Destruction and Hope

Few regions of the world are as steeped in history as Afghanistan, its vast archaeological remains bearing silent witness to all who have come to reap the country’s riches—among them, Greeks, Kushans, Sassanians, and Arabs. Few nations on Earth have ever experienced the political turmoil and hardship witnessed by Afghanistan; destruction wrought by more than two decades of war strewn across the landscape. Sites that seemingly had withstood the test of time now lie in a perilous state. Yet, for all of this upheaval, there is a glimmer of hope. This past spring, an international team of scholars—archaeologists, historians, architects, conservators, specialists in heritage management, and museum curators—met with Hamid Karzai and representatives of the interim Afghan Administration to assess the condition of the country’s monuments and determine what it would take to preserve them for future generations.

Saving what is left will require a long-term, sustained international commitment. However, in the brief period following the UNESCO-sponsored meeting, numerous conservation initiatives are already underway. In the historic heart of Kabul, the AgaKhan Trust for Culture (AKTC) has embarked on a major campaign to restore a number of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century serais and residences, as well as the famed seventeenth-century Babur Gardens in the northwest part of the city. AKTC, with support from the World Monuments Fund, is also resuming restoration efforts at the fifteenth-century Timurid city of Herat, included on WMF’s 1998 list of the 100 Most Endangered Sites. At Bamiyan, Michel Petzet and his colleagues from the International Council for Monuments and Sites have been documenting what is left of the 1,500- year-old giant Buddhas and fragmentary murals that once graced the hundreds of caves in the valley. Elsewhere in the country, Nancy Hatch Dupree and her team at the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage have been undertaking detailed conditions assessments and reconstructing museum inventories. Swiss architect Paul Bucherer-Dietschi, who has spent more than three decades documenting the country’s cultural heritage and is director of the Afghanistan Museum in Exile, has provided critical information on the state of sites before, during, and after the civil unrest; while institutions that once worked in Afghanistan are beginning to return to their sites to resume study. Collectively, these efforts, along with programs being undertaken by government agencies, will serve as vital tools in the rebuilding of one of the world’s great cultural crossroads.

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