11/27/2009, 00.00
PAKISTAN
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Taliban trying to destroy Buddhist art from the Gandhara period

Archaeologists and experts sound the alarm. The ancient Indo-Hellenistic heritage of the country could go the way of the Bamiyan Buddhas, in neighbouring Afghanistan. Digging and research have stopped; tourists are nowhere to be seen because of attacks and violence.
Islamabad (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Pakistani  and foreign archaeologists have set off the alarm bell, warning that the Taliban are destroying Pakistan's ancient Gandhara heritage, which includes some of the oldest representations of the Buddha. Because of violence, tourists shy away from the country's northwest and local works of art are increasingly at risk of going the way of the Bamiyan Buddha statues, which the Taliban destroyed in 2001.

“Militants are the enemies of culture,' said Abdul Nasir Khan, curator of Taxila Museum, home to one of the premier archaeological collections in Pakistan, some 20 kilometres south of Islamabad.

As one of the foremost archaeological sites in Pakistan, Taxila possesses some of the most important artefacts from the Gandhara civilisation, which peaked between the 5th century BC and the 2nd century AD.

Emerging in the wake of the conquests by Alexander the Great, the Gandhara kingdom blended Indian traditions and Hellenistic culture, with representations of the Buddha taking on human forms that resemble Greek divinities, especially the god Apollo.

“'Even in Taxila we don't feel safe. The local administration has warned us about a possible attack on this museum. We have taken some extra security precautions but they aren't sufficient and we lack funds,” Khan said.

“For weeks we don't get even a single foreign visitor. If visitors don't come, if sites are not preserved and protected, if research stops, what do you think will be the future of archaeology?'” he noted.

In March 2001, Taliban militants in neighbouring Afghanistan blew up two 1,500-year-old Bamiyan Buddha statues in defiance of international appeals.

The Taliban oppose all forms of art like music, dance, girls' education and impose a strict interpretation of Islamic rules.

Their extremist vision has since spread into Pakistan and could negatively affect that country’s artistic and cultural heritage.

In September 2008, the Taliban twice tried to blow up 7th century Buddhist relics in the Swat Valley.

In recent months, the same area has been at the centre of fighting between the Taliban and the Pakistani military.

“This is the worst time for archaeology,” Khan said. “Militancy has affected it very badly. There were 15-20 foreign missions working in this field, now this research has completely stopped,”

Once Peshawar, the capital of the North-West Frontier Province, attracted thousands of tourists, eager to see the region’s rich artistic and cultural assets. Now it is off-limits to foreigners because of the ongoing violence.

“Tourist companies have closed. Foreign visitors have stopped coming and museums with monuments and other archaeological sites look deserted,” said Qazi Ijaz, an official at Peshawar museum.

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