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Taliban Took an Ax to Antiquities

Culture: More than 2,750 items in Afghan National Museum were destroyed in regime's war on art, experts say.


KABUL, Afghanistan — There was something sadistic about the way two Taliban government ministers and their shock troops destroyed many of Afghanistan's precious works of art. They did it with smiles on their faces.

They walked through the National Museum here in the capital last year, inspecting each object to determine which ones depicted living beings. And then they raised their axes and brought them down hard, smashing piece after piece of Afghan history into oblivion.

It was such a high priority that the Taliban minister of information and culture, Mullah Qudratullah Jamal, and the minister of finance, Aqajan Motaseb, led the wrecking crew, witnesses said.

Over three days, as the Taliban ministers walked from one artifact to another, an Afghan archeologist and a historian followed at a respectful distance, pleading for mercy as if begging for the lives of their own children.

The Taliban's war on Afghan art got world attention in March, when its soldiers blew up two enormous Buddhist statues sculpted from a cliff overlooking Bamian, the Hazaras' ethnic heartland.

But the destruction of the Bamian Buddhas--dating back to the 3rd and 5th centuries--was only the most widely publicized event in the Taliban's systematic campaign to destroy Afghanistan's cultural heritage, which went largely unnoticed in the rest of the world.

"I don't know why they changed and became the enemy of our ancient things," said Mir Abdul Rauf Zaker, an archeologist and director of the Institute of History at the Afghan Academy of Science.

"It was their own idea. I don't think they were trying to punish the outside world, though, because if a father faces a difficult condition, he never kills his own child."

Zaker and historian Yahya Mohebzadah had spent years trying to keep thousands of Afghan cultural treasures at the National Museum from ending up in the ruins of war.

One Buddhist statue was among the most precious. It was a clay image of a bodhisattva, a Buddhist who seeks complete enlightenment, made 1,600 years ago.

"Before, when we needed to move the bodhisattva, we were afraid it would break and didn't touch it," Mohebzadah said. "So it was difficult for me to see it being smashed with an ax.

"I was crying," he continued, and tears welled up in his eyes all over again. "One of the Taliban saw me, and I pretended that my hand was hurt, and that I was cold. They asked me if I was crying, and I said, 'No.' "

The Taliban found more than 2,750 items that were renderings of living things and therefore had be destroyed because, according to the regime's interpretation of Islam, they were idols that offended God.

Zaker, 50, and Mohebzadah, 38, were ordered to act as guides for the two Taliban ministers. The officials simply wanted a tour of the museum, they were told.

"But when they entered, they were like a hungry tiger looking for prey," Mohebzadah said. "The minister told us that if we tried to stop the destruction, they would break our heads with the same ax."

On the first day, the delegation arrived about 4:30 p.m. and spent about two hours in the museum, breaking objects with stones. The next day, they returned with axes. When Taliban soldiers from the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice joined in, they used sledgehammers, Mohebzadah said.

Destruction Amused Minister, Historian Says

It meant nothing to them that the Islamic world has produced some of the most beautiful art--including depictions of living beings--in the history of humankind, he said.

"The Taliban wanted to have a superior Islam in Afghanistan," Mohebzadah said.

The culture minister himself singled out the remains of a limestone statue of King Kanishka, whose realm around the 2nd century included present-day Afghanistan.

It was under Kanishka that Buddhism reached its peak in Central Asia, and during his reign, art and literature flourished. The National Museum's statue of Kanishka, dating from the time he ruled, was already missing the top half of his body on the day of the Taliban tour.

The only thing left that resembled a human form were his two feet. Mohebzadah and Zaker gently suggested to the minister that he need not destroy an ancient statue that was half ruined already.

The mullah raised his ax and pounded it to pieces, amused by his own work, Mohebzadah said.

Museum staff had managed to hide crates full of other museum pieces, but the Taliban found and destroyed them too. Mohebzadah and Zaker were able, however, to conceal a few statues, such as a delicate 7th century Buddhist male deity.

A tourist guide to the National Museum, printed by the Afghan government in 1974, is now Mohebzadah's pocket guide to all that has been lost. Most of the items listed in its glossy pages are gone, he said.

When the Taliban seized Kabul in the fall of 1996, ancient Afghan art was at first left alone. The Taliban concentrated instead on what it considered the pollution of Western culture and banned music, films and television.

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