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Balkh, Afghanistan- A relative of Gul Agha unwraps an alleged antiquity found 15 years ago in a canal. The high-relief carving shows a man and woman in Kushan style with a servant. Most experts believe the piece to be a fake. No one wanted their face to be visible.

A young boy holds up a high-relief carving found by a relative in Balkh, a city in northern Afghanistan. Because unauthorized digging is illegal, none of the farmers wanted their faces shown.

Photograph by John Wendle

John Wendle in Afghanistan

for National Geographic

Published August 1, 2013

Part of our weekly "In Focus" series—stepping back, looking closer.

The battered white Corolla rumbles down a rocky road past fields of okra and great earthen mounds topped by the crumbling remains of ancient battlements. Taking a hard right and then a hard left, the old car bounces up onto a small dirt soccer field and jerks to a stop.

"All of this is the tepe," says Abdul Wahid, a neatly dressed farmer in his 40s, pointing at a dirt expanse so pitted it looks like it has been carpet-bombed. He gets out of the car and walks over crumbling humps of dirt, skirting pits left by looters.

"You see that big hole over there," he says, gesturing. "During the civil war, some people were working it and they took out a lot of things." Still, there is more to find, he says.

Abdul Wahid is showing me around the tepe, or hill, across the dirt lane from his compound in Balkh—a city in northern Afghanistan that ancient Arab explorers once called Umm Al-Belaad or "Mother of Cities" for its great antiquity. For decades he and his family have looted this site inside the much larger urban complex of ancient Balkh, believed to have been a spiritual center of Zoroastrianism, and wealthy enough to have been deemed worthy of sacking by both Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. Indeed, over the millennia, Afghanistan has been a crossroads of both cultures and armies, resulting in chaos and opportunity.

(See photos of Afghanistan's looted cultural treasures.)

"The civil war was a good time for us because we could dig even during the day," says Abdul Wahid. "In 1991 I found a big platter with about five or six other guys from the village. There were pictures of animals on it. We sold it for $600 and divided the money."

Walking around, broken pottery clinks under our shoes. Here and there turquoise potsherds blaze in the dust, haphazardly uncovered by rain or the hooves of goats. "The history here is important to the people, but they are very poor. For this reason they sell these things," he says.

Poverty and War Opened Doors to Looters

Today, though, some safeguards exist, at least around this site. As I wander away, eyes locked to the ground, he warns me, "You cannot walk in that direction. There is a police checkpoint that way. If they see people walking up here looking around, they will call you over and question you."

Abdul Wahid says the arrival of foreign archaeologists and the creation of a police checkpoint to stem illegal digging has changed the situation. "I don't work over here anymore. The people are not happy with them digging here. The only people who are happy are the poor people who are getting a salary excavating the site."

Despite these official efforts to control art theft, the war has been a boon for both looters and smugglers—he first two links in the supply chain that gets artifacts out of the ground and on the way to dealers around the world. Yet, this problem could take a turn for the worse when the majority of foreign military forces withdraw at the end of 2014. Both Afghan and foreign observers worry that the vacuum created once the troops leave could lead to a return to the anarchy of the pre-Taliban days of the civil war and a parallel rise in the vulnerability of cultural heritage.

"We'll just have to wait and see. The worst and the best have not been written in this country yet," says Philippe Marquis, the director of DAFA, the French archaeological delegation in Afghanistan, which is running the dig in Balkh.

"The looting of archaeological sites is first of all an economic problem, then a political one. If people are looting, it is because they want money. So, if the economic situation worsens after the withdrawal, I would say that people will go back to [looting] antiquities," he says.



Priceless Finds in the Fields

After a few more minutes looking around, Abdul Wahid invites me to his neighbor's house. The base of a column serves as the first step into the guestroom. I gingerly put my weight on it, step inside and take off my shoes. Mohammad Hassan, an older farmer, shakes my hand and reaches into a hidden pocket, pulling out a piece of light-blue cloth tied in a tight bundle. Inside the rag is a heavy black plug of stone, a stamp flecked with green. On one side of the stamp two lions are fighting. Lying next to it is a small glass vial. I catch the glint of gold.

Hassan carefully pulls the stopper and drops the contents into my palm. The face of a man peers up at me. With a full beard, he looks much like Hassan, though the face also has a drooping mustache and a band around the forehead. "We put the dirt from a field we were leveling onto a screen and poured water over it. This is what I found. This is the first face we have ever found. Now we know what they looked like."

Another farmer wants to show me a big artifact he has found, so we all head over to a raised earthen platform in the deep shade of a sycamore grove on the edge of a nearby okra field. A group of farmers is waiting for me. One drags a woven sack into the middle of the circle. Unwrapping layer after layer of ragged bags, he reveals a high-relief Kushan statue of a man and woman and servant, draped in robes like those worn by the great Buddhas in Bamyan before they were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.

"You're the first foreigner to see it," says Gul Agha. "I found it around 15 years ago during the time of the Taliban." He wants $10,000 for it. When I ask how he feels about having such a remarkable piece of history in his hands, he shrugs. "I didn't have any reaction when I found it. When I get the money, then I'll be happy. Now it's just a rock for me," he says.

All of these farmers are keen to part with these pieces of antiquity, and the sooner the better. "If I took the golden head to Mazar-i-Sharif [the nearby provincial capital] and the police found it at one of the checkpoints, they'd arrest me. They'd ask me why I have this thing. We are poor people and if the police find us with this sort of thing, they'll cause problems for us," says Hassan. "Here, it's fine. If it's a small thing, it's fine with the police. But if it's a bigger thing, then we can have a problem, even here. The police don't care about small things." The blind eye—and worse—has allowed the plundering of Afghanistan's cultural heritage on a vast scale.

Industrial-Scale Theft

"There is a common saying in northern Afghanistan that there are four seasons: an opium season, a hashish season, winter, and a fourth season for digging up antiquities," says Marquis, the DAFA chief. "I would say that 99 percent of the archaeological sites in Afghanistan have been looted. But the difference between 30 years ago and today is the extent of the looting and also that people are organized to do the looting, which was not the case before. The quantity, the extent of the looting, it's very difficult to call it industrial, but I would say it is huge, huge quantities," he says.

While no exact figures exist—U.S. and Afghan customs, UNESCO, archaeologists, curators, and experts in the U.S., the U.K., and Afghanistan will offer only rough estimates for the number of artifacts looted and illegally trafficked abroad—the consensus is that Afghanistan is rapidly losing its heritage on a vast scale.

"If we go to the countryside, very large sites and very small sites have been systematically targeted. We have medieval towns, Greek cities, and Bronze Age cemeteries that have been methodically dug over—not just the work of amateurs with a shovel, but hundreds of workmen being managed and working for the trade," says St. John Simpson, author of Afghanistan: A Cultural History and senior curator for the pre-Islamic collections from Iran and Arabia at the British Museum.

Although the scale of looting in Afghanistan is unique, the plundering of war zones is not. From the wars in Iraq to the bitter civil war in Syria, down to the sacking of Rome by the Vandals, the looting of antiquities and valuables has gone hand-in-hand with warfare. "We generally see industrial-scale looting begin to occur when there is a withdrawal of government stability, when there is a period of lawlessness," says Brian Daniels, the director of research and programs at the University of Pennsylvania's Penn Cultural Heritage Center and a specialist in cultural heritage policy.

If the industrial level of digging is not slowed or halted before the pullout at the end of next year, when the Afghan government will increasingly be on its own, it could prove catastrophic, since Afghanistan's unique history remains largely undocumented. With both Alexander the Great and Buddhism figuring prominently before the coming of Islam, "Afghanistan was the easternmost extent of Western culture and the westernmost extent of Eastern culture," says Sara Noshadi, a UNESCO program officer in Kabul.

Yet, even Afghanistan's unique place in history has not mobilized foreign governments to help protect the country's ancient heritage against looters. "Unfortunately, cultural heritage is never going to be as high on the radar as counterterrorism or drugs," says Simpson.


 A picture of a massive defensive wall in Balkh, Afghanistan
The sun rises over an ancient wall protecting the southern approach into Balkh. The earthen wall, some 30 feet (9 meters) thick at its base and 30 feet high, stretches for more than half a mile.

Photograph by John Wendle


Fighting Back

Doing what little it could, in 2004 the Afghan government passed the Law on the Protection of Historical and Cultural Properties. The law states, in part, "All historical and cultural properties, movable or immovable, in Afghanistan, discovered or hidden in the earth, are the property of the State by virtue of this law, thus any kind of transfer of such property without permission is considered as theft." It also specifies, "An owner of land cannot take possession of historical and cultural properties unearthed or hidden in the earth, or excavate them, by the virtue of ownership of that land."

But laws are hard to enforce in Afghanistan, and the problem remains so severe that the International Council of Museums released the Red List of Afghanistan Antiquities at Risk in 2006 to help raise public awareness. From the pre-Islamic period, the document lists ceramics, copper arrowheads, metal cosmetic jars, stone clubs, coins, manuscripts, and Buddhist sculpture as possible targets for illegal export. From the Islamic period, manuscripts, metalwork, tiles, and pottery are on a long list of pieces in danger of being smuggled.

What is high on the smugglers' list is getting antiquities—as well as narcotics and people—out of Afghanistan without being caught. Herat, an ancient city on Afghanistan's western border with Iran, has always been a trading city, and is known for its antiquities. From here, a blacktopped road snakes between the neglected, tottering, but awe-inspiring minarets of Sultan Hussain Baiqara and out of the city, through the desert toward the Iranian border.

The road is thronged with cars, transport and fuel trucks, and motorized rickshaws. But some of these vehicles will never see the border control checkpoint, choosing instead to sneak to the border through the desert. "Just because a place is remote does not mean we do not control it," insists Brigadier General Sher Mohammad Maladani, commander of the Afghan Border Police in the area.

But even a small measure of control is hard to achieve. "They have 101 border posts along 710 miles of desert border. They are so spread out it's easy for smugglers to slip between the posts," says Lieutenant Colonel David Larson, head of a 17-man contingent from the Wisconsin National Guard assigned to mentor and train the border police in Herat.

"The Torkham Gate border crossing at the Khyber Pass [on the border with Pakistan] is much more formal," adds Larson, who spent nearly a year stationed at the Khyber on a previous deployment. Indeed, the border crossing at the famous Khyber Pass is more regulated. But, while this is so, it is also true that it is thronged with dense crowds of pedestrians passing unchecked between Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is mostly across this border that Afghan antiquities pass.

"During Eid ul Fitr [the holiday marking the end of Ramadan] there are almost 40,000 people going back and forth between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and nobody checks any of them. So you could just carry anything," says Reza Mohammadi, a field coordinator for the UN's Conference on Trade and Development, highlighting the consensus among experts that Pakistan is the border most used for smuggling antiquities out of Afghanistan.

"Ironically, in Afghanistan it might have been the case that there was so much instability during the civil war, that even if you looted something, you couldn't get it out of the country. Now with the Americans and the current warlord system, you could have a more stable system and thus a more organized illicit trade," says Daniels.

Although no statistics exist on the number of artifacts looted and smuggled out of the country, one number does stand out. "I have a report for the past three years from our customs declaration system for the whole country, and there were zero antiquities seized or even declared at customs at border crossings. The trafficking for heritage does not go through customs," says Mohammadi, a former customs officer with 24 years of experience in Iran, Jordan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and other countries. "If I was a smuggler, why would I take the risk and go through customs?" Mohammadi says.


 A picture of a young jeweler in Afghanistan
A fragile piece of pottery sits intact on a young jeweler's workbench. Though the dirt coating the piece makes it seem authentic, skilled artisans produce high-quality frauds for the international market.

Photograph by John Wendle


Flying Away

Yet, in the end, roads do not matter. For valuable items, it is easier to fly them out.

One consequence of the foreign presence in Afghanistan is that the country has gone from being inaccessible to being connected by direct flights to cities throughout the Persian Gulf, India, Turkey, Central Asia, and Russia. Many of these locations have become waypoints on the international antiquities smuggling circuit. This has made Kabul International Airport a locus for the smuggling of all sorts of contraband—and, with only ten customs officers divided into three shifts per day, it is easy to do.

"The airport is not surrounded by customs; it is not controlled by customs. Customs only checks one gate, and there are 12 gates at Kabul Airport," says Mohammadi. What is more, freight carriers like DHL and TNT are "not checked by customs at all. They use Bagram Airfield, which is checked by U.S. soldiers who are only looking for explosives, not antiquities," he says.

Yet, manpower and lack of full control are not the only problems. UNESCO last week signed a memorandum of understanding with the Afghan customs department. The agreement will see UNESCO paying for the instruction of customs officers in the identification of antiquities.

"Until now, there was no instruction in antiquities, and there were no special officers to deal with antiquities," says a customs official. Now, with the training, the officers have a slightly better chance of identifying artifacts—but not much better, since they will receive only 16 hours of training in the subject. "Which, I think, is more than enough," the official maintains.

UNESCO's Noshadi laments this state of affairs. "In Iran, the customs officials have training for two months just on carpets. We have two days to cover everything."

Besides lack of training, Afghanistan faces legal hurdles as well. "There is actually no legal mechanism to restrict the illicit trade of Afghan antiquities in the U.S. unless it's worth over $5,000," says the Penn Center's Daniels. "The U.S. actually has several different ways of dealing with foreign cultural property. The problem is that in the Afghan case none of them apply particularly well," he says.

Blood Antiquities

But buyers are not primarily based in the U.S. "There is a pretty prominent market across the globe, really. And it's not only wealthy Western European collectors; it's also wealthy expat Indian and Chinese collectors, especially when it comes to Buddhist materials," says Daniels.

Although there have been some efforts at raising awareness of "blood antiquities" in the West to discourage the trade, similar work has not been done around the world. Western Europe remains a primary destination for artifacts, but as Eastern economies have boomed, collecting has grown in places like Russia, the United Arab Emirates, and Singapore. Dubai and Singapore now act as the major gateways, which is a shift away from traditional transit routes like Switzerland. "There has been a real concerted effort to stem the flow of material through Switzerland. And it has had real consequences. Today, there is a definite nexus between Afghan material and Dubai," says Daniels.

Yet, some positive steps have been taken. "At least in a few provinces there is less looting than there was before," says DAFA's Marquis—possibly the result of villagers being hired for five dollars a day to excavate sites they once looted for three dollars a day. "And we are working to try to raise the awareness of the Afghans about their history and to also get more training for the people at customs to improve their ability to curtail smuggling. We are on the way to improvement."

But, in a strange twist, the more definitive factor slowing the flight of artifacts from Afghanistan may be another war in another ancient place. "In a way, the war and the development of looting in Syria could push Afghan artifacts into second place. Now that people are going to have exceptionally good antiquities from Syria, my guess is that the intrinsic value of antiquities from Afghanistan is going to be lower and that may save a part of it, because it comes down to a question of market demand," says Marquis.

The U.S. withdrawal at the end of 2014 may also have an unexpected positive effect. If instability increases with the pullout, the number of airports and flights could decrease, says Mohammadi. "This will narrow the amount of ways to get out of the country without going through customs, which could force smugglers to go through customs," he says.

But, even with these questionable improvements, for now Afghanistan's cultural heritage remains under threat. "If we believe Afghanistan will be at peace at some point, then we have to work to preserve their cultural heritage now, or nothing will be left," says Noshadi. "Afghans need their heritage to build their identity, to build their state. But the history of Afghanistan is not yet written, and without archaeological artifacts it will never be fully known."

Elix Vaughn Felix
Elix Vaughn Felix

Too sad. They are stealing their own heritage but I can't blame them. They have empty stomachs to fill.

Lauren Petersen
Lauren Petersen

I think that people are focusing on the loss of commercial value, rather than the lack of preservation of the heritage value that these items and places holds speaks volume for our western culture.  These people are starving, do you really think they care about potential tourism?  Nope nope nope.

It's devastating that these items are being looted, sold, and disappearing into the world with so little documentation.  They are just floating fragments of a lost world..  the archivist and heritage conservation enthusiast in me is crying right now. 

Joan Hamann
Joan Hamann

This is little publicity, such beautiful things.  Would love to see this go on a world tour.  What the Afghan people could do with the money from that type of tour. 

Joe Wooten
Joe Wooten

I don't know what is sadder, the looting of history detailed here...or the idea that I am the only one commenting...


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