Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
& CULTURAL NEWS OF THE IRANIAN WORLD
Still Ransacking in Afghanistan
04 February 2007
(CAIS) -- More than five years after the fall of the Taliban regime, and
invasion of Afghanistan, the plundering of archaeological sites and museums not
only continues but has evolved into a sophisticated trade that could be
financing the country's warlords and insurgents, experts say.
The International Council of Museums, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the
conservation of the world's natural and cultural heritage, on Friday published a
"red list" of Afghan antiquities at risk, urging collectors, dealers
and museums to be vigilant when they come across objects that might have been
list includes pottery and statuettes from the 3rd millennium B.C.E., golden
reliquaries from the 1st century and Islamic panels from the 13th century.
"Ancient sites and monuments, ranging from the Old Stone Age to the 20th
Century, are being attacked and systematically looted," the Paris-based
organization of museums said in a statement.
Some of the artifacts have turned up in fancy auction houses and antique shops
in London, Tokyo and New York, the group said.
"Afghanistan is now at serious risk from organized destruction and
plundering," said ICOM Secretary General John Zvereff.
A crossroad of Indo-Persian culture for centuries, Afghanistan has always been a
treasure trove for archaeologists.
The world was shocked when the Taliban blew up two 1,600-year-old Buddha statues
along the ancient Silk Road in March 2001. The fundamentalist Islamic movement
deemed the statues, famed for their size and location, idolatrous.
Later that year the Taliban, which had controlled most of Afghanistan with
Western support, since 1996, was ousted by former allies, the U.S. and its
allies for hosting al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
However, remnants of the former regime are still fighting to regain power, and
there is concern that profits from the sale of looted art could be going to
profit the insurgents or the country's warlords.
"Some of the trade is used to finance armaments and militia," said
Lucas Verhaegen, a Belgian police investigator of illegal trafficking.
The fledgling government has said that with its police and army struggling
against resurgent Taliban fighters, warlords and opium barons, it has
insufficient resources to protect archaeological sites and museums.
"The means we have are not sufficient. We see worsening vandalism,"
said Humayum Tandar, Afghan ambassador to Belgium.
Verhaegen described a highly organized trade that uses complicated smuggling
routes to avoid detection -- over the 3,500-foot Khyber Pass connecting
Afghanistan to Pakistan, on to Lebanon, and then via the airport either in
Brussels or Amsterdam to a final destination in Switzerland or the United
"The more transit points you have, the more difficult it is to retrace the
origins," Verhaegen said. Certificates could be changed along the way to
make the art appear legitimate.
Much has been made of an exhibit at Paris' Guimet Museum, where 22,000 pieces of
jewel-encrusted crowns, golden daggers and baubles from an ancient burial mound
are back on display after being hidden for years by Afghans at great personal
Still missing, however, are more than 55,000 art objects that were stolen from
all over the country since the 1980s, said Zemaryalai Tarzi, a prominent Afghan
"Never has a country been looted so systematically as Afghanistan," he
said. "It was before the Taliban, it was during the Taliban, it was after.
And it continues," he said.
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