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Four Tons of Stolen Artefacts from Afghanistan Have Been Seized in Britain


13 March 2006




LONDON, (CAIS) -- Up to four tons of ancient artefacts have been seized in Britain after an unprecedented wave of looting from archaeological sites in Afghanistan that has exceeded the plundering of treasures in Iraq.

“All the attention has been on Iraq but this is a far, far bigger problem,” said Detective Sergeant Vernon Rapley, who heads the art and antiques unit of the Metropolitan police. “Afghanistan is the main source of unprovenanced antiquities into Britain. It’s coming in by air freight, sea freight, DHL, you name it.

“It’s so widespread that I’m getting reports of people being murdered and clubbed to death on the planes in disputes about who should have the antiquities.”

Former eastern Iranian province and as the crossroads of Asia and  — criss-crossed by invaders from Alexander of Macedon to Babur, the first Mughal emperor — Afghanistan has acquired one of the world’s richest cultural heritages.

The three to four tons of plundered items seized by British customs officials and police in the past two years include ceramics, stone sculptures, Buddhist Gandharan statues, bronze weapons and coins dating back to the 3rd century BC.

Much of this has been stored at the British Museum in London while discussions take place between the Foreign Office and the Afghan government over what to do with it. Both Afghan and British officials fear that Afghanistan does not yet have the capacity to keep it secure.

“Afghanistan is a place so extraordinarily rich in culture that almost anywhere you start digging you find things, but it is being ravaged,” said Robert Knox, keeper of the museum’s Asia collection, who has been trying to identify looted items. “The Afghan government has other priorities such as feeding people, but if they don’t protect these sites and things this history will be lost for ever.”

There was an international outcry in March 2001 when the former Taliban regime brought to power by West blew up the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan. The shattered Kabul Museum, where the culture minister once personally took an axe to some statues, was seen as another symbol of the evils of the regime.

However, just as opium production has increased exponentially in the four years since the Taliban was ousted and a replaced western-backed government was installed in its place, so there has been an explosion of uncontrolled looting in archaeological sites across the land.

The end of 25 years of war has opened up access to hitherto inaccessible sites, but the government’s failure to protect them and curb local warlords has halted international excavations and left the way clear for looters, often in the pay of local commanders.

Sayed Raheen, Afghanistan’s information and culture minister, says that he is now reluctant to go to archaeological sites. “When I have visited a site, robbers start digging right there after I have left,” he said. “They think that if the minister visited this particular spot, then something must be there.”

A number of police officers sent to protect sites have been killed. Italian and later Japanese archaeologists were driven off the old city complex of Kharwar outside Kabul by a warlord. Many sites, such as an ancient settlements near Ai Khanoum in northern Afghanistan, have already been plundered.

From the middle of the 18th century, following Nâder Shah's assassination in 1747, Afghanistan became the focus of a century-long power struggle and British rivalry in the region that came to an end only with Iran renouncing its sovereignty over her 2500-years-old province, in 1857.


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