An Ode To Afgan Cultural Heritage

Victoria Mileson

Afghanistan’s cultural heritage is at risk. Following the withdrawal of US troops and the rapid resurgence of the Taliban, Afghan museums have been racing to save their artifacts due to fears they will be seized or destroyed. Victoria Mileson tells us more.

could history be on its way to repeating itself?

In 2001, the Taliban destroyed two mountainside statues called the Buddhas of Bumiyan, which dated back to the 6th century and were a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The destruction was seen across the world as “a prime example of barbarism against cultural heritage.” It was only two decades ago that the leader of the Taliban called for the destruction of all pre-Islamic statues and sanctuaries—could history be on its way to repeating itself?

While the Taliban has claimed that they will protect sites of important heritage from destruction, many are unconvinced.

Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director-General, called for “the preservation of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage in its diversity, in full respect of international law, and for taking all necessary precautions to spare and protect cultural heritage from damage and looting.”

On August 15, the National Museum in Kabul also raised concerns about looting. “Kabul city has witness unprecedented chaos […] Continuation of this chaotic situation causes a huge concern about the safety of museum artifacts and goods,” the museum said in a statement posted to social media.

800,000 artifacts, cultural items and Buddhist monasteries are located in Afghanistan

The museum had previously been reduced to rubble in the early 1990s. Fortunately, much of the collection survived thanks to the museum workers who hid the artefacts from the Taliban, risking their lives.

Additionally, Afghanistan’s cultural wealth is underestimated. According to Artforum, nearly 800,000 artifacts, cultural items and Buddhist monasteries are located in Afghanistan. The prolonged conflict in Afghanistan has meant that a lot of cultural artefacts have been destroyed, but with approximately 800,000 remaining, there’s a lot to protect. The country is situated on the ancient Silk Roads and has been a cultural mixing pot since time began. Its unique heritage is marked by encounters between Achemenid Persia, Alexandrian Greece, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam, and much of the country’s past is still unknown.

With this new generation of Taliban fighters comes a new risk to Afghan cultural heritage. So, which sites are of  particular concern?

Minaret Of Jam

the country’s past, sites and artefacts of cultural significance are now under threat

A “tower of victory” built in 1194 by the Ghurid sultan Ghitas-od-din to commemorate the dynasty’s empire. At 65m tall it is one of the tallest brick buildings in the world. It will be a difficult site to protect given that it is so isolated and has rivers at its base in the steep valley of the Hari-rud River. It has also been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2002.

Bamiyan Valley

The only other remaining UNESCO World Heritage Site in Afghanistan, the Bamiyan Valley was home to the Buddha statues but now represents more than a millennium of Bactrian history. It was an important stop on the Silk Road and testifies to the gradual migration of Buddhism to China. From the third to fifth centuries, Buddhist monks carved monasteries, chapels, and cells into the valley walls.


The historic city of Herat was the capital of the Abbasid caliphate. The city is rich in monuments including the famous Citadel, the Musalla complex and the Ghurid-era Friday Mosque.

Since 2001, Afghanistan has experienced a complete rebirth and there have been many initiatives to restore, reconstruct and preserve Afghanistan’s cultural heritage. However, international structures dedicated to protecting the country’s past, sites and artefacts of cultural significance are now under threat. Although we can’t foresee what will happen to this beautiful cultural heritage in the hands of the Taliban, if extremist factions take control, history could repeat itself.

Victoria Mileson

Featured image courtesy of kristina.lundberg via Flickr. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

In-article images courtesy of @crossxcultural, @stmgeoschool, @filippotenti_overland and @omer_khan_photography via No changes were made to these images. 

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