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Will Afghanistan’s heritage marvels survive a resurgent Taliban?

The dramatic takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban within days of United States troops moving out has caught many unawares. This includes art lovers and international organisations connected with preservation of heritage. They watch and wait eagerly to see how Taliban treats archaeology, artefacts and art.

There is a widespread concern as to what will happen to the treasure trove of ancient heritage objects, artefacts and museums that house them, which till present have been reported to be safe.

Uncertainty looms large as heritage projects in the country run by the British Council have been suspended. In fact, their office is now closed.

An article in theartnewspaper.com quoting the British Council’s spokesperson stated that the organisation is presently concerned about the safety of its colleagues — former and present. She said: “For safety and security reasons, we are unable to comment further about the future status of our programmes and partnerships in Afghanistan at this time.”

The Council is running three 10-month projects in Afghanistan at the moment including a project by the Foundation for Culture & Civil Society which is restoring 30 paintings in the Afghan National Collection.

Other organisations too are watching the situation in the region. The International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas (ALIPH) observed that it is “too early to provide a comment” while Turquoise Mountain declined to say anything.

Turquoise Mountain had helped to transform Murad Khani in Kabul’s Old City. Here training has been imparted to more than 1,350 locals in traditional craft methods which will help in restoring the city.

Also read: Fate of Afghanistan’s ancient heritage hangs in balance as Taliban takes over

These global initiatives have made Afghanistan’s architectural and archaeological inventory grow and become better, according to Iconem’s Director of Development Bastien Varoutsikos. Iconem is an innovative start-up that specialises in the digitisation of endangered heritage sites.

Varoutsikos added: “We’re all waiting to see what the general position is going to be. Cultural heritage sites, practices, all will need support but at what cost? It’s an equation we’ll all have to solve before deciding what comes next.”

Those working in the field of culture and art haven’t forgotten Taliban’s earlier rule when heritage was systematically destroyed. The classic example is the blowing up of Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001 in central Afghanistan.

On this point Varoutsikos observed: “From a political standpoint, it’s unclear if the Taliban will engage in destruction of high value heritage landmarks considering the new narrative they’re attempting to build.”

Meanwhile, UNESCO has appealed to all sections to ensure that ancient relics are not looted or destroyed.

In what can be described as tragic, during the last rule under Taliban for 20 years, Afghanistan lost nearly half its cultural heritage. Following the Sharia which does not allow portrayal of icons, human beings and deities, the group demolished many priceless objects and statues.

Also read: Mexico commemorates Spanish conquest by building an Aztec temple in its Capital

The National Museum of Afghanistan in a statement on August 15 has said Taliban’s takeover has already set in motion looting. The Museum stated: “Unfortunately, today Kabul city has witnessed unprecedented chaos; using the opportunity looters and smugglers in different parts of Kabul have looted private and public properties. However, the museum staff, artefacts, and goods are safe yet, but continuation of this chaotic situation causes a huge concern about the safety of museum’s artefacts and goods.”

Seized of the situation, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) has said that the National Museum "issued a statement informing of the very real possibility of facing looters, so we are trying to bring attention to the ICOM Red List on Afghan Antiquities at Risk of illicit traffic and the artefacts it describes. Between 2007 and 2009 it helped British custom officers identify and send back to the National Museum 1,500 objects."

Concerned at growing uncertainty and insecurity, Afghanistan’s National Museum has urged all stakeholders, including security forces, the international community, the Taliban, and others to ensure artefacts are kept safe. It has exhorted them “to not let opportunists use this situation as cause for deterioration and the smuggling of objects and goods out of this institution.”

According to Varoutsikos: “There have been some discussions over the past few weeks to move collections to other countries but it’s unclear if any of this has happened. There is currently a vacuum at the institutional level which makes it difficult to plan for anything or even know exactly what is going on.”

Even while Taliban in February has said that it will “robustly protect, monitor and preserve” Afghanistan’s relics, due to their past record, few believe them.