MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan: In the markets of Mazar-i-Sharif and the much-turned ground of the nearby ancient city of Balkh where Alexander the Great married and Zoroaster lived, Afghans are eking out a living from the rich treasures of the fabulous Bactrian Empire.
The tallest Buddha figure in the world (55m;180 ft) created in the 3rd century A.D., were destroyed by Taliban on March 8-9, 2001.
On a sheet laid out on a road in Mazar, the biggest city in northern Afghanistan, are cheap jewellery and coins that merchant Abdul Sammad says date back to the 13th century era of Genghis Khan.
A lion carved in stone is "a unique Bactrian piece costing $200," he says, sitting cross-legged in front of his wares. In his 50s with a solemn thin face, Sammad says he was 10 when he began digging for hidden treasure in the earth of Balkh, 25 km west of Mazar.
"I know it is banned but one has to earn a living," he says as a dozen other merchants gather round him. On the other side of the road, dimly lit shops offer pre-Islamic objects and coins showing the face of Alexander—who conquered Bactria and the beautiful Roxanne around 330 BC—and Demetrius, the Bactrian king in 180 BC. "I bought my pieces from the villagers. Then I brought them here," says shopkeeper Ghawsuddin.
"Many Pakistanis buy them. The most beautiful go overseas, he says. "Of course it is a pity to see our riches sold off, but most Afghans are poor and illiterate and for them the treasures mean little more than survival." Remains of the Balkh of Alexander—built well after Bactria was established in 2,500 BC—were first discovered in 2002 by French archaeologists after long years of research interrupted by Afghanistan's successive wars.
"About 70 per cent of the site of Tepe Zargaran was plundered in the 1990s and unfortunately the plunder continues in the area," said French archaeologist Philippe Marquis. Close to Tepe Zargaran, watched by dishevelled guards hired by the ministry of culture, is a field as large as a football pitch and dotted with craters and mounds of soil interspersed with the remains of clay vases.
The international art market has recently begun trading in articles from Afghanistan that have found their way to the west after a rocket attack on the museum enabled looters to make off with many valuable items.
In broad daylight, two men dig into the ground in the hope of finding "something which will resell well," says one of them, Mohibullah. His coat torn open to reveal an emaciated chest, Mohibullah is at 25 the father of four children and is beginning to miss the lax regulations of the previous Taliban government.
"There were always hundreds of us digging here. Today it is banned. Three times they put me in prison. As soon as I left, I came back here," he says. The head of the provincial culture department, Saleh Mohammed Khaliq, says the "main problem is that people in high places are participating in this traffic.
"Two policemen in the ministry of culture were killed last summer by the thieves. Two men were arrested but they were released soon after boasting of their high-level protection. They threatened that I would lose my job." Problems of corruption are compounded by more pragmatic concerns, he said, citing houses that were built on historic sites for "important people" and the destruction and theft by deminers employed to rid Afghanistan of its millions of unexploded mines.
He said he had little hope of ever seeing Mazar-i-Sharif's museum reopened. It was closed in the 1980s after many of the objects d'art in its collection had been destroyed or stolen during the 1992-1996 civil war and subsequent 1996-2001 Taliban regime. The destruction by the Taliban of the 2,000-year-old Buddhas at Bamiyan and most of the treasures of the Kabul museum were just the most notorious examples of the cultural desecration wrought by the fanatical Islamists who ran the country until 2001, when they were ousted in a US-led invasion.
"It is not only the objects that they are stealing, it is the soul of a nation," said Khaliq. He is smoothly contradicted, however, at the Mazar police headquarters, where deputy police chief Janral Raouf Taj insists: "There has not been any trafficking in a long time". And the two men arrested last summer for murder were released only after "an investigation proved their innocence," he says.