By: Bijan Rohani

A large shipment of Afghani historical artefacts dating back to between 1 BC and 5 BC were discovered and confiscated in Karachi, Pakistan last summer.

The discovery of this shipment along with other contraband movements of Afghani artefacts has rung the alarm bells for the historical heritage of this region. INTERPOL and cultural experts says it is highly likely that Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan have now overtaken the Mesopotamian region as hotbeds for the smuggling of historical artefacts.

According to the Applied Archaeological Research Centre in London, in contrast to Iraq, where the people and public discourse was sensitive to the threat to the country’s artistic and cultural heritage and widespread campaigns were launched to stop such smuggling, currently there is no such action in Afghanistan, and the illegal trade of Kandahar’s rtefacts is not generally considered to be wrong or an unacceptable business. Now a large piece of Kandahar’s artistic heritage is appearing on the global market. The sheer volume of these artefacts reveals that a huge wave of contraband in Afghani artefacts is on the way.

Some experts have suggested that many of the shipments that are being discovered in Karachi may be fake, but the fact remains that interested buyers of Kandahar artefacts are on the rise among art collectors, which is creating opportunities for local smugglers of antiquities and artefacts.

The Wondrous Art of Kandahar

Kandahar’s artistic style is a reference to Buddhist artefacts, which were produced in the Kandahar region from roughly 1 BC to about 7 AD It is said to be influenced by Greek art brought to the region by the successor to Alexander the Great and reached its apex during the Kushans rule. The Kushans were the eastern neighbours of the Parthians and ruled a large region in Middle Asia and Northern India from 1 AD to 4 AD. The Kushans worshipped the Buddha, which explains the large volume of Buddhist artefacts left behind in this region. The giant Buddha statues of Bamiyan are also dated to the same era. The artefacts in the region are thus a combination of classical Greek, Buddhist and Indian art and culture.The first manifestations of the Buddha in human form are seen in these artefacts. The Kandahar artefacts depict the visage and life of the Buddha, which are probably drawn from real life models. The human face of the Buddha enters the Buddhist art form from about 2 BC to about 1 BC and was never seen prior to these dates. In earlier Buddhist work, the Buddha was depicted through symbols such as the tree, footprints, the wheel or other icons, and sometimes a vacant space pointed to the presence of the Buddha. In the Kandahar pieces, the Buddha is depicted realistically in calm and quiet portraits. His toga is reminiscent of the toga worn by Greek and Roman men and is worn in the exact same manner. Kandahar also has the first known examples of oil paintings in history.

Some art historians have also seen the influence of Iranian art on Kandahar art. While the human depiction of the Buddha reveals Greek influences, elements such as burners and rings of fire connect it to Iranian art. Archaeological findings also reveal hints of Iranian architecture in Kandahar’s Buddhist temples from this era, with elements such as central yards and surrounding corridors.


New Customers of Buddhist Art

Two thousand years after the creation of these works of art, new customers are lining up to acquire them from smugglers in exchange for exorbitant sums of money. The artefacts that leave the country illegally ultimately reach Europe and the United States. They first make a stop in Dubai. After a large shipment of these artefacts was spotted in Dubai in 2007, more security measures were put in place at the Dubai airport and customs but they have not stopped the flood of these artefacts into Dubai.

Now, in addition to the main customers in Europe and the U.S., the rich collectors in Dubai, the Persian Gulf region and the Middle East have joined the bandwagon, paying high prices for such acquisitions. Recently an informed source in the UAE, refusing to be identified, told Britain’s The Art Newspaper that the palaces of Dubai sheiks host sales of antiquities to special customers on certain days of the week. The report indicated, however, that many of the rich customers often lack expertise and may pay high prices for a duplicate.

All evidence points to a significant increase in the looting of the Buddhist artefacts of Kandahar, and the smugglers and local illegal excavators are connected to a larger criminal network on the international level, a criminal ring that may be using the revenues generated from the sale of the antiquities to acquire arms.




[translated from the original in Persian]