Since November, small hands have been busy restoring the Jewish heritage of Herat, a rare and precious testimony to the melting pot of civilizations that was this city near Iran, 800 km west of Kabul. The works, which should last almost a year and a half, received the green light from the Taliban authorities in the fall of 2022. “They openly supported our project and inaugurated the construction sites publicly”, indicates the architect South African Jolyon Leslie, founder of the Afghan Cultural Heritage Advisory Organization (Achco), which is carrying out the restoration, funded by the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas (Aliph), a Swiss foundation .
Fundamentalist Islamists, considered pure products of the obscurantist tradition, who support the preservation of Jewish buildings: the painting does not correspond in any way to the scenarios feared during the capture of Kabul by the Taliban on August 15, 2021. At the time, the memory of the dynamiting in 2001 by their elders of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, accused of encouraging idolatry, had revived concerns.
An accommodating attitude
What fate would these new generation Taliban reserve for the country’s heritage? Looting? Destruction? Many observers predicted the worst for the marvelous open-air museum which extends over Afghan territory, rich in the passage of Persian, Greek, Buddhist, Mughal civilizations… Ditto for the collections of pre-Islamic works of the Kabul Museum which had the object of a rampage in order at the end of the 1990s.
Two years later, the disaster has not happened. “We recently completed conservation work on the Buddhist site of Shewaki (in the Kabul region, editor’s note), during which the support shown by officials from the Ministry of Culture has been encouraging”, assures the architect Jolyon Leslie, who started working in the country in 1989 and did not leave after August 15. “They visited the site several times, showed a real interest in our projects, offered their help to ensure the safety of the site and invited us to continue our work on the Buddhist heritage if we found funds. »
An attitude for the less accommodating that confirms other testimonies. “We obtained fairly easy access to the sites of which we are taking images, indicates in particular Yves Ubelmann, president of Iconem, which digitizes heritage sites in 3D. We had very constructive discussions with the Deputy Minister of Culture and the Director of Archaeology. They were absolutely helpful. »
Display of good intentions by the Taliban
During their rise to power, the Taliban had hinted at good dispositions. “As the remains constitute part of the country’s history, identity and cultural wealth, everyone has an obligation to resolutely protect, monitor and preserve them,” they proclaim in a statement in February. 2021.
At the time, their statements pass for pure display. Today, they are partly confirmed. “You have to admit that they don’t do anything,” said a good connoisseur of the country on condition of anonymity. Take the Kabul Museum, it was not closed for long and its Buddhist heritage was not put under wraps…” The institution, ostensibly protected by armed men who search visitors at the entrance, reopened its doors in December 2021.
Heritage guardians, the Taliban version 2021? Impossible to fathom their intentions. They can be part of the seduction operation to make people forget their multiple obstacles to human rights and reconnect with an international community that has largely left the country, ostracized from nations. In terms of heritage, only a few organizations have maintained links, notably UNESCO, the Aga-Khan Foundation, and even Aliph.
“In a context where their administration is viewed with suspicion, they seem inclined to support cultural initiatives both to demonstrate their understanding of the importance of Afghan heritage and to establish a ‘neutral’ common ground with outside institutions” , analyzes the architect Jolyon Leslie.
This strategic approach contrasts with the fundamentalism hostile to the very idea of heritage, considered as Western, which characterized the Taliban of the 1990s. , integrates heritage into its identity definition, explains our source who knows Afghanistan well. They understood that it could be real wealth. »
Persistence of looting and antiquities trafficking
Good will, however, has its limits. Despite the official ban on looting by the Taliban, it persists on archaeological sites, of which Afghanistan abounds – nearly 5,000 are listed. For a long time, residents have been carrying out illicit excavations there.
“Looting has always been designed as a substitute resource in the event of a food shortage”, recalls a connoisseur. But this artisanal appropriation, carried out “with shovels by peasants”, coexists with another, “since 2018, 2019, carried out with means beyond measure, bulldozers and diggers”, he continues.
Over a few months, the comparison of satellite images from Iconem attests to the presence of new holes or the progression of clipping by mechanical devices, on several excavation sites – the company plans to publish a report in the fall, which should make it possible to measure the extent of the damage. “The situation is ambivalent, analyzes our source. Bans in Kabul do not always prevent the approval of excavations not controlled by local authorities. »
Another limit: the trafficking of Afghan antiquities, which have been circulating more since August 15, 2021. art market”, observes Léa Dechamp, who is investigating the Afghan case for her thesis on the art world faced with the trafficking of looted goods.
“The arrival of the Taliban is not the direct cause, however, specifies a regular on the ground. It is the fact of inhabitants who left the country at the fall of Kabul with objects looted in the past. »
In the fall of 2021, many gold necklaces, belts and earrings adorned with turquoise have thus surfaced on the Iranian market. They came from the treasure of Tillia Tepe (the “hill of gold”), discovered in 1978 on a site bringing together six tombs containing more than 20,000 precious objects. The threat of sanctions waved by the Taliban in the event of trafficking did not prevent their sale.