New Threats to Heritage in the Taliban’s Afghanistan

As the international community turns its back — and funds — away from Kabul, it leaves priceless historical sites in the lurch

New Threats to Heritage in the Taliban’s Afghanistan
The No-Gonbad Mosque, also known as the Mosque of Nine Cupolas, the Khoja Piada and the Masjid-e Haji Piyada, in Afghanistan’s Balkh, is thought to be the country’s oldest Islamic monument. (Eye Ubiquitous/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

In Ghor province, in the west of Afghanistan, the 12th-century Minaret of Jam is tilting noticeably to the side. Each earthquake, heavy snowfall or flooding of the nearby Harirud River brings with it the risk of the 200-foot spire’s collapse. In Balkh, in the north, restoration work on the historic Haji Piyada Mosque has been on hold since the fighting that preceded the Taliban’s takeover in 2021. This mosque, the oldest in Central Asia, is now unprotected and vulnerable to looting, despite a series of internationally funded protective measures undertaken throughout the 2010s.

“Cultural heritage is our national priority,” said the Taliban’s deputy minister of culture and arts, Mawlawi Atiqullah Azizi, speaking to New Lines through an interpreter in an interview over the summer. “It is top of our mind to take care of our historic monuments, our cultural preservation. This is our responsibility. This is our obligation.”

Azizi’s policy is a clear about-face from the attitudes of the first Taliban government, which spectacularly destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas in the 2000s. But this doesn’t mean the heritage is safe — far from it. The threats under this new regime stem instead from a complex mix of economic hardship and practical feasibility, on top of the ruling government’s lack of conservation expertise, whatever its professed commitments.

The Bamiyan Valley, for example, is littered with artifacts from its past as a site of strategic importance. There are reports of the government taking steps to stem the looting happening here, as well as reports that it has turned a blind eye to illegal logging and trading activities, which have involved setting up petrol stations on the archaeologically rich ground. In a double-edged development, the Taliban have clearly realized the economic potential of cultural heritage. This past summer, construction started on a pastiched bazaar and caravanserai-cum-hotel complex in the valley, again building on ground that is yet to be fully excavated.

Perhaps most significantly, last January the Ministry of Information and Culture and Kabul Municipality submitted an application for the Bagh-e Babur Gardens to be inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list — a change in status that would mean possible financial assistance from the U.N. organization and a potentially big step for a country with only two World Heritage sites so far. (By contrast, the U.K. has 33, France 41 and India 40.) Bagh-e Babur are early 16th-century Mughal gardens in the center of Kabul. The application was made on the grounds of their being among the earliest and most important Mughal landscapes in the region, as well as their cultural and social significance for the millions of Afghans who have visited the site since its restoration in 2008.

Yet the response (or lack thereof) by UNESCO has highlighted the difficulties that any effort to preserve cultural heritage currently faces in Afghanistan. Initial hopes that the Taliban would govern differently now than in the past have quickly faded. The group recently declared it would institute Sharia-based punishments for crimes including robbery, kidnapping and sedition, bringing back fears of a return to public executions. Women are now banned from public secondary schools, parks, some workplaces and certain subjects at university. There has been cruel retribution for those who fought against the Taliban in the country’s decades-long civil war. Cultural heritage, it seems, is the one area in which the idea of a “softer” Taliban still endures, though it weighs lightly in the balance against these other crimes.

Accordingly, cultural heritage has become something of a political football. A recent conference, Cultural Heritage in Fragile Contexts, raised hopes that UNESCO might begin projects again in Afghanistan, starting with those in the Bamiyan Valley. This would be a welcome change from an incident that angered Taliban officials earlier in the year, when the Afghan Ministry of Culture learned that their Bagh-e Babur application had not been acknowledged by the World Heritage center — which is to say it was neither rejected nor accepted by UNESCO. (This was confirmed to New Lines by three people with direct knowledge of the matter. UNESCO said it never comments on or confirms the nomination of sites for World Heritage listing before they are examined by the World Heritage Committee.) As an agency of the U.N., UNESCO is not in a position to officially recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. But UNESCO has contravened U.N. guidance before, as in 2011, when it accepted Palestine as a member.

The reaction was taken as a snub in Kabul, with Taliban officials publicly calling on UNESCO on multiple occasions to process the application, in briefings given to the state news agency Bakhtar News. In my own interview with Azizi, he was clear-eyed, if critical, about the Taliban’s international position.

“We still see some issues from many from the international community, where some organizations … are now connecting cultural activities to political ones,” said Azizi. “On the one hand, they say OK, this thing has to be protected, cultural preservation is important. From another side, no action is coming. They just refrain, they just retreat, and do not participate in providing financial support, which is a big concern. We are really keen to produce cultural preservation as well and will further continue this policy based on its capabilities and possibilities.”

UNESCO’s change of policy would also lead the way for other operators in the country. Donations for cultural foundations that work in Afghanistan ceased almost immediately in August 2021, as governments and private donors backed away from the new extremist government. The French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan (DAFA), one of the oldest and most active institutions, stopped projects altogether, in line with French government policy to provide only emergency humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. The aid agencies that are currently operating do so under the radar or with reduced capacity, such as Turquoise Mountain, the Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage (ARCH) and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC). The International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas (ALIPH) is one of the few to continue funding at scale. Many organizations have had to look for other sources of grants, and have relied on smaller amounts than those previously provided through governments. One problem has simply been of oversight: NGO actors cannot get enough access to make sure the money is going in the right places.

According to Azizi, the Taliban will remain committed to cultural heritage, despite the government’s budgetary shortfall, even claiming the government would allocate between 1% and 2% of GDP to a cultural heritage fund if foreign donations fully dry up. (To put this in context, the National Endowment of the Arts, with which such a fund might be roughly equivalent, gets 0.012% of U.S. GDP, according to 2020 figures. Whether the Taliban has any intention of fulfilling such a pledge remains to be seen.)

Many in the international community question the sincerity of the government’s intentions. For the Taliban, an overwhelming lesson from the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas was that the West cares about cultural heritage. Perhaps its new rhetoric is simply a calculated bid to win international legitimacy — akin, on a smaller scale, to the wider debate about unfreezing the country’s foreign exchange reserves — or to restart funding from NGOs. It may also be a form of so-called “artwashing,” a strategy among — or at least an allegation against — several states seeking to soften their image abroad. Saudi Arabia’s massive investment in art and culture, for instance, is often viewed as a means to deflect attention from its human rights abuses and make the country more amenable to investment and white-collar foreign labor. Yet artwashing, when undertaken on a governmental level, requires a strong central state and the resources to begin large-scale, internationally remarkable projects. Even if the Taliban did hope to use cultural heritage to detract from their human rights abuses, it is unclear how they could implement the policy. The money isn’t there, and the chain of command from Kabul downward is fractured.

In the cultural heritage arena, this means a federal priority might not translate to policy in reality, as the example of the Bamiyan Valley shows. Again, though Azizi claims there is a federal injunction against looting, other sources suggest tacit local approval of the logging and trading that are damaging in other ways. There is also the worry that the Taliban are already losing their grip on power, amid a growing threat that cultural destruction will come from the Islamic State group’s Afghanistan affiliate, ISIS-K, which has already taken credit for destroying a number of shrines in Afghanistan, most of them in out-of-the-way areas and belonging to the Shia and Sufi minorities.

It is also unclear how much the Taliban — most of whom grew up fighting in the country’s wars — are capable of in terms of governance, particularly as most people who worked on cultural heritage have fled the country. In the matter of Bagh-e Babur, there are valid questions as to how the Taliban could meet the maintenance criteria of World Heritage status, if the application were successful. Similarly, the extensive ancient Buddhist city of Mes Aynak has long been a major concern for preservationists and developers, as it sits upon copper reserves with an estimated value of between $80 billion and $100 billion. The Afghan government has met with MCC China, the consortium that won the contract to mine the ore in 2007, in order to argue for more protection of the Buddhist relics, according to Bakhtar News. But Cheryl Benard, president of ARCH, says the Taliban simply don’t have the expertise to hold the mining company to the necessary standards or to oversee their work.

“MCC still has not issued an Environmental Impact Plan. This is a very important obligation and prerequisite for responsible mining,” says Benard. “Even if the Taliban wanted to preserve what’s underground, they have no experience in managing and overseeing complex mining projects and no knowledge of the modern mining technologies that would make such an outcome possible.”

Who does cultural heritage belong to? The context is weaponized in Afghanistan, as elsewhere, and there can be tensions between international relevance — “world heritage” — and local importance. This is in part what makes Bagh-e Babur such a fascinating application for World Heritage status, versus the other Afghan sites that have been periodically floated for inclusion. As public gardens, they benefit the local people by providing employment and giving visitors an open space in which to convene. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which restored the Bagh-e Babur gardens in the 2000s and is understood to have been consulted for the UNESCO application, has long stood out amongst the cultural aid groups in Afghanistan for its connection to the local people, says Dr. Naysan Adlparvar, who researches Afghan nation-building. He notes that AKTC works on issues that are often relevant to everyday Afghans — such as the gardens — in a historically complex field.

“In terms of where international donors put their money, cultural heritage is a secondary or even tertiary concern,” he says. “But it’s one of the most interesting, because it’s so closely tied to national identity. [International] donors often want to fund the kind of projects that say something about Afghanistan — to show that Afghanistan is not only this Islamic nation but has this history of Buddhism. Or perhaps they place an emphasis on Hellenic history, which they’re interested in because it reminds them of Europe. So they focus on that rather than on Islamic heritage.”

As Adlparvar suggests, the type of heritage preserved in Afghanistan is itself contentious, with a growing body of research showing that the country’s Islamic history was routinely suppressed over the past century. Starting in the 1930s, as academics such as Nile Green and others have argued, European archaeologists as well as the Afghan elite began emphasizing the pre-Islamic history of Afghanistan. French archaeologists, via DAFA, and other visiting European archaeologists primarily excavated pre-Islamic material, such as the rich confluence of Greek, Hindu and Buddhist cultures of the first-century Kushan Empire. This lack of focus on Islamic heritage continued throughout the 1940s with the construction of Afghanistan’s past as “Aryan,” or Indo-European. This was done in part to combat the Pashtun nationalism then surfacing. A shared civilizational history for Afghanistan not only transcended ethnic factionalism but also redeemed some of the minorities in the eyes of the elites, such as the rural Hazaras from the Bamiyan area, who were lifted in esteem and connected to a high-water mark of Buddhism. (The Bamiyan Buddhas, for example, were chosen to grace postage stamps in the 1950s.)

The question of the type of heritage considered worthy of preservation was also widely discussed after the Taliban’s 2001 destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, when it was generally understood that the extremist Islamist government was targeting a non-Islamic religion. In academic discourse, a third distinction emerged, the episode revealing a division in those circles between secularism and religiousness. A reported comment by the Taliban’s late founder, Mullah Mohammad Omar, cited in an influential paper by the prominent scholar Finbarr Barry Flood, buttressed the idea that the Taliban were contesting not only the idolatry of the Buddhist statues but the secularism itself upon which cultural heritage is built, with its artifacts denuded of their religious or devotional context in the museum.

The complexities of the ways in which culture has been instrumentalized both within Afghanistan and beyond make this a dicey time for the international community as it faces the heritage landscape of Afghanistan, in which it has been involved in so many ways for so long. In the immediate future, the urgent question is not whether the Taliban is moving toward a more protectionist stance or not, nor how genuine their heritage policies or statements may be. What many heritage experts fear now is what happens when they are met with repeated dismissals. UNESCO’s non-assessment might prove that cultural heritage is not a winnable international strategy, bolstering those in government who see it as a lesser priority.

One senior official at a cultural organization active in Afghanistan described the situation to New Lines as a tipping point. It should not be taken for granted, he said, that the current position of the Taliban on supporting heritage preservation will remain without tangible projects and commitment from the outside world. Without such an external effort, the fate of hundreds of archaeological and heritage sites hangs in the balance — open to further neglect, or worse.

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