Taliban could hunt Afghanistan’s most famous treasure

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This golden crown was found in a tomb at the Tillya Tepe site, dating from the first century in Afghanistan. The crown is just one of the many artifacts that are part of Bactria’s treasure. (Image credit: Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images)

With the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the country’s archaeological remains face a grim future, even if the extremist Islamic group decides not to loot or intentionally destroy them.

Some reports suggest that the Taliban are already looking for one of the country’s most famous caches; the so-called “Bactrian treasure” is a collection of over 20,000 artefacts, many of them gold, which were found in 2,000 year old tombs at a site called Tillya Tepe in 1978. The treasure has been preserved at the National Museum of Afghanistan and was on display at the Presidential Palace, but reports indicate its current location is unknown.

Other archaeological remains that could be threatened by the Taliban include Mes Aynak, a Buddhist town that flourished around 1,600 years ago. The city was located along the iconic Silk Road and was used for both commerce and worship; many ancient Buddhist monasteries and other ancient Buddhist artifacts are buried there.

Related: Photos: Former Buddhist monastery at Mes Aynak

When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, they destroyed many of these Buddhist artifacts, including two massive 6th century statues known as the “Bamiyan Buddhas” that were carved into a cliff there. -low. The extremist group used rockets, tank projectiles and dynamite to take down the towering statues, according to news reports.

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The two giant Buddhas carved into a cliff at Mes Aynak were destroyed by the Taliban in Bamiyan on March 12, 2002, as they were deemed offensive to Islam.  At 175 feet (53 meters) and 120 feet (36 m), respectively, the statues were the tallest standing Buddhas in the world.

The two giant Buddhas carved into a cliff at Mes Aynak were destroyed by the Taliban in Bamiyan on March 12, 2002, as they were deemed offensive to Islam. At 175 feet (53 meters) and 120 feet (36 m), respectively, the statues were the tallest standing Buddhas in the world. (Image credit: CNN via Getty Images)
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An Afghan walks near the world's tallest standing Buddha statue in Afghanistan's Bamiyan province on December 7, 1997, years before the statue was destroyed by the Taliban in 2002.

An Afghan walks near the world’s tallest standing Buddha statue in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan province on December 7, 1997, years before the statue was destroyed by the Taliban in 2002. (Image credit: JEAN-CLAUDE CHAPON / AFP via Getty Images)
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The Bamiyan Valley can be seen here with the Buddha Colossus in the background, highlighting the statue's immense size.

The Bamiyan Valley can be seen here with the Buddha Colossus in the background, highlighting the statue’s immense size. (Image credit: Paul Almasy / Corbis / VCG via Getty Images)

The future of Mes Aynak looks particularly bleak as sources told Live Science that all equipment used for excavation and conservation at the site is gone; and the Taliban visited the site for unknown purposes.

“The situation of cultural heritage is not satisfactory, because at the moment no one is looking after the sites and monuments,” said Khair Muhammad Khairzada, an Afghan archaeologist who led the excavations in My Aynak. “All archaeological sites in Afghanistan are [at] risk, ”Khairzada said, noting that there is“ no follow-up, no treatment and no care, all departments in all provinces [are] closed, without money and other facilities “which are necessary to” take care [of] sites and monuments. Recently, Khairzada was forced to flee to France to escape the Taliban.

Khairzada said all the equipment they had used for excavation and conservation at Mes Aynak was “gone”. China holds mining rights in neighboring areas and even before the Taliban took control, archaeologists feared parts of the site would be destroyed if it was turned into a mine. After the Taliban took Kabul, they said they would seek economic support from China, but it is not clear whether China intends to build a mine in the area.

Related: $ 1 trillion treasure trove of rare minerals revealed beneath Afghanistan

Julio Bendezu-Sarmiento, who was director of the French archaeological delegation in Afghanistan, said he learned that the Taliban had visited Mes Aynak but did not know why. “It is difficult to say what the immediate objectives of this visit are,” said Bendezu-Sarmiento. It was planned to hold an exhibit of artifacts from Mes Aynak and other Afghan sites in France in 2022, but the Taliban captured Kabul before the artifacts could be transported.

So far, there have been no reports of the Taliban’s intentional destruction of artifacts, and Taliban leaders have issued statements saying they will protect archaeological sites; However, it is unclear whether the Taliban will actually keep their promises.

The Bamiyan Valley can be seen here with the Buddha Colossus in the background, highlighting the statue’s immense size. (Image credit: Paul Almasy / Corbis / VCG via Getty Images)

Satellite imagery

With his team, Gil Stein, a professor at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago who heads the Afghan Heritage Mapping Partnership, used satellite imagery to map and monitor thousands of archaeological sites in Afghanistan. Stein estimates that they have mapped the location of around 25,000 archaeological sites in Afghanistan so far. Looting has been a long-standing problem in Afghanistan, but Stein said so far he had found no evidence that the Taliban had supported him.

While the Taliban recently took control of Kabul and parts of northern Afghanistan, they have controlled parts of southern Afghanistan for several years. The southern areas that the Taliban have controlled for years do not have the large-scale looting that has been seen in the territories controlled by the Islamic State group (ISIS or ISIL) in Syria and Iraq, Stein told Live Science .

The Buddhist town of Mes Aynak dates back around 1600 years. Sources tell Live Science that archaeological and conservation equipment at Mes Aynak is missing and that the Taliban visited the site for reasons that are unclear. (Image credit: CPA Media Pte Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo)

“Basically, the Taliban did not sponsor looting as a source of income like [ISIL] was doing, ”Stein said. However, the team found numerous cases in southern Afghanistan where agricultural fields, which often cultivate opium, were built on archaeological sites. huge sums of money coming from the opium trade, ”said Stein.

The northern regions of Afghanistan, over which the Taliban have only recently taken control, contain many more archaeological sites than the southern regions. After examining recent satellite images of northern Afghanistan, Stein’s team found “battle-related damage” but no new cases of large-scale looting.

Only time will tell if the Taliban will refrain from looting or destroying archaeological sites, he said. In an encouraging event, the Taliban stationed guards outside the National Museum of Afghanistan, Stein said, noting that during the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, there were no guards stationed. outside the Baghdad Museum where looting took place during the chaos.

Even though Taliban leaders in Kabul have decided to protect the archaeological remains, there is no guarantee that Taliban groups in other parts of Afghanistan will follow these orders, Stein said.

In addition, many heritage professionals who are still in Afghanistan fear for their lives. “I know that the people involved in heritage preservation are very, very, very worried because no one knows what’s going to happen, and if you go by what the Taliban has done in the past, you would have great good reasons to be extremely afraid [for both their lives and Afghanistan’s heritage]. “

Keeping in touch with people outside of Afghanistan is perilous for heritage professionals in the country, said Stein; he heard cases of the Taliban arresting people on the streets and searching their cell phones to see if there were any strangers in their contacts. In August, the Taliban killed an Afghan folk singer, but so far there have been no recent reports of archaeologists being killed by the Taliban. Some heritage professionals had hoped to leave Afghanistan, Stein said, but couldn’t get out until the Americans pulled out of Kabul airport in late August.

Over the past two decades, some artifacts looted or stolen in Afghanistan have been found in the United States and repatriated to Afghanistan. As far as Stein is aware, the artifacts that were repatriated are still in the National Museum of Afghanistan, he said.

Live Science contacted United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE] ask what their policy would be in future cases where stolen Afghan artifacts were found in the United States. They did not respond at the time of posting.

Originally posted on Live Science.


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