Ancient Indian (Asian) artifacts looted by Afghan militants
Anita Cohen-Williams (IACAGC@ASUVM.INRE.ASU.EDU)
Thu, 21 Sep 1995 23:15:38 -0700
Anita Cohen-Williams; Reference Services; Hayden Library
Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 85287-1006
PHONE: (602) 965-4579 FAX: (602) 965-9169
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Date: Thu, 21 Sep 1995 20:15:31 -0908
From: S Varshney <xsvarshney@FULLERTON.EDU>
Subject: Ancient Indian (Asian) artifacts looted by Afghan militants
Sender: Museum discussion list <MUSEUM-L@UNMVMA.UNM.EDU>
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[This has to be the single biggest loss of ancient Indian artifacts,
dating from the Kushan, Gandhara period, in this century. I'm suprised
that this issue has not hit the mainstream press as of yet (or maybe I
missed it, anyways I am stunned by the loss.)]
Far Eastern Economic Review Article:
When rockets slammed into the National Museum of Afghanistan in
Kabul in May 1993, a fire melted supporting beams holding up the
ornate vaulted roof, sending it crashing down on the upper
galleries. The next day, Najibulla Popol, the 37-year-old museum
curator, peddled his bicycle through the fighting to the
shattered building. He and a few staff members transferred what
they could salvage to vaults in the museum's basement.
Factional fighting had been swirling around the museum since the
mujahideen captured Kabul in April 1992, but until that
devastating rocket attack, it had managed to avoid major damage.
Thereafter, however, the museum was on the front line of the
vicious struggle between mujahideen factions for control of the
capital, repeatedly coming under rocket and machine-gun fire.
Within months, the main museum building was gutted and weeds
were sprouting in the rubble-strewn upper galleries.
But the destruction of the museum building and part of its
collection-the sole comprehensive record of Central Asian
history-was only the first stage in a larger tragedy. In the
months following the first rocket attack, a stream of mujahideen
soldiers repeatedly breached the steel doors of the vaults and
systematically looted their contents, often guided by detailed
instructions from Afghan and Pakistani antiquities dealers. In
January 1994, when the United Nations agency Habitat bricked up
the museum's windows and repaired the doors, the move only
appeared to encourage more looters to break in. When new
padlocks were again installed in March 1995, soldiers simply
shot them off.
Leading a party of journalists recently, museum director Popol
opened door after door of the vaults, revealing cupboards ripped
open, doors hanging on their hinges and empty drawers scattered
on the floor. Crates had been torn open and emptied and mounds
of packing material lay strewn around. To force their way in,
looters had blasted walls and doors with explosives, leaving
some vaults knee deep in rubble. In one room, stacks of empty
metal trays that had held one of the largest and oldest coin
collections in the world-some 40,000 coins-covered the floor.
Soldiers stole all the most precious objects, Popol said.
Less-important artifacts were left smashed on the floor, while
those too heavy to carry out such as life-sized statues of
Kushan warriors from 200 BC and the largest Buddhas were badly
damaged. According to Sayed Delju Hussaini, Afghan minister of
information and culture, 90% of the museum's collection has been
looted. "It was one of the richest museums in the entire region,
covering 50,000 years of history in Afghanistan and Central
Asia," Hussaini laments.
"The collection of ivories, statues, paintings, coins, gold,
pottery, armaments and dress from the pre-historic period to the
Bactrian, Kushan and Gandhara civilizations, through to the
Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim periods, was unimaginable," concurs
Pakistani academic Hasan Dani, a leading archaeologist and
historian of the Pakistan-Afghanistan region.
Interviews in Pakistan and Afghanistan with Western experts and
diplomats, Pakistani intelligence and customs officials,
mujahideen warlords and smugglers have revealed a trail of
looted artifacts stretching from middlemen and antiques dealers
in Kabul, Peshawar and Islamabad to private art collectors in
Tokyo, Islamabad Jeddah, Kuwait, London and Geneva.
"The trade in Afghan antiquities has become the biggest money
earner after the heroin trade, and it is often the same mafias
who are doing both," says a senior Western diplomat who is
involved in tracking down some of the lost pieces. Adds a
Western antiquities expert: "Twenty percent or the cream of the
collection has already been sold off outside the region. The
rest is in Pakistan and Afghanistan awaiting buyers."
In Peshawar, two 2,500-year old heads of the Hindu god Shiva
that were once on display in the museum are currently available
for $7,000 each. Exquisitely carved ivory statues of Indian
courtesans from the 2nd century AD are for sale in Islamabad for
$35,000 each. Twelve such ivories were sold in London to a Tokyo
collector for $600,000, according to diplomats and government
officials. The rape of the Kabul museum and the scattering of
its collection is more than just a litany of smashed and stolen
antiques. Although there are still large unexplored
archaeological sites in Afghanistan which could turn up more
treasures, archaeologists and historians say the losses from the
museum amount to the destruction of a major part of
Afghanistan's cultural heritage.
"If new artifacts are dug up, they will be disconnected with the
past because the record here has gone," says Clara Grissmann, an
American art historian who worked with Popol in the 1970s to
create the first complete inventory of the museum. Aged 66, she
has recently returned to Kabul to help Popol catalogue the few
pieces that remain.
Now that the museum's treasures and records have been destroyed,
there is little from which a younger generation can learn.
Everything has been cut off from its history," Grissmann says.
Only a handful of educated Afghans know how, when and from where
the museum acquired its treasures. They alone can recognize the
stolen pieces and pinpoint the country's archaeological sites.
"There are perhaps 15 Afghans left who know the museum and its
contents. After they go, that's it," Grissmann adds.
"We have notified Unesco to put the world's museums on alert to
see if anything turns up," says Information Minister Delju
Hussaini. "We are looking inside and outside the country. But
there was clearly great expertise involved in the robbing."
Because of the professionalism and thoroughness of the
collection's ransacking, few Afghans are optimistic about
recovery. It is very unlikely that much will return," agrees
For thousands of years, Afghanistan was at the crossroads of
conquest and commerce for ancient Iran, India and Central Asia,
and the museum's collection was an unmatched testament to that
rich legacy. The story of the Bagram Collection is a typical
case. Forty miles north of Kabul lies the village of Bagram,
which the Soviet invaders turned into the largest air base in
the country during their struggle with the mujahideen. Bagram is
built over the 2nd century AD city of Kapisa, the famed summer
capital of the Kushan King Kanishka, whose empire stretched from
north India deep into Central Asia. It was a period of peace
from Rome to China, and commerce, art and religion moved freely
along the Silk Road, with the Kushans at its crossroads.
In 1939, while excavating in the citadel of the Kushan fort,
archaeologists stumbled across two sealed rooms which contained
"the most spectacular archaeological find of the 20th century,"
according to Nancy Hatch Dupree, co-author of the authoritative
Guide to the National Museum of Afghanistan, published in 1974.
There were 1,800 lacquers, bronzes, ivories, glassware and
statues from Rome, Greece, Egypt, China, India and Central Asia.
The Bagram collection was at the top of the list for the
looters. At its heart lay 100 or more Indian ivory statues and
reliefs, many of them exquisitely rendered depictions of dancing
courtesans and goddesses. In attempting to track down the
ivories, the REVIEW has learned from Afghan government officials
and other mujahideen leaders that during the fighting, they were
stolen by the Hizbe Wahadat and the Hizbe Islami parties guided
by expert Pakistani and Afghan dealers.
These two opposition parties held the area around the museum
after Kabul fell to the mujahideen. The ivories were flown to
the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, into the hands of their
ally, Uzbek warlord Gen. Rashid Dostum. From there they reached
Peshawar and later Islamabad and Europe. Twelve statues were
sold to a London dealer for $300,000. The dealer in turn sold
the statues to a Japanese collector for $600,000. Several dozen
ivories are still available in Islamabad. A Pakistani art
historian who has seen ands authenticated some of the statues
says the asking price is $35,000 each.
The museum's collection of 40,000 coins, ranging from the 8th
century BC the late 19th century, was one of the more extensive
in the world. It included t largest Greek and Roman coins ever
found and the spectacular Mir Zakah Hoard. The hoard was
discovered under a spring near Kabul. It yielded 11,500 coins,
or 2,000 kilograms of gold and silver, and spanned four
centuries and numerous civilizations from Rome to China. Every
single coin has now disappeared, sold to private collectors
around the world, experts say.
According to Western diplomats, prominent Afghans and Pakistanis
living in Peshawar and Kabul are working as agents for both
wealthy Middle Eastern collectors looking for Islamic coins and
artifacts and Japanese tycoons wanting Buddhist statues. In one
particular case, they suspect that a solid gold Buddha from
Bamiyan weighing 2,012 kilograms is now in Japanese hands. The
museum was also renowned for the fabulous collection of Bactrian
gold, 21,000 gold objects-jewelry, plates, plaques and
decorative pieces-dating from 100 BC to 100 AD. Russian
archaeologists discovered the hoard in 1978 at Tillya Tepe, or
the Golden Mound, in northern Afghanistan.
To discount rumors that the retreating Soviet army had taken the
gold in 1989, former communist President Najibulla displayed the
Bactrian gold to Western diplomats in Kabul in 1991. The gold
was then packed into crates and moved for safety to a vault in
the Presidential Palace in central Kabul. The Bactrian gold is
now under the direct control of President Burhanuddin Rabbani's
military commander, Ahmad Shah Masud.
However, no independent witnesses have confirmed that the
collection is intact, leading to fears that it may have been
sold off piece by piece. Perhaps confirming those fears, the
REVIEW was recently offered a gold cup and plate allegedly from
the Bactrian gold collection for 600,000 rupees ($19,000) in
The Kabul government of President Rabbani is attempting to
retrieve artifacts still inside Afghanistan, but with the
country divided and still at war, it has little chance of doing
so. Information Minister Delju Hussaini says only 52 artifacts
have so far been retrieved by the government and restored to the
museum. "Our aims are to restore what is left, transfer the
collection to a safer area and then construct a new museums he
All that is still in the future, however, and there is little
doubt that the fight for funds to rebuild the museum will be an
uphill battle. Notes one Afghan art historian: "When Afghans are
suffering from the ravages of war, are hungry and without
schools, it is not easy to persuade them that this task is very