Life goes on
As the culture minister blocks a plan to rehouse a collection of relics in an ancient citadel, accusations of discrimination ensue.
By Sadeq Behnam in Herat (ARR No. 283, 08-Feb-08)
A war of words has broken out in the western city of Herat about where to house a private museum containing artifacts from Afghanistan's rich history. But the dispute appears to be more about personal and ethnic rivalries than about preserving culture.
The museum, owned by private collector Ahmad Shah Sultani, is currently located in central downtown Herat. But both Sultani and Herat's governor Sayyed Hossein Anwari want to move it to the ancient Ekhtyaruddin fortress on the outskirts of town.
The Ministry of Information and Culture is blocking the move and rejects Anwari's argument that the museum pieces would be safer there.
"I absolutely oppose transferring private museums or private galleries to historical places," said minister Abdul Karim Khoram. "We will never allow the museum to be transferred to the Ekhtyaruddin castle."
Khoram said archeologists were currently working to restore the fortress, and moving the museum there would disturb the work.
After making a fortune as a dealer in antiquities, Sultani made it his business to salvage and preserve what he could of Afghanistan's cultural heritage. He has spent millions collecting thousands of Afghan artifacts from western Europe, Iran and Pakistan, and has said he wants to open as many as 20 museums around the country.
While officials have in the past praised Sultani's efforts to restore historical artifacts to Afghanistan, his relationship with the government deteriorated after Khoram was appointed minister in 2006.
Sultani has told IWPR that Khoram, a Pashtun, is opposing him because of his Tajik heritage. Governor Anwari, who belongs to the Hazara minority, added fuel to the fire by pointing to Khoram's history as a member of the fundamentalist, Pashtun-dominated faction Hizb-e-Islami.
In an interview with IWPR, Anwari accused Hizb-e-Islami of destroying Afghanistan during the civil war of the early to mid-Nineties.
For his part, Khoram has questioned how Sultani acquired the relics, hinting at the illegal trade in ancient artifacts.
Mohammad Rafiq Shaheer, who heads Herat's Council of Experts, said he was opposed to opening up a museum to the public in the Ekhtyaruddin fortress while there were archeological excavations going on, because that could endanger some of the artifacts at the site.
Minister Khoram told IWPR that installing a museum in the castle could threaten Herat's bid to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
But Masanori Nazaoka, a UNESCO programme specialist on cultural matters, said that would only be the case if the castle were rebuilt in a modern style.
"If they use the castle as such for a museum, I don't think it would affect the nomination," he said, adding that the Agha Khan Foundation for Culture is currently working to restore the structure.
Nazaoka said UNESCO has been working with the Afghan government since 2003 to prepare the documentation for nominating Herat. But this process is nowhere near completion, and the government has so far failed to check the deterioration of historical sites in the city, which it would need to do to obtain World Heritage status.
The UNESCO representative noted that the Ministry of Information and Culture owns the castle and the land it stands on.
"This is an internal conflict between the central government and the government in Herat," added Nazaoka.
Sultani has cast himself in the role of a guardian of Afghan history and culture. In 2005, he brought about 3,000 pieces from his private collection to the National Gallery in Kabul for public display, and he has promised to bequeath his artifacts to the Afghan state.
Now, however, he says the dispute has upset him so much that he is giving up his plan to establish a national network of museums.
A former goldsmith's apprentice from Ghazni, Sultani never learned to read or write but developed an eye for beauty, which he later developed into a successful career in the antiquities trade. He fled the country during the mujaheddin war of the Eighties and now holds a British passport.
Sadeq Behnam is an IWPR contributor in Herat.