Kabul Museum shines light on nation’s heritage

Visitors are visibly impressed by one of the ancient relics on display in Kabul Museum on Saturday. (AN photo by Sayed Salahuddin)
Updated 17 July 2019

Kabul Museum shines light on nation’s heritage

  • The damaged museum bears hallmarks of country’s four decades of conflict

KABUL: An Afghan museum looted and bombed during decades of conflict is battling on to shine a light on the country’s rich cultural heritage. Despite losing over 70 percent of its once vast collection of more than 100,000 artifacts, the Kabul Museum continues to proudly display its surviving treasures of the past and change negative perceptions of the country on a global stage.
Hundreds of items are currently on display and an exhibition has been touring the world since 2006.
But many first-time visitors to the museum, located on the Afghan capital’s southern fringes, are shocked at discovering how much remains on show.
Although lacking some of the state-of-the-art exhibition spaces found in many big-city museums, Kabul’s displays can still impress.
Students on a trip to the museum were at first skeptical, but quickly realized the wealth of history unfolding before their eyes. The youths were born and raised during the latest chapter of the war-torn country which for some of them began with the US-led ousting of the ruling Taliban in 2001.
They hardly knew how rich the museum was before it became a victim of the ferocious civil war in the 1990s that razed various neighborhoods in the capital to the ground and led to the looting and destruction of a large proportion of the museum’s treasures.
But they were quickly mesmerized by a massive Islamic-era stone bowl with delicate Arabic calligraphy, the torso and heads of Buddha sculptures, and a large, Afghan-made, 18th century leather gunpowder-measuring container. These were just some of the items highlighting the history of Afghanistan with its various civilizations and faiths.
“I came to know what sort of rich culture and civilization we have had here (in Afghanistan). I did not know about this before my visit,” student Mohammad Ehsan, 17, told Arab News.
His classmate, Aminullah, said that on arrival it “did not seem like a proper museum” but then admitted, “I am happy we came, saw and learnt about our rich culture and history. It is important what we have it (the Kabul Museum) and we learnt through our visit what a shining history we have,” he said.

HIGHLIGHT

Despite decades of war and losing over 70 percent of collection Kabul exhibition continues to change world perceptions.

Unfortunately, the image of Afghanistan seen by many foreigners is one of a country ravaged by conflict. However, museum officials are trying to change perceptions. They point to relics dating back to prehistoric times and those from ancient civilizations and empires that have ruled the country or tried to conquer it. Excavations have uncovered ivories from India, mirrors from China, and glassware from the Roman Empire as well as stucco heads and hordes of coins.
Now, the museum bears all of the hallmarks of Afghanistan’s past four decades of conflict. It was on the frontline of warring sides in the 1990s when many of its relics were stolen, smuggled abroad or sold by mafia gangs to foreign countries. Part of the museum building and some of its exhibits were badly damaged in an air strike and by shelling.
And despite the large amount of foreign aid that has poured into the country since the Taliban’s ouster, the museum still has no ventilation, temperature controls to protect displays, or proper security.
During their last year in power, the Taliban blew up ancient Buddha statues in Bamiyan, and began vandalizing hundreds of museum statues which had survived plunder and destruction before the group swept to power in 1996. One of the most famous surviving pieces currently in Kabul Museum is the Rabatak inscription of King Kanishka.
Mohammad Yahya Mohebzada, deputy head of Kabul Museum, told Arab News that prior to the Afghan civil war, museum staff had suggested moving the precious Tilla Tepe gold and jewelry collection along with other valuable items to a safe area in the presidential palace for protection.
These collections and relics from Begram, Ai-Khanoum, and Tepe Fullol, have been on travelling exhibition since 2006 in France, the US, Japan, Canada, Germany and Britain among other countries.
“The exhibition means a lot for us. It is proof to the outside world that Afghanistan was home to various civilizations, that we have a long history and these relics are our cultural heritage,” said Mohebzada, who has worked in the museum for 35 years.
“It helps to change perceptions overseas of Afghanistan having no culture or history and having nothing but war. We can also generate money for the museum through the exhibitions, but their spiritual importance is of more value for us.”
Japan and Britain are among a number of countries that have repatriated scores of Afghan relics smuggled abroad. Foreign experts are also putting together some of the pieces of Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban. There are now 720 items on display at Kabul Museum and although some are damaged, they represent the historical resilience of the country.


Filipino expats unite as home country battles volcano’s wrath

Updated 43 min 16 sec ago

Filipino expats unite as home country battles volcano’s wrath

  • Filipino groups in Dubai are coming together to collect goods for donation for the Taal eruption victims
  • The Philippines remained on high alert on Friday as authorities monitored Taal, which is the second most active volcano in the country

DUBAI: A vast grey stretched across empty villages – once verdant, now lifeless after volcanic ash wiped its colors. The thick charcoal-like substance cloaked cracked roads, tumbled trees, and dilapidated houses, as an angry volcano rumbled in the Philippines.

Tens of thousands of people were displaced earlier this week when Taal Volcano, a picturesque tourist spot about 70 kilometers south of Manila, spew huge plume of volcanic ash to the sky and triggered sporadic tremors around the province.

“When can we go back to our homes?” a hopeful man asked Filipino volunteer Jaya Bernardo, as she visited an evacuation site near where the Taal Volcano erupted on Sunday.

She couldn’t answer him straight, Bernardo said, because that meant telling him there might not be anything to go back to.

Bernardo, who lives in a mildly-hit town around Taal, has been going around evacuation centers to give out care packages, saying it’s “important for people to come together” in times like this.

Within hours of the volcanic eruption, the call for help reached the UAE, home to about a million Filipino expats. Many community groups have been organizing donation drives to collect goods to be sent back home.

Lance Japor, who leads a community group in Dubai, said inquiries were coming in about how to help volcano victims even before a campaign was announced.

“What I’ve noticed is that the desire to help others in need is innate to us,” he told Arab News, adding it was not the first time Filipino expats showed urgent concern and care for their countrymen when a calamity hit the Philippines.

There was a strong response for families displaced from a city in the south of the country after armed rebels captured the area. A community group from Dubai flew to the restive city to hand out gifts to families who had taken refuge in an abandoned building.

Japor’s volcano campaign has attracted the help of private companies such as hotels donating blankets and pillows, and cargo companies pledging to deliver the packages for free to the Philippines.

Filipino expats have also expressed a desire to volunteer, Japor added, and a volunteer event has been scheduled for Jan. 18 at the Philippines’ Overseas Workers Welfare Administration’s office in Dubai.

Groups in the UAE are working with organizations in the Philippines to facilitate the donations and determine what the affected communities need. The list includes special face masks and eye drops, said Japor.

The Philippines remained on high alert on Friday as authorities monitored Taal, which is the second most active volcano in the country.

Volcanic ash has blanketed the area and villages lie empty, with authorities warning of a “bigger eruption” as earthquakes were still being felt around the area. 

The region was at alert level four from the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, meaning that “hazardous explosive eruption is possible within hours to days.” The highest alert level is five.

The institute strongly reiterated total evacuation of Taal Volcano Island and high-risk areas as identified in hazard maps.

“Residents around Taal Volcano are advised to guard against the effects of heavy and prolonged ashfall. Civil aviation authorities must advise pilots to avoid the airspace around Taal Volcano as airborne ash and ballistic fragments from the eruption column pose hazards to aircraft,” it added.

Police in the area have also warned residents against trying to go back to their houses without official clearance from authorities, but local media reports said people were sneaking back by boat to the island and nearby towns to check on their possessions.