Restorers breathe new life into Afghanistan's shattered heritage

CHN News (AFP), Jan 12, 2005

KABUL, Afghanistan -- With each stroke of his paintbrush Shairazuddin Saifi watches the past come back to life, meticulously restoring a Buddhist statue which was broken by looters digging it out of the ground.

"I feel proud when I do this because it is Afghanistan's history," Saifi says as he rebuilds the features of the Buddha with a solution of mud and chemicals, in a backroom of the Kabul Museum heated by a flickering wood stove.

He points to a corner of the pre-Islamic statue, which has been reinforced with concrete.

"The looters did this when they dug the statue up because they didn't know what they were doing. Then the local police brought it to us," he said.

Saifi is the director of Kabul National Museum's restoration department, charged with piecing together the parts of an ancient cultural tradition shattered by war and now threatened by looters and foreign art dealers.

It's a daunting task. A glance around the restoration room reveals statues and carvings carefully put together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle -- one that is missing chunks and lacking a picture for guidance.

Kabul National Museum itself stands in a wasteland in the western part of the Afghan capital, which was reduced to rubble by rival mujahedin factions in the 1990s. Nearby are the skeletal remains of the former King and Queen's palace.

Before the mujahedin took over in 1992, the museum held over 100,000 relics from different periods, dating from the pre-historic era to the twentieth century.

"Seventy percent of the things in the museum were looted during the mujahedin fighting, which was the most destructive period, and between 2,500 and 3,000 pieces were destroyed by the Taliban," said Omara Massoudi, the director of the museum.

Coins, Islamic-era relics, and Buddhist statues light enough to be carried were all taken away by the mujahedin, and worse was to come.

Zealots from the hardline Islamic Taliban regime, which governed Afghanistan for almost six years, created international shockwaves when they blew up the world's two tallest Buddhas in Bamiyan in March 2001. The statuary in the museum suffered a similar fate.

Taliban officials hacked to pieces Buddhas and carvings and anything featuring the human form -- the depiction of which is forbidden in Islam -- and only a few pieces were saved.

"If it is a wooden statue it is much easier to reconstruct than stone, but if it was made of mud then the destruction is huge and it is very hard to piece it together again," Massoudi said.

Afghanistan had been a meeting point for the Buddhist culture of the east and the Greco-Roman civilisation of the west, as merchants travelling the silk road from Rome to China and India brought their cultural traditions with them.

Now, art historians and restorers at the museum are gradually patching the war-torn past together, opening the museum's first exhibition in 13 years last month.

The show features life-size, carved wooden statues from the eastern province of Nuristan where pagan traditions were practised until just over a century ago.

Max Klimburg, director of the Afghan-Austrian Society and an expert on the pre-Islamic civilisation of the Hindu Kush mountain range, said the fact the statues were of wood made them easier to save.

"They were chopped into pieces by the Taliban but because they were in large blocks it was fairly simple to put them together. The ceramic pieces are almost hopeless," he said when the exhibition opened.

In the room, 14 statues stand sentry: one on a throne, another perched on a horse, their carved wooden faces reminiscent of the mysterious figures on Easter Island or in African tribal art.

The director of the museum's ethnographic collection, Fauzia Hamraz, who helped with the restoration of the figures, said that hundreds of schoolchildren have been to see the statues.

"Some of them ask me if I brought the statues back from Nuristan myself," she said, adding that they were brought back to Kabul by the Islamic army that conquered the region over 100 years ago.

However, the students haven't questioned the idols' pre-Islamic origins.

"They don't care whether it is Islamic or not. They know that it belongs to our ancestors and they are proud of that," she said.

With much of Afghanistan's rich cultural heritage in ruins, the importance of preserving what little remains is clear to the next generation and museum staff have left some statues partially restored as a reminder of what happened.

Near the entrance to the exhibition, a smaller statue of a female deity sitting astride a deer has a broken horn and is missing a hand.

"We didn't repair all of the statue because the destruction is also part of our heritage and people should remember," she said.

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