Treasures lost to war, looting

SUN JOURNAL

Artifacts: Alexander the Great established cities in what is now Afghanistan, but the archaeological legacy is being sold or destroyed.

November 24, 2001|By David Filipov | David Filipov,THE BOSTON GLOBE

AI KHANUM, Afghanistan - Mahbuhbullah has no qualms about the business that bought him his comfortable compound in northern Afghanistan and left him with a buried treasure worth millions - if he can sneak it past the gunmen who unwittingly guard it.

Mahbuhbullah is an Afghan Indiana Jones, an opportunistic tomb raider who makes his living selling important archaeological artifacts from the ancient excavations he raids.

Unlike the Hollywood version, Mahbuhbullah does not have to travel far from home to do his thing. The ruins he plunders are a bumpy 15-minute Jeep ride from his lush compound in Dashti-Qala.

There, at the foot of Mount Ai Khanum, overlooking the Pyandzh River that cuts through Afghanistan's border with Tajikistan, lie the 2,300-year-old ruins of the city that Alexander the Great built for his Afghan wife, Roxanne.

Once the mighty and glorious fortress of Alexandria Oxiana, the ruins at Ai Khanum are now a sad reminder of the decades of war and destruction that have ruined much of the archaeological legacy of Afghanistan.

The civil chaos has provided an opportunity for hundreds of artifact scavengers like Mahbuhbullah, who has made a fortune selling the ancient treasures he looted from the ruins.

The fighting between the Taliban and the opposition Northern Alliance that frequently engulfed this barren patch of land overlooking the Pyandzh, the Oxus of antiquity, has gradually destroyed the scraps that the looters have left behind.

Archaeologists around the world condemned the Taliban for destroying historic monuments in Afghanistan this year, including two huge statues of Buddha that had serenely gazed across a valley in the Hindu Kush mountains for more than 1,500 years before the puritanical Islamic militia decided in March that they were sacrilegious.

But the warlords of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance have not shown much respect for ancient monuments, either.

After his army conquered the part of ancient Persia that is now Iran, Alexander the Great founded Alexandria Oxiana - now known as Ai Khanum - in 328 B.C. for Roxanne, the daughter of a baron he had vanquished and slain in what is now Afghanistan's Balkh province.

Like subsequent would-be conquerors, Alexander occupied Afghan territory but never subdued the people. His imprint, however, remains in the cities he founded, including Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban.

When French archaeologist Paul Bernard discovered the ancient ruins of Ai Khanum in the late 1960s, he hired local residents to help unearth the riches buried 10 feet underground.

The French team abandoned its work after Afghanistan descended into chaos in the 1970s. But the locals remembered the treasures that the ruins held.

"Local people saw what they had dug up and learned what was there," Mahbuhbullah says as he shows reporters the site. "I was one of them."

Over the years, Mahbuhbullah extracted numerous artifacts, which he sold to local and international buyers. His position as a leading Communist in the pro-Soviet government of Najibullah during Moscow's 10-year occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s helped him continue his plundering.

He took a break during the civil war that followed the 1989 Soviet pullout to change sides and help capture Kabul from the Communists as a commander in the army of Uzbek warlord Gen. Abdurrashid Dostum (another former Communist who switched sides).

Over the next nine years, Mahbuhbullah extracted booty he said was worth $4 million. Unfortunately for him, much of it - ancient silver and gold coins - is buried in a 300-pound bag six feet underground in a secret location.

So far, he says, it hasn't been safe to try to dig it up.

"If a normal government ever comes to Afghanistan, I will go there and dig it up and sell it," he says, as he studies a piece of a limestone column in a large trench that 23 centuries ago was the location of Roxanne's bedroom.

Mahbuhbullah has a piece of column in the courtyard of his large compound. He also has several coins he said are worth $200 and a marble lion fountain worth $4,000. If he ever gets his buried loot back, he said, he could sell it in Afghanistan for $1 million - a mind-boggling sum in a land where 30 percent of the country's 21 million people live on the verge of starvation.

While the man who would live like a king thrives, Alexandria Oxiana has fallen on hard times. The ruins are being used as a grazing ground by shepherds who seem as indifferent to the cultural importance of the place as they are to the constant artillery, rocket and sniper fire that echoes daily from the front lines, which are now a few miles to the west.

Shards of ancient pottery lie scattered on the rocky clay soil strewn with sheep dung and shell casings, evidence of the countless pitched battles waged among the ruins last year. These ruins have been bombarded by the Taliban and the opposition Northern Alliance, who fought seesaw battles for control of this part of northern Afghanistan for a year.

After opposition forces gained control of the area, they took little care of it, Mahbuhbullah says. When Northern Alliance fighters recaptured the area last year, they destroyed with guns and rocket fire several columns that the French archaeologists had meticulously glued together from limestone fragments.

"Why did the fighters do it? Because they are illiterate," Mahbuhbullah says. "They don't understand the value of these things."

Few people in the region have the time or energy to worry about the meaning of Ai Khanum. Most are trying to make a living, like the prospectors sifting through the sands of the Pyandzh, hoping to find a bit of gold in the river muck.

Occasionally, local guides show the place on their way to the heights overlooking the front.

Among the ruins, Bernard found an inscription on a pillar: "As children, learn good manners. As young men, learn to control the passions. In middle age, be just. In old age, give good advice. Then die, without regret."

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