June 29, 2009

Construction Poses Cultural Heritage Crisis For Afghanistan

Archaeologists warn that the Cheshma-e-Shafa gorge in the northern Afghan province of Balkh, where traces of human occupation date back to the sixth century BC, is in danger of being lost due to the construction of a tar road, despite laws that heritage sites must be protected.

The scenic gorge in the northern province of Balkh is just one of several important ancient sites that will be destroyed if the post-Taliban push for development continues, they say.

The French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan (DAFA) said that hints of ancient human habitation in Cheshma-e-Shafa were discovered in 2007 about 20 miles southwest of the city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

Artifacts found were dated back between the sixth to fourth century BC during the Achaemenid period. It was named after the first Persian dynasty that ruled the area before being removed by Alexander the Great.

The government of Afghanistan has now contracted a South Korean company to build a road through the site, despite the fact that the road can easily bypass the area, said DAFA director Roland Besenval, heading excavations.

"We had stopped the bulldozers by putting ourselves in front of them but they restarted the work the next day," he told AFP.

"They could divert the road towards the east but clearly they don't want to.

"Afghan laws prohibit the destruction of archaeological sites. The ministry of public works knows about all of this, the ministry of culture too," he said.

Korean Samwhan Corporation's engineers said in a meeting that they plan to use dynamite to blow up the narrow gorge in order to let the road through, according to DAFA.

DAFA cited an email stating that regardless of their earnest pleading, the company fully intends to follow through with the government orders to demolish the site.

"The government authorities have ordered us to proceed with the road construction as per our approved road construction drawings regardless of the concern you mentioned in the meeting," the email said.

The area has even greater significance than just its age. It was occupied until the 13th century, and was on the path taken by Alexander the Great and other conquerors, says DAFA.

"It is a site which controlled an old route by which people could come from Central Asia to India, a place completely strategic for controlling traffic," scientist from DAFA Philippe Marquis added.

"Then the Mongols passed through around 1220 and destroyed the whole region and the area then lost strategic interest," he said.

The walls of the gorge stand 50 feet tall and 29.5 feet thick and includes a Zoroastrian fire temple that is "one of the most ancient in the world", according to DAFA.

Zoroastrianism, the worship of Ahura-Mazda, is one of the world's oldest religions. It was founded by Zarathustra, who is believed to have lived in the ancient city of Bactria, which is now Balkh, about 19 miles north of Cheshma-e-Shafa. Some scholars believe that Zoroastrianism has had more of an impact of mankind, whether directly or indirectly, than any other faith known to man.

"Zarathustra would have stayed here," said Marquis, referring to the threatened site.

Decades of war have created a cultural heritage crisis for Afghanistan, leaving antiquities to be plundered, neglected or destroyed. Their civil war, with rival groups vying for political power, gave way to the systematic looting of archaeological sites. There has been willful destruction, illegal digging, and vandalism galore, resulting in the tragic loss of countless paintings and sculptures.

One of the most well known examples is the destruction of the famous statues of Bamiyan Buddhas by the Islamist Taliban regime in 2001.

Other examples of historic excavations threatened by construction are in the western province of Herat and in Logar, near Kabul, where ancient city dating back 1,700 years has already been planned to be destroyed by a Chinese-funded copper mine.

"There is a new type of problem for Afghan heritage -- that is the confrontation with development," Besenval said.


Image Caption: This handout shows the Cheshma-e-Shafa gorge.


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