Geography and Destiny For centuries, scarce resources and difficult terrain have required people in the Hindu Kush region to develop unique solutions to survive. But while geography has brought challenges, it has also offered opportunities. In Afghanistan, geography is a multi-sided destiny.
Identity and Perception Local, tribal, and religious identities in the Hindu Kush region have always shifted depending on one’s point of view. As Afghanistan decides what it means to be Afghan, it faces a kaleidoscope of moving perspectives.
Tradition and Modernization Afghans have always had to be flexible. At times, this flexibility has brought people together, and at other times it has torn them apart. Reconciling tradition and modernization means making sense of what’s at stake when people change--and when they don’t.
Traces and Narratives History is not always written. Much of what we know about Afghanistan comes from scattered artifacts, symbols, and oral traditions. Understanding these traces means piecing together the narratives that history leaves behind.
Identity & Perception
Traces & Narratives
Tradition & Modernization
Boukhari, Sophie, and UNESCO. Head of Buddhist Statue. UNESCO, Kabul, Afghanistan. In UNESCO. Accessed September 5, 2010. http://photobank.unesco.org/exec/fiche.htm.
Ellis, Sean. Giza Pyramids. March 27, 2009. Cairo.Creative Commons: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en
“I think that a country is entitled to keep its heritage. But, at the same time, in keeping their heritage they have the responsibility to protect it. This is not always possible.” – Nancy Hatch Dupree, Director, Afghanistan Centre, Kabul University
We all know of Egypt and the preservation in the tombs. Strangely, the steppes of Central Asia, where things were frozen, are also sites of preservation. So hence we have some of the oldest remains in the world found in this part of the world. And archeology then, shows us as a window onto the past.
Every person, every culture, and every country has a heritage. In Afghanistan, as in other countries, history is everywhere, whether artifacts and objects in museums, historical sites, or living traditions like carpet weaving.
But these connections to history are crumbling in Afghanistan. Many of these sites were strategic. They were chosen because they were strategic, and they are still strategic, and hence they are usually in the middle of war zones. I think given the state of Afghanistan today, it’s almost impossible for Afghans even to visit any of these sites, nor would they necessarily want to. Places like Ghazni are notoriously unsafe, and even archeologists are allowed there for an hour or two at a time.
Unfortunately, even where historical sites have survived and are accessible, they are easy targets for looters. This practice not only removes valuable artifacts that would normally go into the hands of researchers and curators into those of private collectors, but it also destroys much of the information that artifacts can provide about where, when, and how people lived.
This is where archeology can provide us with the context, but grave robbers want exactly the opposite. They want to destroy or remove the object from context. Museums today are much more interested in context, and they’re trying to re-establish how were all these artworks used.
One way to protect historical artifacts during wartime is to remove them from the country to keep them safe. But when no one is in charge, as during Afghanistan’s civil war in the 1990s, who can authorize and organize such a move? And how can a country be sure of their return?
In Afghanistan, these questions proved to be impossible to answer. And so after the Soviet withdrawal, when the Afghanistan descended into civil war, some of the country’s most important artifacts were saved by the heroic actions of individuals. The director of the Kabul Museum recognizing the danger involved took what is reported to be the greatest treasure, the Bactrian gold coins of the 3rd century BCE, and stored them away in a government ministry where they survived. The result was when the Taliban were expelled from Kabul, the Bactrian gold coins were intact and returned to the museum.
For other artifacts that were found by foreign archaeologists and removed from the country well before Afghanistan’s present difficulties, the question of how and when they will be returned is still debated. One of the most controversial questions in art in Afghanistan today is the question of repatriation, and should objects be moved back to the places they were found? Or is it the role of the museum at large to show the world what world culture is, in which case all museums should have some objects from all periods in order to share that wealth? There are arguments that can be made on both sides, but for the safety of the objects, in the case of Afghanistan for the moment, it seems that repatriation is not a viable option.
In addition to the threats to historical objects and sites, another concern is that living traditions, such as carpet weaving, embroidery, and metalwork, are slowly dying away due to lack of resources and markets.
Art is a luxury. If you have to feed your family, you can’t be making art. For local people who are displaced and living in refugee camps, unless they can find a way to sell that art, there’s no reason to make it.
So what can be done? In a country where the government has limited capacity, outside organizations are working with Afghans to help pick up the pieces. There has been a revival of crafts, particularly with the help of outside funding now in Afghanistan. So we have two kinds of art going on. We have the revival of crafts in some of these societies, and we have the revival of crafts to sell in order to make money for the outside. It’s hopeful. We are trying to revive old crafts.
Reconstruction of historic sites is underway across the country. But it’s not straightforward. One of the ongoing questions in the scholarly and more general world, is what to do with these buildings and how much should they be restored. We don’t necessarily have the same techniques that they used in earlier times. Should we add concrete to buildings that were built without it? And there is a vast and heated ongoing discussion about this. There is a counter-drive, saying this is inauthentic, and we are restoring things that we don’t know were necessarily there. Having restored them, the next question is what do you do with them?
Sometimes, rebuilding after war doesn’t just mean rebuilding roads and hospitals and schools. It can be just as important to rebuild the past, which is a far more complicated and difficult task.
Afghanistan's cultural heritage is being put back together, piece by piece.