Twenty-two years ago, on 11 March 2001, the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan, monumental sixth and seventh century statues located in Afghanistan’s Bamyan Valley, after waging a 10 day war against the historic site under the orders of the group’s then-leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. The 55 meter Western Buddha and the 38 meter Eastern Buddha, known to the locals as Salsal and Shahmama, respectively, had remained intact for over a thousand years prior to the rampage.
The Taliban were pushed out of power later that year by the US government, and by 2003, the cultural landscape and archaeological remains of Bamiyan Valley, which includes eight sites across a vast area, were placed on Unesco’s ‘World Heritage In Danger’ list. Experts, politicians and culture enthusiasts spent the next two decades preserving, researching and developing plans to protect what was left of Bamiyan and other historic sites across the country.
But the return of the Taliban to power in August 2021 reignited fears that they would once more target Bamiyan and other heritage sites that they may find offensive. Many cultural projects were stopped, and the few that continued faced budget issues due to the strict sanctions that were imposed on the country.
However, the revived Taliban government appears to have a new approach to cultural heritage. Officials say they intent on protecting heritage sites and continuously ask for international support in this field.
“The Emirate of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Information and Culture will support and cooperate with international organisations who have expertise in the field of safeguarding historic sites in Afghanistan,” Atiquallah Azizi, Afghanistan’s deputy minister of culture and art, told The Art Newspaper.“Giving attention to preserving historical sites is in truth giving attention to our people and we strongly support activities that benefit our country’s cultural heritage sites,” he added.
While the Taliban have never publicly expressed regret for what took place in Bamiyan, the Ministry of Information and Culture has named 11 March the Safeguarding of Cultural Heritage Day and plans to hold an extensive event at The National Museum of Afghanistan to stress the importance of looking after cultural sites and monuments.
Views of Taliban officials do not hold much weight in the public sphere where their previous promises, such as upholding women’s rights, have not come to fruition.
In early 2022, reports had emerged of illegal excavations, neglect and unplanned construction around the Bamiyan cliffs and its surrounding areas, which were said to contribute to further deterioration of the Unesco site.
Taliban’s director of ministry for information and culture in Bamiyan, Mawlawi Saifurrahman Mohammadi, said last year that the Taliban did not have enough security guards to protect archeological sites due to a lack of funding. He warned that without international intervention, some of the sites were at serious risk of deterioration.
Last year, conservation works at Tepe Narenj to preserve several Buddha statues and other historic monuments at the ancient Buddhist monastery near Kabul were in full swing in one of Kabul’s largest cemeteries, Shuhada-e-Saliheen, by Hafo Construction and Production. A young armed Taliban guard walked between the various sites on the hillside and watched the works.
The project team and the guard confirmed that no-one would dare vandalise the site despite the fact that it was located opposite a holy shrine which drew conservative religious groups to the area.
The Hafo Construction and Production director, Sayed Jawed, stated he received all the cooperation that he needed from the Taliban authorities.
“If I get a budget from the West, they [the Taliban] will say ‘OK, go work.’ They will not interfere. Taliban don’t have an issue with job creation, they will not interfere or cause any issues.” Jawed said.
The veteran conservationist, who studied under renowned conservation architect Andrea Bruno and has continuously worked in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion, the Mujahideen reign and Taliban’s rule during the 90s, said he hoped to see more money allocated to culture than the free food and cash that were being handed out through humanitarian aid packages.
“We don’t expect the government to do this work (heritage) because they don’t have resources and they have no knowledge in this area. Millions of dollars given for free distribution of food, cash dissipation, why not for culture?”
Unesco has previously confirmed that while they continue to operate in Afghanistan, they can only work within the boundaries of the Transitional Engagement Framework (TEF), a comprehensive planning document for the UN system’s assistance in 2022. The plan prioritises humanitarian assistance and makes reference to supporting preservation of cultural sites but limits engagement and acts of recognition of the current government.
This means that the organisation cannot participate in transition of assets to the authorities or provide technical assistance, which excludes projects that involve government owned entities.
In late 2022 Unesco did give the prestigious Award of Merit to Topdara Stupa Charikar, believed to be the largest surviving structure of its type in Afghanistan, for the brilliant restoration work that was carried out by ACHCO. Although the project was undertaken under the previous government and completed in 2020 the application to enter the site into the Unesco awards was endorsed by the Taliban government.
For now it appears that Bamiyan and other historic sites in Afghanistan are safe from violent attacks and deliberate destruction. The Taliban government insists it wants to preserve Afghanistan’s “national treasures” and has so far not interfered in the operation of any of the cultural projects.
The country requires technical and financial assistance to preserve its rich cultural sites and the Taliban arrival has brought security in areas that were previously “no-go zones.” Experts on the ground say there is a unique opportunity to explore sites that were once out of reach while providing much needed humanitarian aid through employment in the field of culture.
If support is not extended to cultural projects then the deterioration of the cultural sites is inevitable however, this time would the Taliban be responsible?
“I believe that now, Western countries, if they don’t contact the Taliban, if they isolate them more, then Afghanistan will be in another tragedy,” said Jawed.