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Concern for Afghanistan's cultural treasures

Sabine Oelze
August 23, 2021

Employees of museums and archaeological sites also need protection in the wake of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, says archaeologist Ute Franke.

boys play football in the foreground of a hole where two nearly 2,000-year-old Buddha statues once stood
Taliban militants completely destroyed Afghanistan's ancient Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001: There are fears that Afghan cultural heritage is again in grave dangerImage: Shefayee/AFP/Getty Images

Seven German cultural organizations, including Berlin's Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, have appealed to Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Heiko Maas "to stand up for colleagues in Afghanistan who have worked for years with your support to preserve Afghanistan's cultural heritage."

Numerous cultural workers have also signed on to the appeal. They include Ute Franke, an archaeologist at the Islamic Museum in Berlin who has spent many years researching in Afghanistan.

From 2004 to 2012, Franke documented archaeological sites and cataloged the museum collection in the Herat province in western Afghanistan, as part of the German-Afghan Archaeological Research Mission.

DW spoke with Franke about the precarious situation for cultural workers in Afghanistan.

DW: What kind of contact do you currently have with colleagues in Afghanistan? Have you received any messages from people you have worked with?

Ute Franke: We're in relatively close contact right now, to the extent that the lines and the connections allow. The networks are often overloaded, making exchange impossible. There's lots of information being exchanged. What has happened? What happens now? What do we do? There are, of course, efforts to keep vulnerable people safe and secure.

You signed a letter along with various other archaeological organizations and the Prussian Cultural Heritage Organization, in which you asked the German government for help for the people who work in cultural institutions in Afghanistan. Have you received an answer?

We are in close contact with the German Foreign Office and with the departments that manage and coordinate these things.

How concrete is the threat to the people you have been working with? Have there already been attacks?

I haven't officially heard of any direct attacks. But naturally, this always depends a lot on who you are in contact with. The situation in Kabul is definitely different than the situation in rural areas, where there isn't any press and it's hard to get news out.

In Kabul, people are scared for themselves, their families and their security. Some of them had even started trying to leave the country before the Taliban's advance, because they had received threatening letters or other threats for various reasons.

Are any of your colleagues among those who have beenevacuated?

No one I know has been among the first contingents that left the country over the past few days. We are, of course, now waiting for information about what happens next. People first have to make it to the airport and then get through the American controls [of the US military there].

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You yourself worked for quite a while in Kabul and in Herat. The citadel of Herat is said to have already been taken by the Taliban. What information do you have?

I know that the Taliban captured the city a week ago Saturday and then occupied the citadel. Without a fight, though, so there was no damage. I don't know exactly what happened to the museum. A new administration has been appointed, and at the moment I assume that everything is okay in the citadel.

It's said that cultural artifacts should be moved to safe places. Is there any infrastructure like a depot in which the most important artifacts could be protected from attack?

That has been the plan, of course. It was easier a good 20 years ago. But now there was not enough time. In Herat, for example, there are no facilities for such a depot in the citadel.

You worked in Afghanistan at a time when it was relatively safe. You were protected by various armed forces. How important was this time for antiquities research?

The last 20 years have been enormously important. Afghanistan was an El Dorado for archaeologists even before 1979. The country is very rich in cultural treasures from a wide variety of periods and regions. In the last 20 years, research has progressed enormously.

Did you work a lot with local people? What did your work look like?

We first excavated the Bagh-e Babur (a garden complex in the old city of Kabul, editor's note) in Kabul for four years as part of a training program. At that time, I was working for the German Archaeological Institute. That started in 2002 — a time when everyone was optimistic, and Kabul was a partly destroyed but still very beautiful city. The spirit of optimism was incredible. I started working in Herat in 2005. A lot has changed in the time since then.

Would further destruction of these heritage sites void all the research?

Destruction would not nullify the research that has been done so far because it has been well documented. But of course the physical objects, monuments, and sites would be lost for the future.

Do you believe the Taliban's assurances that they will respect cultural treasures in the future?

I can't assess that at the moment. I hope that it is true. But there is a certain skepticism based on past experiences — and they go beyond the destruction of the Buddha statues in the Bamiyan Valley. After all, one hears that there have already been attacks in Bamiyan, including on the depots. It would be nice if the promise to protect the archaeological sites and to prohibit robbery excavations would be kept. That will be seen in the near future.

How confident are you that your colleagues will get out of Afghanistan and possibly be brought to Germany?

I very much hope that it will work out. It depends on many factors. And luck is certainly also involved.

This article was translated from German.