UNESCO in Afghanistan

Over many thousands of years, Afghanistan has been the home of many civilizations and different religions. Its rich historical culture has played a great and important role in the heritage of humankind. Over many generations, Afghanistan has attracted the attention of many historians, archaeologists, and an endless variety of scholarly researchers. Unfortunately, the economic, social, and cultural foundations of this country have been subject to tragic abuse and destruction over two decades of war and civil unrest. As a consequence, the country's cultural heritage has suffered irreversible damage and loss. 

The rehabilitation of Afghanistan's cultural heritage is one of the main priorities of the Government of Afghanistan and the international community. The challenge to rehabilitate the country's endangered cultural heritage is overwhelming, requiring significant mobilization of international and national support for the Afghan authorities and people. It is for this reason that the Ministry of Information and Culture of Afghanistan requested the international community to provide assistance and co-operation to meet this challenge through UNESCO. 

In January 2002, UNESCO was officially requested by Afghan Authorities to play a coordinating role in all international and bilateral activities aimed at safeguarding Afghanistan's cultural heritage. As a first step, in March 2002 a Memorandum of Understanding was signed with Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture, which entrusted UNESCO with the coordination of international efforts for the National Museum of Kabul.  

The foundation of UNESCO's approach towards the Afghan crisis is the need to help Afghanistan to help itself. Leadership of Afghanistan's recovery and rehabilitation process must rest with Afghans themselves. While external support is clearly vital, lasting peace and security must be developed and sustained from within. Activities  

In May 2002, the first International Seminar on the Rehabilitation of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage was held in Kabul under the coordination of the Ministry of Information and Culture of Afghanistan and UNESCO, in which 107 specialists in Afghan cultural heritage and representatives of donor countries and relevant institutions participated. During three-day seminar, scientific discussions were held concerning the importance, problems, and difficulties in the conservation and rehabilitation of the Afghan tangible and intangible cultural heritage and definition of practical and achievable priority actions to achieve this end. This Seminar resulted in more than US$ 7 million being pledged for priority projects. A ten-page document containing concrete recommendations for future action was adopted, in which the need to ensure effective cooperation was emphasized. 

From 16 to18 June 2003, UNESCO organized, in cooperation with the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture, the First Plenary Session of the International Coordination Committee (ICC) for the Safeguarding of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage in UNESCO HQs in Paris, which brought some 40 experts in the presence of representatives of the Member States. The meeting resulted in concrete recommendations which concern key areas such as development of a long-term strategy, capacity-building, implementation of the World Heritage Convention and the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, national inventories and documentation, as well as rehabilitation of the National Museum in Kabul, safeguarding of the sites of Jam, Herat and Bamyan. Several donors pledged additional funding for cultural projects. 

After the collapse of Taliban regime in December 2001, UNESCO sent a mission to identify and regroup the remains of various statues and objects in the Kabul Museum and to prepare a project for such restoration as winterization, a deep water well, an electric generator, new windows installation and so forth. In January 2003, the Greek Government initiated its restoration with a donation of some US$ 750,000, and the US Government contributed US$ 100,000. Together with NGOs, International experts and museums, UNESCO has been focusing on inventory of the collections, conservation and restoration of cultural and historical objects training and capacity-building activities for national experts. 

Following the decision of the World Heritage Committee at its 26 th session (June 2002 Budapest) and the approval of the international assistance, a training workshop was organized for the national and local authorities for the implementation of the World Heritage Convention in Kabul in Autumn 2003.  

Considering urgent need for capacity-building in the field of cultural heritage preservation in Afghanistan through training activities for national specialists, the institute has been currently under construction, funded by UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador Madanjeet Singh, and will be completed by the end of 2004.

Preserving historical and cultural property means a direct connection to inherit Afghan's history from the past. Donated by National Federation of UNESCO Associations in Japan, UNESCO is produced a short film on illicit looting and traffic of cultural artefacts, in order to raise awareness of the Afghan people to the value and thereto connected responsibilities in safeguarding the country's archaeological heritage. This film will be shown on national television, as well as in towns and villages around the country through "Mobile Cinema" project conducted by AINA. 

In view of countering looting and illicit traffic of Afghanistan's cultural property, Donated by the International Council of Museums (ICOMO), posters and leaflets have been produced in Dari, Pashto and English and distributed to the public. 

Funded by Felissimo Corporation of Japan, "Playground of my dream" was created to provide social services for the vulnerable young street working children and adolescents. The main objective of the project is to create a place where children can express themselves freely in safe, so that children could learn cultural, artistic and sports activities such as music, painting, playing sport and so forth. 

Under the implementation of the project donated by Japanese Funds-in-Trust, the following activities are foreseen; (1) the preservation of the mural paintings in the Buddhist caves (2) the preparation of Preliminary Master Plan of Bamyan to preserve the cultural landscape inscribed on the World Heritage List (3) the consolidation of the Small Buddha niche and its cliffs in the upper Eastern part and conservation of remaining pieces from the Large Buddha (4) the preparation of topographical maps and a digital 3 dimensional relief model of the Bamyan valley and its surroundings 


25 Afghan and international experts evaluated the present state of the site in Bamiyan, compared different conservation methods and issued recommendations for the implementation of the different activities of the project. The 1st working group was organized in November 2002 and in 2 December 2003. 

Following the decision of the World Heritage Committee at its 26th session (June 2002 Budapest) and the approval of the international assistance, a training workshop was organized in Herat for the national and local authorities for the implementation of the World Heritage Convention in Afghanistan in January 2004. 

The project started in May 2003 and consisted in carrying out emergency consolidation, conservation and restoration for the endangered monuments, in particular the Minaret of Jam. Funded by Italian government, the 5th Minaret in Herat, which was in imminent risk of collapse, was stabilized temporarily by means of steel cables in July and August 2003. 

Funded by German government, the Project "Retiling the Mausoleum of Gawhar Shad in Herat" has been implemented from February 2004 to July 2004. The objective of the project is to (1) train the staff members of department of Historical Monuments in Herat and local people to reproduce tiles necessary for the rehabilitation of the mausoleum, (2) promote and organize documentation, data collection on the monument, (3) retile and undertake the rehabilitation of the monument. 

In order to prevent the accumulation of silt and rubble at the base of the Minaret in Jam by possible flooding, this project had been implemented. A guesthouse was also re-built for international experts and national authorities for their foreseen work.  


Donated by Italian Government, the project will be executed to reactive the basic structures of Afghanistan's cultural heritage and to train personnel who are specialized in management and preservation, after reinstallation and reopening of the Islamic Museum at Rauza and Pre-Islamic Museum at Ghazni, which two are of the most important regional museums in Afghanistan.  


The Hellenistic age was Greece's period of greatest triumph. During this time, Greek culture, power, and control extended over the known world. Greek culture had already reached its zenith in the previous classical age. In the Hellenistic age, the Greeks actively exported their culture leaving lasting imprints on the civilizations that eventually grew out of these lands: the Romans, the Jewish Diaspora, Islam, and Christianity.  

Alexander the Great's conquests, and those of his father Philip of Macedon, laid the framework for this "Hellenization" of the known world. After his father united the Greek city-states, Alexander began his conquest of Asia Minor. After quickly defeating Persia and Egypt, Alexander pushed on all the way to Pakistan and India. He conquered Bactria, where the Hellenic world briefly touched and intertwined with the worlds of the Indus and the Siberian steppe. The terrain and the population were both harsh enemies, and the people were not easily pacified. Alexander married a Bactrian princess, Roxanne, gained a large Bactrian army, and left behind some 13,000 Greeks to inhabit and control the region. 

Alexander's further attempts to expand his kingdom met with opposition from his troops and he returned to his kingdom in 324 B.C. and died the next year. Alexander's empire was then divided amongst his generals, who fell into conflict with one another. 

Asia Minor fell under Greek influence for centuries during this Hellenistic period. Conflict between the dynasties of Alexander's former generals was constant but the standard of living rose enormously. Each of the new empires embarked on public service works and patronage of the arts, philosophy, science, and literature. Bactria itself became a mosaic of Persian, Chinese, Greek, and Indian cultures and provided a link and trade route between the East and the West. Greeks prospered in Bactria for roughly a century after Alexander's death until Bactria was conquered by nomads from the Chinese and Siberian steppes. 

In the winter of 1978-79, a joint Soviet-Afghan archaeological dig turned up 20,600 pieces of gold jewellery, funeral ornamentation, and other artefacts. This has become known as the Bactrian gold. The treasure comes from a site known to local Afghans as Tela Tapa, or "Mound of Gold", on a dusty plain in northern Afghanistan that runs from the northern foothills of the Hindu Kush Mountains down to the ancient Oxus River, now known as the Amu. The burial mound, not far from the modern town of Shiberghan, was probably a family cemetery belonging to rulers of one of the Kushan princedoms of the first century A.D.  

The Bactrian Gold is a rich variety of coins and other objects from before and after Alexander the Great's death. Among the finds: a Chinese mirror; coins from Parthia, Rome, and India; pieces of Greco-Bactrian art, and nomadic-flavoured pieces showing the influence of both Greece and Bactria were also found. 

This treasure trove, however, was feared lost. During the years of civil war and then Taliban rule, the gold's location was kept secret by a handful of museum workers and bank employees, and had been stored three floors down in the Central Bank vaults inside the Arg, the presidential palace. 

When the Taliban seized control of Kabul in 1996, they initially examined the vault in the Arg, but failed to discover the gold. Those who knew of the gold's whereabouts, however, began to worry as the Taliban began a systematic destruction of non-Islamic art. The war on Terror may have come just in time to save the gold.  

Recently, Afghan and foreign museum experts broke open the six safes inside the vault for the first time in more than 20 years and began compiling a computerized inventory of the gold for the Kabul Museum. The National Geographic Society provided state-of-the-art equipment to catalogue and photographs every item. Every single one of 20,600 gold pieces -- some as small as a fingernail – were found as they were left by the Soviet and Afghan archaeologists and museum workers who packed them in 1979.  

The treasure also includes thousands of small slivers of appliqué ornaments that decorated the funeral garments of the five women and one man found in the tombs, along with gold headdresses and richly worked pendants, dagger and sword hilts and scabbards carved with jewel-encrusted beasts. There are also belts, buckles, signet rings, an ornamental tree of gold and pearls, and even gold sandals.  


In a remote valley in Ghor province stands one of the most famous monuments of Afghanistan, the Minaret of Jam. The Hari Rud River flows rapidly by the lonely tower which is surrounded by barren mountains. The road is difficult to find and can only be negotiated by jeep or sports utility vehicle. After the village of Shahrak, a track to the left leads to the river where the minaret stands in complete isolation. It was only discovered in 1957 by an expedition led by Ahmad Ali Kohzad, president of Afghan Historical Society and French archaeologist Andre Maricq, although rumours of its existence had been circulating for some time. Built in the 12 th Century, it is the only well-preserved monument of the Ghori period. It is 65m in height, ranking second in the Islamic world, after the Kutub Minar in Delhi (73m) which was inspired by the Minaret.  

It consists of a low octagonal base some 8m across and three cylindrical stages. It is accessible through a set of double spiral staircases that run from the base to the circular top. The first is decorated with geometrical patterns in fired bricks, arranged in panels separated by vertical bands of Kufi calligraphy etched in stucco and accented with turquoise ceramics. A wide horizontal band of blue tiles with more Kufi inscription runs around the top end in which, in a line of naskhi, the name of the calligrapher is given as 'Ali'. The inscription includes the complete Sura 19 of the Holy Quran entitled as Maryam, the mother of Jesus. It speaks about Virgin Birth and numerous prophets such as Adam, Noah, Moses, Aaron, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Ishmael and Enoch. The second and third stages are decorated with horizontal bands of inscriptions, again in fired bricks. The stages were originally separated by galleries, which have not survived. Along the shaft are several balconies and at the top is a large lantern which has also collapsed. The Persian and Central Asian tradition can be seen in its rich ornament of glazed tiles, stucco and the profusion of carved bricks and the use of wooden tie-beams in the structure, which differ from the contemporary Ghorid monuments in India.  

The inscriptions confirm that the minaret was erected by Sultan Ghiyas ud-Din Muhammad ben Sam Ghuri (1163-1203), the ruler of Ghor. It was built, in all probability, around 1194 and is often linked with the legendary Ghorid capital, Firuzkuh (trans. 'turquoise mountain'), which was destroyed by Ghengis Khan in 1222 and the site of which has never been found. There is no conclusive evidence, however, to support this view.  

The minaret's beauty is not its only attraction. It is also of considerable importance to understanding the history of the Ghori Dynasty and the history of Islamic civilization and architecture. In this regard, much of its mystery has yet to be unveiled. Historians and archaeologists have wondered for decades about its initial purpose. A topographical survey of the site was made by Herberg and Davary, which showed in the immediate neighbourhood of the minaret the ruins of a citadel, a small fort on a hill guarding a side-valley, three watch-towers, a water reservoir on top of the hill above the citadel and the remnants of a bazaar area. However, all these remains seem to be those of a medium-sized fort or a military camp rather than a capital city. Apart from this, the space immediately east of the minaret is not large enough to accommodate a mosque. The river valley upstream from the site is impassable by road and no communication between Herat and Kabul could have passed that way. One theory is that it was a victory tower built to commemorate some forgotten event. Accordingly, the minaret remains a mystery. 

Perhaps more important in terms of immediacy is that threats continue to plague the Minaret. For years, the unguarded site has been the target of illegal excavations and looting. Experts say many items from the Ghori Period have vanished. Sections of the minaret's elaborate brickwork have been torn out and stones have been removed from the wall to be reused elsewhere. Today, there are many illegal digs along the north bank of the river.  

The minaret is also in danger of collapsing. Built at the junction of two rivers -the Hari Rud and the Jam Rud- the minaret is also threatened by water infiltration that could undermine it. A rescue operation originally undertaken by UNESCO in 1974, restarted in 1999 was completed in 2001. Also, although stabilization work to cope with a slight leaning has started, it will remain a persistent problem. Finally, another problem is a planned road that would cross the archaeological part of the site. 

These threats have led UNESCO's World Heritage Committee to add the site, which is already on its "World Heritage List" to its "World Heritage in Danger List" in an effort to raise awareness of the plight of the Minaret of Jam in the international community.