In its first communication since the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, Unesco has called for the protection of heritage in the country.
Unesco director-general Audrey Azoulay has called for the “preservation of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage in its diversity, in full respect of international law, and for taking all necessary precautions to spare and protect cultural heritage from damage and looting”.
The organisation, which is based in Paris, said it is “closely following the situation on the ground and is committed to exercising all possible efforts to safeguard the invaluable cultural heritage of Afghanistan”.
Most cultural and heritage aid organisations have refrained from issuing comments to the press, as the situation in Afghanistan is still unfolding, and researchers, archaeologists and other cultural heritage workers remain on the ground.
Aliph Foundation, which gives emergency grants to aid projects, and Turquoise Mountain, which focuses on crafts, both declined press enquiries until more is known about the status of ongoing restoration and archaeological projects in the country.
There is also the hope that the Taliban, as the messaging given in their recent press conferences seems to indicate, will be less extremist than in their previous turn of power, when they held around three quarters of the country from 1996 to 2001. Then, most famously, in 2001, they demolished the Bamiyan Buddhas, an Unesco World Heritage Site.
The destruction of the Buddhas, at 38 metres and 55 metres tall and dating back around 1,500 years, sparked widespread international condemnation.
Afghanistan has a rich cultural landscape, as several empires and kingdoms crisscrossed the territory in antiquity. Its Unesco World Heritage Sites include the Bamiyan Valley and its extant remains; the National Museum in Kabul; and Old City of Herat, the regional capital of western Afghanistan.
Herat was first settled around 500 BCE and was taken over by Alexander the Great in 330 BCE. Its surviving architecture belongs not only to that period but also to subsequent Abbasid, Timurid and Ghorid empires, in an extraordinary demonstration of Afghanistan’s wealth of cultural influences.
Numerous projects were in place in Afghanistan to restore the Unesco World Heritage Sites and others of cultural heritage merit, as well as archeological digs and research being conducted. Almost all of these were funded by international donors, and their future is now in question.