Afghanistan 2021. New Challenges for Cultural Heritage and Peace in the Wider Area

The following article is about cultural heritage of Afghanistan. Human lives are far more important than cultural heritage and the main priority of national and international organizations should be focused to save lives
by Sotiriou Konstantinos-Orfeas

The ongoing instability in Afghanistan once more has raised questions about the fate of cultural heritage of Afghanistan . This cultural crossroad has seen several cultures bloomed throughout the centuries such as Bactria-Mariana, a prehistoric civilization spreading in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan as well. Then the area was known as Bactria and Sogdiana, provinces of the vast Persian Empire conquered and annexed to the Great Alexander’s Kingdom. After Alexander’s death, the Greek-Bactrian Kingdom flourished under the rules of kings such as Diodotus, Heliocles, Eucratides, Menander, Apollodotus and Demetrius to name just a few. Besides this the country experienced cultures such as Kushans, Indo-Sassanids, Kabul Shahi, Saffarids, Samanids, Ghaznavids, and many more.

There were seven ancient Greek cities scattered all over Afghanistan, such as Alexandria in the Oxus River (Ai-Khanoum), Alexandria in the Caucasus, Alexandria in Arachosia and Alexandria Ariana to name but a few.
As a result, the soil of Afghanistan still hosts ancient artefacts waiting to be found through legal scientific excavations, or through looting. The latter creates insurmountable difficulties for the entire region due to the fact that money from illicit trafficking of cultural heritage objects could be fund terrorist groups.

This should ring the bell in the entire international community and Organizations forcing them to focus on how to stop this devastating phenomenon.

Nowadays, the illicit trafficking of cultural heritage property seems to be divided in two different levels. The first one is the “non-physical” level. A potential buyer could access to objects for sale from the couch of his /her house with the use of technology, like social media, closed groups and dark web which recently have been used for trafficking of cultural heritage objects (among other illegal objects).

But there is also a “physical” level as well. That of receiving the objects. That part includes that somehow the artefacts must be transfer from Afghanistan to other countries, and there are two choices for smugglers.

The one is to use air transfer which in our case is quite difficult. Commercial flights have stopped between Afghanistan and other countries. Even if we assume commercial flights will start again under Taliban regime, these flights will be placed in the “red list” of flights for custom officials around the world. Meaning that, extensive checks for baggage and passengers which equals to great risk for smugglers will occur at their arrival.

The other way is the traditional way, transfer the stolen objects via land. Here is where international community should focus.

Afghanistan shares land borders with Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China, and Pakistan. By training Border Troops in land borders and Police Officers responsible for the security in the refugee camps of the above-mentioned countries to identify questionable objects when Afghan citizens, refugees or vehicles entering their country the chances to mitigate the illicit trafficking of cultural heritage objects from Afghanistan will surely be increased. With that way, a security circle around the country will be made incommode smugglers efforts to export stolen / looted cultural heritage objects. We must not forget that Afghanistan hosts an impressive manuscript collection besides countless other cultural heritage obejcts.

Summarizing all the above, it is more than important to strengthen cooperation and efforts around a problematic area in order to eliminate spin-off effects. Already U.S.A, Uzbekistan and Pakistan have agreed about the creation of a platform for regional cooperation . In that sense, international organizations must create join actions in order to maintain peace in the area of Central Asia by mitigating illicit trafficking of cultural heritage objects from Afghanistan.

Sotiriou Konstantinos Orfeas is a Senior Civil Servant, alumnus of the Hellenic National School of Public Administration and Local Government. Nowadays, he works for the Hellenic Organization for Cultural Resources Development, and he is an External Expert/Lecturer of Multinational Peace Support Operations Training Center of Hellenic Army. Also, he is a former Police Sergeant who have worked at the Cultural Heritage and Antiquities Department of Hellenic Police, and he holds a Bachelor and a Master in Archaeology