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The Taliban now guard Afghanistan's National Museum, where they once smashed objects

Taliban guards stand at the entrance of the National Museum of Afghanistan after it reopened under Taliban control in Kabul in December.
Mustafa Melih Ahishali
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Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Taliban guards stand at the entrance of the National Museum of Afghanistan after it reopened under Taliban control in Kabul in December.

KABUL — One of the most striking sights at the National Museum of Afghanistan these days isn't inside the museum, but by its front gates.

Young, armed Taliban guards protect the entrance, searching visitors before they enter the museum grounds.

The last time the Taliban were in power, at the direction of then-leader Mullah Muhammad Omar, they smashed ancient statues and other objects in this museum that they deemed un-Islamic and idolatrous.

That was in 2001 — the same year the Taliban also blew up two ancient, colossal Buddha statues carved into a cliffside in the city of Bamiyan. By the end of that year, the Taliban were toppled.

And so when they returned to power a year ago, many cultural heritage advocates worried about the fate of the museum and its irreplaceable treasures.

Artifacts from Afghanistan's National Museum on display at Musée Guimet in Paris in 2006. These objects range in date from the 1st to 3rd centuries, and were recovered from Afghanistan's Tillya Tepe, Ai Khanum and Begram archaeological sites. They include a "Bactrian Aphrodite" figurine (top left), a 1st century gold coin (top right), a 1st century crown (center), jewelry and decorated glassware.
Thierry Ollivier / Musée Guimet / Getty Images
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Musée Guimet / Getty Images
Artifacts from Afghanistan's National Museum on display at Musée Guimet in Paris in 2006. These objects range in date from the 1st to 3rd centuries, and were recovered from Afghanistan's Tillya Tepe, Ai Khanum and Begram archaeological sites. They include a "Bactrian Aphrodite" figurine (top left), a 1st century gold coin (top right), a 1st century crown (center), jewelry and decorated glassware.

"The National Museum of Afghanistan was, once upon a time, the finest museum in Central Asia, and that is not an exaggeration," says Laura Tedesco, a cultural heritage and preservation specialist with the State Department who has worked with Afghan museum staff over the years.

She recalls visiting when the galleries were full of prehistoric figurines, ancient Buddhist artifacts and life-size human figure statues — all of it capturing the country's diverse blend of cultures over millennia.

Afghan construction workers put a new ceiling in one of the rooms at the National Museum on Feb. 18, 2003, in Kabul. The museum, which was extensively damaged during heavy fighting in the 1990s, was renovated with international help.
Paula Bronstein / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Afghan construction workers put a new ceiling in one of the rooms at the National Museum on Feb. 18, 2003, in Kabul. The museum, which was extensively damaged during heavy fighting in the 1990s, was renovated with international help.

"The artifacts on display were exquisite and Louvre-worthy in their quality," says Tedesco. "The diversity of culture evidenced in those artifacts is unique to Afghanistan because it was this cultural crossroads, and armies and thinkers and religions and influencers crisscrossed [it]."

Changes at the museum

After the Taliban seized control of the capital last August, the museum closed. Museum staff and others were uncertain the group would honor its pledge months earlier to protect the country's cultural heritage and prevent the looting of ancient artifacts.

When the museum eventually reopened in December, it was a hopeful sign to cultural heritage advocates that things might be different this time under Taliban rule.

The museum used to draw an array of visitors, from foreign dignitaries to busloads of schoolchildren. Now, with Afghanistan's economy in ruins, few seem to come by anymore. In a recent two-hour visit to the museum, NPR encountered no other visitors.

A museum employee says things are going fine, and with the arrival of the Taliban, "there was no obstacle for our work. Everything is going as normal as it was before." NPR is not naming museum employees for their security.

Taliban fighter Mansoor Zulfiqar, left, visits the National Museum of Afghanistan, in Kabul on Dec. 6, 2021.
Petros Giannakouris / AP
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AP
Taliban fighter Mansoor Zulfiqar, left, visits the National Museum of Afghanistan, in Kabul on Dec. 6, 2021.

In walking through the museum, NPR saw displays of centuries-old ceramic bowls glazed in vibrant greens and blues, and ancient urns with Quranic verses meticulously etched into the sides.

There are hoards of coins, some so gold they almost glow. One room features wooden totems from a remote part of Afghanistan, and old weapons embellished with intricate mother-of-pearl inlay.

Buddhist heads dating from the 2nd and 3rd centuries were seen on display during a recent visit to the National Museum of Afghanistan. They were the only items on display in a section of the museum labeled "Buddhist Heritage of Afghanistan."
Arezou Rezvani / NPR
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NPR
Buddhist heads dating from the 2nd and 3rd centuries were seen on display during a recent visit to the National Museum of Afghanistan. They were the only items on display in a section of the museum labeled "Buddhist Heritage of Afghanistan."

A large sign in English on the third floor reads "Buddhist Heritage of Afghanistan." But there are only three small, plaster Buddhist heads on display, dating back to 2nd and 3rd centuries.

Much of the rest is labeled contemporary, including a marble coffee table with jasper inlay, and the year 2000 carved into it.

Another employee dismisses it all as "kids' art."

A man walks near a colossal Buddha statue in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, in 1997. The Taliban destroyed the famous Buddhas of Bamiyan in March 2001.
Jean-Claude Chapon / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
A man walks near a colossal Buddha statue in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, in 1997. The Taliban destroyed the famous Buddhas of Bamiyan in March 2001.

He points to a television. "We used to show a film about the Taliban's destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas on that TV," he says — adding that it's been unplugged since last August.

Ideology isn't the only threat to Afghan cultural heritage

As the Taliban advanced toward Kabul last year, archeologist Gil Stein watched with great trepidation from afar. As the director of the Chicago Center for Cultural Heritage Preservation, he'd had conversations with museum staff over the years about emergency plans, including what to do in case the Taliban took over again.

Various heads from Buddhist statues excavated from Afghanistan's Hadda archaeological site, dating back to 2nd and 3rd centuries, are exhibited in Afghanistan's National Museum in Kabul in 2012. Buddhism in Afghanistan is traced back some 2,000 years and started fading with the arrival of Islam in the 7th century.
Jawad Jalali / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Various heads from Buddhist statues excavated from Afghanistan's Hadda archaeological site, dating back to 2nd and 3rd centuries, are exhibited in Afghanistan's National Museum in Kabul in 2012. Buddhism in Afghanistan is traced back some 2,000 years and started fading with the arrival of Islam in the 7th century.

"One of the first things that [museum staff] did was they took all of the early Buddhist art off display in the galleries, and they put it into the storerooms," says Stein. "The second thing is, they started to be very, very careful in their public communications."

So far, it's hard for experts to know what to make of the Taliban's pledge to protect cultural heritage. In more remote parts of the country, Stein and others worry about the security of less visible sites without the means to take precautions to protect objects.

And ideology may not be the only threat. Looting of ancient sites has caused destruction for decades. And in the case of the massive ancient Buddhist complex at Mes Aynak, about 25 miles south of Kabul, it sits atop a copper deposit believed to be one of the biggest in the world.

People visit the National Museum of Afghanistan after it reopened under Taliban control in December. The museum had closed after the Taliban regained control of the country last August.
Bilal Galer / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
People visit the National Museum of Afghanistan after it reopened under Taliban control in December. The museum had closed after the Taliban regained control of the country last August.

This archaeological site was already in danger due to proposed Chinese mining activity that was agreed under a previous Afghan administration. The mining stalled, but this week, the Taliban acting minister of mines and petroleum said officials are "working quickly" to revive and resume the project. For a cash-strapped Taliban government, the lure of business opportunities may overwhelm other considerations.

"One of the biggest risks to Afghan cultural heritage right now is not necessarily the Taliban blowing up or smashing statues, but rather out of the need for economic development, they simply are not going to care about the damage that might be done," says Stein. "It's a perfect storm of risks."

But he says there's reason for hope that heritage can be protected under the Taliban.

"It is possible," he says. "It would be a terrible mistake for the West to write them off completely. There is space to negotiate things. I think that's almost always true in Afghanistan, but we all have to be very cautious on it because, in so many domains, the Taliban have been violating their promises."

Under the Taliban, so far, it seems the museum is being spared the worst from its past. But it's also not clear that it can return to what it once was anytime soon.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Visitors take in a display at Afghanistan's National Museum soon after it reopened in December.
Ahmad Sahel Arman / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Visitors take in a display at Afghanistan's National Museum soon after it reopened in December.

Arezou Rezvani is a senior editor for NPR's Morning Edition and founding editor of Up First, NPR's daily news podcast.
Fazelminallah Qazizai