Afghanistan: historic sites at the heart of concerns after the return of the Taliban

An Afghan praying outside a mosque in Herat during Ramadan in 2018; there are fears that the devastating destruction of the country’s cultural heritage 20 years ago will return
Photo: Hoshang Hashimi / AFP via Getty Images

Afghanistan’s cultural heritage is vast and still partly unrecognized. For millennia, it has been the crossroads of many civilizations that left a remarkable legacy, from the Medes and Persians to the Greeks after Alexander the Great, including the Sassanids, Abassids, Ghaznavids, Ghurids, Mongols, Timurids, Mughals and Durrani , before the 19th century rivalry between Russia and Great Britain, the kingdom of Afghanistan, and finally the long period of conflict beginning in 1979.

The world of culture is anxiously wondering what will happen to this extraordinary legacy now that the Taliban are back in power in Afghanistan. It is not difficult to imagine that there could be serious consequences for the control and conservation of important monuments and archaeological sites in the country. The memory of the Taliban’s criminal destruction of 1,500-year-old Bamiyan Buddhas in March 2001 is still alive and well and seen around the world as a typical example of barbarism against cultural heritage.

There are different factions within the new generation of Taliban fighters and if the leaders try to reassure the international community of their moderate intentions, other more radical elements could reestablish the brutal and oppressive rule of the group 20 years ago. In this situation, the Afghan heritage is threatened with attack and destruction as well as the collapse of the management structures put in place in recent years to conserve and protect the country’s ancient past, many of which enjoyed international support. Here we take a look at some of the top sites of concern.

Jam Minaret

Only two Afghan sites are currently inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The first was the Minaret of Jam (inscribed in 2002), located in the steep valley of the Hari-rud River, an isolated area over 200 km east of Herat and nearly 2,000 m above sea level. . This “victory tower” was built in 1194 by the Ghourid Sultan Ghiyas-od-din to commemorate his dynasty’s empire and, at 65m, it remains one of the tallest brick buildings in the world. Its conservation presents considerable challenges, due to its remoteness from any city and from the rivers at its base, which have threatened its stability. Over the past 50 years, Unesco has carried out numerous campaigns to save the minaret and in 2019, the Aliph Foundation granted $ 2 million to Unesco for a project to conserve its roof and its internal staircase in wood, installation of a monitoring system and development of a comprehensive conservation plan.

The minaret of Jam, the first recognized Unesco World Heritage site in Afghanistan, is located in a remote valley more than 200 km east of Herat
Photo: Aivaras Ramanauskas

Bamiyan Valley

The country’s second UNESCO World Heritage Site (inscribed in 2003) is the Cultural and Archaeological Landscape of the Bamiyan Valley, which was marked by the destruction by the Taliban of large Buddha statues. Nevertheless, the site represents the main testimony of more than a millennium of Bactrian history, between the 1st and the 13th century. An important stopover on the Silk Road, it bears witness to the migration of Buddhism from India to China. From the 3rd to the 5th century, Buddhist monks carved a network of monasteries, chapels and cells in its high vertical walls. The importance of the site has prompted several countries to offer their support for its restoration and conservation. Italy and Japan, in particular, have promoted a series of programs in collaboration with Unesco to consolidate Buddha niches, locally develop technical and managerial skills and improve the quality of life of communities in the Bamiyan Valley. South Korea has also pledged to finance the construction of a cultural center, which was to be inaugurated this year.

The cavity in the Bamiyan Valley where the larger of Bamiyan’s two Buddhas once stood, photographed in 2012. Prior to their destruction by the Taliban in 2001, the 1,500-year-old rock-hewn Buddha statues were the biggest in the world
U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Ken Scar, 7th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment

Bagh-e Babur

There are four other sites on Afghanistan’s “tentative list” for UNESCO World Heritage nomination. Bagh-e Babur in Kabul is the only surviving garden from the Timurid era (16th century) and it was beautifully restored from 2002 to 2008 by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

The garden of Bagh-e Babur in Kabul after restoration by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture
Photo: Aga Khan Development Network / Simon Norfolk


The historic city of Herat, capital of the Abbasid caliphate which was completely renovated during the Timurid dynasty, is rich in monuments including the famous citadel, the Musalla complex with the mausoleum of Empress Gawharshad and the Friday mosque of the era. Ghurid.

The Citadel of Herat in 2011
Photo: Staff Sgt. Kevin wallace


The city of Balkh in the region of Mazar-i Sharif – ancient Bactria – was a center of Zoroastrian spirituality, then of Buddhism and finally an important political and cultural center after the Muslim conquest in the 8th century. Within the ruins of its walls, there are still important monuments such as the Timurid Shrine of Khwaja Abu Nasr Parsa. Outside the walls stand the Buddhist monastery of Nau Bahar and the stupa (shrine) of Tepe Rustam, in addition to the Noh Gunbad Mosque, also known as Haji Piyada. Dating from the 9th century Samanid Empire, it is probably the oldest mosque in Central Asia and has been restored in recent years by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in collaboration with the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan (Dafa), the World Monuments Fund and the Giovanni Secco Suardo Association.

The Noh Gunbad Mosque, also known as Haji Piyada, during its recent restoration. Dating back to the 9th century, it is possibly the oldest mosque in Central Asia
Photo: Aga Khan Development Network / Simon Norfolk

Band-e Amir

An important natural site, Band-e Amir, is also on the tentative list for Unesco World Heritage status. It is a national park in the Hindu Kush Mountains, located in Bamiyan Province and characterized by spectacular geological formations and a series of six deep blue lakes.

Spectacular Band-e-Amir National Park in the Hindu Kush Mountains
Photo: Staff Sgt. Ken scar

The post-2001 renaissance of Afghan heritage

While we do not yet know what the attitude of the Taliban will be towards Afghan heritage, it is clear that conservation in Afghanistan has experienced a real renaissance in the 20 years since the state-led invasion. United in 2001. The Afghan people have been protagonists in hundreds of national and international initiatives for the restoration, reconstruction and preservation of cultural heritage, developing strong local technical capacity.

Many Afghan museums have been restored in recent years, forming the embryo of a national cultural infrastructure. The most important of these, the Kabul National Museum, had been reduced to rubble and looted at the start of the civil war of the 1990s. Fortunately, much of the collection has survived thanks to museum workers who risked their destruction. life to hide the artifacts in places the Taliban could not find.

The National Museum of Afghanistan, Kabul, in 2013 after its complete reconstruction

Intangible heritage has also been the subject of increasing attention from the now ousted Afghan government, with the inclusion in 2016 on the Unesco intangible heritage list of Nowruz, a common New Year’s spring celebration. to all the countries of the region, and the candidacy proposal for 2022 of the Behzad style. miniature painting, the Atan national dance and the Afghan rubab, a traditional stringed musical instrument. Intangible heritage protection and enhancement projects have been launched in collaboration with neighboring countries as part of a 2018-21 Unesco program on Silk Road culture, funded by the European Union.

Over the past 30 years, we have seen how conflicts in the Middle East and Central Asia have had devastating effects on heritage, from damage caused by armed occupation of archaeological areas to willful destruction, looting and destruction. unlawful searches. Moreover, a situation of international political tension can only lead to the breakdown of national and international conservation programs and to the dispersion of the technical expertise accumulated over time.

If the more extreme Taliban factions controlled the next Afghan government, its notorious history of cultural destruction could repeat itself. It is therefore imperative that the countries and organizations involved in the conservation of Afghan heritage urgently launch initiatives to safeguard artefacts and sites, thus ensuring continuity of management skills. It will be a great test of the intervention tools developed in the international arena for the protection of heritage in conflict zones.

• Francesco Bandarin is an architect and former senior official of Unesco, director of its World Heritage Center (2000-10) and Deputy Director General for Culture (2010-18). He is currently an advisor to ICCROM, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and the Smithsonian Institution.

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