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Afghanistan Art

KABUL (REUTERS).- While everyone else is worrying about Afghanistan’s future, a dedicated band of men and women is gathering up its past, hoping that a growing museum collection will show the world Afghan culture is more sophisticated than the tide of news reports suggest. 

Kabul’s rebuilt National Museum, near the haunting remains the bombed-out royal palace, is running out of secure rooms to house centuries-old Buddhas, gold and silver coins from antiquity and other rare artefacts. 

Many of the museum’s original pieces were broken, destroyed or stolen during the Taliban era or the civil war that preceded it in the 1990s, but some have been pieced back together and a series of archaeological digs have also unearthed new treasures. 

Among the fresh discoveries are a wooden Buddha dating back to the fifth century and Buddha heads made of clay and plaster. 

“Each week there is a new find. Most museums in the world are static, but this one is growing,” said Anne Feenstra, a Dutch architect involved in restoring the museum which itself was heavily damaged in the civil war. 

A statue of the Buddha sitting cross-legged is placed in a glass box up a flight of stairs in the museum building, while the headless figure of Kushan king Kanishka, restored after it was destroyed by the Taliban, adorns another corner. 

Some walls have pictures of treasures lost during the civil war or to the Taliban, who famously showed their contempt for Afghanistan’s pre-Islamic heritage by blowing up two giant, centuries-old Buddha statues carved into a hillside in Bamiyan. 

“Afghanistan is an amalgamation of cultures of the region,” Information and Culture Minister Sayed Makhdoom Raheen told a conference in Kabul this month where he appealed for help to preserve the nation’s heritage. 

After 30 years of war, Afghanistan is often portrayed as simply a land of warring tribes, defined by a battle against outside powers. Reconnecting with its past reminds Afghans they have a more complex and sophisticated culture. 

If Afghanistan can preserve its monuments, it can show its own people and the world that as a key part of the ancient silk route it was once a crossroads of Asia, a creative melting pot with a cosmopolitan spirit, Raheen said. 

In 1994 the building was shelled, destroying its roof and top floor. The final assault came in 2001, when the Taliban decided all images must be smashed and installed a group charged with this task that demolished about 2500 works of art. 

Some of the collection of Hellenistic sculptures, gold jewellery worn by nomads and ancient manuscripts did survive the war, stashed away in the underground vaults of the central bank just before the Taliban seized power. 

These are so valuable that they can’t be exhibited in the antiquated museum. Instead, they have been touring the world, drawing crowds from San Francisco to London.

“Restoring such artefacts is essential to both Afghan identity, and the identity of our collective human experience,” said Rahim B.Kanani, a U.S.-based columnist who has written extensively on Afghanistan. 

(Editing by Emma Graham-Harrison and Yoko Nishikawa) 

© Thomson Reuters 2011. All rights reserved.

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