Afghan relics turn to dust amid war and neglect

GHAZNI, Afghanistan, Sept 1 (AFP) - Along the old Silk Road thousands of known and buried relics stand as a testimony to a time when cities like Ghazni rated

among the most cultured in the civilised world, 2,000 years ago. But 20 years of war, neglect and extreme economic hardship risk the destruction

of these fabled treasures which are isolated from outside help by remoteness and Afghan front lines, authorities say.

On a hill-top on the outskirts of town a mutiliated giant female Buddha -- unearthed just 40 years ago - lies on her back surrounded by empty pillars where once stood guard rows of smaller male Buddhas. Fazl Uddin said the face and body parts of the 15 metre (30 foot) Buddha were smashed or stolen under previous Afghan regimes while the exposed pillars had weathered since archeologists excavated the site. Taliban-appointed Uddin has manned the hill as its protector for more than a year as part of the ruling militia's efforts to safeguard the nation's ancient relics. "This is most interesting. She lies there asleep for 2,000 years under the dirt until they swept off the mountain

top. She's still asleep but now half of her is missing," he says.

There are no tourists here and Uddin says he has played host to maybe half a dozen foreign aid workers. Twenty years ago a mud brick shelter was built around the Buddha for protection. But the timber support beams were stolen for firewood during a harsh winter and the walls are now on the verge of collapse. Taliban authorities and supreme leader Mulla Mohammad Omar have tried to maintain a reputation as guardians of the nation's relics but the militia has imposed a harsh brand of Islam. This includes banning photographs, drawings, paintings and statues depicting living human beings, a law Mulla Omar's troops take seriously.

In the central city of Bamiyan, where the ruling Taliban have barred journalists, the world's most famous pair of giant Buddhas overlook the surrounding valley. The male Buddha stands at 55 metres the female at 35 metres. Once covered in gold, both stood at the crossroads of ancient civilisation when Buddhists and Hindus traded between Greece and China, before and after Christ.

Omar ordered the statues not to be touched but according to the Society for the Preservation Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage (SPACH) appeals for respect did not reach front line troops. Photographs show the groin of the female Buddha has been gouged or blown out. Arms and legs are missing but worse, according to a SPACH spokesman, "the head, which did not have a face for the last few centuries, seems to have been blown away, possibly with explosives." In the Afghan civil war, the Taliban and the opposition blame the other for inflicting enormous damage on ancient relics, selling teasures for cash and looting museums and archeological digs. But damage caused by neglect amid an incessant culture of war has also taken a heavy toll.

Outside Kabul the last Chakari Minaret collapsed into a pile of dust and rock in March last year. Built in the second century AD, the 28.6 metre Minar-i-Chakari symbolised 700 years of Hinayana Buddhism when Ghazni, Kabul to the north and Kandahar in the south were part of the Indian empire of the Mauryans. "With the Minar-i-Shakari the world's cultural heritage lost its last great example of an incomparable piece of architecture," historical writer Chris Dorn'eich wrote in a recent letter to SPACH. The minaret towered above centuries of turbulent history and was used for target practice by Soviet troops during Moscow's 1979-89 Afghan occupation.

In 1842, Afghan ruler Akbar Khan guaranteed the retreating British army and thousands of women and children safe passage out of the country. As they left 16,000 were slaughtered by Khan's men along the road to the Khyber Pass. Another 122 survived as prisoners and were marched passed the Minar-i-Chakari. One British officer later wrote in his diary: "As we reached this classical spot, a view of almost unrivalled magnificence burst suddenly upon our sight." Sadly, Dorn'eich in his letter added, "most of its enigmatic features have had no chance to be fully understood" after the column of Persian, Greek and Indian art collapsed.


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