History in Stone: the untapped riches of Afghanistan


03/23/2009, Volume 014, Issue 26

I turned carefully to scan the horizon. Nearby, French archeologists had recently uncovered 40 stupas and three Buddhist monasteries, but I couldn’t see them. With just a foot of crumbling mud brick separating me from a 60-foot fall, I didn’t push my luck.

I was on top of the Minar-i-Zadyan, Afghanistan’s oldest minaret, also known as the Minaret of Daulatabad, 20 miles from Balkh. I’d allowed my Afghan friends’ kids to climb the dark, steep internal stairway with me and a voluble young Afghan archaeology buff, Reza Hossaini. But the minaret is missing as much as a third of its original height, coming to an end in broken masonry rather than a platform from which the call to prayer would have sounded. I was worried that seven-year-old Leeza, who has no fear of heights, would lose her balance as she shifted around to examine the view.

Although it was first documented in 1938 by the Western researcher Eric Schroeder, the minaret was not surveyed until 1952 and is not described in any of the classic travel books on Afghanistan, not even in Nancy Hatch Dupree’s comprehensive 1977 guide. The only web reference is on the site of a preservation organization Dupree founded in 1994, the Society for the Preservation of Afghan Cultural Heritage (SPACH).

The obscurity of the minaret is explained by the fact that, until recently, getting there from Balkh took three hours on an appalling road, enough to deter all but the most fanatic devotees of medieval Islamic architecture. It was only a year ago that a spanking new asphalt road reduced the travel time between Balkh and Daulatabad, 27.5 kilometers away, from more than two hours to 10 minutes.

A further half-hour over 14 kilometers of dirt road, winding around storybook mud brick Turkmen villages, brings you to Zadyan, the village that contains the minaret. The men and women who live in the surrounding villages still wear the striking national dress–pointed hats with headscarves for the women, vibrantly colored handwoven caps for the men and boys–and weave carpets for a living. If you don’t look too hard, it can seem as though time stopped here when the minaret was built–around 1108-09, according to the Archaeological Gazetteer of Afghanistan.

At 60 feet the minaret is squat; taller, its proportions would have been perfect. Today its beauty is in the astonishingly well-preserved bands of geometric decoration that wind all the way up, and the subtleties of the fine brickwork. Reza pointed out that the thick relief of the brickwork provides ample footholds for climbers; local kids occasionally scale the tower and, he said, some have fallen to their deaths in the attempt.

The minaret ends abruptly just above the second of two Arabic inscriptions. Reza transcribed the splendid but baffling Kufic into modern Arabic script I could read with some help:

In the name of God, the Merciful and Compassionate, Oh you believing people, called by the azan on the day of Friday, try to pray to God. The building of this minaret the great ruler the trusted by the government (doulat) and honor of the community, Abu Jafar Mohammed Ibn-Ali….

The inscription trails off into fragments.

A steady trickle of Afghan pilgrims visited the minaret while we were there–spillover from a mysterious shrine a hundred feet away, known as Hazrat Saleh, or Honored Saleh. The building doesn’t look ancient, and the legend of the obscure Islamic prophet Saleh to which it refers is also associated–with much more probability–with a 2,000-year-old Arabian site, Maidan Saleh. (Saleh was a prophet sent by Allah to the Arabs before Mohammad.) Reza pointed out that the green-draped tomb of Saleh inside the shrine is facing east, while Islamic graves are customarily arranged so that the deceased face Mecca, which is west of Afghanistan. He thinks this indicates the pre-Islamic origins of the site. Another oddity: On the outside of the shrine is an arched niche where pilgrims have left pats of mud in the hope of a cure for skin ailments.

While locals make pilgrimages to Hazrat Saleh and the minaret, there were no other foreigners around. In fact, the only foreigners I have ever seen at ancient sites in Afghanistan are the archaeologists working there. Mainly because of misapprehensions about security, the astonishing historical and archaeological riches of Afghanistan are nearly unvisited. Prehistoric petroglyphs, Achaemenid citadels, Buddhist stupas and monasteries, Greco-Bactrian and Kushan sites with Hellenistic columns and fire altars, and a thousand years of Islamic architecture jostle for space, and many can be seen just off the main roads. Potential visitors lump the area around Balkh and the whole Afghan north, which are as safeas dozens of other developing countries, with the war zones of Helmand and Kandahar.

While most foreigners bemoan the loss of the Bamiyan buddhas–for the record, Robert Byron thought neither had any artistic value–the surprising good news is that the losses due to the years of war will probably be dwarfed by the treasures still undiscovered.

A handful of recent finds suggest that the best is yet to come. Two hours and 150 kilometers from Mazar towards Kabul at Pul-i-Khumri, the British scholar Jonathan Lee has just documented what is now Afghanistan’s largest sculpture, the 6.5-by-4.9 meter relief known to locals as Rag-i-bibi, or Lady Fatima’s Vein. This is an 1,800-year-old Sassanian rock relief mysteriously located 1,600 kilometers east of its nearest counterparts. He believes another, last described by a French traveler in 1857, awaits rediscovery.
n Balkh, the archaeologists at the Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan (DAFA) have spent the last four years unearthing hundreds of Greek and Buddhist building fragments, and as recently as last year they identified the largest known Achaemenid city in Afghanistan–three square kilometers–an hour further south at a city that may be the site of the legendary marriage of Alexander and Roxana at Tangi Cheshmeh Shafa, “the gorge of the healing spring.”

Meanwhile, in the far southwest of Afghanistan, the desert province of Nimroz holds miles of ruins last systematically explored by the Smithsonian Institution in the 1970s. That team excavated only a dozen or so of more than 150 sites; the sole surviving member, William Trousdale, now approaching 80, hopes to publish their notes as a tribute to his late colleagues. The Sistan basin would be a tourist attraction anywhere else, but even most Afghans have never heard of it.

The pattern of discovery in Afghanistan suggests that these archaeologists have just scraped the surface of what is there. “What’s amazing,” says Jonathan Lee, an archaeologist with long experience in Afghanistan, “is that most of the discoveries have been within a few hundred yards of the roads, and there aren’t many roads in Afghanistan.”

The bad news is that Afghanistan’s archaeological heritage is being looted by Afghans and their foreign accomplices, while the international organization with the greatest potential to save these treasures, UNESCO, stands by, spending donor money on endless conferences and studies. The Afghan government officials responsible for archaeology range from well-meaning to corrupt, but even the best are handicapped by the limitations of an archaeology police of just 350 men and four cars.

Last November I asked Brendan Cassar and Masanori Nagaoka, the two men who make up UNESCO’s international staff in Kabul, why UNESCO wasn’t paying for watchmen for major sites. “We don’t have the money to guard all the sites,” Cassar answered. Like Nagaoka, he is an elegantly turned-out man who looks more like a Wall Street banker than an M.A. in historic preservation working in dusty Kabul.

I suggested a program of targeted donations, whereby people could spend $1,000 or $2,000 a year to protect a specific site. “But that wouldn’t be developing capacity in the Afghan government,” Cassar replied, dunking a freshly made spring roll into a dipping sauce. We were eating–at the UNESCO team’s suggestion–at Kabul’s only five star hotel, the Serena. “We work with the Afghan government. We want to build capacity.”

His answer didn’t surprise me. “Building capacity” has to be the most common phrase in the lexicon of aid workers in Afghanistan. It can mean anything from an excellent training program to doing nothing. I responded that it would take 20 years to train a new generation of Afghan preservationists, and by then all these sites will be destroyed.

I might have anticipated this unfulfilling encounter had I read between the lines of UNESCO’s description of its work in Afghanistan:

The project to safeguard the Bamiyan site is a further example of cooperation between Afghanistan and UNESCO. It has allowed monuments to be consolidated and dated. Furthermore, the restoration of the Kabul Museum was made possible through the support of numerous governments and international organizations. Afghanistan joined UNESCO on May 4, 1948. The country serves as an example in the fight against illiteracy. Several projects have been implemented jointly with UNESCO such as the LAND AFGHAN project (2002-2005), which aims to promote literacy and non-formal education. Gender parity in education and in the media as well as the development of the University of Kabul are the current priorities of cooperation between UNESCO and Afghanistan.

Gender parity in education and the media? Worthy goals indeed, but served by numerous education-oriented NGOs and governmental organizations working in Afghanistan. Afghanistan: an example of the fight against illiteracy, with one of the world’s highest illiteracy rates? Amidst the picnic spots and conferences, an important aspect of UNESCO’s mandate–as stated in its constitution, “assuring the conservation and protection of the world’s inheritance of books, works of art and monuments of history and science, and recommending to the nations concerned the necessary international conventions”–seems to have gotten lost.

It’s hard to find anyone in preservation or archaeology in Afghanistan with a good word for UNESCO, which has antagonized smaller groups by competing with them for the same scarce donor funds, winning contracts, and then banking the money while doing nothing–unless you count lavish dining-out. UNESCO efforts in Afghanistan have concentrated on two World Heritage Sites, Bamiyan and the Minaret of Jam. Roland Besenval of DAFA explains that UNESCO has never asked DAFA about potential sites for conservation and ignored DAFA’s request to protect Afghanistan’s oldest mosque, the 8th-9th century No Gonbad, an hour away from the Minaret of Daulatabad.

In 2007 UNESCO withdrew support from a Cambridge archaeology team that was doing promising work at Jam.

“We have shared our data with UNESCO and other interested parties, but never received anything in return,” team member David Thomas explains from Australia, where he teaches at La Trobe University. “We are excluded from the Expert Working Group meetings on Jam, despite being the only archaeological project to have worked at the site since the French in the early 1960s.”

A third site nominated for UNESCO World Heritage status, the magnificent old city of Herat, was in danger of falling off the list from sheer inaction until the Aga Khan Trust for Culture’s country officer, Jolyon Leslie, raised the issue. The Aga Khan Foundation has been documenting the state of the antiquities of Herat.

“UNESCO spent only a couple of days in Herat,” Leslie explains. “I wanted them to take the time to look in detail at what needed to be done. You can’t see what you need to see in the time they spent.” The “restoration” of the National Museum–incorrectly called the Kabul Museum on UNESCO’s website–has meant the refurbishment of a half-empty building, with one room of artifacts from Nuristan and perhaps a hundred items from the archaeological collection on view. (And at that, much of the work was overseen by SPACH, the roof was restored by the U.S. government, and the Nuristan room was paid for by an Austrian expert, Max Klimburg.)

The excuse for the paucity of exhibits is that the museum doesn’t have the security system to show more valuable parts of its collection–including the Bactrian gold on view in the marvelous traveling exhibit that left Washington’s National Gallery of Art last September and moved to the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. It is now on view at Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

The problem isn’t lack of donor funds: $350,000 donated by the Greek government to UNESCO for the National Museum, which could have paid for a security system, is being used to create what Jonathan Lee sardonically refers to as a “pastiche Moghul Garden” behind the Museum. When I met with Omar Khan Massoudi, the genial director of the National Museum, the strategy behind this baffling choice became clearer. The Afghan government plans to relocate the National Museum to a more central location, in a much larger building designed to be a museum. If the Museum can come up with $3.5 million to purchase the land from the Kabul municipality, the plans will go forward. It is likely that they will, since the Afghan government has already received $800,000 as its share of the ticket revenue from the Bactrian gold exhibit–in a dedicated account for cultural activities. Roland Besenval estimates that 30 percent to 40 percent of the ticket price of the Musée Guimet’s show of the gold went to the Afghan account; with some luck, it will actually go to a worthy purpose.

Massoudi explains that the current building was the former Kabul Town Hall; it has drainage problems and old-fashioned windows that allow dust to enter. He couldn’t give me a good reason for spending a large chunk of donor money to put a garden around a building that soon won’t even be a museum, but it’s also true that there’s no point in putting a security system in a building that soon won’t be a museum. Massoudi, who is a passionate advocate of educating Afghans about their heritage, is pessimistic on the practicality of exhibiting the Bactrian gold in Kabul anytime soon, even with a modern security system. The problem is the failure of the Karzai government to make Kabul free of the threat of terrorist attacks. (On a happier note, since last fall the museum has been open on Fridays, the only day off for most Afghans, which has increased attendance significantly.)

Ana Rodriguez, the volunteer head of SPACH who catalogued the holdings of the National Museum, is a staunch supporter of Massoudi, who was one of the museum employees who hid the Bactrian gold during the civil war years. “He has a plan,” she explains, “but it isn’t articulated in the way foreigners want.”

But she drew my attention to the laughable tawildar system at the museum. Together with the absence of a security system, this ancient practice, which allocates a certain number of objects to the charge of an individual who has keys to the area where they are stored, is why only a fraction of the museum’s holdings are on exhibit. The individual responsible for a set of objects may know nothing about them; tawildars aren’t curators. But because it’s their skin if objects are lost or damaged, they are reluctant–crazily reluctant, from the viewpoint of foreign researchers–to make objects available for expert study, much less exhibition.

Massoudi hopes foreign museums will eventually lend works to the new, secure National Museum. So far, the only show of overseas art has been a poorly mounted exhibit of the work of six obscure German photographers that left Afghan visitors baffled. (It turns out that the German government trained six Afghan photographers in Germany so, lo and behold, six German photographers’ works were sent here. But as Massoudi says, “Anything is better than an empty room.”)

From the beginning of European engagement with Afghanistan, many archaeological discoveries here have been fortuitous and accomplished by independent scholars or inspired amateurs: Ai Khanum, the Minaret of Jam, No Gonbad. The most recent major find, the Rag-i-Bibi relief, was brought to the world’s attention by one of the former, an extraordinary British explorer and historian, the 57-year-old Jonathan Lee.

Lee has been working in Afghanistan whenever possible for the last 30 years, closely associated with the British Academy-funded Learned Societies and the Royal Asiatic Society. Although he received his university degree in 1972, Lee could not afford to return to get his doctorate for many years, receiving it in 1999. In the intervening years he funded much of his exploration himself, supporting his archaeology work by consulting in Afghanistan, leading tours to the former Soviet Central Asian countries, selling his photographs to stock footage companies, and teaching high school.

Among other achievements, Lee has also found an important Sassanian fresco in a cave and the remains of a Seljuk shrine; rediscovered an important 2nd-century A.D. Bactrian inscription lost during the years of war; and retrieved another important Bactrian inscription from western Bamiyan from the hands of a commander now high up in the Afghan government.

In December 2002 Lee addressed a conference on Afghanistan at the British Museum. He told me: “An Afghan journalist, Najibullah Razaq, who was in the audience, later approached me and showed me video footage of the site which he and a BBC correspondent had visited earlier in 2002.” In December 2003 Lee briefly visited the site, near a Pashtun village called Shamarq, in the middle of a snowstorm. In May 2004 he mounted a joint SPACH-DAFA expedition with the eminent French Central Asian specialist Franz Grenet. Life-sized photos of the relief were taken from elaborate scaffolding, permitting further study off-site.

Local officials in Baghlan province took an unusually active role in supporting the documentation and guarding the relief. UNESCO was not so cooperative.

“In 2004,” Lee says, “the provincial official responsible for the protection of historic monuments in Baghlan informed UNESCO of its presence during a conference in Kabul, but no one was asked to make a survey or a proper recording. Had it not been for Najibullah attending a conference in the British Museum later in the same year and showing me his video, the site would still probably not have been on the national, and world, archaeological map.”

Today Rag-i-Bibi is one of the few Afghan archaeological sites protected by the government. It’s guarded by a couple of teenaged archaeology police who have rifles but no telephones and, for that matter, little more than the clothes on their backs. Their $70 monthly salary doesn’t go far, even in Afghanistan–but at least the site is protected.

Rag-i-Bibi is powerful and intriguing, but elusive both in terms of its location (high up on a cliff face far from any signs of settlement) and its purpose and symbolism. We see a horse but only the legs of his rider; background figures in low relief are the only human figures surviving. Lee and Grenet identify them as Sassanid courtiers and defeated Kushans, occupying the usual role in Sassanian reliefs of conquered peoples. Two phalerae (round metal discs used on both human armor and horse trappings in antiquity, with heraldic significance in ancient Iran) suggest the high status of the rider. And two rhinos–one being chased, one under the horse’s hooves–suggest the centrality of the hunt in this lost world. Lee points out that the reason the torso and upper body of the rider hasn’t survived is that these parts would likely have been clay add-ons, more fragile than stone. The same explains the disappearance of the rhinoceros’s horns: “You can see the holes where the horn of the rhino was.”

According to Grenet, the sculpture depicts the Sassanid king Shapur I (240-272 A.D.), who had other similar reliefs made in the last years of his reign. This one would have celebrated his victory and subjugation of the Kushan kings of the region. Yet this sculpture is 1,600 kilometers east of the other known examples. It shows the hunt of an Indian rhinoceros–an animal never found in Afghanistan but royal prey in India–and a mango tree, also native to India. Grenet believes these motifs are the result of Shapur’s pretensions that his rule extended to India, which then began in Peshawar.

A few hours northwest, in Balkh, DAFA has been working in the spring and fall on sites a few hundred years older. Their excavations at Tepe Zargaran in Balkh are thrilling. A giant tumulus–the Persian tepe means hill, and the site’s name means “hill of the gold-workers”–has been painstakingly opened up to reveal, in one area, the remains of buildings, and nearby, a massive collection of Bactrian and Buddhist stone building fragments, evidently used in an ancient irrigation channel.

Philippe Marquis of DAFA, on-site when I visited, tells me that the first dig is from the 3rd century A.D. or later, but has not yet been conclusively identified. At the second site, the graceful top of a broken Corinthian column had just been unearthed; a very similar piece is currently in the traveling show of treasures from the Afghan National Museum. Nearby, the stone fragments recovered from the site have been divided into two collections. The upper layer of digging revealed about 450 pieces in all, of which half were originally part of Buddhist buildings from the 2nd century.

Marquis explains that they probably came from a couple of stupas destroyed by the Sassanid builders of the irrigation channel. Excavations lower down yielded Greek pieces from the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C. The DAFA team will try to reconstruct the stupas from the pieces they have. The finds from the excavation will go into a 1,200 square-meter museum the French are funding in Mazar, the first of several projected regional museums the Afghan government is trying to finance. Designed by a French architect to echo local domed forms, the plans for the museum suggest that it will be Afghanistan’s finest to date. It is projected to open in 2011.

Lee believes that there is more to find: “The most famous site yet to be discovered in the Balkh area is the temple of Zar-i Aspa (Golden Horse) dedicated to the Iranian goddess Anahita,” he says. “Greek sources record this temple, dedicated to the guardian spirit of the Oxus, actually straddled a part of the Balkh river.”

DAFA’s most important recent discovery, Tangi Cheshmeh Shafa, lies along this river 30 kilometers south of Balkh. Much of the way is on a dirt road used by locals that runs alongside the Balkh River, but it is still only an hour from Mazar, allowing the DAFA team to commute from their Mazar home. Tangi Cheshmeh Shafa has yielded Afghanistan’s largest Achaemenid site to date, about three kilometers square, dating to 500-600 B.C.

The situation of the former citadel is spectacular, affording wide-angle views of the countryside. David Jurie at DAFA’s Kabul office explains the likely reason the Achaemenids built here: “From the top of the citadel, you can see 25 kilometers on either side. The road to Bamiyan and India passes by and it is very narrow at this point. So if you controlled this site, you could dominate the trade route.”

For this reason it was also used as a fort by the mujahedeen during Afghanistan’s civil war, and they are likely responsible for the extensive looting of the hillside site. Acres of the slope are pitted by crude diggings to a depth of four to five feet. But on a flat plain below, another part of the site awaits professional excavation.

Just a half hour’s drive from Tepe Zargaran and an hour from the Minaret of Daulatabad, Afghanistan’s oldest mosque, the 8th-9th century No Gonbad (“Nine domes”) stands in tranquil farmland. Yet this masterpiece, one of the oldest mosques west of Iraq, was only published in 1968, after two Americans, Lisa Golombek (now curator emeritus of Islamic Art at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto) and photographer Deborah Klimburg-Salter (wife of the expert who refurbished the Nuristani collections at the Kabul Museum) stumbled upon it. It is also known as Haji Piyada, or Saint Piyada, after a much more recent shrine located next to the ruined mosque.

Powerful even without its roof, the mosque is imposing in a way that the more human-scaled minaret of Daulatabad is not. The pillars’ stucco decoration has the sublime confidence of early Islamic art. Golombek points out the similarities between the vegetal and geometric forms used here and in other nine-bay 9th- and 10th-century mosques across the Middle East and North Africa.

Although one of the mosque’s arches is in danger, it seems likely that DAFA’s major program for the site will rescue it in time. They are digging down 1.75 meters to the original floor, now covered by dust and masonry from the collapsed roof. DAFA hopes to rebuild the roof from these fragments.

The ruins that offer the most extreme combination of visual drama and remoteness are 600 miles away by road in Nimroz. This province, in the far southwest between the Baluch areas of Pakistan and Iran, is closer by air to Dubai than to Kabul, and its capital, Zaranj, is so close to the Iranian border that locals use Iranian currency and women wear the Iranian black chador.

There is no NATO military presence or Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) here, and the security situation is iffy because most of the province is uninhabited. The ruins here are the remains of a once-thriving civilization that extended from Kandahar well into Iran and went by the name of Sistan for most of its history. They lie in a 70-mile-wide, 100-mile-long desert basin periodically flooded by the Helmand River. Two-thirds of the area is within Nimroz Province but the rest is now in Iran. Some of these places have been inhabited since prehistoric times.

A 30-year-old description by Nancy Hatch Dupree, doyenne of Afghan architecture, whets the appetite:

the southern Hamun basin contains the greatest assemblage of 15th century A.D. architecture anywhere in the Middle East….The remains speak of a sophisticated culture, of affluence permitting a rich variety of architectural forms and ornamentation, of stately manor houses containing sometimes more than sixty rooms fashioned from sun-dried and kiln-baked bricks.

The reality is magnificent, but literally eroded. Here is one case where the hand of man is not at fault; wind and flood have done their work, and the buildings I saw were less detailed than the photographs I had seen from the early 20th century. The three-hour, 90-kilometer trip southeast from Zaranj to Shahr-i-Gholghola, “the city of screams,” is the second-worst driving I’ve ever experienced in Afghanistan. It was a great relief when the first set of remains of Shahr-i-Gholghola appeared abruptly in front of us.

There were battlements behind battlements, three concentric rings, with 50 or 100 yards of open ground between them. The site is so large–a square kilometer–and the terrain so flat that it is difficult to keep perspective. The walls had once been 50 or 60 feet high–and in fact still are, but the lower 30-40 feet are now shrouded in sand. At some points you could walk up nearly to the top and then descend an equal slope to the next area of flat ground. In the center is a fantastic honeycomb of mud brick arches and domes, battlements and stairs, with smashed pottery everywhere.

The last serious study of Shahr-i-Gholghola ended abruptly in 1978 when the Smithsonian team that Trousdale led pulled out. Trousdale may be the last man alive to know the area well. He worked in Helmand and Nimroz provinces during 1971-78, excavating for three years at Shahr-i-Gholghola. The Smithsonian team surveyed more than 150 sites from the 4th millennium B.C. to the 15th century A.D. and excavated a dozen until the arrival of the Soviets made it impossible to work. Trousdale and a geologist also investigated early mining and smelting sites, both in Afghanistan and in Pakistani Baluchistan across the border.

When we met in London last winter Trousdale explained, with an intensity and quickness of mind that would have been intimidating in a much younger man, that there was much more detail to Shahr-i-Gholghola when he visited 30 years ago. But mingled with his sadness is a satisfaction few of us experience. He writes to me in an email:

The last word should belong not to a scholar at the end of his career but to one at the beginning, my companion on the trip from Kabul to Balkh, Reza Hossaini.

“Do you see those mountains on the left side?” he asks, pointing to a rugged slope on the south side of the Kabul-Mazar highway, just after the Salang Tunnel that marks the beginning of the Central Asian plain. “I have found petroglyphs on the back side there. I walked 40 kilometers in one day to go there and back.”

“How did you know they would be there?”

“I have some ideas from reading, and I ask the local people, I become friendly with them. Also I am using Google Earth.”

Reza’s passionate pursuit of learning–on a salary of $360 a month–bodes well for a new generation of Afghans to set their mark on the study of their own country.

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