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The Impact of War on Afghan Cultural Heritage

Two views of the 3rd-2nd century B.C. Graeco-Bactrian city Eucratidia (now called Aï Khanum): with the outlines of the ancient  
site visible during excavation in the 1970s (left) and as a virtual moonscape (right) after the Soviet invasion and more than a   
decade of civil war and site looting. The Oxus (present-day Amu Darya) River and Tajikistan mountains appear in the distance.   


Afghanistan, which stands at a crossroad of the ancient civilizations in the East and West, has kept a great unique treasure in different parts of its land, and due to that reason some scholars and researchers of different countries decided to start their archaeological activities in this area.

Official archaeological excavations were carried out from 1922 onwards by French, Japanese, British, American, Italian, Indian, ex-Soviet Union, and Afghan archaeologists and consequently, hundreds of archaeological sites, historical monuments, and thousands of unique cultural and historical objects relating to different periods of pre- and proto-history, such as the Stone Age, Bronze age, Achamenids, Greco Bactrian, Kushan, Sassanid-Ephtalits, Hindo shahis, and Islamic, were unearthed. Every discovered object and relic has a lot of value from the artistic and historical points of view. A large portion of these objects was kept in the Kabul National Museum and a number of them were preserved in the depot of the Archaeological Institute. However from 1978 to 1992 the cooperative relations between the scientific and cultural organizations of the western countries and Afghanistan in the field of archaeological activities were cut off. But cultural heritage sections of Afghanistan like the Archaeological Institute and the Kabul National Museum, despite numerous problems, were able to preserve and protect the discovered cultural heritage of Afghanistan and to publish scientific research articles about past archaeological activities. Afghan archaeological reviews such as the Kushan Gazette, Ancient Herat Gazette, and the writing of more then 30 dissertations on different topics are outstanding examples of our achievements.

Nevertheless, the catastrophe of war annihilated seventy years of our hard work and accomplishments. Administrative, economic, political, and cultural systems lost their order and were replaced by anarchy and chaos with the entire country overrun by warlords. The central government became so weak that it was not in a position to protect public and state properties.

From 1992-1994, not only were the governmental departments plundered, but more then half of Kabul was destroyed and changed into a traumatized city. More then 60,000 innocent people were oppressed and killed. Furthermore, over 70% of the Kabul National Museum and 100% of the objects were stolen and looted, and their buildings were damaged and burned down. Illegal excavations and extensive clandestine digging started at most historical sites and thousands of valuable objects were transported to other countries, notably through Pakistan to the international markets.

On the basis of 1980 statistics, there were then more 2,800 archaeological sites and historical monuments in Mr. Warwick Ball’s Archaeological Gazette of Afghanistan, which later became a good source for looters.

The priceless treasures of Mir Zaka in the Paktia Province were illegally excavated from 1993-1995 by the local people and commanders with the encouragement of Pakistanis and Afghan dealers. The finds, consisting of ornaments, coins, vessels, stamp seals, and animal figurines made of gold, silver, copper, and bronze metals weighing tons, were stolen and smuggled to Pakistan and according to a French publication, from there to Japan, London, Switzerland, Italy and the United States, among other countries. Also Aï Khanum, which is a Greco-Bactrian city, was badly damaged by looters using bulldozers during illegal excavations. Likewise, the ancient sites of Tela-Tepe, Delbergin-Tepe, Sorkh-kotal, Bagram, Robatak, Khamezerger, and Kharwar, did not remain intact.

During the oppressive Taliban regime cultural activities were severely restricted and diminished. Ignorance and suppression ruled everywhere throughout the country. Bamiyan’s two colossal statues, along with others in the Foladi valley and Kakrak, were dynamited and hundreds of statues in the collection of the Kabul Museums were destroyed in 2001, which inflicted irreparable losses on our cultural heritage. Tepe Shutur-e-Hadda, the great Buddhist Temple, which was an immovable museum and a masterpiece of Gandahara art was demolished and all its unique moldings were plundered. The Minaret of Chakari, one of the most important monuments of the first century A.D., was also blown up. This is a brief summary of the unpleasant results of war over more than the past two decades on the cultural heritage of our country that under no circumstances can be compensated.

In a war stricken country one can repair or even renovate roads, bridges, schools, hospitals, etc, but lost and destroyed cultural heritage can never be rehabilitated nor renovated. Now, after the fall of the Taliban regime and with the establishment of the Transitional Islamic State of Afghanistan under the leadership of Mr. Hamid Karzai, the opportunity to reconstruct and rehabilitate our country is made possible with the help of friendly countries and UN agencies interested in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. We will be able to take great steps in the area of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage. I hope the international cultural organizations will not leave us alone in this endeavor. For this reason I would like to propose the following suggestions to this gathering of esteemed scholars.

1. We request from the international communities of UNESCO and Interpol to support the repatriation process of the stolen and smuggled historical and cultural heritage of Afghanistan that currently exists in the international markets.

2. The majority of our professional experts specialized in archaeology, museums, and historical monuments migrated to other countries due to the two decades of civil war in Afghanistan. To train a young professional staff we are in need of short-term and long-term scholarships in various aspects of the above-mentioned fields, as well as receiving the financial and technical support of the friendly countries that are keen to promote Afghan’s historical and cultural heritage.

3. Through the initiative of scientific and academic cooperation in the fields of archaeology, museums, and restoration of historical monuments, and through the ratification of new protocols with the scientific and cultural institutions of the interested countries, we can improve the current research situation of Afghanistan’s historical and cultural heritage. I would like to mention that the free Archaeological Institute of Berlin, the Oriental and African Research Institute of Rome, Italy, the Cultural Heritage Research Institute of Tokyo, Japan, and the University of Sidney, Australia have already signed such a protocol with the National Archaeological Institute of Afghanistan.

The above stated proposals will play a vital role in rehabilitating, reconstructing, and improving the poor condition of Afghanistan’s historical and cultural heritage. Thus my cordial request from the participants of this gathering is to keep Afghanistan in mind.

Thanks for your kind attention.



Click to read Nancy Dupree's
April, 1998 report on the
looting of the Kabul Museum
"Museum Under Siege", Part 1,
published by

Click to Nancy Dupree's May 1998
part 2 report, "Museum
Under Siege: The Plunder Continues." published by

Download The Impact of War
upon Afghanistan’s Cultural
Heritage. Statement by Mr.
Abdul Wasey Feroozi, Director General of The National Institute of Archaeology, Ministry of Information and Culture of Afghansitan at the 105th Annual Meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in San Francisco, January 3, 2004




Ai Khanum (ancient Eucratidia)

Ai Khanum (Lady Moon) is the name of a modern village in the province of Takhar, northeastern Afghanistan, in the neighborhood of what was once a great archaeological site, to which archaeologists gave the same name: Ai Khanum. The archaeological site limits itself to the ruins of a great Hellenistic city (Graeco-Bactrian) founded during the era of Alexander the Great [originally the site of the Alexander fortress known as Alexandria-on-the-Oxus, later named Eucratidia by the 2nd century B.C. Graeco-Bactrian ruler Eucratides].

The ancient city’s emplacement, situated at the angle where the Daria-e Pandj river (the Greek’s Oxus called Amu Daria) and the Koktcha river meet, was chosen for its strategic location as it facilitated the oversight of river passages and also because the Ai Khanum and Dasht-e Qal plains lend to a prospero us intensive agriculture that met the need of the Greek colonies left behind by Alexander the Great.

The antique city surrounded by a powerful wall formed an imperfect triangular shape because of the topography of the terrain. To the west and south its fortifications went along the Oxus and Koktcha rivers, whereas the walls to the north and northeast protected the city toward the plains, and separated it from the extramural and the necropolis. Topographically speaking the city was divided into two parts and measured 1.5 km in length north to south.

The high city, the so-called Acropolis or the triangular shaped citadel, was to the east; the low city on the plain is almost rectangular, it spread to the north and south to the west of the High City.

The first archaeological activities began in 1964 with the survey by Daniel Schlumberger, who was then professor at the Strasbourg Human Sciences University and director of the Delegation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan (DAFA).

During the first surveys Paul Bernard, future director of the DAFA and responsible for the Ai Khanum excavations, accompanied Daniel Schlumberger.

In the Fall of 1965, the first excavation campaign began under the Direction of Paul Bernard; they lasted until 1978 when the Taraki pro-Soviet coup occurred. For approximately 14 years, over 15 excavation campaigns were led by the French under the direction of Paul Bernard with the active participation of young Afghan archaeologists. These excavations revealed the high city’s military and cultural monuments.

The low city excavations, far more interesting,unearthed important monuments representative of life in the Hellenistic (Greek-Bactrian) city. These constructions were laid out in an urban plan in relation to the main road crossing the city’s north-south axis.

To the north, a third of the low city’s area was occupied by large, apparently empty spaces that served as gardens. One of the two large monuments in that part of the city was a gymnasium, built along the walls towering above the Oxus, where beautiful young men were most likely receiving a Greek education. The other typical Greek monument of this septentrional part of the city is a Greek theater leaning against the high city’s wall.

The Ai Khanum Theater is second only to the Epidaurus Theater in terms of seating capacity. The central third of the lower city was the administrative center, composed of courtyards with gantries, palaces, the treasury, the Heroon (temenos or tomb of Kineas, founder of the city), the propylees, a sanctuary with the main city’s temple, the arsenal, etc. The southern third of the city was reserved for private residences composed of houses and villas.

It is at Ai Khanum that the first columns made entirely out of stone were found in the whole of Central Asia. The three Greek orders were present: Doric, Ionic and Corinthian; the latter predominated.

In addition to this oriental architecture adorned in the Greek fashion, the city of Aï Khanum displayed a strong taste for Greek art such as the roller mosaic similar to the one in Pella, the city of Philip of Macedonia, father of Alexander the Great. Stone and metal statues, silverware, ceramics, and coins were also found.

The end of the city was due to the invasions of the Sakas and Scythian nomads who invaded Bactria by the second century A.D.



Balkh (ancient Bactra)

Nothing is more evocative of the history of ancient Afghanistan as the name of Balkh as it is linked to the epic of the Aryan people. One thinks of the land of Hystaspa, Yama, and Zoroastre. What is certain is that by the third millennium B.C. the so called Bactrian civilization places itself between the septentrional cultures of Central Asia, Ouzbek, and Tadjik, and the ones from the Indus valley to the South and Iran to the West. The excavations of the Dashli site are of great importance for a better knowledge of protohistoric Bactria.

Under the Achemenids, Bactria became an important satrapy, with the city of Bactres (Balkh) as its capital. The remnants of that period (sixth-fourth centuries B.C.) were unearthed on the Altin 10 site. Alexander the Great kept Bactres (Balkh) as the capital of Bactria but transformed it into a Greek city. Most western archaeologists coming to Afghanistan began excavating on the site of today’s Balkh precisely because by 250 B.C. it was the capital of the Greek-Bactrian kingdom. Among the many of them let us mention the names of the famous ones. Indeed, the first “official” archaeologist, Alfred Foucher, who had just signed a convention between Afghanistan and France began his first surveys between 1924 and 1925 and stayed for 18 months. He was disappointed with the results of his excavations, as he had anticipated the discovery of a stone architecture such as on the Greek sites. However the excavations of the Tope Rostam stupa located to the south of the city of Balkh are very satisfying to us. In 1947 and 1948 following the Second World War, the second Director of the Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan (DAFA), Daniel Schlumberger, began his first surveys on the Afghan soil of Balkh, followed by the 1955-1956 campaigns of which the ceramics collected during the many surveys, was studied by a great specialist, Jean Claude Gardin. Archaeologist Rodney S. Young worked in the region in 1953 between Daniel Schlumberger’s two periods of activity.

By the 1950s, the site of Balkh did not interest archaeologists as much. In the past 20 years of recent civil wars however, illegal diggers have relentlessly excavated the Bactrian sites in general and particularly the Balkh site where they found limestone capitals dating from the Greek and Kushan periods. The new director of the DAFA, Roland Besenval, also became interested in the Balkh site with the advantage of having the Greek architecture already unearthed by the illegal excavators. But excavations such as the ones from the Balkh sites, northwestern Ectabane (Hamdan or Hamdhan today’s Iran), Constantinople (Istanbul, on the Bosphorus), Alexandria in Egypt, and Susa in southwestern Iran are not easy because the thickness and depth of the archaeological layer is a result of thousands of years of accumulated ruins over several periods and overlapping levels that often times exceed 15 meters in depth.

The plan of the ancient city of Balkh, such as it was drawn up by the DAFA architect Marc Le Berre, is composed of a low city on the northeastern side of a citadel (Bala Hissar) with a more or less circular, irregular geometrical shape. The ancient levels probably go back to the Achaemenid period (sixth-fourth centuries B.C.) and the most recent layer from the 17th century A.D.

The tumultuous history of Balkh is associated with both glorious and tragic events of Central Asia. We know that Genghis Khan had this “mother of the cities” destroyed from top to bottom in 1221. But when Marco Polo visited Balkh a half a century later he mentioned the existence of “many beautiful palaces and marble houses.” Let us not forget to mention that the urban tapestry of the modern city does not go beyond the ancient city. The modern city’s evolution is slowed down because of the ancient site and resembles a modest township.


Balkh: Khwadja Parsa

Khwadja Parsa is a mausoleum from the Ghorid period. Amongst the Muslim period monuments still standing in the city of Balkh, the tomb or Mausoleum of Khwadja Parsa has conserved 50% of its decoration, which dates to the late Timurid provincial style of the 15th century A.D. This mausoleum is considered a sanctuary of a saintly man and is moreover a respected place in Balkh amongst believers.

The monument consists of a building on a polygonal plan, arched with a superimposed cupola and dome. The latter has a heavy architecture built with a ribbed décor covered with blue earthenware squares. It is the result of a restoration at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries A.D. The façade posssses an “iwan” (a kind of porch opening to the outside) flanked with two round towers and two small columns twisted into spirals. The outside décor consists of beautiful and charming earthenware panels with a predominant blue color.

The monument, as it is conserved today, is a result of consolidation and restoration I undertook in the 1970’s as Director of Archaeology and Conservation of Historical Monuments of Afghanistan. This restoration is the work of Afghan experts from my office and Indian experts from the Archaeology Survey of India.



Balkh: Tepe Zargaran

Tepe, or Tapa, so called of Zargaran, literally meaning “the jeweler’s hill”, is at the level of the lower city. The surveys and excavations to come will define the limits of the Greek city, which was probably larger than the one dating to the Middle Ages.



A beautiful site in central Afghanistan, Bamiyan was molded by man to become a resting place for travelers, a meditation haven for Buddhist monks, a reputable artistic school, and finally, one of the world marvels. Bamiyân is an alluvial plain composed of a thick tertiary conglomerate bottom surrounded by imposing mountains.

A landscape eroded by the flow of rivers and the passage of glaciers to create valleys dominated by abrupt cliffs, of which the almost vertical walls lend themselves to being carved, sculpted, and adorned with images of the Sakyamuni Buddha. The smallest Sakyamuni Buddha measured 5.5 cm and the largest 55 meters tall. The smallest image of the Blessed One sitting is 3 cm high and the largest statue, although representing Buddha in Parinirvana (Buddha on his death bed), is 300 m long. In this vast site artists were able to ally the taste for miniature as well as gigantism to honor the cult of Buddha.

The Bamiyân Valley is located to the north of the plain, oriented west to east, and communicates with two adjacent valleys, the Foladi Valley to the southwest and the Kakrak valley to the southeast. The most impressive remnants are found in the Bamiyân Valley itself, especially in the east to west 1.5 km long cliff towering above the valley to the North, that I call the “Great Cliff”. The cliff is pierced with approximately 1,000 grottos that were coated and adorned with sculptures and painted murals representing scenes inspired by Buddhist iconography. These grottos were carved in a style imitating built architecture, so one can find Bamiyân grottos with square, rectangular, hexagonal, octagonal, and round floorplans. Some are vaulted in cupolas, while others have ceilings with distorted beams of varied form, generally of Macedonian style called “lanternendeke” or in the shape of a lantern. On the floorplan the grottos often appear rectangular with vaults imitating the raw brick cupola architecture.

Most of the painted grottos adorned with moldings were called Caitya (chapel) and were used for the cult of the Blessed One. On the other hand the décor-less grottos of modest aspect and smaller size probably served as storage or as a monk’s cell. A Middle Age chronicler who visited Bamiyân and gives us a good description of the remnants, writes that there were up to 12,000 grottos in Bamiyân, a number seemingly exaggerated, but if one accounts for all the grottos in the 50 km of surrounding valleys, one would come up with that number. Bamiyân’s fame is due not for its grottos but more so for its gigantic Buddha statues. Indeed in the Great Cliff towering above the Bamiyân Valley to the north, the craftsmen at the service of Buddhist monasteries carved, in addition to the grottos, the conglomerate rock face to give form to two standing statues and three seated statues all sheltered by their own niches.

The 38 m high standing statue was fitted out in the eastern part of the cliff and is probably the oldest. Its awkward and disproportionate appearance is due to a restoration dating from antiquity. The body was carved in the conglomerate mass and the outside finishing of the body and clothes was molded in clay and later on covered with stucco, which in turn was painted. This 38 m statue was executed in a very high-relief under its niche, and flanked by the grottos ensembles A, B, B1, and C to the right (east), and D and D1 to the left (west). The vault of the 38 m Buddha’s niche had a beautiful mural painting, a composition depicting the god Surya on its quadriga pulled by four horses.

The 55 m high Buddha statue stood at the western extremity of the cliff sheltered by its niche. In the execution of the statue and the niche itself proportion and symmetry were rigorously respected. I dated the statue and its paintings to be from the sixth century A.D. The niche’s walls were adorned with beautifully painted murals, unfortunately completely destroyed by the explosion set off by the Taliban.

In the median part between the 38 and 55 m Buddha statues, was the seated Buddha statue of group with fewer than 12 grottos. At the keystone of the niche this seated statue had a beautiful and interesting mural painting depicting the Bodhisattva Maitreya with a dominant lapis blue color.

To the west one could find the ensemble of grottos of group K. Grotto K2 used to have its vault covered by a painted composition depicting pearled medallions surrounding a multitude of Buddha. One of the medallions was reserved for the image of a Boddhisatva, this time with a dominant red color. Further to the west is the ensemble of grottos group J. It almost occupies the center part of the cliff and the dominant color used is a blue, similar to the one used in group E.

Further along to the west one finds the niche of the large seated Buddha statue of group H. The paintings of its niche offered a beautiful composition, especially in the western projection of the niche (lateral left lobe of the tri-lobed niche) where one could see two couples of flying genies making a flower offering. The composition in its appearance and its choice of colors, yellow ocher, orange, brown ocher, and dark blue, reminds us of the murals in the niche of the 55 m high Buddha statue.

Still further to the west, about 50 meters above the plain level, is the niche of group I where the smallest sitting Buddha statue used to be. Nothing is left of the statue but the walls still offer beautiful painted murals where a taste for miniature and a certain mannerism remind us of the art from the Fundukistan site, located in the Valley of Ghorband between Bamiyân and Kapis-Begram.

We cannot conclude the description of Bamiyân without mentioning the art found in the Foladi grottos, where one can see precision in the size of faux ceilings imitating wood and a palette of blue turquoise and malachite strongly influenced by the Chinese Central Asia of Qyzyl. The niches and their paintings underwent restoration in the 1970s under my supervision with a group of Afghan and Indian experts. If it weren’t for this colossal and costly restoration, the niches of the two standing Buddha statues would not have withheld as long the explosions committed by the Taliban.

As far as Bamiyân archaeological research is concerned, I only mention the first 20th century explorers. The true archaeological enterprise began in the 1920s with French archaeologist Alfred Foucher, followed by Mr. and Mrs. Andre Godard, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Hackin, and Jean Carl. Their works consisted of a detailed description of archaeological remains. One excavation was undertaken in grotto G. The results of their efforts can be found in two tomes and four volumes published in 1928 and 1933.

In 1967, following the Second World War, I began new research at Bamiyan, working towards the preparation of my thesis, which I supported in 1972. It was published in 1977 and brings to light a new date for the Bamiyân site and describes differently the site’s artistic evolution. One must acknowledge the works on Bamiyân of Kosaku Maeda of the Wako University, Professor Akira Miyaji of the Nogoya University, Professor Takayasu Hugushi of the Kyoto University, and Deborah E. Salter Klimburg of the Vienna University.

For your information, my 2002 and 2003 excavations have brought to light one of the monasteries built at the feet of the Great Cliff where I found heads and masques in polychrome clay belonging to Buddhist divinities. My mission is supported by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and has as its goal to explore and excavate the royal city, the Buddhist monasteries, and hopefully find the Bamiyân, 1,000 feet long, reclining, Buddha statue mentioned by the Chinese pilgrim Xuahzang.


  Bamiyan: Kakrak Valley

The Kakrak valley delimits to the Eastern side the Bamiyân valley; and its art is an integral part of the art of Bamiyân.

The archaeological remains of Kakrak consist of a 15-meter-high standing statue of Buddha as well as paintings from the grotto of the so-called Hunter King. I excavated the statue in 1977-78 and it was restored by Mohammad Taher, a member of the Afghan Archaeology Institute I directed. The original paintings of the Hunter King were stripped in the 1930s by the DAFA architect Jean Carl and were then divided between the Kabul and the Guimet museums. Based on recent information it seems that the Kabul Museum panels are safe and have not been damaged. The paintings consist of a decoration of concentric medallions filled with many seated Buddha articulating around the central image, the Bodhisattva Maitreya, occupying the cupola as well as at the start of the cupola where one saw a succession of sitting Buddha in different attitudes, sometimes meditating, sometimes teaching. In this frieze, under a cut pediment appears a crowned character holding a bow. Because of the crown it was identified as a hunting king.

In reality it is either a Bodhisattva Siddartha before illumination or during an episode of the jataka. The red Kakrak palette should be compared to the one of the Bamiyân group K.


Begram is the name of a village and a place in the Kapisa plain, about 50 km north of Kabul. It is also the name of a site that, just before World War II, delivered a fabulous treasure of art objects that became known worldwide. The treasure was composed of several hundred Greek and Roman objects originating from Alexandria, Egypt, hundreds of ivory objects originating from India, and several dozen Chinese lacquers. This treasure underlines the welcoming nature of ancient Afghanistan and the important role and power of the Kushan sovereigns who controlled the trade routes between the Near and Middle East, China, and India. It is also during this period that Buddhism flourished and was tolerated as one of the empire’s religions. As a result, the trade route also became a way through which pilgrims could travel safely in complete Kushan peace, which I have termed “Pax Kushana.”

The site’s exploration began with the 19th century’s first explorers. The first excavations were the masterpieces of French archaeologists such as Jules Barthoux, Joseph Hackin and Roman Ghirshman. The most significant excavations are of Joseph Hackin’s mission, who in addition to the great treasure also excavated the royal city of Begram and the neighboring Buddhist monasteries such as Shotorak, Qol-e Nader, Koh- e Pahlawan, and, further away, Paitawa. However, we must keep in mind the excavations by Jules Barthoux, who unearthed the Buddhist site of Qaratcha, situated very close to the royal city of Begram. The ensemble of these monasteries produced a Greek-Buddhist schist sculpture very specific to the region.

Other archaeological activity to consider is that of Roman Ghirshman, which took place during World War II. He proceeded with a stratigraphic excavation and unearthed three occupation periods of the capital, that used to serve as summer capital to the Kushan kings. According to Roman Ghirshman: Begram I corresponds to the period of the Indo-Greek domination, Begram II corresponds to the Kushan kings, and Begram III corresponds to the Kushano-Sassanid period and later the Hephtalites and Turcs who stayed until the Muslim invasion. In 1946, under the direction of Daniel Schlumberger, new DAFA director, Jacques Meunié undertook several excavations near the
royal city’s door. Since then no other official missions have been undertaken on the site. However, recent studies conducted by Paul Bernard and myself attempt to prove that the Begram site should be identified as Alexandria under Caucasus.


Istalif is a large village located approximately 30 km north of Kabul, to the west of the Kabul-Tchaharikar road, on the Eastern slope of the Paghman Mountain. No archaeological activities have taken place in Istalif; on the other hand it is renowned for its ceramic studios and for its beautiful surroundings. For connoisseurs of France, Istalif could be compared to St-Paul-de-Vence.

The village was built over several centuries on a hill dominating the Khodaman plain. The village was organized in levels. At the bottom, one finds the sheep skin tannery studios, then the felt makers studios, next to them the weavers studio, and the studios where one weaves the Gilims (wool tapestries with geometrical shapes). Above are the agricultural installations where wheat, vines, and orchards are grown. Finally at the top were about twenty pottery studios with large ovens next to each potter’s house. Only a few years ago Istalif had almost three hundred potters, with women and children involved in pottery making. At the very top is buried Eshan Ze the patron saint of the potters corporation. The potters say that their ancestors came to Istalif from Bukhara with their master Eshan Ze. These potters are all Tajiks and were very well organized into a closed corporation. An initiation followed by a test was of order and available to older craftsmen and given that a position in one of the studios was open. The potter’s art and specifically the secrets of the blue colored enamel are considered as a gift from God that should be disclosed only to those who deserve it.

Apart from old legends, one does not know much about ancient life in Istalif. However in 1842, we know that the British destroyed Istalif and almost a century later Istalif was heavily bombed by the Soviet-Afghan army and later by the Taliban. These destructions did not keep the resilient inhabitants of Istalif from pursuing their artistic production. Today the diverse trades are making a difficult comeback, but a comeback nevertheless.



Rabatak (should be pronounced Robatak, robat=relay; robatak= small relay) is a place located between the city of Pol-e Khumri and of the city of Haibak in the province of Samangan, to the north of the Hindukush (Southern Bactria). The Robatak site was discovered and illegally excavated within the past five years. The impact of these illicit operations is catastrophic. Indeed, the looters unearthed archaeological remains dating from the 1st-3rd centuries AD. They discovered architectural structures and sculptures as well as an inscription in Bactrian (the Kushan’s language) but using Greek symbols. This inscription eventually took the road back to the Kabul Museum and is dated from the era of the famous king Kanishka (1st-2nd century AD). The site and its inscription remind us of its twin site Surkh Kotal, located less than 50 km to the southeast.

The Robatak inscription is being studied by British scientists Nicolas Sims-Williams, Joe Cribb, and by French scientist Gerard Fussman. Can one consider Robatak as a second Surkh Kotal? Future official excavations will bring many solutions and answers and determine if the bulldozers of illegal excavators destroyed the temple or the superior temples.









Samangan is a province with a very rich archaeological past. In addition to remnants of the Palaeolithic period, Bronze Age, Greek, Kushan, and Muslim sites can be found. Alexander the Great’s army went through Samangan. The site that is of interest to us here is Haibak, located on the road from Pul-e Khunmri to Mazar-e Sharif. In other words, as one leaves Robatak towards the center of Samangan (where the famous bazaar of Tashqurghan, studied by Suisse scientist Pierre Centlivres, is located) not far from Haibak is a Buddhist site built on a natural rock mound. Grottos or caves used as chapels as well as monks’ cells were carved at the base of the site. One of the grottos is famous for its bas-relief décor in the shape of a huge lotus flower covering entirely the cupola. Further out on the pseudo-mound a large monolith and circular stupa are carved, of which the construction was interrupted due to a lack of funding or to ancient military attacks. On the main mound, one can see the ruins of a Buddhist monastery whose remants were studied by Alfred Foucher in the 1920s and later by a Kyoto University team directed by Professor Seiichi Mizuno.
  Surkh Kotal

Surkh Kotal is a famous archaeological site of the Kushan period, located in southern Bactria, to the west of the road between Pul-e Khumri , Robatak, Samangan and Mazar-e Sharif. The site was excavated during the 1950s and 1960s under the direction of Professor Daniel Schlumberger from the Strasbourg University, who was then director of the DAFA. The site is located on a natural headland facing east thus dominating the plain. At the summit of the site, a temple was built on a podium surrounded with a portico. One had access to this cultural ensemble by the means of three immense terraces connected to one another by monumental stairs composed of more than one hundred steps each, and by way of a ramp of about 150 m. The buildings are built in dried earth but with a white limestone facing. Several mutilated statues of Kushan kings were discovered; one of them identified as representing King Kanishka. The cult celebrated in the great temple A is still subject to discussion. However, the two later temples B and D are designated, rightfully so, as sanctuaries for the sacred fire.

The results of Daniel Schlumberger’s Surkh Kotal excavations are remarkable, as they demonstrate how the Kushans played an intermediary role in the transmission of Hellenistic art to the rest of Central Asia and India, as well as the role of the dynastic art of these sovereigns. The Surkh Kotal inscriptions brought about many scientific discoveries. Thanks to the excavations on this site in southern Bactria we have now a plausible explanation regarding the discoveries of Robatak. Isn’t the latter a second Surkh Kotal? Probably from a general conceptual point of view, but awarded to another divinity of the Kushan’s rich pantheon.

The looting of the Archaeological Heritage of Afghanistan does not limit itself to these few sites proposed by Mr. Feroozi. One should also mention the sites of the regions of Herat, Maymana, Balkh, Samangan, Qunduz, Bakhshan, Takhar; the mountainous regions of the center of Afghanistan such as Bamiyan,Yakaoling, further south, Panjshir, Kohestan (especially Khom e- Zargar), Kapissa, Begram, Kabul, Jalriz, Maydan Shahr, Kandahar, Helmand, Seistan. And let us not forget the Eastern regions such as Jalalabad (especially Hadda for its beautiful Buddhist monasteries, excavated by the French and Afghans, Dr. Chaibai Mustamandy and Dr. Zemaryalai Tarzi), Kunar, Laghman (especially Khoguiani), Patchir, and Agam, etc. These sites of which I mention only few, have been subjected to illegal excavations by local commanders for the past twenty some years, before the Taliban, during the Taliban, after the Taliban, and are still being looted today. If we add up the values of numerous objects looted and illegally sold these past two decades, it amounts to several billion dollars worth of art objects belonging and constituting Afghanistan’s wealth and national heritage, now in the pockets and homes of private individuals and collectors. Afghanistan’s banking system is not yet established and therefore any money collected is placed in foreign countries. The Afghans loss is doubled. They are robbed financially and most of all are deprived of their right to be proud of their cultural heritage.