Action Required: Protect Afghan History

By: Mariam Amini

During the closing ceremony of the consultative Loya Jirga in Kabul, President Ashraf Ghani once again offered an olive branch to the Taliban. This time he said, “Let’s come together and prove that the European countries are not the only ones who can resolve their issues. Here, there was and is a human civilization as well.” Sadly, many Afghans and foreigners, know of a sensationalized Afghan history. Something along the lines of “Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires” which is often told from the perspective of the “European countries” President Ghani is referring to. Decades of war has overshadowed Afghanistan’s deep civil history – especially as the Taliban continue to destroy Afghan history.

The land of Afghans has been home to many empires – built with military dominance but survived on trade by being on the crossroad of the Silk Road. As China’s controversial Road and Belt Initiative continues to take shape today, Afghanistan’s new Lapis Lazuli Trade Corridor is already a success. For instance, early this month, 17 tons of Afghan cashmere left for England from Herat on this trade route. President Ghani is building on what seemed to be lost history. With the cooperation of Afghanistan’s neighbors, the Ghani administration has revived Afghanistan’s historic route from 2,000 years ago that exported lapis lazuli and other semiprecious stones to Russia, the Balkans, Europe, and North Africa. Afghan lapis lazuli even reached Leonardo Di Vinci. It is powdered Afghan lapis lazuli mixed in the paint that adorns his famous painting of Jesus Christ, the Salvador Mundi. This “non-Islamic” painting is now owned by the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. Many are expecting the painting to join works of Rembrant, Monet, and Basquiat in the Louvre Abu Dhabi Museum.

The National Museum of Afghanistan was ransacked by the Taliban in February 2001. They destroyed Afghan art, ripped apart paintings that depicted humans, and smashed Buddha statues. In 2008, it was reported that the first oil paint in history was used in the valley of Bamyan. The same place were the Taliban destroyed Afghanistan’s most visible historic symbol of civilization – the Buddhas of Bamyan.

Since the fall of the Taliban government, a 2,600 year old Buddhist city has been discovered in Logar Province. Currently, there is a rescue archeology operation because China signed a 30-year contract with the Karzai government in 2007 to access the world’s second largest untapped copper deposit. This massive copper deposit happens to lie underneath the ancient Buddhist city in Mes Aynak. Security concerns have stalled China’s quest to build an open-pit copper mine there. Many Afghan archeologists and foreign scholars have requested the ancient Buddhist city of Mes Aynak not be moved from its location. They want it to become a UNESCO Heritage site. Would Pompeii and Machu Picchu have the same value if they were removed from their original location and pieces were placed in museums across the world?

In January 2017, a 600-year-old Buddha started to peak its head from a reservoir in east China’s Jiangxi Province. The water levels of the ancient reservoir had changed during renovation work. The Chinese government called in an underwater archeology team. They decided to not move the Buddha. Hundreds of people come to the reservoir to get a peak of the Buddha as water levels change seasonally. China cares about ancient Buddha statues as long as it can enhance Chinese history – and is found in China. Afghanistan’s 2,600 Buddhist city found in Mes Aynak is not in the interest of China. But the copper underneath is more important than Afghanistan’s ancient history.

Afghan history gives Afghanistan prominence, a notion that Afghanistan’s enemies understand. Recognizing Afghans place in history will serve as proof of Afghanistan’s seniority in the global arena. Requiring the Taliban to recognize and protect Afghan art, monuments, and history must be a prerequisite for normalizing intra-Afghan relations. The Taliban have been misled to think Afghanistan’s pre-Islamic history must be destroyed in order for them to have a voice.

The Taliban must vow to not destroy Afghanistan history. In fact, the Taliban must commit to protect it against terrorist groups. The Taliban can show their difference and rebuild their reputation by standing with Afghan history and rejecting the barbaric practice of destroying ancient history like ISIS has done in Iraq and Syria. If Taliban want to have a political future in Afghanistan, they must divert from targeting the past.

The day President Ghani concluded the Loya Jirga and called for peace, the Taliban blew up one of the oldest shrines in Ghazni city. Shams-ul-Arifeen, who died in 601 Ah (1204 CE), was one of the great scholars of mysticism and Sufism and was highly respected in society.

President Ghani is right, “there was and is a human civilization” in Afghanistan. Afghans are no less than Europeans in losing and finding their moral compass. Just like the European governments, past Afghan governments have also committed war crimes. Those injustices in Afghan history must also be recognized and never erased.

It is inevitable that peace will eventually come to Afghanistan. In reaching unifying peace, the past must not be destroyed. Lasting peace will not be built over territories, but on tolerance. Tolerance can start with protecting Afghan history.  

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