With Signs of Afghan Looting, 'I Feel As If My Soul Is Dying'

Taliban denies looting at ancient sites despite evidence in satellite images
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 22, 2024 1:14 PM CST
Researchers: Ancient Sites Are Being Bulldozed Under Taliban
A view of the old wall of Balkh city (antique Bactria) in Afghanistan's Balkh province.   (Getty Images/Jonathan Wilson)

The Taliban's vow to protect the cultural treasures of Afghanistan may have been little more than lip service, according to researchers, who've uncovered evidence of the widespread bulldozing and looting of ancient sites. The Center for Cultural Heritage Preservation at the University of Chicago used satellite images and artificial intelligence to identify more than 29,000 archaeological sites across Afghanistan. They found 162 sites in northern Balkh province, once the heart of the ancient civilization of Bactria, were "devastated at an astonishing rate of one a week" between 2018 and 2021 under the government of President Ashraf Ghani, per the BBC. And though the Taliban promised to protect cultural heritage upon resuming power in 2021, the trend only continued.

The team led by Gil Stein, a UChicago professor of near eastern archaeology, found evidence of bulldozing and looting at 37 sites, including one near a historic Buddhist monastery, since 2021, per Science. Researchers identified specks on satellite images they believe are bulldozers because of their movement and the tracks they leave behind. At sites where the apparent bulldozers are present, vast areas are cleared before pits appear in the ground. "Basically, the people were clearing out vast areas to make it easier to loot the site systematically," Stein tells the BBC. It's unclear what artifacts might hide among sites dating back to the Late Bronze Age, per the Independent. But a treasure trove of Bactrian gold, some 2,000 years old, was discovered in nearby Tela Tepe in 1978.

Each mound can contain "layers of a civilization," says Afghanistan-born Said Reza Huseini, who has a PhD in history and has written about Bactria—a center of Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Islam situated along the Silk Road. Faced with the bulldozing of ancient sites, including some at which he volunteered early in his career, "I feel as if my soul is dying," he tells the BBC. Stein suggests people of wealth or power are likely responsible for this loss of "world heritage" as artifacts are smuggled out of the country and sold. But the Taliban denies any looting is taking place. "We sent various teams to check the sites and ... there hasn't been a single incident in any of those sites," Atiqullah Azizi, the acting deputy minister for information and culture, tells the BBC. (More Afghanistan stories.)

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