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Afghanistan's Bamiyan Valley under risk of collapse as excavations continue


The rapid construction work and excavations on the UNESCO World Heritage site are contributing to the destruction of the already fragile area, experts warn.

A few weeks ago, the former director of Afghanistan's culture department in Bamiyan Ishaq Mowahidi, received a call from a resident saying unauthorised excavations and residential construction were taking place in parts of the Valley.

The ‘excavations’ were taking place beneath the remains of the Bamiyan Buddhas, which were destroyed by the Taliban when they were last in power in 2001 - raising alarm bells among locals and heritage experts.

In January, the Taliban's Bamiyan governor, Mullah Abdullah Sarhadi, confirmed to the German outlet Deutsche Welle that there had been excavations in the area - the first illegal digging taking place on 28 January. 

Locals said the rumour that led Sarhadi to carry out excavations was the possibility that a princess was buried in Bamyan with all her jewellery. 

In search of the treasure, the governor closed off the area surrounding the ruins and ordered workers to excavate in mid-January.

He continued digging despite orders to the contrary from the Taliban ministry of culture in Kabul.

Sarhadi later denied any excavation in an interview to a local television network. He did not reply to TRT World’s requests for a comment. 

The rapid construction work and excavations under the new rule of the Taliban on the UNESCO World Heritage site are contributing to the destruction of the already fragile area, according to Mowahidi.

Private individuals still hold the deeds to the grounds, as the process of it becoming government property had not been finalised before the Taliban came into power in August 2021.

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Mowahidi also said that a group of people, who he suspects to be international smugglers, were conducting excavations and looting, most of which happened in the early days of the Taliban takeover.

According to a report by The Art Newspaper, treasured artefacts located near Salsal Buddha and the other next to the Bamiyan Culture Centre were raided. 

It also said that a buddha's head estimated to be worth $100,000, and coins that are thought to be more than 1,000 years old are among the stolen items.

"The people who are digging the area don't speak the local languages of Afghanistan (i.e., Pashto and `dari). Locals have no right to get close to the sites or ask questions. The Taliban have put their fighters in the area," Mowahidi told TRT World.

"The ongoing excavation is a similar act of cultural genocide to that of 2001 when the Taliban blew the Buddhas. It requires the immediate attention of international actors – specifically UNESCO as the leading agency for cultural preservation and protection."

When the Taliban blew up the Buddha statues in 2001, the damages resulted in cracks that were upto 30 metres deep, Ghulam Reza Mohammadi, the former UNESCO provincial coordinator for Bamiyan, explained.

"The damage to the Buddha rock caused by the explosion has made the site very fragile, so excavations during the winter season can cause water and snow to be absorbed in the existing cracks, causing the cliff to entirely collapse," he said.

"Such actions [the illegal excavations] also encourage more traffickers into the area [as it is not protected].”

Confirming Mowahidi’s claim, Ghulam Reza said people who witnessed the excavations said the group was speaking in Urdu, one of the national languages of Pakistan.

Illegal construction and excavations is damaging the World Heritage site that has stood for more than 1,000 years. (TRTWorld)

The Taliban's information and culture directorate in Bamiyan, Mawlawi Saif-ul-Rahman Mohammadi, said that the digging had stopped and that they are diligently protecting all archaeological sites.

However, Ghulam Reza said that construction is still ongoing near the site.

Calls to end excavations

According to his Ghulam Reza, several caves were opened up under the Taliban watch near the site.

“International smugglers could have only gained access to the sites with the help of the Taliban,” he said.

“We don’t know what they found and what they left with.”

He has also expressed concern that holes dug in search of a treasure are now being filled with concrete, which is effectively endangering the site. 

The ‘excavations’ raised alarm bells among locals and heritage experts. (TRTWorld)

Until UNESCO intervenes, he said, Bamiyan remains under threat of being completely destroyed and at risk of widespread theft of its antiquities. 

In a petition, Mowahidi alongside other Afghan activists, have appealed for an immediate intervention of the UNESCO office in Kabul in order to “stop the excavations, hold the relevant parties and authorities accountable for the protection and safeguarding of the site and prosecute and bring to just parties pursuing this destructive endeavour."

“This site is an important part of Afghanistan’s rich cultural diversity, and as such, it is integral to the identity of Afghan people,” the petition reads.

“We believe this cultural artefact should not be sacrificed for the sake of politics or any societal motivations.”