“The pieces, and their enormous range, bear testament to the incredibly rich cultural history of Afghanistan.”
Hundreds of looted treasures have been returned to Afghanistan with the help of the British Museum and UK police and border forces.
The haul is just a fraction of what has been stolen from Afghanistan’s national museum and rich archeological sites in recent decades. Once a wealthy part of the ancient silk road, it was criss-crossed for centuries by traders and conquering armies who left buried traces of their presence.
“The pieces, and their enormous range, bear testament to the incredibly rich cultural history of Afghanistan,” said Colin Crokin, UK consul general in Afghanistan, at the handover ceremony for the 843 meticulously catalogued items. “In a sense, they are symbols of Afghanistan’s struggle for national unity and peace – scattered by the civil war, recovered, and now passed back to their own people for safekeeping.”
Some of the artefacts were recovered by British border forces and police, while others were found in private collections and bought back by donors.
Among the important recovered artefacts is a second-century schist Buddha, who now gazes down from a niche on the museum’s main stairwell, unmoved by a 20-year odyssey to other corners of Asia.
The statue was part of the museum’s collection, but disappeared in the early 1990s the building was on the frontline between warring factions who repeatedly raided its storerooms.
The Buddha ended up with a Japanese collector, who refused to return it and could not be legally compelled to do so even though it had been looted, the Guardian reported last year. But an anonymous British dealer passionate about Afghan history stepped in, spending hundreds of thousands of pounds of his own money to buy it for the impoverished museum instead. “It’s very important for us to get these artefacts back, because they are part of our cultural heritage and history, that was looted during three decades of war,” said Afghanistan’s deputy culture minister, Sayed Masaddeq Khalili. About 9,000 looted artefacts have been returned from different countries since 2001, he added. The museum’s director, Omara Khan Masoudi, highlighted the return of nearly 20 items that were featured in the museum’s pre-civil war catalogue, which also included an exquisitely carved set of ivory decorations to adorn wooden furniture.
“For me the artefacts which were already registered at the national museum – the ivory pieces, the Buddha statue, and also some bronze pieces which are very old and have really very beautiful designs – they are particularly important,” he said.
Masoudi began working at the museum in its pre-war heyday, and has spent most of his professional life there, bar a few months of Taliban rule in 2001.
He resigned in protest at the Taliban’s destruction of artefacts they deemed “unIslamic”, but rejoined as soon as they were ousted from power. He has since helped rebuild the museum from a ruined shell, but there is still some way to go.
After the handover ceremony, the delicate ivories were wrapped up in numbered foam boxes, and bronzes put away. The museum is raising funds for a new building and doesn’t yet have the right conditions to show them, so only the Buddha will remain on display.
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