Looted treasure

The perception about Muslims in light of the destruction of artefacts in Iraq by ISIS or the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan is that Islam does not care for culture... Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia- countries where heritage is respectively smashed, smuggled, blown-up and paved over.

Islam obviously has a rich history of engagement with art and Muslim destruction of icons and sculptures is a misread practice. The subtleties of Islamic traditions in art are lost to global audiences today, and this is made worse by cases of looting and smuggling of art objects from Pakistan to western markets.

There are two things happening in the path to destruction of Islamic art, specifically art in South Asia. The first is acts like the 2001 destruction of the 5th to 7th century Buddhas in Bamiyan in Afghanistan. The second is illicit trade of smaller sculptures that can be exported. This is especially rampant in the Swat and Kabul Valley, home of the Gandhara civilisational epoch (1500 BC–535 AD) that saw everything from Hindu emperors, Buddhist civilisations and Alexander and his Greek armies.

The Taliban and their distaste for iconographic art did not arise from an Islamic repulsion for idol worship. Theirs was not the continuation of an Islamic practice. It was a political act, signalling to the West that they were a force to be reckoned with. Journalists were specially invited to Bamiyan for the demolition for the shock of the scale of cultural loss to make international headlines. The statues were hardly a threat to the Taliban as they were not worshipped. What made the destruction and the Western reaction to it even more disturbing was that an earlier massacre of the Hazara population of the Bamiyan valley days earlier had made no impact in the news abroad, but the loss of the culture of the same people was an outrage. The Taliban, and IS in Iraq destroyed bigger pieces for the television air miles, but the smaller art objects that could be exported were safely sold and smuggled to the highest bidder in the West.

If one examines the tradition of iconoclasm in Islam, it is true that depicting faces has been a problem thus a lot of Islamic art is aniconic. Yet, the treatment of art that depicted faces was not about obliterating these images, but neutralising them. In rare cases this meant smashing idols, something Mahmud of Ghazni (971 AD-1030 AD) is famous for, but most of the time it was the blotting out of faces in manuscripts, or drawing a line across the neck of depicted figures. For sculpture it often just meant chipping away the eyes and mouth. The Mughal Emperor Babur, for example, is said to have not destroyed icons at a Hindu temples, but either broken their heads, or chipped their eyes and mouths. The thought behind it was to make these depictions inanimate- without a soul (or ‘ruh’). Most of the time, no leader/invader/emperor damaged anything but went on to become patrons of art, aniconic or not.

Let’s not forget those who did do a lot of damage- the coloniser. Their descendants now lament Islam and its culture for destroying properties. This sounds even stranger when just about a century ago there was a belief that regions like the Sub-continent had no worthy culture or civilisational values to protect.

Lord Hastings, the first de facto Governor-General of India from 1773 to 1785, ripped out a marble bath from Shah Jehan’s palace in Agra, and sent it to George IV as a gift. A century later, another Governor-General Lord Curzon saw British picnickers at the Taj Mahal coming with chisels to chip away the agate from the marble frescos. Museums across Europe are full of jewels and sculpture from our region… all stolen.

And the stealing continues today. While it is true locals are complicit in illicit trade in art from Pakistan and India, it is encouraged by art dealers based in Europe and the USA. The plunderer in Swat gets a pittance, the final buyer pays millions for a rare millennium old art piece, and the dealer makes all the money. It is estimated that 90 percent of the South Asian antiquities on sale in the London auction market are illegally smuggled.

But blame lies at home as well. The Gandhara region has layer upon layer of history that still is being unearthed, but thanks to pillaging and smuggling, many objects have been destroyed or are lost forever. In 2012 Pakistani officials found more than 300 looted 2,000-year old Gandharan statuary and works of art in the process of being smuggled in Karachi. Within the next month, some of these antiquities had been stolen from the police station! To make ones blood boil further, many of these sculptures were broken by the police and handlers in transport and loading/unloading. Additionally, once an artefact is pillaged and is improperly excavated, its date of origin and history cannot be determined.

Gandhara art is one of the richest in the world and blossomed in the 1st to 5th century AD. This was the first art finding in the East that bore some of the characteristics of Roman, Greek and Western Asian art. Gandhara gave signals to Eurocentric imperial powers that art, science and literature could indeed flourish outside of their little world. We have lost this heritage bit by bit. A few months ago I met Professor Gul Rahim from Peshawar University whose team had made some wonderful findings of a workshop area, possibly used by the blacksmith’s industry and bangle making cottages from the first century BC in Peshawar. His fear was that he may not be able to continue the work with commercial and real estate interests encroaching on current and potential excavation sites. We may never know about our ancestors at all.

Do we really care about our culture? The Lahore Museum is full of visitors on the weekend and the more cultural sites have been preserved in Lahore, the more it has encouraged tourists. Our government is slow to save important sites, our police complicit and incompetent, and people too hungry to care. Islam is obviously not against local cultures, even when those cultures are not Islamic. But the lack of economic development, coupled with corrupt officials and murderous extremists, have stolen from our societies our past relics of social harmony and cultural exchange.


The writer is studying South Asian history and politics at Oxford University and is former Op-Ed Editor of The Nation. She tweets at @saadiagardezi

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