Financial Times
Friday May 31 2002.
By Charles Clover in Kabul

Specialists pledge $7m to help Afghans recover lost heritage

Standing forlornly on the western outskirts of the Afghan capital, the Kabul museum at first glance looks just like any other roofless, rocket-blasted façade, nearly levelled and completely looted in the factional fighting of the 1990s.

But to a small group of international specialists and Afghan politicians, its artefacts are both the key to understanding the sweep of Eurasian history and the link with a magnificent past that can cure the country of 23 years of foreign invasions and Islamic extremism.

At a conference this week in the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, hosted by Unesco, the cultural arm of the United Nations, attendees pledged $7m to renovate the museum, restore its collection, and to help restore many of Afghanistan's ancient monuments damaged during the civil war.

The programme is similar to one in post-war Cambodia, where the restoration of Ankor Wat, also with the help of Unesco, has helped generate tourist revenues but also restore national self-confidence after years of totalitarian rule.

Restoration work on the Kabul museum will start next month, with a Greek donation of $750,000. Only 30 per cent of the museum's collection remains, stored in boxes at sites around Kabul. Some of the more valuable artefacts were taken abroad by international organisations and will be returned, according to a resolution passed by the conference.

The conference deferred a decision on restoring what many describe as Afghanistan's greatest archaeological heritage, two gigantic Buddhist statues, carved into a cliff face in Bamyan province, which stood for nearly 2,000 years before the Taliban dynamited them last year.

Angela Schuster of the World Monuments Fund said: "It is an extremely expensive project in light of what else needs doing." However, specialists will try to stabilise the cliff face around the 50-metre statues to prevent further damage.

Other famous sites that will be restored include the minaret of Jam, a 12th century Islamic tower in Ghor province, and the minaret of Herat.

These and other sites provide an incomparable glimpse into Eurasian history. Afghanistan was a key link in the Silk Road to China, a conquest of Alexander the Great, and the birthplace of Mahayana Buddhism.

"It is the crossroads of Asia. All cultures of Asia have been through here. They have all left their mark here and their remains. Nowhere can one observe this kind of mixture," said Robert Knox, keeper of Oriental Antiquities at the British Museum in London.

Many hope that by returning Afghanistan to its multi-cultural roots, they may build a bulwark against the return of Islamic extremism. "Having a living culture in a country is a way to support cultural pluralism rather than sectarianism," said Stefano Bianca of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which pledged $5m.

A similar conference hosted last month by Unesco showcased Afghanistan's historical Islamic Sufism, a mystical sect of Islam devoted to peace and tolerance which is fiercely opposed by fundamentalists.

Jean François Jarrige, director of the Musée Guimet in Paris, said: "The fundamentalists had the task to destroy heritage in order to destroy the nationalist feeling. By restoring this, the government can say, 'look, we have been great whenever we have been an international, outward-facing country'."