As the “West” withdraws from Afghanistan leaving the country in disarray, as an artist with a lifelong love of history and archeology, I can’t help asking what will happen to the cultural art and artefacts?
It has long been my belief that when a society loses their cultural heritage they lose sight of who and what they are. Artefacts, archeological sites and art, are not just relics, or things of beauty, which is an aspect but not the sole reason for preserving them. Which leads to the question of how much society values its history and art. Is it just for the monetary value? Is it for its educational input, or how it helps people to understand their place in the world, and who and what they are in the context of modern society?
I am reminded of the story I read recently about an archeologist who rather than disclose the hiding place of precious relics and artefacts in Palmyra, died at the hands of ISIS in 2015. According to BBC News, Khaled al-Asaad, rather than allowing world heritage relics to be destroyed or sold on the black market, paid with his life to ensure they were safely hidden. The BBC said that ISIS was looking for “hidden gold stores” that didn’t exist, and rather than leaving the sites alone, went on to destroy important sections of the world heritage site, before moving on to Ninevah and other historic landmarks.
As the country returns to the hands of similar groups like the Taliban, historians, arts professionals and archeologists are again asking what will happen to what remains in Afghanistan. The New York Times reported in August this year that the Director of the national museum in Kabul was assured by leaders of the Taliban that looting would not take place in the museum, and that workers would be safe. This, however, does not mean that sites outside of the capital would be protected. As evidense shows, by the distruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in the 1990s, this doesn’t mean that anything that the Taliban disapproves of will be left alone, let alone preserved.
One of the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Before and after Taliban takeover during the 1990s. Images © The New York Times and Getty Images 2021
Such destruction of historically important sites, artefacts and art is not only important for the Aghani people in regard to them having links to their cultural identity, but also for the rest of the world, as much of who we are is also linked to the development of societies that grew around the area.
The saying that those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, is relevant here. We not only need to appreciate the creativity and beauty of humanity’s relics and artefacts, we need to learn about how they were made, why, and the contexts of the creation. Who made these cities, buildings, statues, artworks, and for whom? What was their original intent, and what can they tell us in a modern context? If they are not longer in existence, what can we learn? Apart from admiring them for their beauty, and mourning their loss as aesthetically pleasing objects, we need to recognise their importance as significant evidense of the delevopment of humanity.
Sun Tzu said in The Art of War, “to win a battle you have to know thyself”, so if your cultural heritage is stripped away from you, how is that possible? All that is left is what you are told you must believe, unless you are brave anough to go out and rediscover it, which for women especially in cerain countries, it seems that is rapidly becoming impossible.
So, apart from the human tragedy that is Afghanistan at the moment, after the “dust settles” I cannot help asking, what will be left for the Afghan people, and the rest of the world in regard to their history and culture? I hope it is more that photos and artworks on the internet, in books, or a few relics stored in museums in other countries where a majority of the Afghan population cannot see them. No doubt ensuing months will reveal the answers.