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Afghan Art, Artifacts Also Fall Victim

Civil war: Years of battle have devastated museums, monuments. Priceless relics may be lost forever.

November 11, 1996|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KABUL, Afghanistan — Its present shattered, its future badly compromised, this nation on the hinge of Central and South Asia has been plundered of a goodly share of its past as well by the continuing civil war.

"We Afghan people are very proud of our history. But now we are cut off from it," reflected Amir S. Hassanyar, chancellor of Kabul University, sadly mulling over the cultural cost of 17 years of fighting.

For not only has the ongoing Afghan conflict killed about 1 million people and devastated the lives and livelihoods of millions more--it has also ravaged the architectural and artistic heritage of a land that uniquely fused influences from East and West: Greek and Buddhist, Persian and Mongol, Islamic and Hindu.

"We used to come here for picnics," Rafiullah, a 23-year-old Kabul resident now without a job, said as he gazed at the near-desert that used to be the centuries-old Babur's Garden, long a favorite relaxation spot for residents here. "Now there is nothing left."

In the past 4 1/2 years, as moujahedeen factions shot it out for control of the capital, the National Museum of Afghanistan, a peerless trove of relics from Afghanistan's successive waves of civilization, had two-thirds of its collection pillaged or destroyed.

The building that had housed the museum since 1931 is a roofless, bombed-out wreck, and the staff, leery of the future, has hidden most of what remains of the collection in basements around Kabul.

The city's celebrated Bala Hissar, a stone-walled citadel begun in the 5th century that towers 150 feet above the dun-colored plain, has always been the focal point of Kabul's tumultuous, often violent history. It bears the scars of many battles, the latest inflicted during fighting between forces loyal to former Communist Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, who occupied the high ground, and Ahmed Shah Masoud, defense chief of Afghanistan's now-ousted government.

Several buildings inside the citadel have now been destroyed, but it isn't possible to examine the damage. Bala Hissar has been closed to visitors by soldiers of the Taliban militia, the Islamic fundamentalists who are Kabul's new masters.

Many other Kabul landmarks were destroyed or badly damaged in the civil war, including the mausoleum of King Nadir Shah, who reigned from 1929 until his assassination four years later. The blue-domed building commands a breathtaking vista of Kabul.

The cupolaed tomb was badly battered by artillery shells. Its dome was punctured and much of its marble facing ripped off and smashed. These days, turbaned Taliban fighters with a heavy machine gun and stocks of rocket-propelled grenades guard the site, and visitors are few.

Babur's Garden, the hillside park that contains the canopied marble tomb of Babur, the founder of the Mogul Empire that came to hold most of India under its sway, has had its spreading plane trees and willows denuded or cut down by people desperate for firewood.

The site was a battle zone for three years, and shrapnel bursts and automatic weapons fire have pockmarked the 7-foot-high carved tombstone of the monarch who wrote to his son before his death in 1530 in India: "I have a longing beyond expression to return to Kabul. How can its delights ever be erased from my heart?"

Goats now forage for the few remaining tufts of brown grass on what used to be the garden's grassy meadows and flower beds.

Crisscrossed by trade caravans virtually since the dawn of human history, traversed by conquerors including Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, Afghanistan for centuries has been a meeting ground and fusion point for many civilizations. The National Museum was the country's showcase for the astonishing results of such diverse influences, occupying a building that a former king intended as the municipal hall of a new capital, Darulaman, that he built in southern Kabul earlier this century.

After the collapse of the Communist government in April 1992 and the capture of Kabul by Islamic fighters, Darulaman rapidly became a battle zone as the victors began fighting each other. For the museum, the result was unmitigated disaster. It burned twice, and it was repeatedly ransacked.

Of its more than 100,000 pieces, only about 35,000 remain, according to Naijibullah Popal, the museum's deputy chairman.

Among the valuable items stolen was a bas relief, hewn from schist in the form of a rounded tombstone, that showed a standing Buddha with five lotus flowers over his head and a worshiper prostrate at his feet. The work, called the Dipankara Jataka, dated from the 2nd to 5th centuries, when Buddhism was prevalent in much of what is now Afghanistan.

As Afghanistan's civil war raged, entrepreneurs launched unauthorized digs in other parts of the country--including the fabled ancient trading city of Balkh and Bagram, an archeological site north of Kabul--in a hunt for antiquities to sell abroad.

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