English Section

      Buddhism Today 

Vietnamese Section


...... ... .  . .  .  .

UNESCO envoy leads rescue of endangered Afghan Assets
The Kyodo New

TOKYO -- Following the shock of what it called a ''crime against culture'' - Afghanistan's destruction of two giant Buddha statues in March - UNESCO is trying to devise ways to rescue the country's surviving cultural properties. Spearheading these efforts is Ikuo Hirayama, 71, a well-known Japanese painter and goodwill envoy of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, whose ''cultural property red cross'' activities to preserve cultural sites resulted in his winning this year's Ramon Magsaysay Award, Asia's version of the Nobel Prize.

Invested with complete authority on this issue by the U.N. agency, Hirayama is calling for a system to temporarily house in Japan Afghan cultural properties which have been taken out of the country due to internal strife and to treat them as if they were ''refugees'' facing the threat of death upon returning.

''It was the first case in which a country destroyed its own cultural properties and all UNESCO could do was to express regret. I am proposing a system in which UNESCO is empowered to protect such assets on behalf of the country, which has become incapable of doing so,'' Hirayama told curators and cultural officials earlier this week.

In March, Afghanistan's Taliban authorities demolished two towering, cliff-hewn Buddha statues in Bamyan, northwest of Kabul, following an edict by its leader Mullah Mohammad Omar which labeled them as offensive to Islam.

The statues, 55 meters and 38 meters in height, dated from the fifth century, before the region fell under the influence of Islam.

Even before the issuance of the edict, conflicts in Afghanistan had put the country's artifacts at great risk. Since the 1993 bombing of the Afghan National Museum in Kabul, many treasures have been taken out of the country illegally and have changed hands in world art markets.

The safeguard measures contemplated by UNESCO involve establishing a committee for provisional preservation of Afghan cultural assets in exile, consisting of representatives of museums, foundations and other experts. A full mandate will be given to the body by the U.N. agency to carry out its task, Hirayama said.

According to the painter, several dozen Afghan artifacts have been smuggled to Japan via a third country and kept by wealthy collectors in the country.

Among such artifacts is ''Zeus' Foot'' -- a Greek stone figure dating back to the third century B.C., which was unearthed in the ruins of Ai Khanum in northeastern Afghanistan in the 1960s and was owned by the Kabul museum.

The 28-centimeter-long, 21-cm-wide marble figure featuring patterns of a sandal is a part of the left foot of a 3-meter-high seated image of Zeus. It went missing from the museum during armed conflicts and ended up being donated to UNESCO.

An antique art dealer in Tokyo obtained the property on condition it be returned to Afghanistan when peace is restored there but later donated it to the U.N. body. The foot is now provisionally being kept by Hirayama.

Procedures are also under way to transfer to UNESCO seven pieces of Bamyan stone cave paintings that were taken out of Afghanistan two to three years ago and acquired by the art dealer, the envoy said.

The mural paintings of Buddha from around the fifth century were possibly taken by looters from caves near from the cliffs where the destroyed statues were situated, Hirayama said.

One of the seven, a 33- by 29-centimeter image of Buddha wearing a red robe, had its face hollowed out. It was spotted by archeologists of Kyoto University during their cave explorations in the 1970s, according to the goodwill envoy.

Hirayama said he has also been negotiating with Japanese holders of several dozen other Afghan properties such as a 2-meter stone Buddhist image formerly kept at the Kabul museum, as well as ivory ornaments and medallions, so that they could be taken into UNESCO's custody.

The painter hopes Japanese museums will shelter and display these Afghan treasures. He has asked curators of the Tokyo National Museum to examine the Afghan artifacts he is keeping.

Because purchase of illegally traded properties is banned under the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, Hirayama is urging holders of such artifacts to voluntarily submit them.

He cannot take strong measures because Japan has not ratified the 1970 convention, which also obliges parties to return stolen cultural properties to nations of their origin. Under the planned scheme, UNESCO will temporarily take care of such artifacts and return them to Afghanistan if it becomes capable of preserving them.

To facilitate transfers, UNESCO is ready to pay for necessary expenses for preservation and transportation of the items with a $75,000 fund, collected during the March Afghan cultural crisis.

Hirayama, who has been engaged in cultural heritage preservation efforts in such countries as China, North Korea and Cambodia, said Japan should take the lead in safeguarding Asian cultural properties.

''Only Japan can carry out such task because it has close spiritual and cultural ties with Asian countries. Western countries cannot do that job,'' he said.

He also stressed the importance of protecting cultural assets regardless of political ideologies as a way of helping to create peace in the future.


Updated: 20-8-2001

Return to "Buddhism around the World"

Top of Page