Accessibility links

Breaking News

Afghanistan: Tempers Flare In Dispute Over Display Of Ancient Artifacts

Some of Sultani's pieces on display in Kabul (RFE/RL) Decades of war have decimated much of Afghanistan's ancient heritage. Many historic architectural gems have been damaged or destroyed, and national treasures have been looted from museums or vandalized by the Taliban.

Amid the destruction, one Afghan expatriate has amassed a private collection containing thousands of artifacts -- some dating back thousands of years.

Ahmad Shah Sultani considers himself to be a savior of Afghanistan's cultural heritage. Though he has never learned to read or write, Sultani says he amassed a fortune and became an expert on Afghan artifacts as an antiquities dealer in Pakistan and London.

The former goldsmith's apprentice also says that he has spent millions of dollars during the past three decades for the 15,000 artifacts in his collection -- buying from other antiques dealers in Europe, Iran, Pakistan, and Dubai.

"I can't estimate any value for these pieces. Just the number of pieces," Sultani tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan. "They are priceless because these are ancient and no amount of money can replace them."

But Sultani's attempts to return the artifacts to Afghanistan and display them at an historic citadel in Herat have been blocked by the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture.

In 2005, when Sultani displayed about 3,000 artifacts from his collection at the National Gallery in Kabul, officials from the ministry praised his efforts to preserve Afghan culture.

The ministry also welcomed Sultani's plans to return more antiques to Afghanistan and establish as many as 20 museums around the country so that future generations of Afghans could learn about the culture of their forefathers.

Sultani also returned a few items he says he bought over the years that had been looted from the National Museum and National Gallery in Kabul.

Trading Accusations

But relations between Sultani and Kabul have soured since the appointment in 2006 of Abdul Karim Khoram as minister of information and culture.

That situation deteriorated further in recent weeks, with Khoram overruling a decision by Herat's provincial governor, Sayyad Hosayn Anwari, that would have allowed Sultani's collection to be housed at an ancient citadel in Herat known as Ekhtyaruddin Qala.

Work has been under way for years to transfer to the citadel what remains of government collections from the National Museum in Herat.

The former culture minister, Sayyed Makhdum Rahin, examines a Sultani artifact (RFE/RL)

But Khoram announced last week that displaying a private collection at the ancient fortress would threaten the government's attempts to get UNESCO to declare the citadel a protected World Heritage site.

Khoram also said displaying Sultani's collection at the citadel could threaten new archaeological work under way there.

Tempers came to a head two weeks ago when Khoram questioned Sultani's story about how he obtained the artifacts in the first place -- suggesting that Sultani may have contributed to the destruction of Afghan culture by supporting those who have plundered national treasures.

"I will repeat it once more that we are not sure what this gentleman is doing and what his activities are," Khoram tells RFE/RL. "And we don't know anything about the [source] of the artifacts that he already has displayed in Kabul."

When asked about Khoram's remarks, Herat Governor Anwari responded angrily and accused the minister of complicity in the destruction of Afghanistan because of his membership in the Islamist fundamentalist faction Hizb-e Islami.

"Mr. Khoram, as a member of Hizb-e Islami, is responsible for destroying Afghanistan along with his gang of bandits," Anwari says. "How can he accuse us -- saying that we have done this everywhere. Afghanistan was destroyed because of the political party that [Khoram] is a member of. And now he accuses us of this? The Afghan government should take this case seriously and investigate it. But if we are blamed for ignoring orders of the central government or the Ministry of Information and Culture, then we demand an investigation."

Historic Ethnic, Political Rivalries

Jean MacKenzie, the Afghanistan country director for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, says the dispute is more than just an argument between government officials and would-be donors. She says the arguments reflect a broader trend in Afghanistan -- the resurgence of political and ethnic divisions that have plagued the country for decades.

"We've got the governor of Herat, who is [Hazara] -- a different ethnic group than the [ethnic Pashtun] minister of information and culture," MacKenzie says.

"And rather than debate the issue on its merits, he is throwing around character-assassination-type terms [against Khoram] like 'former commander' and bringing Hizb-e Islami into the picture, which raises the specter of fundamentalism," she continues. "And it is, of course, directed against the Pashtuns. So I think what we are seeing is more and more of this lack of debate where ethnic and political divides are coming more and more to the fore."

For his part, Sultani says he is so angry at Khoram that he will no longer try to establish museums across the country.

Sultani says that he has decided he won't allow his collection to be displayed in Afghanistan even if President Karzai overrules Khoram's decision against housing artifacts at Herat's ancient citadel.

RFE/RL Afghanistan Report

RFE/RL Afghanistan Report

SUBSCRIBE For regular news and analysis on Afghanistan by e-mail, subscribe to "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report."