloth’ (quotes from here).

The unknown nomadic woman’s tomb was one of six discovered by a joint Soviet/Afghan team just before the Saur Revolution in 1978. Along with the five other bodies had been buried 21,618 gold, silver and ivory objects. The influences on the people who made them are clearly diverse, from classical Greek gods and imagery (remnants of the influence of Alexander the Great’s kingdom), to leaping bulls from Mesopotamian art and Parthian tropes from Iran; it is a sign of just how much Afghanistan then stood on the crossroads of the ancient world and just how rich the elite of that, as yet, still unidentified nomadic people were. The find turned out to be, “one of the most important collections from the ancient world,” says the British Museum curator, St John (pronounced sinjun) Simpson. ‘These are all personal possessions, made to be worn on the saddle. This whole idea of personal ornaments stitched onto cloth is a steppe tradition, so too is the lavish use of turquoise” (quote from here).

Also on exhibition are finds from Ai Khanum in northern Takhar on the banks of the Amu Darya: the site of this Hellenistic city dating from between the third century BC and the first century AD, now looks like a moonscape, so badly plundered and thoroughly excavated was it by local commanders during the war. There are also pieces from Bagram, now a military base, but in the first centuries AD, the summer capital of the Kushan dynasty which ruled from Afghanistan into India. They include ivories and this enamelled Roman glassware which shows a scene of people harvesting dates. (you can see it and other objects here). It was made in Roman Egypt and exported by sea via the Red Sea and Indian Ocean to India. It was then brought overland to Bagram where centuries later it was found in a storeroom at the heart of a palace.

** In summer 1999, Mullah Omar had reiterated that the Emirate would protect the Buddhas of Bamian.

*** This pattern of attacking civilians was seen from 1997 with the massacre of villagers during their retreat from Mazar (a time when General Malek’s Jombesh forces also killed thousands of Taleban prisoners of war) until they lost power in 2001. For details of the cases see reports here and here.

**** The post-2001 world has also brought new opportunities to dig, steal and smuggle abroad the marvellous artefacts still in the ground in Afghanistan.

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Thematic Category: Context & Culture