Afghanistan’s cultural heritage and national integrity: Nancy Dupree

2 Mar 2010

Afghanistan’s cultural heritage and national integrity: Nancy Dupree

KABUL - A nation’s integrity is best assured when its members hold fast to the cultural values that fortify their sense of identity, and societies that live in harmony by welcoming the new while treasuring the past maintain their vibrancy.

Cultural heritage embraces those shared ideas, beliefs, emotions and customs that mold behaviour and place value on creative artistic expressions. Over several decades the Afghan people have walked a rocky path on which they were buffeted by a bewildering variety of contrasting, contradicting and competing ideologies introduced in rapid succession. A growing sense of disruption was then intensified by war and years of life in exile as refugees when many customs and components of the intangible culture were challenged and numbers of natural cultural wonders were threatened.

Afghanistan’s tangible cultural properties speak of its pivotal position in the region and of notable periods of creativity. In the 4th century BCE, at Ai Khanoum east of Kunduz, the Bactrians built a gymnasium and a theatre reflecting their Greek origins. West of Balkh, at Telya Tapa, over 20,000 excavated gold ornaments acclaim the sophistication of the Central Asian nomadic dynasty that rose at the end of the BCE era and under the Kushan King Kanishka held sway as far as the borders of China. The spectacular luxury trade items from Rome, Egypt, India and China excavated at Kanishka’s capital at Begram north of Kabul illuminate the sybaritic life enjoyed by its inhabitants in the 2nd century CE.

Imposing Islamic ruins dotting the Afghan landscape epitomize periods of high artistic intensity during the brilliant reigns of the Samanids (9th c.), Ghaznavids (11-12th c.), and Ghorids (12th c.). Timurid (15th c.) influence, emanating from Herat, stretched from the Tigris River to the borders of China, and the Moghuls (16th c.), ruling from north India, laid out romantic gardens and built glittering palaces and shopping malls in Kabul. During these stellar periods the Afghan area was seen as the focal point of political and economic power and the centre of cultural brilliance.

This abundant heritage has been rocketed, looted, pillaged, destroyed or allowed to deteriorate. Creative expression in the arts, music and literature has languished. That war and economic distress combined to threaten the cultural heritage is not unique to Afghanistan, but employing the willful destruction of the heritage as a political instrument was deplorable.

As Sayed Ishaq Deljo Hussaini, Minister of Information and Culture in 1996, succinctly remarked: Men have laboured all their lives to create beauty, men have devoted their lives to preserve that beauty, but today men despoil the source of creativity for their own selfish gain. It is our responsibility to rescue the museum, to revive it so that future generations may once again be inspired by the ingenuity of past generations.

The Kabul Museum is one of the world’s richest museums. It is distinctive in that a majority of its exhibits were scientifically excavated in Afghanistan and thereby provide a stunning testimony to Afghanistan’s cultural heritage. The looting of the museum, not by a marauding army intent on the spoils of war, and not by riotous mobs, but by the very guards appointed for its protection, began in 1992 when priceless pieces disappeared into stolen art networks for shipment to other lands.

Unique pieces that had been on display, however, had already been packed and stored in safe havens by the museum staff before the looting began. Thanks to the courage of these and a few other Afghans who endured many threats to their personal safely because of their loyalty and concern for their heritage, these locations were never disclosed until the objects were publicly unveiled in 2004. A new inventory confirmed that everything had survived, including the Telya Tepa Golden Hoard that forms part of an exhibit traveling the world since 2006.

Archaeological sites, however, were not so fortunate. Many have been systematically ravished by bulldozers and deep tunnels probing far below the surface. We shall never know what has been lost. The loss of knowledge about the societies that inhabited these desecrated sites is as tragic as the loss of whatever beautiful objects that have vanished. Works of art are never produced in a vacuum, and artifacts must be studied in situ if the dynamics of ancient cultures are to be understood.

The looters and plunderers evidence scant feelings of guilt or remorse. This disregard for the national heritage stems largely from the paucity of literature describing the meaning of this peerless heritage. Afghan institutions seldom encourage ordinary citizens to take pride in their heritage; scholars rarely share their knowledge with the general public; school children are nowhere taught about the richness of their past; few mature adults ever thought of visiting the Kabul Museum before the war, and now a whole generation has grown up in exile without the slightest conception of the wonders that once existed in their country.

This is a serious failing for no national strategies, nor any number of trained professionals can hope to stem this cultural hemorrhage without an understanding and sympathetic public. Policy planning that includes cultural data reflecting the society’s values can enhance cultural awareness by bringing local residents together with building, planning and environment professionals, as well as government officials, education professionals, NGOs, civil society groups, experts and donors. If awareness translates into action, trained personnel must be ready to keep up the momentum.

The key lies in making sure a wide segment of the Afghan population has access to knowledge about the importance of protecting sites near where they live. Gazar Gah in Herat survived the war with minimal damage because it is a living part of the community in which it stands. Other sites will need deeper persuading for knowledge must grow before awareness can develop. Radio, TV, public lectures, school programmes, and, above all, the wide distribution of attractive written materials couched in simple, persuasive language would be an effective start. The goal should be to impart feelings of ownership and mobilize protective networks community by community. This approach to planting the seed of cultural awareness is feasible, practical, and economic. All it really needs are innovative minds and a lot of energy and determination.

By Nancy Hatch Dupree


Nancy Hatch Dupree is one of the foremost authorities on Afghanistan’s cultural heritage. Ms Dupree has published numerous books and articles about the country and spends her time between Kabul and Peshawar, where she continues to remain engaged in saving Afghanistan’s priceless history. Today, Ms Dupree ensures the sustainability of the Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University. 

This exclusive article is the first of a series that will be published daily to mark UNAMA’s Afghan Update Cultural Heritage issue that recognizes Afghanistan’s rich past and the need to preserve it for future generations.

Download: Afghan Update Cultural Heritage Edition, February 2010

Website: Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University