Tue | May 26, 2020

Restoring Afghanistan’s shattered art

Published:Sunday | August 25, 2019 | 12:00 AM

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP):

The Taliban fighters arrived with hammers and hatred. What they left behind is laid out on tables at the National Museum of Afghanistan 18 years later: shattered pieces of ancient Buddha figurines, smashed because they were judged to be against Islam.

Museum workers in Kabul have been trying to fit them together again as a nervous country waits for the Taliban and the US to reach a deal on ending America’s longest war. The agreement is expected to lead to intra-Afghan talks in which the extremist group would play a role in shaping Afghanistan’s future.

As the workers pick with gloved hands through hundreds of neatly arranged shards labelled ‘ears’, ‘hands’, ‘foreheads’, and ‘eyes’, that future feels especially fragile.

Few details have emerged from several rounds of US-Taliban negotiations held over the past year, and no one knows what a Taliban return to the capital, Kabul, might look like. The country still sees near-daily attacks not only by the long-established Taliban, who now control about half of Afghanistan, but also from a brutal local affiliate of the Islamic State group.

The Taliban’s five-year rule imposed a harsh form of Islamic law, denying girls education, banning music, and banishing women to their homes. It ended shortly after the US-led invasion following the September 11, 2001, terror attacks to rout the Taliban, who had harboured al-Qaida and its leader, Osama bin Laden.

Sherazuddin Saifi remembers the day the Taliban arrived at the national museum in 2001, a period of cultural rampage in which the world’s largest standing Buddha statues in Bamyan province were dynamited, to global horror.

For several days, the Taliban set upon the Kabul museum’s trove of artefacts from Afghanistan’s millennia-old history as a crossroads of cultures: Greek, Persian, Chinese, and other. They selected offending items that showed human forms, even early Islamic ones, and shattered them with hammers or smashed them against the floor.

“We could not prevent them. They were breaking all the locks, entering each room, and smashing all items into pieces,” said Saifi, who is part of the restoration team. “It was heartbreaking and horrific ... . They destroyed their own history.”


More than 2,500 statues were shattered, parts of them ground into powder. Restoration work could take a decade, Saifi said, but “we really feel happy after we put these pieces together again” and revive their meaning.

Among the objects destroyed were the Hadda figurines, a notable collection of Buddhist sculptures discovered decades ago in eastern Afghanistan near the present-day city of Jalalabad. Photographs that remain of the intact figurines, and the shards themselves, hint at delicate curls of hair or lip.

The Taliban smashed them into thousands of pieces, many the size of fists or even a coin. Now, some of the shattered heads are held together with rubber bands in the workshop, part of a sprawling puzzle that can take days of patient effort to join a single piece to another.

The Hadda figurines are the museum’s most visible sign these days of the years-long recovery from the turmoil in Afghanistan that began even before the Taliban, when warlords fought over Kabul in the wake of a Soviet retreat.

Much of the museum’s holdings, thousands of pieces, were looted, and the building was shelled, though some treasures were hidden in the presidential palace in Kabul and elsewhere. The roof of the room where the Hadda figurines are now being pieced together was destroyed.

The museum’s recovery began in earnest in 2004, during the period when the defeated Taliban quietly began to regroup. A few hundred objects have been restored in recent years. Now, the museum and the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute are compiling as complete an inventory as possible in the hope of tracking down missing artefacts – and saving a digital record of the collection in case of further threat.

That database is more than 99 per cent complete with more than 135,000 surviving pieces, the Oriental Institute says. For the missing artefacts, it hopes to create digital ‘wanted’ posters with their images to post online “so that these objects can be spotted and, ideally, recovered and repatriated”.