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Mission to recover lost legacy in Kabul museum

The Kabul Museum once held the world’s finest collection of treasures and artifacts from Central Asia. But, after years of civil war and Taliban rule,  the museum is down on its heels. NBC News' Kiko Itasaka reports on one man's mission to restore the museum to its former glory, piece by piece.
Shairazuddin Saifi, Director of the Kabul Museum restoration department, works on an antique horse.
Shairazuddin Saifi, Director of the Kabul Museum restoration department, works on an antique horse.NBC News
/ Source: NBC News

The Kabul Museum has been closed for some time, but the museum is on the road to recovery. It now has a roof, electricity, running water, and some precious works of art.

The museum’s director, Omara Khan Masoudi, who has worked at the museum for more than 25 years, knows it will never be restored to its former glory, but hopes for the best.

“We lost so much in the past twenty years. Some of it -– well, really most of it -– is gone forever,” said Masoudi.

The museum, once home to one of the world’s finest collections of treasures and artifacts from Central Asia, is a symbol of the ravages inflicted on Afghanistan in the past twenty years.

The mission to restore the museum to its previous glory is the life work of Shairazuddin Saifi, 40, who spends his waking hours painstakingly restoring what little is left.

Saifi is director of the restoration department, which consists of one dusty room where he works alone.

Saifi’s training as a restorer consisted of two months in India and 20 days in Japan. What he may lack in professional training, he makes up for with his passion for the sculptures he calls “my patients.”

Kiko Itasaka

“I do this not just for Afghanistan, but for the world,” he said. With primitive tools under difficult conditions, Saifi attempts to undo the years of damage inflicted by civil war and the Taliban damage.

Difficult past
The museum is in the heart of west Kabul, an area that was on the front line during Afghanistan’s civil war. The museum was bombed in 1993 destroying much of the building and a good part of the collection.

After that the looting began. Thieves walked away with over 70 percent of the museums’ treasures.

Experts note the looting was not random. The art thieves were sophisticated in their choices, walking off with many of the museums’ most valuable works. Some of the booty has ended up in private collections in Islamabad, New York and Tokyo.

What was left, was then attacked by the Taliban. In March of 2001 the Taliban declared that all pre-Islamic statues were an offence to Islam, and ordered their destruction.

In addition to the notorious destruction of the 5th-century giant Buddhas in Bamiyan, they laid waste to the Kabul museum.

The Taliban destroyed over 2,000 sculptures, leaving centuries of cultural heritage in fragments.

The museum director Masoudi said, “I had to take one year off from work then. It was too much to bear.”

Finally, a chance to rebuild
Saifi worked in the museum under the Taliban regime, hoping that some day he could retrieve fragments of destroyed pieces and perhaps rebuild some of the statues.

Most photographs of the museums’ pieces were destroyed, and much of Saifi’s work is done from memory combined with educated guesses.

He prays for funding so that he can work under better conditions with more than a plastic bucket and a few paintbrushes. His current projects include an 18th-century wooden horse, and a Buddha from the second century.

Saifi said he is not alone in his devotion to the museum. “Some of my colleagues risked their lives, putting precious works in crates and hiding them from the Taliban,” he explained.

“They did everything they could to mislead people trying to find the museum’s hoard, and would say things were not valuable, when they were really the finest pieces.”

Amazing discovery
Those brave acts finally paid off when the museum recently received some good news.

A small portion of the museum's treasures were recently rediscovered in a bank vault located under the presidential palace in Kabul.

The pieces, known as the Bactrin gold -- over 20,000 pieces of gold jewelry and ornaments over 2,000 years old -– were hidden by museum staff and sympathetic bank workers.

The gold stash, along with a few other precious museum pieces, was recently inventoried, but remains locked up. It is still considered too risky to return the treasures to the museum.

Masoudi, the museum director, said he needs display cases and round-the-clock security before he can unveil any exhibitions of the Bactrian gold or other restored works.

He is philosophic about the losses of his museum. Of the ravages inflicted by the Taliban he simply said, “It was a very sad time. Very sad,” and optimistically predicts the museum will reopen in a year. “In shallah” he said. “God willing.”

Saifi is more ambitious. “I want the museum to be as magnificent as it was before the wars. That is my goal.”