It has been more than 10 years since Shao Xuecheng did field work in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, as a PhD student researching the country’s archaeology and art. After completing his research he stayed in Afghanistan to help protect and restore cultural relics.
Recently, like many other international experts, due to the epidemic and other reasons, Shao has had to work remotely from home and use the internet to connect with local staff in Bamiyan. “The persistence of local staff in the field is crucial to our work.”
A museum in urgent need of protection
Afghanistan is a history museum of world civilizations. It sits at the crossroads of the ancient Silk Road where many different civilizations have left their “footprints”. And the complex mountainous plateau terrain has provided a natural shelter for fragile civilizations to escape the assimilation of dominant powers in different periods.
Therefore, it still has many historical traces of diverse cultures that are rarely found in other parts of the world. And one of the most famous treasures in this “museum” is the Bamiyan Archaeological and Cultural Landscape.
For half of the year, the valley is covered in snow. Whenever the snow melts or the rainstorms arrive, strong currents will form from the top of the mountain, resulting in the loss of rock mass and the collapse of cliffs, causing serious damage to Bamiyan’s monuments.
To this end, in the 1970s, UNESCO designed a drainage ditch system on the top of the cliffs to guide the flow of water. Since 2002, UNESCO has cooperated with ICOMOS to carry out regular maintenance of the drainage system.
However, following the collapse of the Afghan government in August 2021, all foreign staff were evacuated. Unable to leave the country, many local professionals went into hiding due to safety concerns and the maintenance work came to a standstill.
Prioritizing people or cultural heritage?
Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world, with little infrastructure and ability to resist natural disasters. International sanctions have frozen the country’s foreign exchange reserves and travel restrictions brought by the epidemic have further intensified the local humanitarian crisis.
It was in an atmosphere of extremely scarce resources that the Bamiyan Buddha was bombed 20 years ago, with many locals angry that money was being spent on cultural protection efforts.
In order to avoid repeating the same mistakes, Shao’s team has made preparations in advance. They have cooperated with some charity foundations and NGOs from China to launch humanitarian relief efforts, providing materials, food, and arranging local volunteers to help refugees.
Reorganization of the local team
As the humanitarian relief was being carried out, a miracle happened.
On the day of Nowruz (Spring Festival in Central Asia), one of the former local staff in Bamiyan was spotted by volunteers distributing food in a refugee camp.
Shao immediately contacted him via phone and both were relieved to able to speak to each other.
Greatly encouraged by the international assistance, the local staff regained their determination to help protect Bamiyan’s monuments. But without any project financial support, they are dependent on NGO donations to meet their living costs.
After a week of work, the Afghan staff dug out more than a dozen cubic meters of silt, completed the dredging of the blocked drains; cleaned more than 30 grottoes and installed doors and windows for a dozen of them; reinforced more than 10 ancient Islamic ruins, and recovered some cultural relics from nearby villagers.
Surprisingly, when the local governors heard of this, instead of objecting, they sent a letter of thanks to Shao, expressing gratitude for the humanitarian assistance, and promising to take measures to protect the safety of the local team.
“Change is happening!” Shao said, “Gratitude to all members of the local team, who are fighting to protect human civilization, with unparalleled courage.”
A previous CDB article had more information on the work of heritage conservation in Afghanistan.
[Chinese NGO steps in to help protect Afghan heritage
Article photo provided to CDB.