Afghan museum highlights country's Buddhist heritage

Afghanistan, which achieved global notoriety for cultural barbarism when the Taliban blew up the ancient Bamiyan Buddhas, this 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 Darulaman Palace on a neighbouring 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 AD 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 artefacts before their regime was overthrown by US-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 artefacts from former Buddhist monasteries in Afghanistan, mainly south of the Hindu Kush mountains.

One of those behind the protection of the treasures is museum director Omarakhan Massoudi, 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 artefacts were looted and smuggled into neighbouring countries to find their way onto the black market, he said.

The museum, along with the palace on the hill, was largely destroyed as rival warlords unleashed artillery and rocket fire on the capital in a brutal struggle for power.

Then came the Taliban, Islamic hardliners who swept to power in 1996. Towards the end of their rule they destroyed more than 2,000 artefacts, 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.

The destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas was "a big tragedy because they were a part of our history, a part of our culture", he said.

Afghanistan, lying on the famed Silk Road trading route connecting east and west, absorbed Buddhism from India and the religion flourished for hundreds of years before the arrival of Islam in the eighth century.

Now, the practice of Buddhism has virtually disappeared from a country where more than 99 percent of the population proclaim themselves to be Muslim. But the museum is dedicated to keeping the nation's history alive.

"We have to be proud about this very rich heritage of Afghanistan, and we need to transfer it to the next generations," said Massoudi.

In a country still at war, with 130,000 US-led NATO troops helping the government of President Hamid Karzai fight a Taliban insurgency, it is still unsafe for the museum to display some of its most important possessions.

The famed and priceless 2,000 year-old Bactrian Gold collection of more than 20,000 gold ornaments, hidden by museum staff during the civil war, has been touring the world since 2006.

But closer to home, the ruined grandeur of the Darulaman Palace -- clearly visible from the museum -- stands as an enormous exhibit reflecting a less than glorious period in the nation's history.

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