Thousands of ancient manuscripts smuggled out of Afghanistan are now likely to be sold. Known as “Buddhism’s Dead Sea Scrolls”, they belong to Martin Schøyen, a Norwegian businessman who is regarded as the world’s greatest 20th-century collector of manuscripts. His library includes important examples from virtually every major civilisation around the world. Mr Schøyen, aged 60, now wishes to sell his entire collection to a public institution for £70 million in order to raise money for his human rights and development aid charity.
Mystery surrounds the origin of Mr Schøyen’s Buddhist manuscripts, but Professor Jens Braarvig of the University of Oslo, who is heading the scholarly publication programme, believes that the overwhelming majority come from the Bamiyan area. “Reports suggest they were found by local people taking refuge from the Taliban forces in a deep cave in the cliffside, within a few kilometres of the two giant Buddhas,” he told The Art Newspaper. Professor Braarvig says that this cache of manuscripts, although obviously very different, is of “comparable importance” to the Buddha statues, which were destroyed by the Taliban last year.
It was in 1996 that the first group of manuscripts was discovered. The finders set off towards Pakistan, and after being chased by the Taliban in the Hindu Kush they managed to cross the Khyber Pass, eventually reaching Islamabad. There the manuscripts passed through dealers before being acquired by London specialist Sam Fogg, who sold the 108 fragments to Mr Schøyen. This was followed by further batches, which were considerably larger and usually included hundreds of folios and the occasional complete manuscript. Altogether around 15 separate consignments of Bamiyan material have been acquired by Mr Schøyen.
The most recent batch of manuscripts reached Europe in July, and again passed through Sam Fogg to the Schøyen Collection. These texts are believed to have been purchased by a middleman in Bamiyan earlier in the year, but they are all small fragments and this has raised new concerns. Since the fall of the Taliban, talismans have been produced for sale in Bamiyan which incorporate a fragment of ancient Buddhist text. This new practice has not only pushed up market prices for manuscripts, but it also appears that folios are now sometimes cut up into small pieces in order to maximise profits for the seller.
Altogether the Schøyen Library now has eight complete Buddhist manuscripts, over 5,000 folios and sizable fragments from 1,400 different manuscripts, plus more than 8,000 small fragments. These are on palm leaf, birch bark or vellum, and some seem to have been damaged in antiquity. The majority of the texts are in Sanskrit, and most probably originated in India and were brought to Bamiyan by pilgrims. They include many previously unknown Buddhist texts, as well as some of the oldest surviving scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism. The earliest manuscripts have been dated to around 100 AD, and hence the comparison with the Jewish scrolls found near the Dead Sea.
Professor Braarvig believes that nearly all of Mr Schøyen’s Buddhist material comes from a monastic library near Bamiyan. This may well have been the monastery of Mahasanghika, whose existence was recorded by a Chinese traveller in around 633 AD. The texts come from a 600-year period (from around 100 to 700 AD) and much of the collection are in single folios, many of them damaged. It has therefore been suggested that the manuscript cache could have comprised damaged sheets which were recopied for the main library. “When folios were copied, the discarded ones may well have been ritually buried in the cave,” suggests Professor Richard Salomon, of the University of Washington, Seattle.
Mr Schøyen has recently indicated that he wishes to sell his entire collection of 12,500 world manuscripts, ideally to the Norwegian State, for the National Library. The bulk of the Schøyen Library does not pose any special difficulties, but the fact that the Buddhist manuscripts were smuggled out of Afghanistan has sparked off an impassioned debate in Norway.
In a statement, the Schøyen Library points out that the Buddhist manuscripts are the only ones that do not come from old collections, “but were acquired to prevent destruction, after requests from Buddhists and scholars.” The statement goes on to address the question of whether these manuscripts should be returned to Afghanistan, “after they have been published, and if peace, order, religious tolerance and safe conditions have been established in that country.” But after analysing the history of Afghanistan, the Schøyen Library concludes that it is “not the right and safe home for these manuscripts in the future.”
Bendik Rugaas, director of Norway’s National Library, has already welcomed Mr Schøyen’s proposal to sell his entire collection to the State. But even if the money is raised, and the sale goes ahead, this does not resolve the question of what should eventually happen to the Buddhist material. Although Mr Rugaas would be happy for the manuscripts to remain in Oslo, John Herstad, director of the National Archives, is among those who support the return of the manuscripts to Afghanistan when conditions are appropriate.
The story of the Buddhist manuscripts raises difficult issues. Professor Braarvig points out that the Bamiyan cave has not been examined by archaeologists. “From a scientific point of view the fact that the exact find-spot is unknown and that proper excavations have not been carried out is deplorable, since the manuscripts are shorn of context,” he explained. Instead, it has been left to local looters to take the material, keeping the source of their treasure a secret.
But what would have happened if those fleeing the Taliban and seeking refuge in the cave had not been able to sell their find? Had the manuscripts not had a financial value, the fragile items might simply have been discarded or allowed to disintegrate. There was no Afghan government authority which could have stepped in to save the find. The Kabul Museum had already suffered serious damage and looting during the civil war, although this was to soon to be overshadowed by the deliberate destruction which took place under the Taliban early last year.
When Mr Schøyen began to buy the Buddhist manuscripts, he was purchasing items which had been smuggled (although no legal offence was being committed by dealers or collectors outside Afghanistan). In retrospect, following the Taliban’s destruction of the giant Buddhas, Mr Schøyen’s action may well be applauded, but at the time Unesco was opposing the acquisition of illegally exported antiquities. However, with the defeat of the Taliban, the situation is rather different and the purchase of manuscripts which have been illegally exported from Afghanistan this year is much more questionable.
The Schøyen case is unusual, because a single collector appears to have acquired the bulk of the material from a major find, despite the fact that it was separated into numerous separate consignments. It would obviously have been very unfortunate if the folios and fragments had been dispersed to dozens of private collectors, making it virtually impossible for scholars to study the material as a coherent group.
One fact, however, is indisputable, and that is that Schøyen has been generous in allowing scholarly access to the material and encouraging its prompt publication. This is now well under way: the first volume on the Buddhist manuscripts was published in Oslo by Hermes in 2000 and the second volume will be out later this month. Eight further volumes are scheduled within the next few years.
And as for the future, Professor Braarvig hopes that ownership of the Buddhist manuscripts will be very carefully considered. He personally believes that the Norwegian State should consider giving them back to Afghanistan, but only after conditions there are entirely suitable, and this could be many years away. Professor Braarvig’s overriding concern is that “Buddhism’s Dead Sea Scrolls” must be accessible, both to scholars and the public.