National Museum of Afghanistan expresses concern for safety of its artefacts

Caught off-guard by the Taliban's swift takeover, many Afghan curators and museums are struggling to safeguard valuable objects

A statue of Buddha at the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan's office in Kabul. Having withstood time, the elements, looters and war, the spectacular Buddha was restored and removed from one of Afghanistan’s most dangerous regions. AFP
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The National Museum of Afghanistan has expressed concern about the safety of its artefacts and called for the safeguarding of objects at risk of being looted and smuggled.

The museum, which houses a collection of more than 80,000 artefacts, posted on Facebook on Saturday, saying the Taliban's capture of the country had led to "unprecedented chaos" in Kabul and that smugglers were using the opportunity to loot private and public properties.

“The museum staff, artefacts and goods are safe, but [the] continuation of this chaotic situation causes a huge concern about the safety of the museum’s artefacts and goods for museum employees,” the statement reads.

The museum also called on security forces and even the Taliban to take action or ensure that the collection remains safe.

“The National Museum of Afghanistan urges security forces, [the] international community, Taliban and other influential parties to pay attention to the safety and security of objects and do not let the opportunists to use this situation and cause the deterioration and smuggling of the objects and goods of this institution,” it said.

Established in 1992, the museum in Kabul houses various items from Buddhist, Persian and Islamic dynasties, reflecting Afghanistan’s history as a crossroads for a number of civilisations. Over the years, it has endured lootings and bombings, which have led to the loss and damage of its collection.

This week, National Geographic reported that the Taliban’s sudden seizure of the country has pushed Afghan curators and archaeologists to hurriedly secure sites and artefacts. In one example, officials had hoped to transport artefacts from Herat and Kandahar for safekeeping, but were not able to do so as the Afghan government had begun to collapse.

“We didn’t expect this to happen so quickly,” Noor Agha Noori from Afghanistan’s Institute of Archaeology in Kabul told the magazine.

In February, Taliban leaders released a statement calling their followers to “protect, monitor and preserve” the country’s artefacts. “No one is allowed to excavate, transport and sell historic artefacts anywhere, nor to move it outside the country under some other name,” one of the prohibitions said.

The statement also forbade all types of “trade, contracts and transport and transfer of ancient goods” for profit.

However, the Taliban’s history of cultural destruction leaves many sceptical. Under their rule from 1996 to 2001, the group attacked and looted museums and libraries in the country. In addition, artistic and cultural expression were mostly banned.

One of the biggest archaeological losses was the destruction of the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan, bombed by the Taliban in 2001. Carved into the cliffs of the Bamiyan valley, the monumental statues dated back to the sixth century. Considered idols by the Taliban, the works were destroyed by the Islamist group in several stages using dynamite, anti-tank mines and rocket launchers.

Experts such as Omar Sharifi, a social science professor at the American University of Afghanistan, see the Taliban’s latest statement as disingenuous. “They have whitewashed their image, but they are still a very ideological and radical group,” he told National Geographic.

With the fall of the Afghan government complete, many await the Taliban’s next move, including whether it will impose the same extremist laws it did decades ago. When it comes to the safety of cultural heritage, the fate of Afghanistan’s rich archaeological history, art and artefacts remains uncertain.

Updated: August 17, 2021, 12:51 PM