Nearly three years ago I addressed the issue of looted, neglected or destroyed treasures of the world - whether the value of rare, ancient art and artifacts should be measured in regional and nationalistic terms or do they represent the foot prints of history pertinent to all humankind and therefore qualify as global treasures? I wrote:
Those of us born in antique lands with long and continuously evolving histories spanning several centuries and millennia, will identify with the question I am about to pose. It pertains to the theft and sale of ancient artifacts that leave the countries of their origin and find new homes in the museums and private collections elsewhere in distant lands. Trafficking in art and artifacts flows exclusively in one direction - from the poorer nations to the more prosperous ones. India, China, Egypt and much of the middle and far east have seen ancient religious and cultural artifacts leave native shores and surface in Europe and America. The fact that much of the art was "taken" by occupiers and colonizers often without even an unscrupulous middleman making money from the sales, is a particularly touchy and often painful aspect of this transfer.
But the story is not as simple as it would appear on considerations of ownership alone. Many valuable objects were taken or stolen during colonial times. In the modern era after independence of the host nations, some were acquired legally while others changed hands illegally on the black market. Most countries now ban the sale or transfer of antiquities but rare and ancient artifacts continue to find their way into public and private collections beyond the borders. It is difficult to speculate on the possible fate of the artifacts had they been left where they originally belonged. Would the local governments and museums have had the will or the wherewithal to offer them the wide exposure and pride of place they have come to enjoy in western museums? Or would they have crumbled, gathered dust and disappeared altogether? Do poorer nations have the capability to care for their priceless ancient heritage? Given the immediate economic concerns of more pressing nature, should that even be their priority? There is even a question about how much value locals assign to ancient stone piles and crumbling edifices from a long forgotten era. Can those who are embattled by today's precarious existence, worry about yesterday's fine art? While "creating" art is the prerogative of the poor and the rich alike, is "preserving" art a luxury afforded only by the wealthy? The dilemma is indeed a wrenching one - place of origin or centers of preservation and greater visibility? This is a bit like asking, "Are endangered species better off in their threatened and disappearing habitat or in a well kept zoo?" Should destitute and incapable parents give up their children for adoption or let them struggle and languish in a desperate family milieu? Difficult to answer.
There is another disconcerting factor to consider here other than the priority and capability of less prosperous nations to preserve their heritage. The political tensions that can often overrun the national psyche in developing nations can put historical treasures at risk. Changing ideologies can make monuments and artifacts belonging to opposing political or religious camps vulnerable to vindictive abuse. Think the rampage of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Think Babri Masjid in India. Think the magnificent Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan.
Ah, the Bamiyan Buddhas! I am not overly sentimental about the disappearance of antique treasures, especially those that are lost to the usual ravages of time. But I find their deliberate destruction for political or religious extremist causes repulsive. The demolition of the nearly 1500 year old colossi of Buddha, in the Bamiyan region of Afghanistan in 2001 by Taliban zealots was unforgivably barbaric, in my angry opinion. The images built in the Greco-Indian style that the local Muslim villagers had peacefully co-existed with for centuries, calling them by the endearing names of Big Neighbor and Small Neighbor, dated back to the Gandhara period when Buddhism flourished in Afghanistan. Ignorant religious fanatics thought nothing of reducing them to rubble for the sake of ideological purity, depriving the world of an awesome ancient record of inspired artistic tribute.
Yesterday a friend and I went to see the exhibition Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul, currently on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. The exhibit comprises ancient treasures of art, worship and craftsmanship, some archaeological finds dating back to the Bronze Age. The mostly pre-Islamic relics hark back to Afghanistan's mercurial early history influenced in turn by early Greek and Indian conquerors as well as the central Asian nomads who passed through its rugged terrain. The art treasures were rescued and kept hidden by Afghan museum curators and art lovers from the rage filled eyes of the Taliban lest they too became prey to the same fate that befell the Bamiyan Buddhas.
My friend and I found the well designed exhibition admirable and the efforts of those who saved the treasures of their ravaged nation from disappearing, even more so. An excerpt from the museum brochure:
Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul explores the rich cultural heritage of ancient Afghanistan from the Bronze Age (2500 B.C.) through the rise of trade along the Silk Road in the first century A.D.
Strategically located on the commercial routes between China and India in the East and Europe in the West, Afghanistan was at the crossroads of civilizations in Central Asia. This unique blend of cultures and artistic styles is seen in nearly 230 artworks: Bronze Age incised gold vases; bronze and stone sculptures of Greek heroes; graceful ivory apsaras, the beautiful women of Indian tradition; Roman type glass vessels and plaster reliefs; magnificent Persian and Scythian style gold jewelry; as well as distinctively local works. Gold ornaments from the famed Bactrian hoard, a 2,000-year-old treasure cache discovered in 1978 but hidden from view until 2003, are included. Visitors also will gain insight into how the artifacts survived the recent decades of war and chaos and will learn the stories of heroic Afghans who risked their lives to save these and other national cultural treasures from destruction during Soviet occupation and Taliban rule.
More, including slide shows, on the Hidden Tresures exhibits in the National Geographic.