12 May 2001
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
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
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
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.