Afghan museum highlights Buddhist heritage

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Afghan museum highlights Buddhist heritage

KABUL - Afghanistan, which achieved global notoriety for cultural barbarism when the Taliban blew up the ancient Bamiyan Buddhas, last week opened an exhibition highlighting the country’s rich Buddhist heritage.

In sharp contrast to the religious intolerance behind the destruction of the Buddhas 11 years ago, the immaculate exhibition is on display in the National Museum, itself rebuilt with international aid after being destroyed by civil war.

Overlooked by living history represented by the ruins of the neoclassical Darul Aman Palace on a neighboring hill - also a victim of war - the interior of the museum is a sanctuary of quiet arches and marble floors in a violent land.

In the entrance hall is a replica of the Great Buddha of Bamiyan, one of two giant standing statues carved into Bamiyan cliffs in Afghanistan’s central highlands in the sixth century.

But the polyurethane copy is a poor substitute, unlike the surviving treasures dating from the second century A.D. that dedicated museum staff managed to hide and protect through 30 years of conflict and turmoil.

One statue shows a lean-torsoed Buddha, reflecting the art of the ancient Greeks introduced by Alexander the Great, who staged one of the many invasions of Afghanistan over the centuries, said museum curator Surkh Kotal.

Others show damage inflicted by Taliban fanatics who destroyed many of the museum’s artifacts before their regime was overthrown by U.S.-led troops in 2001 for harbouring Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Among the items spared - many hidden in secret vaults outside the museum - are relief carvings depicting the Buddha’s life and other artifacts from former Buddhist monasteries in Afghanistan, mainly south of the Hindu Kush mountains.

One of those behind the protection of the treasures is Omarakhan Massoudi, museum director, who joined the museum 34 years ago.

“I’m happy we preserved some masterpieces through a difficult time in our country,” Massoudi told AFP, recounting how a decision was made to move major works to secret locations in 1989 as Soviet forces withdrew and civil war loomed.

During that war, some 70 percent of the museum’s artifacts were looted and smuggled into neighboring countries to find their way onto the black market, he said. The museum, along with the palace on the hill, was largely destroyed. Then came the Taliban, Islamic hardliners who swept to power in 1996. Towards the end of their rule they destroyed more than 2,000 artifacts, Massoudi said, and blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas as “idols” in March 2001.

“We have repaired more than 300 statues. Some are on display and we will continue this activity in the future,” said Massoudi.

AFP

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