The Taliban are not only taking the lives of thousands of civilians every year and depriving children of an education, but are also stripping Afghanistan of its artistic and cultural heritage, this according to David Thomas, an archaeologist with extensive experience in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia.
In an interview with the Antiquities Coalition, a US-based NGO against cultural racketeering, Thomas said that “a lot of the unprovenanced objects from the ‘eastern Iranian world’ on the art market (and in some museum collections) come from Afghanistan, and some of them come from Jam. The main markets are in the West and increasingly in the Gulf.”
According to the archaeologist, a lot of Afghan art, such as carved wooden doors from Islamic graves or museums, leave the country every year. “Most of the local people who loot archaeological sites are just trying to survive and feed their families during desperate times,” he explained.
The latest work of art to end up in Taliban control is the Minaret of Jam (picture 1), in the unstable province of Ghor.
To prevent the structure’s collapse due to heavy flooding, the Afghan government sent staff to stabilise the building, which is set on an octagonal base, and soldiers to protect the site. However, the Taliban had already taken over the area, killing 18 government security personnel.
Jam’s is the second tallest brick minaret in the world. At 65 metres, it stands next to the Hari Rud River, which is nestled between mountains that reach 2,400 metres.
It is one of the finest examples of Islamic architecture, with coloured engravings of verses from the Qurʼān, stuccoes and glazed tiles decorations, alternating with bands of Kufi and Nakshi calligraphy.
It dates back to 1173 and was built by the Ghurid dynasty which ruled Afghanistan as well as Iran and parts of India, Pakistan and Central Asia. The rulers converted to Islam from Buddhism in the 12th century.
In 2002, UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site, along with the surrounding the archaeological site, which has been looted over the years, Thomas said.
Thanks to fieldwork and satellite imagery, some 1,100 robber holes have been identified, including 121 in a 50-metre wide strip that runs between the fortress and he ancient bridge opposite to the minaret.
Before the Minaret of Jam, the Taliban shocked the world with the destruction of the Buddha statues in Bamiyan (picture 2), blown up in 2001 on orders of Mullah Omar who considered them “pagan idols”.
The priceless and imposing statues, 53 and 35 metre tall, were carved in stone in the third century AD.
In addition to the Taliban’s cultural devastation, Afghanistan’s cultural heritage has also suffered from official neglect. The authorities in fact have failed to protect what is in the areas they control.
This is the case of an ancient tower that was part of Ghaznain Fort of (picture 3), in the city of Ghazni, until it collapsed two days ago. The authorities blame heavy rains, but locals blame the government.
The tower’s collapse is the latest example of the neglect Afghanistan’s cultural and artistic heritage faces, which, amid wars, looting and remoteness, is at risk of biting the dust of history.