Afghanistan: Cultural Heritage and the Forever War

2021 Paul Mellon Lecture

This event is part of the Heritage Now series and took place virtually on Thursday, May 6, 2021, at 12 PM (EDT). See below for more information on the discussion, including the event recording, description, and speaker information. 

Event Description

In March 2001, the colossal Buddha statues of Bamyan Valley in Afghanistan were destroyed by the Taliban in an act that reverberated around that world. Just a few months later, the tragic events of 9/11 set in motion a slew of domestic and foreign policy changes in the U.S. and sparked a devastating conflict in the Middle East. In the decades since, cultural heritage throughout the region has stood at the center of this turbulence, facing threats of targeted destruction, collateral damage due to armed conflict, abandonment, and neglect linked to the absence of maintenance.

In light of President Biden’s plans to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, the annual Paul Mellon Lecture will explore the history and importance of cultural heritage in Afghanistan, critical preservation efforts over the past 20 years, and the impact the new political equilibrium may have on heritage sites. The event is part of a broader reflection throughout 2021 on the state of cultural heritage in the Middle East in the 20 years since 9/11.

Guests will hear from Rory Stewart, British diplomat, author, explorer, and politician whose 2002 journey walking solo across Afghanistan is recounted in The New York Times bestseller The Places In Between; and Dr. Omar Sharifi, Country Director at the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies (AIAS) and specialist of cultural anthropology. They will reflect on the relationship between culture, identity, and politics in Afghanistan today and will be joined by CEO of Turquoise Mountain Shoshana Stewart to discuss the restoration of the old city of Kabul, Murad Khani, and reviving its historic craft traditions.

Including Murad Khani on the 2008 World Monuments Watch, WMF partnered with Turquoise Mountain to bring awareness and enhanced protection to one of the few surviving historic commercial and residential areas in the old city of Kabul.

The event will be moderated by WMF President and CEO Bénédicte de Montlaur.

Date: Thursday, May 6
Time: 12:00 pm (EDT)

About the Speakers

Dr. Omar Sharifi

Country Director, American Institute of Afghanistan Studies 

Dr. Omar Sharifi currently serves as Assistant Professor of Social Sciences and Humanities at the American University of Afghanistan and as Country Director of the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies, a center in Kabul for visiting American academics engaged in Afghanistan studies. He is also a member of the advisory board of the Civil Society Development Center.

After graduating from Kabul Medical Institute in 2003, Dr. Sharifi worked as Head of research and publications for the Foundation for Culture and Civil Society in Kabul and as Director of the Open Media Fund for Afghanistan. From 2006 to 2008, he studied Cultural Anthropology at Columbia University under a Fulbright Fellowship before completing his PhD at Boston University in 2019, where he conducted research on poetry and identity in Afghanistan.


Shoshana Stewart

CEO of Turquoise Mountain

Shoshana Stewart is the CEO of Turquoise Mountain, an international NGO working in Afghanistan, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan to revive historic neighborhoods and traditional crafts in order to create jobs, skills, and a renewed sense of pride in areas where culture is under threat.

Shoshana has spent the last 14 years leading the charity to restore and rebuild over 150 historic buildings and train over 6,000 traditional artisans and builders. During her tenure as CEO, Shoshana expanded the initial project in the old city of Kabul across Afghanistan and to three other countries.

Shoshana Stewart has an MBA from the London Business School, a master's degree in education, and a bachelor's degree in astrophysics. She is currently Senior Fellow at the Yale Jackson Institute For Global Affairs. Prior to Turquoise Mountain, she worked as a teacher and administrator in low-income urban communities with Teach For America and Uncommon Schools in New York, Boston, and Honduras.


Rory Stewart

Author, diplomat, explorer, politician, and academic

Rory Stewart is currently Senior Fellow at the Yale Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, where he is focusing on contemporary politics in crisis and international development. Previously, Stewart served as the UK Secretary of State for International Development.

Prior to that, Stewart served as Minister of the Environment, Minister of State responsible for development policy in the Middle East and Asia and UK policy in Africa, Minister of State for Justice, and as Chair of the House of Commons Defense Select Committee. Earlier in his career, he served as an infantry officer and then as a diplomat for the UK government. On leave from the Foreign Service, he walked for 21 months across Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Nepal, staying in 500 village houses on the journey. From 2005 to 2008, he was the Chair and Chief Executive of the Turquoise Mountain Foundation based in Kabul.

Stewart has written four books: The Places In Between, Occupational Hazards or The Prince of the Marshes, Can Intervention Work?, and The Marches.


Bénédicte de Montlaur

President and CEO of World Monuments Fund

Bénédicte de Montlaur is President and Chief Executive Officer of World Monuments Fund (WMF), the world’s foremost private organization dedicated to saving extraordinary places while empowering the communities around them. She is responsible for defining WMF’s strategic vision, currently implementing that vision in more than 30 countries around the world and leading a team that spans the globe. Her background mixes culture and the arts, politics, international diplomacy and human rights. Prior to joining WMF, Montlaur spent two decades working across three continents as a senior diplomat at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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About the Paul Mellon Lecture

Inaugurated in 2003, the Paul Mellon Lecture is supported by the Paul Mellon Education Fund and enables audiences to learn about critical issues in the field of cultural heritage.

Past Mellon Lecture speakers include Kent Weeks discussing the challenges of tourism management in the Valley of the Kings, Egypt; Charles Dempsey on the history of the Carracci Gallery in the Farnese Palace in Rome; Anna Somers Cox on the impact of ever-increasing tourist numbers in Venice; and Iwan Baan offering the audience a glimpse into the intricacies of his photographic process, capturing culture with intimate detail and profound emotion.

About Heritage Now

A series of conversations at the nexus of history, culture and current global issues with top thought leaders, activists, artists, journalists, and politicians, Heritage Now explores why monuments and other cultural heritage sites are such a vital part of our local and global ecosystems; the history and relevance of these sites in our contemporary context; the urgent threats to their preservation; and what we can do—individually and collectively—to protect these irreplaceable treasures.