How will cultural heritage be protected under the Taliban?

Cultural experts on what the future holds for Afghanistan's historical sites

Twenty years ago, the Taliban attached dynamite to two 6th-century Buddhas in the Bamiyan valley and famously blew the enormous statues to bits. The group’s reputation has since been synonymous with the destruction of cultural heritage, and many assume that their return to power will bring about a similar campaign of devastation.

But when the Taliban entered Kabul this month, they posted guards around the National Museum of Afghanistan, saving its antiquities from any feared looting. No vandalism or destruction of major heritage sites has yet been reported.

Instead, some restoration work is starting again, such as at the Machine Khana, part of an urban transformation project being undertaken in an industrial site in central Kabul. It was temporarily suspended when the Taliban first entered the capital, and opened again on Saturday, with 600 labourers and technicians showing up to work.

“I’m feeling cautiously optimistic about cultural heritage,” says Ajmal Maiwandi, chief executive of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in Afghanistan, which is overseeing the Machine Khana restoration.

“Our cultural projects are for the benefit of the Afghan people, and the people of Afghanistan haven't stopped existing in the past week. They’re still there. They require assistance and then the preservation of heritage, and we continue to provide that assistance.”

While the Taliban have started to confirm some of the worst international fears over human rights, the realm of cultural heritage is starting to look like the proverbial dog that has not barked.

The Aga Khan Trust for Culture is one of the major cultural heritage non-profits in the country, with $1 billion spent by the Trust and its partners since 2002. Its projects range from the restoration of the 16th-century shrine of Abu Nasr Khwaja Parsa in Balkh, an ancient city located just outside Mazar-i-Sharif, to the conservation of the Old City of Herat – and most are expected to restart soon.

Maiwandi says that in the organisation’s discussions so far with lower to mid-level Taliban operatives, the message they have heard is that culture heritage is to be protected.

Philippe Marquis, head of the French Archaeological Delegation – better known as Dafa – has encountered the same. He has sent go-betweens to communicate with Dafa and the local Taliban leaders in the areas where the organisation is leading projects. They received no objection to the work they are doing.

Dafa is now in the process of signing memoranda of understanding – agreements that are one step short of a contract – with local Taliban leaders for the sites of Mes Aynak, south of Kabul, and Balkh.

“They are quite happy to see the cultural heritage workers come back,” says Marquis, who was in France for the summer when the Taliban took over. Like Maiwandi, who left Afghanistan owing to the security situation, he plans to return to Kabul once commercial flights resume and, in his case, France allows travel to the country. “The management of cultural heritage should be possible, but it will rely on western countries’ willingness to work with the Taliban.”

The Taliban’s apparently softened stance on cultural heritage today might well be part of its bid for international legitimacy, which is understood to be behind some of its positive, though mixed, messaging in support of women’s education. And all may yet change as the Taliban solidify their governance of the country and start to implement some of their more fundamentalist ideas.

But many charities have already been working for months in areas controlled by the Taliban.

“The indications are that the Taliban broadly support the preservation of cultural heritage, not as appeasement of external audiences, but as interest in the past inherent to Afghans,” says Maiwandi. "In the larger context, I think people understand the value – both commercial and cultural – in the preservation of heritage sites. Like many other issues, this level of interest and engagement will become clearer in the weeks and months ahead."

There is, perhaps, one plain reason for this change in stance: economic opportunity. Cultural heritage projects are a vital source of revenue in an economy that has been nearly obliterated.

“For the Taliban, architectural excavations are a way of paying workers in the community,” says Marquis. “It’s a factor of local development. Cultural heritage could help take the country out of its economic position and act as a factor of stabilisation. The Taliban don’t want people to leave.”

The country is also extremely dependent on the foreign aid that cultural heritage non-profits bring. After 20 years of intensive NGO activity, these bodies supply vast tranches of Afghan civil society – “from health to education to the water supply,” says Khan Agha Dawoodzai, of the Bureau for Rights-Based Development (BRD), an Afghan NGO that focuses on human rights.

In the realm of cultural heritage, these organisations are banking on the fact that they will have left a legacy in the capacity-building and training they have effected over the past two decades.

The BRD’s projects include the repairing of the Sikh site of the Sultan Poor Chenee Springs, which it is undertaking in partnership with Aliph and the Prince Claus Fund. The work involves restoration as well as community training in “heritage first-aid”, or the suite of actions, such as situation analysis, assessment and stabilisation, which should be undertaken if a cultural heritage site is damaged by conflict or natural disaster.

“It is important that the community should be the primary caretaker of their cultural heritage,” says Dawoodzai. “Therefore we are training them in first-aid skills, so that they know their own responsibility and they feel a sense of ownership.”

That kind of thinking might persist even under the Taliban – a hope that relies on Afghan communities feeling secure enough to worry about cultural heritage rather than the safety of their families.

As much as economic opportunity could be the driving force for cultural heritage protection under the Taliban, ongoing economic uncertainty is probably its biggest threat.

Many employees in Kabul have been unable to draw salaries for months. Most banks are still closed and ATMs are running out of money. Inflation is up to 35 per cent, and as the turmoil at the airport attests, some Afghans are still looking for a way out, if they can find one.

Others have already left, depriving cultural projects of important sources of expertise. Those with more means – and in roles that are harder to replace – were more able to leave.

And if foreign governments or charities refuse to deal with the Taliban, the aid for ongoing projects in Afghanistan will quickly dry up – exacerbating already difficult circumstances.

“There is a danger of destruction due to development, erosion, global warming, illegal excavation and trade of antiquities in Afghanistan,” says Marquis.

He points to Lashkari Bazar, once the winter palace of the Ghaznavid and Ghurid sultans in the 10th and 13th centuries, in Helmand province. Last October, when the Taliban pushed through in Helmand, thousands fled their homes and began living in the relatively well-preserved ruins of the palace.

Dafa was in the process of rehousing the settlers elsewhere so that the site itself could be preserved for future generations, but its efforts have been suspended since the Taliban took control of the whole country. Meanwhile, the number of internally displaced people is likely to rise.

The danger of looting, which is ever-present in an archeologically rich country such as Afghanistan, will also almost certainly climb.

Since 2001, Afghanistan has signed on to nine different Unesco heritage protection laws, notes Alexander Herman, an expert in restitution. Abrogating any of them would be a breach of international law – but it is unclear whether the Taliban will uphold those and other conventions.

Equally, while many believe the Taliban have publicly announced a ban on looting, this announcement could not be verified, and any government is unlikely to be able to control on-the-ground looting. Marquis expects the black market trade in antiquities to increase, both via looting from the ground and the sale of collections as various tribal leaders seek to raise money. The ransacking of the National Museum in the 1990s, after the Soviet war, and other looting during that period created a prolonged and lucrative dark market for Afghan antiquities.

“There is a balance to be struck between heritage and economic development,” says Maiwandi. “If heritage is really important to the Taliban, they have to be held accountable for its preservation.”

Internal divisions and unfolding events on the ground mean that, ultimately, any prognoses are speculation. While the ministers of some departments have been announced, there has been no word on the Minister of Culture. It could also be that NGOs are signalling a positivity about the Taliban because they know the Taliban will be the only game in town.

And the work of cultural heritage practitioners has long been an uphill battle.

“You have to understand that we're a generally optimistic people,” says Maiwandi. “There's no doubt. One can’t work the way we have in Afghanistan for two decades without retaining optimism. So we retain that optimism now as well.”

Updated: August 29th 2021, 5:15 AM