Valuable relics from Afghanistan’s ancient past are returning home as the country faces growing uncertainty about its future.
A collection of 33 items seized from a New York-based art dealer who authorities say was one of the world’s most prolific antiques traffickers were turned over by the United States to the Afghan government this week .
“The importance of the material is enormous,” Roya Rahmani, the country’s ambassador to the United States, said on Wednesday. “Each of these pieces is an invaluable representation of our history.”
Rahmani officially took control of the collection in a ceremony Monday in New York City with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), who recovered the objects as part of a larger investigation into trafficking in antiques from a number of countries.
Now, having briefly been on display at the Washington, DC Embassy, the masks, sculptures and other artifacts, some from the second and third centuries, are on their way to Kabul, where they are expected to be on display at the National Museum.
This is the same museum where members of the Taliban destroyed items in 2001 as part of a cultural rampage rooted in a harsh version of Islam in which depictions of the human form are considered offensive.
The Taliban no longer has power. But he controls much of the country outside of Kabul amid stalled talks with the government and the impending withdrawal of US and NATO forces after 20 years of war. Rahmani admits it’s a tough time.
“However, what I do know is that our security forces are determined to defend our people,” she said in an interview with the Associated Press news agency.
“The government is committed to doing its part for peace and stability in a way that will bring lasting peace.”
They may have a chance sooner than expected.
The German Defense Ministry said on Wednesday that discussions were underway between military planners with the NATO-led Resolute Support mission in Kabul for a possible withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan as early as July 4.
US President Joe Biden has previously declared that the United States will withdraw all of its troops by September 11, the 20th anniversary of the attacks that prompted the American invasion to dislodge the Taliban in 2001 for allowing Al Qaeda to ‘operate from Afghanistan.
Before the September 11 attacks, the Taliban had already become internationally known for applying a harsh form of Islamic law that kept women out of public view and for destroying – with rockets, shells and dynamite – women. famous 6th century sandstone giant Buddha statues built. in a cliff in Bamiyan province.
Destruction of the statues was on the Ambassador’s mind as she prepared to ship the items to her homeland, not only because a sandstone mural of Buddhas adorns the embassy hall where visitors gathered this week to view the relics.
Rahmani, her country’s first ambassador to the United States, remembers crying when she learned what the Taliban had done to the Buddhas. It was an important moment, she said, as she was committed to never letting anyone see her cry as a way to challenge the male-dominated culture of her native country.
“I broke my vow,” she said. “I really cried out loud. I cried and cried.
In contrast, the objects “belong to a government and to people who cherish their past” and will ensure that they are preserved for future generations, Rahmani said. She doesn’t expect the Taliban, if they come back to power, dare to destroy them.
“Our security forces and our government would not let this happen,” she said. “We are determined not to let this happen.”
Like the statues, some of the antiques recovered represent Buddha. There is also a marble statue of Shiva and a Greek mask.
The artifacts reflect the multicultural influences on Afghanistan, a major center of commerce and commerce, according to Fredrik Hiebert, archaeologist and National Geographic fellow who studies the country.
There are at least 2,600 archaeological sites in the country, said Hiebert, who helped authenticate some of the items after they were confiscated by federal agents and discussed the relics at a rally at the embassy on Tuesday.
“Afghanistan is one of the richest countries in archeology and history in the world,” he said. “And there is a very good reason, of course. For 6,000 years, civilization has been based in Afghanistan. “
This also makes it an attractive target for looters, which is how the items ended up in the United States.
In 2007, Homeland Security Investigations, an agency that deals with smuggling cases that cross international borders, received information about looted items being brought into the New York area from India.
This ultimately led to the indictment of a New York art gallery owner, Subhash Kapoor, and seven others, as well as the seizure of more than 2,600 items, worth more than of $ 140 million. He is jailed in India on charges and faces extradition to the United States when this case is resolved.
In the meantime, the US government is working to repatriate the looted materials, much of which was found in a series of raids on storage units in the New York area.
They have already returned relics to Nepal and Sri Lanka and will soon be handing over artifacts to Thailand, said Stephen Lee, the supervisory special agent in charge of HSI’s cultural property, arts and antiques unit.
The 33 items sent to Afghanistan, valued at approximately $ 1.8 million, are the first to be returned as part of this investigation.
“They belong to the Afghan people,” Lee said. “It’s their cultural history.”