A collection of 33 artefacts seized from a New York-based art dealer who authorities say was one of the world’s most prolific smugglers of antiquities was turned over by the US to the government of Afghanistan this week.
“The significance of the material is huge,” Roya Rahmani, the country’s ambassador to the US, told the Associated Press on Wednesday.
Rahmani formally took control of the collection in a ceremony on Monday in New York with the Manhattan District Attorney’s office and Homeland Security Investigations.
The agencies had recovered the artefacts as part of a larger investigation into the trafficking of antiquities from several countries.
Now, after briefly being displayed at the Afghan embassy in Washington, the masks, sculptures and other items, some from the second and third centuries, are en route to Kabul, where they are expected to go on display at the National Museum.
It’s the same museum where members of the Taliban destroyed artefacts in 2001 as part of a cultural rampage rooted in a fundamentalist version of Islam in which depictions of the human form are considered offensive.
The Taliban is now out of power but it still controls much of the country outside of Kabul amid stalled talks with the government and the looming withdrawal of US and Nato forces after two decades of war.
Rahmani concedes it’s a delicate time. “However, our security forces are determined to defend our people,” she told The Associated Press. “The government is committed to do its part for peace and stability in a way that would bring durable peace.”
Germany’s defence ministry said on Wednesday a possible withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan as early as July 4 is on the cards.
President Joe Biden has already said the US would remove all its troops by Sept 11, the 20th anniversary of the attacks that prompted the American invasion to dislodge the Taliban in 2001 for allowing al-Qaeda to operate from Afghanistan.
Before the 9/11 attacks, the Taliban were already internationally notorious for enforcing a harsh form of Islamic law that destroyed the famed giant, sixth century sandstone Buddha statues built into a cliff in Bamiyan province.
The destruction of the statues was on the ambassador’s mind as she prepared to ship the artefacts to her homeland, not only because a mural of the sandstone Buddhas adorns the room at the embassy where visitors gathered this week to see the relics.
Rahmani, Afghanistan’s first female ambassador to the Washington, recalls that she wept when she first learned what the Taliban had done to the Buddhas.
In contrast, the items are “returning to a government and people who cherish their past” and will make sure they are preserved for future generations, Rahmani said.
She doesn’t expect the Taliban, if they return to power, would dare to destroy them.