The challenges ahead for Afghanistan’s cultural heritage

3 Mar 2010

The challenges ahead for Afghanistan’s cultural heritage

3 March 2010 - The history and archaeology of Afghanistan stretches back more than 40 millennia, from Palaeolithic sites where stone tools illustrate aspects of the lives of the first human settlements in Afghanistan, through to the Bronze and Iron Ages where civilizations from Kandahar to Balkh began to flourish, and then into the Islamic Period where Ghazni, Ghor and Herat also became centres of high culture and civilization.


Many great ideas too, were born or shaped in Afghanistan, leaving an indelible mark on the history and the people of the region; from the birth of Zoroaster in Balkh to the spread of Hellenism, the development of Buddhism to the flourishing of Islam and the Islamic arts, the people, monuments, archaeological sites and literature all bear witness to the multiple layers of an extraordinarily rich cultural heritage.

This historical diversity is also reflected in the contemporary cultures and languages of Afghanistan which are equally rich in their expression through different forms of poetry, literature, art, music, dance and traditional forms of craft and architecture that represent the passing on of refined skills, knowledge and ideas from one generation to the next throughout the centuries. All of these are assets for the reconstruction process in Afghanistan and all have made a contribution to the economic and cultural development of the nation in the past. In contemporary Afghanistan this “intangible heritage” as UNESCO identifies it – knowledge, skills and tradition – can be the positive foundation for a discourse in peace and mutual understanding that moves the country forward.

The mandate of UNESCO for the culture sector in Afghanistan is to support and encourage the Afghan people and authorities to safeguard all aspects of this rich Afghan culture, as a source of history and identity for future generations and as a platform upon which to build a culture of peace and sustainable development.

Moreover, the culture sector in Afghanistan has a growing potential for employment and income generation, as it does in most countries throughout the region, through the legitimate export of cultural products and the development of cultural industries ranging anywhere from traditional agricultural products to crafts and an embryonic film industry. Afghanistan’s neighbours too, are already benefitting from a burgeoning cultural tourism taking place along the Silk Road from China to the former Soviet Republics and from exports in cultural and creative products.

The benefits of a cultural focus to the peace and nation-building process in Afghanistan are also clear. It is obvious that if a culture of peace is to be encouraged in Afghanistan, it must be grounded in the concepts of cultural diversity as well a shared national identity that recognizes and celebrates diversity within its complexity. A cultural approach to development also addresses recovery from conflict by enhancing peace and social cohesion through building a shared sense of national identity, helping affected groups and communities to reassert their cultural identities, to encourage a return to normalcy and by bringing former adversaries together. In this regard, there is a clear and major role for culture to play in building a sustainable peace in Afghanistan.

However, this discourse in peace and diversity must also deliver concrete and visible outcomes through support for all facets of Afghan heritage and heritage industries, including the rehabilitation of museums, art galleries, theatre, the media in general as well as support for traditional architecture and design that build locally sustainable industries. Even in this difficult period in the reconstruction process in Afghanistan and in a sector with few resources and donors, cultural industries are already earning millions of dollars of revenue for Afghanistan through international exhibitions of the nation’s treasures and an ongoing legitimate trade in handicrafts of all kinds.

Moreover, the benefits to the national pride from this type of global visibility are overtly positive and can be further developed and encouraged through concrete support for the sector from the international community.

The great potential for cultural development in Afghanistan is, however, currently being undermined. The cultural heritage of Afghanistan has had to endure unimaginable loss in the past, but yet it has remained subject to deliberate destruction, pillage and neglect throughout the decades of war, civil unrest and insurgency into the present.

Despite best efforts, several monuments identified by UNESCO and the Afghan authorities as being of worldwide significance have either been destroyed or continue to be at risk of collapse because of a combined lack of both resources and expertise to ensure the provision of the necessary emergency conservation and safeguarding measures.

Some sites simply remain inaccessible due to the ongoing conflict, or their isolation in mountainous areas mitigates the chances of serious conservation intervention or proper legal protection. Besides a general advocacy, UNESCO is active in direct conservation interventions on monuments in Jam, Herat, Bamyan and Ghazni, but there is more work to be done, especially in those provinces currently cut off by conflict.

While it is difficult to visit many important archaeological sites in Afghanistan due to the current security environment, it is also patently clear from only a casual survey of the bazaar that sites are still subject to looting and the illicit trafficking of cultural property. Illegal items – items without a legally verified provenance – are stocked, bought and sold in clear view, despite the prohibition in The Afghan Law on the Protection of Historical and Cultural Properties (2004). There is also a desperate need to impose the export/import provisions of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property to which Afghanistan became a State Party in 2005.

The situation remains critical, owing to the scarce resources available to the authorities to control the traffic across the long Afghan borders or to simply ensure the minimum surveillance at archaeological sites across the country.

Another facet of this problem is that many sites of potentially great importance remain unknown to all but the people from local villages and the looters who target them for personal gain. Poverty, rural isolation, lack of opportunities in legitimate industries and a lack of awareness of the potential value of cultural heritage continue to contribute to the destruction of ancient sites and their potential role in a sustainable cultural development into the future. The final link in this chain is the individuals that export and import this material illegally into Europe, North America and East Asia, depriving the world of historical knowledge about this important region and the country of an important non-renewable resource.

The urban fabric and architecture of Afghan cities is also threatened everywhere by conflict and unfettered development. The majority of both the Afghan and the international community suffer from the same misguided notion that “new” is always better and that traditional building materials and designs must necessarily give way to concrete, steel and modernity. Not only this, but historic centres in Kabul, Herat, Balkh and most other provinces in Afghanistan are being pushed aside entirely for the sake of “development” without any notion of zoning plans for new development in specific areas or retaining historic urban architecture in others. Many other countries in Asia, from Dubai to Singapore, have realized only too late that traditional forms of architecture which incorporate modern elements and technology are both important in asserting a positive national identity and for encouraging more diverse types of economic development.

The challenge to revitalize Afghan cultural heritage and institutions at large is overwhelming, requiring a significant mobilization of international and national support. Still, to do nothing even during this difficult and critical time in Afghan history would again set the country back even further. The benefits of aiming to foster a common national identity going beyond ethnic or religious divisions as a contribution to peace and inter-cultural dialogue are worthy ends in themselves, but the benefits of encouraging economic growth through the creation of job opportunities in the cultural and creative industries – worth some several trillion dollars globally – and the development of sustainable tourism cannot be neglected in its potential to provide a foundation for the future.

One need only cite the cases of Vietnam and Cambodia, both countries which faced desperate poverty for decades since the 1960s and both of which are now recouping billions of dollars from international cultural tourism and the legitimate export of cultural products. Furthermore, two of Afghanistan’s largest regional neighbours – India and China – are not only vast exporters of “culture” but are also vast consumers and it is an opportunity that Afghanistan should begin to grasp now, rather than waiting for so-called “better times”.

Since 2001, the Afghan Government with UNESCO’s support, has made steps to improve the legal framework for the safeguarding of cultural heritage through the ratification of several Conventions concerned with preventing the illicit traffic of antiquities (1970 UNESCO and 1995 UNIDROIT) and two Conventions for the safeguarding of intangible heritage and cultural diversity (UNESCO 2003 and 2005).

The national law was also strengthened in 2004 to assist with the implementation of these Conventions and the 1972 World Heritage Convention. More than merely safeguarding Afghan heritage, with further support from the international community and better coordination from the Afghan Government, these international legal instruments can provide frameworks within which assistance to Afghanistan can be targeted to help create a sense of shared national identity and employment based on sustainable local industries.

In sum, the promotion of cultural diversity, and particularly the safeguarding of cultural heritage, in its tangible forms (e.g. historical monuments, archaeological sites and museum collections) as well as in its intangible forms (such as oral traditions, traditional music and languages), can be used as rallying points for restoring mutual understanding.

Culture can play a significant role to foster a sense of national identity by underlining the existence of shared history and cultural traditions, and by helping to better understand where a society has come from, and where it can go in the future. It can help develop a positive discourse on ethnic diversity and its benefits as a source of cultural pride, national identity and peace-building, as well as the economic empowerment of Afghan people. These are all reasons for mainstreaming culture within national policies and international development projects and why it is of the utmost importance to continue to expand activities in all sectors in Afghanistan within a cultural development paradigm.

By Brendan Cassar


Brendan Cassar is a Culture Programme Specialist at UNESCO in Kabul. He has worked in the culture sector in Afghanistan since 2003, initially for the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage until 2006 and then for UNESCO.

This article was first published in the Afghan Update Cultural Heritage Edition, February 2010.