Museum reveals the desecration at hands of the Taliban

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The doors of the world's saddest museum swung open yesterday when journalists were allowed for the first time to see the desecration wrought by the Taliban in the National Museum of Afghanistan.

It was in their final, iconoclastic phase – after they had blown up the giant standing Buddhas at Bamiyan in March this year – that senior officials of the Taliban regime, including two ministers, visited Kabul's famous museum. They arrived with a team of men carrying sledgehammers, then stood around in transports of delight as Afghanistan's cultural history was reduced to rubble.

After three days they repaired to the Ministry of Culture where, over three months, they meted out the same treatment to the priceless antiquities stored in the basement.

The justification for this cultural holocaust was, according to the Taliban's uniquely rigid and reductive interpretation of Islam, that all depiction of the human form is taboo. Hence their notorious bans on photography, television and the use of cameras; hence, also, their attempt to erase all evidence of one of the world's most fascinating schools of classical sculpture.

After five years in power, the Taliban are melting into history. But they are taking with them into the dark practically everything that linked the country to its past. Their crowning achievement was to make Afghanistan a cultural orphan in the world, taking anything that could remind Afghans of their country's pre-Islamic past.

Mir Ghulam Navi, a curator in the museum's restoration department, recalled the day in April when the Taliban arrived. "It was a big surprise,'' he told The Independent. "They turned up in a large group, the Minister of Culture and the Minister of Finance and a delegation from [the Taliban leader] Mullah Mohammed Omar. They said, 'We want to see the museum'. They came with 10 men with hammers and began smashing the sculptures of human forms.

"We couldn't stop them – they said they would kill us if we tried. It was miserable to watch it,'' he said. Another curator, Mir Haider Mutihar, who is now acting deputy Minister of Culture under the Northern Alliance's interim administration, led us into the museum's underground store and indicated a pile of haphazardly broken bits of rock on the floor. They are all that remains of a limestone statue of a figure, dating from the second century AD, which has been tentatively identified as King Kanishka.

The statue was found with many other treasures about 40 years ago by French archaeologists excavating at a place called Surkh Kotal, 145 miles north of Kabul, the site of an ancient temple. "It was exhibited in the hall of the museum,'' said Mr Mutihar. "They smashed it there and we later brought the fragments into the basement. It was one of the first things they broke. The Minister of Culture and the Finance Minister and their bodyguards were watching. They were very happy.''

Nearby in the store was all that remains of a seated Bodhisattva, discovered in the ruins of a fourth-century AD Buddhist monastery at Tepe Maranjan in Kabul. Only the legs folded in the lotus position, beautifully draped, remain. The semi-naked torso, the folded hands, the face with its ineffable expression of serenity, all have been reduced to dust.

Gone, too, though the rubble is elsewhere – probably in the bowels of the Ministry of Culture – are the carvings that give Afghanistan a unique place in the history of sculpture: the "cockpit of Asia'' where Buddhist teaching from India met iconographic traditions from Greece and Persia and produced, in the seventh century AD, a school of Buddhist sculpture that travelled along the Silk Road all the way to China and Japan. All of that is gone now, except whatever may be found in museums and private collections abroad and in books.

"They spent three months smashing objects in the ministry," said Mr Mutihar. "They told me to hold up each piece for them so they could see whether or not it represented human form. It was as if they were killing my own children."

Above the museum's entrance, Afghanistan's interim rulers have hung a banner that reads: "A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive." If peace prevails in Afghanistan, it can be expected that a campaign to restore the museum will be launched, though nothing has yet been announced.

It will be a huge undertaking. As the Taliban retreated from Kabul on 13 November, they found time to call into the museum one last time and vandalise some more artefacts, this time completely at random.