Preserving Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage: An Interview with Nancy Hatch Dupree

Nancy Hatch Dupree

An internationally recognized expert on the history, art, and archaeology of Afghanistan, Nancy Hatch Dupree has dedicated a lifetime to documenting and preserving Afghanistan's cultural heritage. Mrs. Dupree arrived in Kabul in 1962 with her first husband, an American diplomat. There she fell in love; not only with Afghanistan, but also with Louis Dupree, a renowned archaeologist and scholar of Afghanistan's culture and history. For the next 15 years, the Duprees traveled throughout Afghanistan, conducting archaeological excavations. Mrs. Dupree wrote five guidebooks for the Afghan Tourist Organization (one of which became the inspiration for Tony Kushner's recent play Homebody/Kabul) covering all major archaeological and historic sites, as well as a guide to the National Museum.

The Duprees were forced to leave Afghanistan in 1979 after the Soviet invasion. Following Mr. Dupree's death in 1989, Mrs. Dupree relocated to Peshawar, Pakistan, where she has continued to work, educating both Afghans and the world about Afghanistan's cultural heritage. She currently directs the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief's (ACBAR) Resource and Information Center (ARIC), which collects and disseminates documents relating to humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan and Afghan refugees in Pakistan. ARIC also runs a popular project that supplies reading materials to villages, districts, and public libraries inside Afghanistan, as well as to refugee schools in Pakistan. Mrs. Dupree is also involved with the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage (SPACH). Since 1989, she has published over 250 pieces on a wide variety of topics relating to the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

Before her June 24, 2002 lecture at the Asia Society and Museum in New York City, Asia Society spoke with Mrs. Dupree about her views on cultural heritage preservation, the aftermath of the destruction of cultural property in Afghanistan, and the situation cultural preservation and non-profit organizations are facing in Afghanistan today.


One of the most basic issues affecting cultural heritage preservation is the question of ownership. What does current international law allow for? What are the shortcomings of current UNESCO conventions in regard to cultural heritage preservation?

That is a question particularly relevant to Afghanistan. When the massive looting of the Kabul Museum took place, nobody paid much attention, except for the specialists. UNESCO didn't say much of anything. Then the Bamiyan Buddhas were blown up, and immediately UNESCO came out with guidelines. However, their guidelines--which concerned safe havens for artifacts when the environment surrounding them was threatening--were so unspecific. They spoke about safeguarding any Afghan artifacts anywhere in the world. Which is fine, but how? They didn't say. So UNESCO was criticized.

The whole question of who owns the national heritage of a country, and who is responsible for it, is very difficult. When the mujahideen were in power in Kabul, I personally talked to Commander Ahmed Shah Massoud (who was unfortunately later assassinated). I said, "Look, the museum collections are in danger. Is there any chance you would consider sending them out of the country to be held in some safe haven?" And he said, "Personally I think it would be a good idea to put them in some safe haven, but politically I cannot do this. My opponents would say I am selling away the artifacts for my own personal gain."

There were some, like the then-director of the Kabul Museum, who desperately wanted to get these things away from the battle for Kabul. But when it comes down to realities, which very often have to do more with politics than anything else, it is just not possible. So critics, who appear like mushrooms after terrible things happen, speak from hindsight, from vested interests.

I think that a country is entitled to keep its heritage. But, at the same time, in keeping their heritage they have the responsibility to protect it. This is not always possible. And Afghanistan is not the only place where this has happened; look at what has happened in Cambodia, what has happened in South American countries, and so on and so forth. It is not an easy question. It can only be solved with a lot of complex negotiations.

What more do you think could have been done by the international community to safeguard the artifacts in the Kabul Museum?

Actually, once I was here at the Asia Society, and I asked the director of the galleries, "Would you consider having an exhibition?" That would have been one way to take them out without the critics being able to say they had been sold for personal benefit. This way, they would not only be on display, but they would be gathering income. Look at what happened with the Tutankhamen exhibit: long, long lines all over the world. So this could have been one way of doing it. But the leadership in Afghanistan kept changing so quickly that even if you came to an agreement with one person, he would soon be out, and then you'd have to go through it all over again with another person.

I must say that the Afghans, particularly the staff of the museum, were very, very concerned about it. They acted in a most responsible way. When they saw that the Russians would be leaving, they knew stability was going to deteriorate. So they packed up a good number of the pieces, and stashed them in different places all around Kabul. Those stashes are still there.

As you mentioned, acknowledged "world monuments" such as Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the Bamiyan Buddhas have been threatened for political rather than cultural or ideological reasons. Do you think conferring world heritage status on cultural objects only makes them more vulnerable to destruction?

I think the positives outweigh the negatives. Sure, certainly it does attract attention, and then people who never thought of them before say, "Aha!" But the conventions that put a monument on the world heritage list are very, very strict. The government has to agree to many things, as far as protection is concerned. Some monuments have been taken off the list because the governments do not fulfill these requirements.

Afghanistan never did have any monuments on the world heritage list. As far as I know, nine different monuments have been nominated over time for inclusion on the world heritage list. The world heritage committee just opened their meeting for this year, and there is one Afghan monument, the minaret at Jam, being considered this time. Because of the sympathy and the general feeling about Afghanistan these days, people seem to think it has a good chance of being put on the list. But the reason the nine others never got on the list was because the government of Afghanistan could not fulfill the requirements for their protection. So we'll see what happens. We should know in a week or so whether the Jam minaret makes it or not.* But the conditions in Afghanistan for fulfilling those world heritage requirements are much less now than they were before.

*Editor's note: The Jam minaret was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List on June 24, 2002. See

To many people in the non-Western world, cultural heritage does not imply a collection of artifacts behind glass, but rather objects that are an indiscernible, integral part of their daily lives. What more do you think can be done at the grassroots level to promote cultural resource protection and involve local people in preserving and maintaining the objects that inform their lives? What role does education play in cultural heritage preservation?

This is one of my main concerns. Of course, cultural heritage has many components; some are tangible, some are intangible. Problems in the past existed on many levels. For one, the government has always been responsible for repair and maintenance. The people were not involved; so they felt no responsibility for cultural properties around them. Now we see that monuments that are living parts of the community have suffered less during the war. So I am convinced that we have to involve communities, by forming action committees, so those monuments and other parts of the culture that they are living with can be appreciated. Local people often don't see there is anything unique in some of the things they work with daily. You have to raise their awareness of this, because for a long, long time the government will not be able to take care of everything itself, nor should it. It should be the community acting out of a sense of responsibility for their past.

As far as education is concerned, it is the key. In Afghanistan, heritage subjects were not included in an appropriate way in the school curriculum. Now there are two generations of young people who have grown up outside of their own country. They haven't a clue as to what their culture is. They don't have a clue of the glorious things in their history. And why should they be held accountable for them unless they understand, and understand clearly, that this is part of their past, and it is part of their culture.

So the education sector must become involved, and this includes aggressive lobbying. They're going to revise the curriculum in Afghanistan, and we must lobby aggressively to see that these issues are put into the entire curriculum. But that doesn't do all that is necessary. You have to produce reading materials, posters, and other awareness-raising materials. And even that is not enough. Unless you have a good distribution system, this will all be concentrated in the cities. You need to get the information out to everyone, so civil society can be intelligently informed about its heritage and how to protect it.

Looted artifacts from Afghanistan have been sold on the black market in Pakistan and purchased by international collectors. Do you believe the international art market is a valid channel for "saving" objects from destruction in politically volatile countries? Once objects have been stolen and sold on the black market, is there any way for cultural institutions to legitimately recover them, or are they lost to private buyers?

The collectors and the dealers grabbed on to that very quickly. They're very proud of themselves, saying, "See, now we've served a very good purpose!" The problem is, where are these artifacts? We hear of sightings in Switzerland, in London, in Tokyo and so on and so forth, but no one specifies what those sightings are. These collectors are a very closed group of elites; they like to keep everything for themselves. This is of no benefit for the Afghan people.

But there are some interesting developments. There are one or two very generous dealers who have donated pieces to SPACH to hold until they can be returned to Afghanistan. There is a case in Tokyo that goes even further: a dealer has actually put a superb piece on exhibit in the Ancient Orient Museum in Tokyo. He has expressed the hope that other dealers or collectors will follow his example, and put their pieces on exhibit so the people of Japan can enjoy them until such time as it is safe to send them back to Afghanistan. I don't know if anybody has followed up on his suggestion. I do know there is a professor at the University of Tokyo who says he has thirty objects from Afghanistan that have been collected or donated by generous public-spirited citizens in Japan. He is holding these pieces until the Kabul Museum is reestablished and they can be returned.

So there are little movements in this direction. These are the kind of safe havens that UNESCO talks about, but UNESCO has a tendency to talk way up in the air. They are not specific about what regulations should apply. Many legal issues must be considered about collecting and returning items. If you buy a piece in Pakistan, for instance, you can't take it outside the border because of Pakistani law. And if they confiscate it, it belongs to Pakistan. So there are all kinds of legal arrangements that have to be made before you can retrieve items from dealers and collectors. It's not just talk, it takes a lot of hard work.

Do you think the damage to the Kabul Museum's collection can ever be repaired?

It's really heartbreaking to see the way the staff of the museum has so diligently and lovingly collected all the fragments from purposefully broken statues and artifacts. They've collected them in nice piles, and they are quite convinced that somehow, with all our modern technology, some conservators will be able to, like Humpty Dumpty, put them back together again. I'm not sure. It looks like an impossible task to me, but I'm not a technician. At least they didn't just sweep it up and throw it out, they've got it very nicely organized, all waiting for somebody to come and put them together.

Do you think the Bamiyan Buddhas should be rebuilt?

I think trying to rebuild them is the silliest idea I've ever heard. You cannot recreate something that was an artistic creation. It was of its time. Somebody in China, in Sichuan, is building a replica for an amusement park. Is that what we should do? The spirit of Bamiyan still lives. The niches are still there, and the surroundings are just as serene and as beautiful as they were before. There's nothing but a stump of the Buddhas now, but somehow it emanates an aura of its own.

Of course, the people of Bamiyan are anxious to have them rebuilt because they think they've lost their tourist attraction. I don't think so. I think we can build a site museum. Over the years, there have been Japanese, Indian, and French teams working there, and they have many superb photographs. One idea is the possibility of projecting these images not onto paper, because that is not substantial enough, but onto ceramics. Not to recreate the niches or the statues themselves, but to have a site museum so people can see how glorious it once was.

Can you tell me more about SPACH (Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage)? When was it formed, how were you involved in its creation, and what role do you see for the organization in Afghanistan now?

In 1993, after a rocket hit the roof of the Kabul Museum, we heard about the disaster. I was in Kabul, and I talked to the director of the museum, who was beside himself. The museum was in enemy territory, but he was with the government, so he couldn't even visit his museum. He did so clandestinely and he knew things were being looted. I came back to Pakistan, and met with Mr. Sotirious Mousouris, the UN Secretary General's Personal Representative in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He was very encouraging, and sent me back--not only to Kabul, but to Mazar-i-Sharif, to Herat, and Jalalabad--to write a report. On the basis of this SPACH was formed.

This group of volunteers included a number of ambassadors. We did mostly advocacy work and very modest conservation work for things we thought were most vulnerable. We worked very closely with the governments of Ahmed Shah Massoud and Rabbani. We also had very good relations with the Taliban, up until the summer of 2000. They were very supportive. We didn't have all that much money, nor did we have the expertise to do a lot of the conservation work, but it was mostly advocacy. We started a photo catalogue of the current status of all the monuments, and we have a publication series of monographs on specific sites and monuments, the SPACH Library Series. The purpose is awareness-raising.

SPACH did purchase a few pieces, but we were selective. We acquired only those that we knew were looted from the museum, and we didn't touch anything of unknown provenance. We would not pay the astronomical prices the dealers were asking, because we did not believe it was proper to reward looters. A lot of these pieces are owned jointly by Pakistanis and Afghans. It was the Afghans who were coming to us, because they knew if we bought them they would go back to Afghanistan. And so they sold below the asking prices, much to the disgust and ire of their Pakistani partners. This was very courageous of them. We don't have very many, but we have some very nice pieces.

Now, all this change is happening so quickly. It's not a question of changing day by day; it changes hour by hour. SPACH does have a letter from the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture saying that they want us to continue. I think we have to do some hard thinking as to how we are to continue. Now there is a tremendous amount of interest in working on heritage issues, which there wasn't before. We need to pull out of our modest conservation activities, which we're not really expert in, and we need to move more heavily into the advocacy role.

What kind of work are you undertaking currently, considering the recent major changes in Afghanistan's political and cultural environment?

My major job is the ACBAR (Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief) Resource and Information Center (ARIC), which now has 25,000 documents. We're still based in Pakistan, because I was watching the political situation in Afghanistan. I don't have back-ups for these documents, but they are part of Afghanistan's history, so I feel very responsible. I can't put them in jeopardy by moving them somewhere where a mullah with a match or some American with a daisy cutter can damage them. But now that the loya jirga is over and it looks as though we're heading for some kind of stability, we are thinking very actively about moving the ARIC to Kabul.

What is the NGO working environment like in Afghanistan now?

I call it a zoo, and all the animals are outside their cages, clawing one another. It is very sad. Although coordination and cooperation are supposed to be the name of the game, it's just everyone establishing their territory. Some of the older established NGOs are struggling to contend with these new NGOs that are coming with lots of money in their pockets and just running roughshod over them.

Plus, the older NGOs have had to make a very difficult transformation. Up until recently, they've had it all to themselves. They could decide where they wanted to work, what they wanted to do, and with whom they wanted to do it. Now there's a government, and they have to realize that an NGO is primarily supposed to be complementary to the government, to do what the government can't do. That's a hard change to make.

The government now has someone in charge of aid assistance who wants some order, and he has every right to it. You cannot have 1,500 people wandering around doing their own thing when you're trying to establish a national strategy, whether it's in health, agriculture, infrastructure, or whatever. But it will sort itself out.

Interview conducted by Alexis Menten of Asia Society.