THE STONE STUPA AT TOPDARA IN THE FOOTHILLS above the Koh-e Daman plain north of Kabul is testament to the rich cultural heritage of the region. It is one of a string of sites visited by Buddhist pilgrims on their way from the Indian lowlands in the east to Bamiyan, a key religious centre from as early as the 1st century AD. Many other sites along this pilgrimage route – Hadda near Jalalabad and Goldara in Logar province – have been damaged and looted. Topdara survives, as one the best-preserved examples of Buddhist architecture in Afghanistan.

Since late 2016 the site has been the focus of a low-key conservation project implemented by a group of experienced Afghan professionals and craftsmen, with a labour-force drawn primarily from nearby villages. The topography of the steep mountain valley precludes the use of machinery. So the conservation process largely mirrors techniques employed by the original builders some 1,500 years ago, with stones lifted by hand 30 metres up to the dome where they are laid in lime mortar.

The bucolic setting of Topdara belies the contested political landscape in which this and other efforts to safeguard Afghanistan’s cultural heritage play out to today.

In 2000, for the first time in its history, the UN Security Council cited the need for ‘respect for Afghanistan’s cultural and historical heritage’ in a resolution (1333) imposing sanctions on the Taliban administration due to its alleged support for terrorism.

THE EQUIVALENT TO CULTURAL SNUFF MOVIES

Despite this, the Buddha figures in Bamiyan were destroyed months later. The threat to cultural heritage was subsequently incorporated into the justification for international military intervention in late 2001. Grainy footage of the act of vandalism in Bamiyan has since become a defining image of the vulnerability of the country’s cultural heritage, with video footage of the incident – likened by an Afghan friend to a ‘cultural snuff movie’ – endlessly re-used by campaigners.

The longevity of this video footage from Bamiyan owes something to the stated objectives of the foreign intervention, which was to ‘rescue’ the Afghan people from a humanitarian crisis and human rights abuses.

Safeguarding their heritage from the ‘other’ (i.e. Taliban) was folded into a liberation narrative that heralded, among many other things, greater freedom of cultural expression. For the Afghan poets, artists, musicians and others who worked quietly through the repressive rule of mujahideen factions, whose excesses spawned the rise of the Taliban, this offered a glimmer of hope. Since 2002, many have taken advantage of opportunities opened up for cultural work and had their achievements recognized both domestically and abroad.

Boy in Old Town of Kabul. Renovated building by the Aga Khan Foundation. (Photo: Edward Girardet, 2009)

DONORS: NO INTEREST IN HISTORICAL DETAILS

A great deal, however, remains to be achieved. Among the key challenges is a politicization of cultural issues and, as a consequence, a tendency towards revisionism. For example, Afghan officials routinely assert that the Taliban looted and destroyed the National Museum, despite ample evidence that this was carried out by fighters loyal to factional leaders – many of whom are now senior politicians – who battled over Kabul during 1993-94. As a senior Ministry official admitted to me at a recent event at the Museum ‘our donors are not interested in the historic details, and we need to keep them engaged’.

Along with official denials of the surge in illegal excavation of archaeological sites and trafficking of artefacts (of which there is ample evidence), such distortion of facts hinders efforts to safeguard cultural heritage by rendering it hostage to politics rather than serious analysis.

This is especially apparent in the rhetoric of ‘them and us’ that since 2001 has been a core message of the international military campaign against the Taliban and other insurgent groups, and whose goals are increasingly conflated with official development objectives.

MUSLIM VILLAGERS ARE THE ONES PRESERVING BUDDHIST HERITAGE

The consequence of this in the cultural realm is a siege mindset; we are often asked by Kabul-based diplomats or journalists whether our work at Topdara is ‘under threat’, implying that all surviving Buddhist heritage in the country is somehow vulnerable. When we explain that the site has been effectively safeguarded by generations of villagers, who happen to be Muslims, they seem perplexed.

It is little wonder therefore that, for a cultural project to stand a chance of funding today, donors routinely require an explanation of how it will ‘combat violent extremism’, irrespective of its intended objectives. Increasingly confined to securitized enclaves and therefore denied meaningful interaction with ordinary Afghans – especially outside of urban areas – officials, donor representatives and UN personnel are increasingly limited in their ability to comprehend local dynamics and assess actual needs. And their horizons seem to be gradually shrinking as security worsens.

Darularam Palace in Kabul in the late 1990s after destruction in shelling by Pashtun warlord Hekmatyar Gulbuddin. (Photo: Edward Girardet)

Cultural initiatives, in contemporary Afghanistan as elsewhere, by their very nature need to be exploratory and if necessary to take risks, rather than conforming to imposed quick-fix ‘solutions’ that tend to preclude the continuity required for a real impact on people’s lives.

As Afghans face an upsurge in violence and sense a wavering in the commitment of the international community to their cause, it is more important than ever to acknowledge and render long-term support to cultural initiatives that have the potential to contribute to building confidence within and between communities, to shaping a sense of shared identity, and offering Afghan women and men some degree of hope – on their own terms.

EXPLORING THE POTENTIAL OF CULTURE TO UNITE, RATHER THAN DIVIDE

Observing a pair of Afghan archaeologists carefully measure sections of the original 5th century masonry of the stupa plinth at Topdara before our masons embark on painstakingly stabilizing the structure, assisted by dozens of villagers of all ages, reminded me of the need to remain focused on basic principles: to support Afghans who genuinely value their heritage, to explore the potential for culture to unite rather than deepen divisions between communities, and to ensure that investments contribute to improving the lives ordinary people. As a wise village elder emphatically put it to me while surveying the site at Topdara before we initiated the conservation work: “This is our heritage”.

JOLYON LESLIE is an architect who lives in Kabul and has worked for the UN, NGOs and as an adviser to the Afghan government. He was involved in efforts to limit the looting of the National Museum and in lobbying to prevent damage to the Bamiyan buddhas in the 1990s. He has subsequently contributed to a range of cultural initiatives. He now advises the Afghan Cultural Heritage Consulting Organisation.

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