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Piece by piece, Afghanistan reclaims its history

A dedicated group is gathering up Afghanistan's past, hoping that a growing museum collection will show the world Afghan culture is more sophisticated than the tide of news reports suggest.
Image: Repaired Sculptures Exhibited In Kabul
An Afghan woman looks at an ancient sculpture on display in the Kabul Museum. Sculptures that had been destroyed by Islamists during the Taliban regime were repaired after the collapse of the hardliners in 2001. Portions of the collection have been exhibited in seven countries.Majid Saeedi / Getty Images AsiaPac
/ Source: Reuters

While everyone else is worrying about Afghanistan's future, a dedicated band of men and women is gathering up its past, hoping that a growing museum collection will show the world Afghan culture is more sophisticated than the tide of news reports suggest.

Kabul's rebuilt National Museum, near the haunting remains the bombed-out royal palace, is running out of secure rooms to house centuries-old Buddhas, gold and silver coins from antiquity and other rare artifacts.

Many of the museum's original pieces were broken, destroyed or stolen during the Taliban era or the civil war that preceded it in the 1990s, but some have been pieced back together and a series of archeological digs have also unearthed new treasures.

Among the fresh discoveries are a wooden Buddha dating back to the fifth century and Buddha heads made of clay and plaster.

They are helping a whole nation slowly rediscover a classical past as a confluence of cultures from India to China and from Iran and central Asia to the East.

A growing collection
"Each week there is a new find. Most museums in the world are static, but this one is growing," said Anne Feenstra, a Dutch architect involved in restoring the museum which itself was heavily damaged in the civil war.

A statue of the Buddha sitting cross-legged is placed in a glass box up a flight of stairs in the museum building, while the headless figure of Kushan king Kanishka, restored after it was destroyed by the Taliban, adorns another corner.

Some walls have pictures of treasures lost during the civil war or to the Taliban, who famously showed their contempt for Afghanistan's pre-Islamic heritage by blowing up two giant, centuries-old Buddha statues carved into a hillside in Bamiyan.

A group of high school girls in head-scarves listen in a hallway as a teacher explains the country's Buddhist past, part of the museum's drive to build awareness in a generation that has seen too much conflict and extremism.

"Afghanistan is an amalgamation of cultures of the region," Information and Culture Minister Sayed Makhdoom Raheen told a conference in Kabul this month where he appealed for help to preserve the nation's heritage.

After 30 years of war, Afghanistan is often portrayed as simply a land of warring tribes, defined by a battle against outside powers. Reconnecting with its past reminds Afghans they have a more complex and sophisticated culture.

If Afghanistan can preserve its monuments, it can show its own people and the world that as a key part of the ancient silk route it was once a crossroads of Asia, a creative melting pot with a cosmopolitan spirit, Raheen said.

"We have seen massive destruction and decay, but many relics still exist," he said. "They must be saved from annihilation."

Museum reborn?
The national museum, on the edge of the capital, barely survived after it become the front lines of the fighting that gripped Kabul during 1992-94.

As warlords battled for control of the city, fighters pillaged the national museum, selling the choicest artifacts on the black market and using museum records to light camp-fires.

In 1994 the building was shelled, destroying its roof and top floor. The final assault came in 2001, when the Taliban decided all images must be smashed and installed a group charged with this task that demolished about 2,500 works of art.

Some of the collection of Hellenistic sculptures, gold jewelry worn by nomads and ancient manuscripts did survive the war, stashed away in the underground vaults of the central bank just before the Taliban seized power.

These are so valuable that they can't be exhibited in the antiquated museum. Instead, they have been touring the world, drawing crowds from San Francisco to London and Bonn.

The United States this year committed $5 million to building a new museum with state-of-the-art security systems and climate control features next to the old one, so that the Hidden Treasures exhibition can finally return home.

"Restoring such artifacts is essential to both Afghan identity, and the identity of our collective human experience," said Rahim B. Kanani, a U.S.-based columnist who has written extensively on Afghanistan.