Archive for the ‘Archeology & Heritage’ Category

After Gadhafi, Hope for Modernity (orig. pub. in WSJ, 11/2/2011)

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011


NOVEMBER 2, 2011

After Gadhafi, Hope for Modernity

Tripoli, Libya

‘Now we have to hurry to do everything we want. Everyone from his place. Me, from this museum.” Fatheia al Howasi, the director of Libya’s National Museum since 2007, is soft-spoken, determined, and refreshingly honest in her serviceable English. She is also eager to get to work bringing the museum up to international standards and reopening it to the Libyan public—it has been closed since the revolution started in Benghazi on Feb. 17. Though the capital grows calmer every day, life is far from normal; armed men are ubiquitous and there is a serious shortage of cash. On Sunday, Ms. Howasi led me on an all-too-brief tour of the five-story structure, built in 1988 with Unesco help inside Tripoli’s 17th-century Saraya al Hamra, or Red Palace.

A 1984 graduate of Benghazi’s Garyounis University who has spent her entire career in Tripoli’s Department of Antiquities, Ms. Howasi tells the recent history of the museum without drama. While the museum was closed, she visited every day and her staff of 70 looked after the physical plant. When Moammar Gadhafi fled Tripoli on Aug. 19 and the uprising began, Ms. Howasi and the staff hid “some important small pieces”—a half-dozen glass display cases are still empty—but otherwise took no extraordinary measures.

Soon, revolutionary fighters from the Nafusa Mountains and nearby Zawiyah poured into Tripoli. (One of the major brigades that entered Tripoli hails from Zintan, Ms. Howasi’s hometown.) “Some thuwar [revolutionaries] came into the museum,” she says, but they damaged only the exhibits in the six galleries devoted to Gadhafi and smashed the windows of two of Gadhafi’s cars that are incongruously exhibited among Roman artifacts in one of the main galleries on the ground floor. (One is a lime-green Volkswagen Beetle from the 1960s.) Upstairs, the area that once held Gadhafi mementos is now empty. When I expressed the hope that the history of the Gadhafi period would not be lost to the next generation of Libyans, Ms. Howasi quickly agreed: “These things are for another time, but we need to remember and correct.”

Ms. Howasi says that the Gadhafi exhibits were the extent of the regime’s interference with the museum’s exhibition contents, though she also admits that the reason so few of the Arabic signs are translated into English is that the museum “was not allowed to write by English” during one period when Gadhafi burned foreign-language textbooks and forbade the teaching of foreign languages in schools. When he changed his mind in recent years, “somebody start and stop, somebody start and stop.” This, too, is typically Libyan: There is a sort of national attention-deficit disorder, perhaps the result of 42 years under a madly capricious ruler. When I visited, Ms. Howasi was unable to find any English guide or catalog to the museum.

While there are no classical pieces of earth-shattering importance—a fair amount of Libya’s classical heritage made its way to Italian and other European museums during the Italian occupation—there are vibrant, dynamic mosaics of daily life from the ancient cities of Leptis Magna and Sabratha, many centered around fishing and sea creatures, and important panels from the arch of Septimius Severus at Leptis Magna. The mosaics compare with the best in Tunisia, with tiny fragments that capture light and allow for great naturalism. But the Roman glass on show is mediocre, and even if the empty cases that once held jewelry and other small artifacts were full, they would not compare in extent with the holdings of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, not to mention the Italian museums. The Islamic artifacts are substandard, which probably reflects the fact that Libya was a backwater for most of the postclassical period.

The well-traveled foreign visitor will be most thrilled by the pieces from Libya’s indigenous civilizations, mainly unfamiliar to Westerners. There is a fascinating bijou third-century mausoleum and panels of bas reliefs from Ghirza, south of Misrata, whose endearingly naive depictions of animals and foliage show a fusion of local and Greek art. There are also artifacts from the mysterious Garamantian desert empire, thought to be a Berber civilization. Work is still being done on the remote desert sites where these objects were found. The exhibits on Libya’s rich prehistoric heritage only hint at its splendor and importance. The vast desert covering most of the country below the Mediterranean coast contains some of the world’s finest prehistoric rock art—represented here mainly by photographs and reproductions—along with shards of the indigenous pottery and the 5,400-year-old mummy of a 7-year-old girl found in the Acacus Mountains in 1958.

Libyan cultural and educational institutions usually have a Rip Van Winkle quality, with decades-old signage, little Web presence, and an insular orientation—and the museum is typical. Libyans are not big on maintenance, and many of the light bulbs were out when I visited. But Ms. Howasi is quick to note that most of the improvements she hopes for are cosmetic. In her opinion, the museum does not need a major cash infusion. She did not ask for foreign help. (That is much more necessary to conserve Libya’s neglected archaeological treasures, as Saleh Alagab, head of the Department of Antiquities, has noted.) Ms. Howasi’s attitude, which is common here, reflects the pride and self-confidence of a people who won their freedom with their own blood. And the fact that the museum’s treasures were respected by the revolutionaries is an encouraging sign for Libya’s future.

A Heritage in Ruins (pub. in The New York Times, 6/2/11)

Sunday, June 5th, 2011

June 2, 2011
A Heritage in Ruins


Lashkar Gah, AfghanistanWITHIN a 40-minute drive of this city stands the 11th-century Bost Arch. A former gateway to Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province, the arch is today a national historic site; it even appears on the 100-afghani note. The arch withstood centuries of invasions, but today it’s a crumbling mess of inept supports and clumsy renovations.

Helmand has been the setting of some of the fiercest fighting in the Afghan war, yet strangely, damage to monuments like the Bost Arch has increased even as the security situation has improved. The problem is that they have gone neglected by the local and national governments, falling prey to squatters, treasure hunters and time. Unless the United States provides money and pressure to protect these national treasures, they will soon disappear.

Protecting Afghanistan’s heritage sites was never a reason for occupying Afghanistan, but it was always a subtext. After all, the biggest story coming out of the country in the months before 9/11 was the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamian Buddhas, enormous sixth-century statues built into a cliff in central Afghanistan. For those concerned about the fate of the country’s trove of historic sites, the overthrow of the Taliban and the establishment of a democratic government seemed to promise salvation.

Instead, in many places the opposite has occurred. A half-mile from the Bost Arch stand three enormous medieval palaces, the winter residences of the Ghaznavid kings from 976 onward. Now squatters have built crude mud-brick walls within the ancient buildings. A policeman’s family moved in to the most ancient, central palace when their home in Garmsir was destroyed by a bomb. In 1972, when the writer Nancy Hatch Dupree described the central palace in her tourist guide, visitors could explore its second floor; now most of that floor has collapsed.

Between the palaces and the arch stands a magnificent 12th-century octagonal Islamic shrine, the Ziarat-i-Shahzada Husein; even though Afghans continue to pray there, it is decrepit and has no roof.

These aren’t obscure sites, either: the French Archeological Delegation in Afghanistan excavated the palaces in the late 1940s, and it has been pushing the Afghan government for years to request that they be designated a Unesco World Heritage Site.

What explains such neglect? It’s not a lack of resources. Lashkar Gah is set to be one of the first provincial capitals handed over to full Afghan control next month, and the United States has been pouring money into the province. Helmand’s governor, Gulab Mangal, has received $10 million in development funds as a reward for reducing poppy cultivation.

Sadly, that money is unlikely to help preserve the province’s heritage sites. Indeed, the government seems to exist more to expand itself than to serve the people. Muhammad Lal Ahmadi, the governor’s chief of staff, supervises 23 employees, including three who answer letters, two who handle documents, two who handle “relations with other provinces” and two who schedule meetings. This for a poor, rural province of 800,000 people.

The spanking new Government Media Center has a staff of 11. One has the sole job of producing brochures for Helmand’s largely illiterate population — approximately one every three months. Another “monitors media” in a province with no newspaper and just one local TV station.

True, protecting Afghanistan’s historic sites has hardly been a top priority for the United States and its allies, either. But as they begin to plan for a handover of power, it should be. For one, they could press Mr. Mangal to spend more of his money on housing for the squatters who now call the palaces home, and to provide regular security to ensure that vandals and plunderers don’t return. According to Philippe Marquis of the French Archeological Delegation in Afghanistan, stabilizing and securing the palaces would cost around $500,000.

Given the obvious waste in the Helmand government, there’s little doubt the money could be found. And the ruins could be a source of prosperity for Helmand — before Afghanistan descended into chaos, these sites were a magnet for tourists, and with a little renovation and maintenance, they could be again.

American and British diplomats, who carry the most sway in the province, should also help the government in Kabul make the case for designating Lashkar Gah’s monuments a World Heritage Site; winning designation would not only bring the country prestige, but also open the door to Unesco’s own preservation resources.

The United States and its allies have a long to-do list as they plan their slow withdrawal from Afghanistan. But alongside security and government reform should come cultural preservation, which costs relatively little but could result in significant long-term benefits. Otherwise, Afghanistan could experience

Rescuing Afghanistan’s Buddhist History

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

Even as once-secure parts of Afghanistan succumb to criminality and the insurgency, and the Afghan financial system hovers on the brink of failure, there are small signs of hope here. A spectacular Buddhist archaeological site is now being excavated by the Afghan government’s National Institute of Archaeology, near where Al Qaeda ran a training camp in the 1990s.

Work on Mes Aynak (“Little copper well”) has proceeded at a rapid pace since it began in May, because the archaeologists—16 Afghans and two Frenchmen from DAFA (Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan)—are racing against time. Within three years, the site is slated to be destroyed by Afghanistan’s largest single foreign investment, a Chinese-run copper mine not 900 yards away. The plan is to document the site thoroughly and attempt to remove as many of the smaller stupas and statues as possible for conservation in the National Museum or possibly a future local museum. Because the buildings are mudbrick and schist, a wholesale relocation isn’t possible.

Visiting the main 262-by-131-foot Buddhist temple, which once boasted a stupa 32 to 50 feet high, it was hard not to gasp. The head of DAFA, Philippe Marquis, pulled back plastic protective sheets to reveal statue after statue of Buddhas and donors. In many niches, large hands and feet peeked out, the rest of the bodies still obscured under mudbrick. Some statues were intact except for their heads, removed by looters. There are wall paintings in still-vibrant reds and black, and even the stump of a wooden pillar.

Mes Aynak is impressively large. Scattered in the hills around the ruined temple are dozens of areas where the archaeologists will do test digs. “Every mound is an archaeological site,” says Mr. Marquis. There was a civic and commercial area—I saw two places where Afghan workers were confidently clearing the dirt away from finely worked terra-cotta storage jars—and ancient mining remains. “The question is whether the mining drew the monastery, because of its wealth, or whether the monastery worked the mine,” Mr. Marquis explained. Areas where the ground is blackened are sites of ancient copper smelting and will be investigated thoroughly. (The mine was abandoned some time in the early Islamic period when deforestation made it impossible to continue smelting.)

At just over one square mile, Mes Aynak is one of the country’s largest Buddhist sites, equal in importance to the famous ruins in Bamiyan and the looted site of Hadda. Mr. Marquis says that it’s likely Mes Aynak was begun in the first century, but most of the ruins he showed me date from the fourth and fifth centuries. During that period, and for the next century or two, he says, it’s possible that Afghanistan was ruled by a theocratic Buddhist kingdom, “like Tibet.”

Must the site be destroyed? Mr. Marquis says the site survey now taking place is aimed at providing the Afghan government with the means to make an informed decision about Mes Aynak’s fate. “Our job is to help Afghans set up this operation. Our budget of $10 million will be spread over three years. The Chinese have an obligation for excavating, but not for restoration of the clay statues. We are asking the U.S., Italy, China and the U.N. for money—we are trying to create an international coalition like the one fighting in Afghanistan.”

Mr. Marquis is convinced of the significance of the site for our knowledge of the Buddhist world and argues that Mes Aynak, if properly excavated and preserved, could offer “a reward a hundred times bigger than the copper mine. The copper mine is for 20 or 30 years. But this will be around for much, much longer.”

The mine is supposed to bring about $880 million to the government before production, but the payments depend on contractual benchmarks that have not been met. The Afghan government didn’t accept the Chinese plans for waste storage—which is a good thing—but this will delay the series of payments. The $880 million is equal to the annual customs and tax revenue of Afghanistan, but given the realities of corruption, it is questionable what impact it will actually have on Afghans’ lives. By contrast, the ruins, Mr. Marquis says, “are for everybody. This is for the future of Afghanistan.”

The unequivocal good news is that the work is proceeding under the efficient Afghan supervision of Nadir Rasouli, with Afghans doing all of the excavation. Mr. Marquis is doing the documentation only. The Afghans I met, who are working under Mir Zakir, deputy director of the National Institute of Archaeology, were enthusiastic about their labor and eager to show me their finds. “They are very proud of their work,” Mr. Marquis says. “They are not working only for money. ”