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PAN, August 27, 2015

In Badakhshan, strongmen plundering historical sites

Badakhshan has vast ruby, emerald, azure, amethysts and gold reserves, as well as historical sites -- some of them thousands years old

By Gul Mohammad Tanha

Emboldened by lingering insecurity, gunmen are digging up historical sites to plunder the national wealth in parts of remote northeastern Badakhshan province -- home to the region’s rich cultural heritage and a key link between China and South Asia.

With a diverse ethno-linguistic and religious community, the people of Badakhshan retained opulent cultural heritage and they have preserved unique ancient forms of music, poetry and dance. Badakhshan was an important trade centre during antiquity.

Lapis lazuli was traded exclusively from the province as early as the second half of the 4th millennium BC. Badakhshan’s significance stemmed from the Silk Road passed through it, geo-economic location and being a hub of trade in silk and ancient commodities between the East and West.

Badakhshan has vast ruby, emerald, azure, amethysts and gold reserves, as well as historical sites -- some of them thousands years old. Thanks to the authorities’ negligence in their registration and maintenance, many sites have been pillaged.

Additionally, residents complain, insecurity in many parts of the province has enabled local strongmen to dig up these sites illegally and smuggle the antiques thus found. Under Article 9 of the constitution, mines, underground resources and ancient sites are state property. Their protection, use, management and mode of utilisation are regulated by law.

Director of Information and Culture Sher Ali Qasimi acknowledges the unlawful digging and plunder of many precious sites in Wakhan, Ishkashim and Daryem districts. The department has special force at its disposal to guard these relics and mines in volatile localities, he argues.

They have dispatched a string of letters to the security organs for the protection of the state assets and preventing the smuggling of artefacts, but their reminders have fallen on deaf ears, complains the official.

His colleague Haji Beg Sabri also confirms illicit excavation by irresponsible individuals in the Qala Hesar area of Daryem district. He quotes one man named Ihramuddin as saying that up to 30 men had dug up a special site for 20 days in line with orders from their commanders. The depth of digging is estimated at 15 metres.

During the illegal excavation, the workers found stoned paths made of soft clay and building roofs could not be broken even with pick-axes. But Ihramuddin refuses to give details about the artifacts found at the 48-acre site, which dates back to the Buddhist era, in Qala Hesar.

According to Sabri, an archaeologist, wood fibre, mulberry wood and valuable rugs were recovered from the location, where a tunnel is situated beneath the fort. In the past, when the tunnel’s mouth was open, people used to go inside. They saw several rooms, with staircases.

The official, who recently visited Darayem district, says: “Situated in front of Qala Hesar is Qala Khandan. From the look of them, these forts used to be security installations. At the moment, only their boundary wall can be seen. One of them belonged to a sister of the Hesarak ruler.”

In the vicinity, there is a village called Khandan City where prehistoric underground graves can be found on top of each other beneath. Piece of earthen jars have also been found in the primordial village, lying cheek by jowl with Ganda Kafiran (Dirty Unbelievers) area a landscape dotted with Bamyan Buddha statues in grottos.

Half a century back, residents say, the villagers lived in these caves -- which like dozens of other relics -- are now under threat. Sabri also blames the Badakhshan-based German Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) for excavating and taking away unspecified artefacts from historical sites in the Shahr-i-Safa area of Daryem district.

Syed Abdullah, an inhabitant of Jurm district, alleges gunmen are digging up historical sites that are threatened by war. The powerful men smuggle whatever comes their way, he complains, urging the government to crack down on these gunmen, who are intent upon ruining the national treasure.

The 10 centuries old shrine of Nasir Khusraw, a renowned poet, philosopher and traveller of the 11th century, was also damaged in fighting, local officials said earlier in the month. Writing exclusively in Persian, his books have been preserved through the centuries by the communities of the upper Oxus and Badakhshan, in Tajikistan and Afghanistan. The militants reportedly damaged the shrine after they captured Yamgan district two months ago.

Also harmed by the Taliban were parts of the Mullah Barat Religious School, which had been reconstructed by the Aga Khan Cultural Development Network (ACDN) in three years. The militants, who stayed in control of the Balkhi shrine for a month, partially burnt and smashed this registered cultural heritage. The shrine gate, about 10 years old, was pulled down and set alight.

An anti-aluminium plaque, inscribed with the architectural plan for the building, was shot down and broken to pieces. The fighters also ransacked the guardroom besides breaking the shrine lock. AKDN officials say they will rebuild the sites, subject to the availability of funds and guarantees from locals that they would not be damaged again.

Located in Jurm district is a monument to Mir Syed Ali bin Shahab-ud-Din Hamadani (1314-1384) -- a Persian Sufi of the Kubrāwī order, a poet and a prominent Muslim scholar. He was very influential in spreading Islam and shaped the culture of the area. Also known as "Shah Hamadan" and as Amīr-i Kabir (the Great Commander), he wrote several short works on spirituality and Sufism. To avoid persecution in his homeland at the hands of Timur, he moved to Kashmir with seven hundred followers, during the reign of King Shahab-Uddin.

Situated in the same district is a worship place built by Khalifa Khan Arifi. Additionally, famous writer and diplomat Shah Abdullah Yamgi, who authored highly acclaimed books like Armaghan-i-Badakhshan and Lehja Hai Pamiri, was also from Jurm. A renowned poet and critic of his time, Yamgi penned many articles. His tomb is currently in a state of dilapidation.

Information and Culture Department official Abdur Raziq claims registering 20 historical sites over the past 14 years. Four of them have been rebuilt by AKDN, but the rest remain at the risk of being destroyed. Particularly endangered are the relics in Taliban-controlled areas, he warns, saying: “We don’t have enough financial and technical resources to inspect these sites from time to time ... or prevent them from destruction.”

AKDN official Fazal Karim Ahmadi says they have use available resources to renovate the Nasir Khusraw Balkhi shrine, Mullah Barat Madrassa, Mir Yar Beg shrine and Faiz City in Yamgan district. AKDN, which has set aside $500,000 for the reconstruction projects, is poised to reconstruct the Mir Yar Beg Park by the end of the current year.

While waiting cooperation from the department concerned in registering the historical sites, Ahmadi says they have drawn up plans to reconstruct two wooden houses on the 300 years old Kokcha River bridge, in Faizabad. The Kokcha River is approximately 140m wide and the banks are steep sided near the base. River levels and width vary according to the season. The homes are situated close to the Syeda Makhfi Park in Qaraquzi village.

He says reconstruction of the sites will begin soon. The sites already damaged will be renovated on a priority basis, he adds, urging the Department of Information and Culture to give AKDN information about the endangered sites as soon as possible. He explains they will try to use the local materials these relics are made of.

For the renovation of the sites, the AKDN has hired the services of experienced and professional people who have repaired similar areas in Kabul, Herat and Badakhshan. Local mud masons are being trained by these professional experts. “For instance, we hire individuals -- masons or carpenters -- who are skilled in using locally available materials. Right now, we have 70 of them being trained as carpenters in Faizabad.”

The AKDN has masons and carpenters from Faryab and Maidan Wardak provinces as well. They are training others on renovation historical sites. Two of the masons and one carpenter are especially skilled in using local materials.

Dost Mohammad, who has 12 years of experience in masonry including work on historical sites, has been trained by AKDN in Herat City, Mazar-i-Sharif and Faizabad. He is presently imparting training to his juniors on how to use local raw materials in Yamgan district.

Ustad Rasul, a carpenter from Faryab City who has 14 years of experience in working on historical sites, has crafted magnificent old windows and doors in different provinces. He has trained several carpenters in Faizabad to help the Department of Information and Culture in reviving the historical sites.

The written history of Afghanistan can be traced back to around 500 BCE. The Indus Valley Civilisation stretched up to large parts of northern Afghanistan, a land-locked country with a variety of cultures having left their mark on it. Balkh’s monasteries and stupas, Zoroastrian Fire Temple, Green Mosque, Haji Piyada Mosque are prized historical sites.

Bamyan, located on the renowned Silk Road, is home to Buddhist monasteries and art, including the giant Buddha statues, and Band-e Amir. Herat is known as a crossroads to Iran, holding a citadel that was reportedly built by Alexander the Great, Tomb of Queen Goharshad, Masjid-i-Jame, Yu Aw synagogues and Khwaja Abdullah Ansari shrine.

Similarly, Kabul, Ghazni, Kandahar and other provinces have their own sites of enormous historic significance. Regrettably enough, many of the relics and monuments, as well as mines, have been in a state of decay. Local strongmen have long been accused of plundering Afghanistan’s mineral wealth and pillaging ancient objects, but the authorities have failed to rein them in.

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