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Ancient Iranian Relics From Afghanistan Find Sanctuary in Switzerland



Saturday, 12 May 2001



Even as Taleban members packed explosives around the two ancient Buddhas carved into the rock-face of the Bamiyan mountains, Zemarey Hakimi was negotiating the rescue of Afghanistan’s treasures from his home in Switzerland.

Within days the 52-year-old construction engineer from northern Afghanistan was in Mashad, Iran, where he was slipped a 5in-high clay jug dating from 500BC. It had been smuggled across the border from Afghanistan in a diplomatic bag, one of hundreds of priceless Afghan artefacts now saved from the depredations of the Taleban and shipped by Mr Hakimi to the safety of his home in the village of Bubendorf, near Basle.

It is an unlikely sanctuary for Afghanistan’s cultural heritage. Ten miles south of Basle, Bubendorf’s farmers invite visitors to pick their own tulips. The bright sunshine brings an air of sleepy contentment to the 6,000 inhabitants.

But here, under the guidance of Mr Hakimi and the Swiss architect Paul Bucherer-Dietschi, is the Afghanistan Museum, accepted by both Afghans and Unesco as the official safe house for Afghan works of art.

A modest building flanked by suburban homes, it is easy to miss. Inside, however, is a hoard of treasures dating from 2,000BC, which have been loaned to the curators on the understanding that they will be returned to Afghanistan once it is safe to do so.

Opened in October last year, the museum has become a treasure chest for Afghans. Traditionally, rural families lock up their heirlooms in a sandoq — a carved wooden chest — for their daughters’ dowries. Now, and increasingly since the destruction of the 4th and 5th-century AD Buddhas in Bamiyan, diplomats, businessmen and even junior ministers are spiriting away artefacts to the new Swiss sandoq. “Whoever has no culture, has no country to call his own,” Mr Hakimi explains.

Europe, too, has an interest in safeguarding the Afghan heritage. Since Alexander the Great invaded Afghanistan in 329BC, the Hindu Kush mountain region has developed into the most easterly bastion of Hellenism. Greek artists influenced the figurative expressions of the Buddhist teachings in the Gandhara culture, which spread from India across Afghanistan and along the Silk Road through Central Asia to China and Japan.

Among the 2,000-year-old statues, bronze frogs, clay pots, necklaces, dolls and thousands of early black and white photographs, documenting life in the past centuries — and banned by the Taleban as idolatrous — is a walking stick, given by moderate Taleban members and belonging to Abdurrahman Khan, the founder of the modern state of Afghanistan. Khan, who was installed in Kabul by Britain and Russia in 1880, used to signal approval of any new law with a tap of the stick.

Herr Bucherer-Dietschi and Mr Hakimi are the proud guardians of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage. Mr Hakimi fled to Switzerland in 1972, before returning to Kabul in 1992 where he acted as a building adviser to the Government of President Rabbani and the Red Cross. Herr Bucherer- Dietschi became a construction adviser to the Government and worked with the Red Cross. He had gone to Afghanistan in the early 1970s and lived and studied there with his wife until the Soviet invasion in 1979.

After the Soviet withdrawal of its 100,000 troops in 1989, he returned to Kabul to a warm welcome from his friends, including Mohammad Najibullah, the Communist President.

Sensing that the war was not yet over, the President invited Switzerland to take care of the golden hoard of Telya Tepe — 23,000 gold relics from Bactria dating back to the 1st century AD. Switzerland had played a key role in brokering peace between the Mujahidin and the Communists in Kabul, earning the Afghans’ respect, but the transfer was frowned upon and never happened.

In 1992 rebel Marxist factions captured Kabul, overthrowing the Communist Government and establishing a provisional Islamic republic. The Kabul museum was looted and antiquities were sold off by the warring factions in Peshawar in neighbouring Pakistan. But it was only in 1998, after Herr Bucherer-Dietschi spent three months in talks with ministers and religious leaders of the Taleban Government and the opposition Northern Alliance, that the pleas were heard. Later, President Rabbani appealed to the Swiss for aid.

“Suddenly both sides were saying: ‘One day we must rebuild our country, but we will lose the ground under our feet to rebuild society if we lose our culture’,” he says.

Since 1992 the illegal trafficking of artefacts has flourished in Europe, Japan and Asia. Three years ago, neighbouring Pakistan, which backs the Taleban regime and through which many items are smuggled, passed a law appropriating all Gandharan antiquities found in the country.

In 1970 the United Nations passed the Unesco convention to prevent illegal trafficking of culture, in the belief that selling artefacts encourages pillaging and the destruction of valuable records. UNESCO was initially reluctant to sanction the removal of treasures from Afghanistan but in March it agreed that the Afghanistan Museum should take custody of the treasures.

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