Spotlight on the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan

With its thousands of years of history, Afghanistan is home to a remarkable treasure trove of archaeological wealth. Within the country’s borders, incredible examples of protohistoric, Greek, Buddhist, and Islamic sites can all be found, reflecting the rich and complex legacy of Afghanistan’s many peoples and influences.

For nearly a century, the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan (DAFA) has been one of the most important organizations working on the ground to preserve and protect Afghanistan’s exceptional archaeological heritage. In a recent article from CNRS News, DAFA’s director Julio Bendezu-Sarmiento gives readers a unique glimpse into DAFA’s history and current projects in Afghanistan.

Some of the most important takeaways from the article include:

 

DAFA is the only foreign archaeological team to have a permanent presence in Afghanistan.

Many scientific organizations have left Kabul in recent years due to the instability that continues to affect the city. The fact that DAFA has remained is a reflection of its long history and close ties with Afghanistan.

DAFA was established in 1922 at the request of the Afghan head of state at the time, King Amanullah. Under the original agreement between the French and Afghan governments, DAFA was granted exclusive rights to carry out archaeological excavations in Afghanistan. This changed in the 1960s, when other organizations were permitted to conduct excavations.

DAFA was forced to leave the country during the Soviet occupation and ensuing civil conflict. The organization returned in 2003 and has continued its work ever since. Today, the DAFA headquarters in Kabul are home to offices, a research center, a library of 20,000 books, storerooms, and restoration and photo laboratories.

 

archaeology

Image courtesy Jerome Starkey | Flickr

 

DAFA’s most important current project is the creation of a comprehensive inventory and map of Afghanistan’s archaeological heritage.

In 2014, the government of Afghanistan entrusted DAFA with the mission to produce a comprehensive archaeological map of the country. This document would serve as a detailed inventory of all of Afghanistan’s ancient sites. The goal of this project is to ensure that the Afghan government is able to make fully-informed decisions about prospective development projects—including road construction, urban planning initiatives, and mining—that may impact sites of archaeological importance.

The decision to launch this project was prompted in part by a decade-old controversy. In 2007, the news broke that a Chinese company had acquired the mining and extraction rites to Mes Aynak. This site is roughly 25 miles southeast of Kabul and is home to both the remains of an ancient Buddhist city and one of the world’s largest untapped copper deposits.

The future of the Mes Aynak archaeological site remains uncertain. Fortunately, historical preservationists all around the world have been working hard to save it. Going forward, DAFA’s inventory and mapping project is intended to help prevent similar situations from arising in the future.

 

DAFA currently relies on remote detection to conduct the majority of its survey work.

There are extensive logistical challenges involved in accessing Afghanistan’s archaeological sites. These include security concerns, extreme weather conditions, and the remote nature of many of the locations. As a result, it’s not feasible for DAFA team members to conduct systemic excavation campaigns in the field.

For this reason, DAFA is assembling its map of archaeological sites with the aid of thousands of drone and aerial photos. These are drawn from a variety of sources, including declassified NATO satellite images and aerial survey photographs taken by Airbus around mining concessions.

It’s a painstaking process. Because ancient Afghan buildings were typically made of mud, their remains are fragile and difficult to spot. In addition, many archaeological sites have been broken into and damaged by looters over the years, making them even more challenging to identify. This means that each photograph must be carefully examined by a trained professional who knows precisely what to look for.

 

The DAFA inventory has made considerable progress in recent years.

Hundreds of hours of effort have been made by the project’s 20 dedicated team members, most of whom are Afghan researchers and technicians. As a result, DAFA has made considerable progress on the mapping and inventory project over the last few years.

About 1,300 sites had already been discovered and published by the time of the Soviet invasion, when DAFA was forced to leave Afghanistan. Since the current mapping and inventory project was launched in 2014, DAFA has brought to light nearly 5,000 additional sites. The organization emphasizes that the survey is far from complete.

On the map, the sites are color-coded by category. Sites marked in yellow have already been excavated, those marked in blue have been identified but not excavated, and those in red have been only recently discovered and still need to be identified. Eventually, DAFA aims to produce a detailed geographic information system (GIS), in which a database of available site information can be accessed from each point on the map.

Featured Image courtesy Jerome Starkey | Flickr

Conservation Is the Top Priority for These 3 Organizations

When you look at the mission statements of most of the NGOs currently working in Afghanistan, the objectives tend to be what you would expect from organizations focused on helping a country rebuild after decades of conflict—achieving political and economic stability, increasing access to quality education, and improving health care. However, a small but passionate collection of organizations are dedicating themselves to what might seem, under the circumstances, like a surprising priority: environmental conservation.

WCSlogoOr is it so surprising? In an article from 2011, members of the Wildlife Conservation Society countered the perception that conservation work in conflict zones is just a distraction from more urgent issues by offering an insightful examination of the ways in which contemporary conservation projects can make an important contribution to the mission of stabilization. The article points out that in the 21st century, environmental conservation has evolved into an interdisciplinary, multitasking enterprise. No longer carried out in isolation, efforts to preserve species and wild areas are increasingly being conducted hand-in-hand with economic advancement opportunities for the people who live near and among these wild creatures and places. As a result, conservation work is proving to be an important tool for helping developing nations build civil societies and sustainable economic opportunities.

While the Wildlife Conservation Society is perhaps the largest and best-known entity dedicated to environmental work in Afghanistan, there are a number of other local and international organizations engaging in conservation projects on a smaller but no less committed scale. These organizations include the following three:

 

  1. The Center for Middle Eastern Plants

Established in 2009 under the umbrella of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, the Center for Middle Eastern Plants (CMEP) is one of the world’s leading authorities on the Middle Eastern environment. With a mission to help local partners tackle complex environmental issues, CMEP creates and implements projects across the Middle East that are designed to leave pragmatic, environmentally sustainable legacies. CMEP’s services include planning, surveying, landscaping, capacity development, and conservation efforts.

CMEP has been working in Afghanistan ever since the organization started. Over the last decade, the government of Afghanistan has made a commitment to environmental conservation and the sustainable use of biological diversity, as evidenced by the country’s recent signing of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and other similar actions. In recent years, CMEP has been an important partner for Afghanistan, helping the country to build capacity and knowledge to better honor its commitments under the CBD. Working with a range of local partners, CMEP has helped to develop an ex situ conservation strategy for the Kabul University Botanic Garden, created and implemented a biodiversity research skills training program at Kabul University, and provided training and support for IUCN Red Listing (the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species is the world’s most comprehensive inventory of at-risk plant and animal species). CMEP also runs online botany courses to help Afghans, as well as citizens of other Middle Eastern countries, to learn more about native plant species.

 

Afghanistan

 

  1. Rural Green Environment Organization

Founded in 2002, the Rural Green Environment Organization (RGEO) has helped to dramatically transform the environmental narrative in the northeastern province of Badakhshan. In the early 1990s, the province’s natural resources were all but depleted following the decade-long Soviet occupation—a serious problem given that 80 percent of Afghans depend on natural resource-based activities like farming, herding, and small-scale mining for their livelihoods. Faced with this challenging situation, Haji Awrang, the then-governor of Badakhshan’s Tagab district, developed a recovery plan that, in a forward-thinking way, took both social and ecological needs into account.

Today, Awrang’s legacy is upheld by RGEO, which continues to engage local communities in projects and initiatives that benefit the environment and the economy. With the support of Badakhshan residents, RGEO has banned illegal fishing and hunting; built a thriving system of tree nurseries, forest guard patrols, and reforesting projects; protected 2 kilometers of river; built 5 kilometers of irrigation canals and 120,000 meters of farm terracing; created more than 6,150 jobs and work-for-food programs; and incorporated environmental education into programs at local schools and mosques. In 2015 RGEO was awarded the prestigious Equator Prize by the United Nations Development Program in recognition of its outstanding environmental stewardship.

 

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  1. The Heinrich Böll Foundation

An environmental think tank and policy institute based in Germany, the Heinrich Böll Foundation works with 160 project partners in more than 60 countries worldwide to develop and implement green visions, projects, and policy reform. The foundation has worked in Afghanistan since 2012 to address the urgent issue of resource depletion.

Afghanistan is a country rich in natural resources, but due to decades of conflict and political instability, the use of these resources has seldom been effectively managed. As a result, local communities and the environment have suffered. The Heinrich Böll Foundation is working to improve transparency in resource depletion through an environmental and natural resource monitoring network, which aims to ensure that resource development projects comply with international standards of environmental and social sustainability. Today, the network has more than 50 members and is an important contact for government officials.

These 6 Afghan Sites Have Appeared on the WMF Watch List

WMFlogoA private, non-profit organization headquartered in New York City, the World Monuments Fund (WMF) has been working to preserve, protect, and raise awareness about the world’s significant cultural and artistic treasures for more than five decades. One of the most important programs the WMF operates is the World Monuments Watch: launched in 1995, this global initiative identifies cultural heritage sites that are at risk and works to help raise the financial and technical support needed to preserve them.

To date, six cultural sites in Afghanistan have made appearances on the World Monuments Watch list. Read on to learn more about these treasured, but imperiled, historic locations.

 

Murad Khane, Kabul (2008 World Monuments Watch).

The story of the rehabilitation of the historic district of Murad Khane in the heart of Kabul is truly inspiring. When Murad Khane was included on the World Monuments Watch list in 2008, the neighborhood was in devastating shape after decades of conflict and neglect: beautiful historic buildings had fallen into complete disrepair, and the entire area was covered by garbage. Fortunately, the non-profit cultural organization Turquoise Mountain was at that time in the process of launching a comprehensive restoration project aimed at bringing Murad Khane back to its former glory. With the help and skills of thousands of local community members, Turquoise Mountain completely cleaned up the neighborhood, hauling away tons upon tons of garbage and carefully restoring the beautiful historic buildings that lay underneath. Today, Murad Khane is a vibrant artistic neighborhood, and the restoration project earned Turquoise Mountain the 2013 UNESCO Award of Distinction.

Murad Khane

Image courtesy Canada in Afghanistan | Flickr

 

Tepe Narenj, Kabul area (2008 World Monuments Watch).

In the Zanburak Mountains just south of Kabul sits Tepe Narenj, a Buddhist monastery established in the fifth or sixth century. An important testament to historic Buddhist influence in the region, Tepe Narenj is comprised of a number of stupas (in Sanskrit, a “stupa” is a mound-like structure containing relics, which are often the remains of Buddhist monks or nuns), individual meditation cells, several chapels, and numerous statues of the Buddha and Boddhisatva figures. Tepe Narenj was believed to have been destroyed by armies in the ninth century, but it was later rediscovered and was the first site in Afghanistan to be excavated after the Soviet conflict. The site was placed on the watch list as it is at serious risk of damage due to exposure to the elements.

 

Ghazni Minarets, Ghazni (2004 World Monuments Watch).

Soaring 20 meters above the arid landscape at the foot of the Hindu Kush Mountains, the minarets of Ghazni are a striking reminder of the great Ghaznavid Empire, which ruled a huge portion of Central Asia during the 11th and 12th centuries. The minarets are constructed of fired mud brick and covered with highly detailed terracotta decorations, including geometric designs and verses from the Quran. Today, the minarets themselves are structurally sound, though subject to periodic flooding, but the terracotta decorations are rapidly deteriorating as a result of exposure to rain and snow. Since the Ghazni minarets were placed on the watch list, a laser scan survey of the towers was conducted by architects from the US National Park Service’s Historic American Building Survey: this has provided a valuable record of existing conditions, and can serve as an important resource for future preservation efforts.

 

Buddhist Remains of Bamiyan, Bamiyan (2008 World Monuments Watch).

The 2001 destruction of the famous Buddhas of Bamiyan—colossal, extraordinary sculptures carved into the sandstone cliffs of the Bamiyan Valley—was a huge blow for cultural preservationists in Afghanistan. Today, efforts are being made to preserve other aspects of the site, and discussions are ongoing about the possibility of rebuilding the Buddhas. Learn more about what’s happening in the Bamiyan area here.

 

Haji Piyada Mosque, Balkh (2006 World Monuments Watch).

Also known as “Noh Gumbad” for the nine cupolas that once covered it, the Haji Piyada Mosque is not only Afghanistan’s oldest known Islamic building, it’s one of the earliest structures in the eastern Islamic world. Built in the late ninth century, the mosque is modest in size but architecturally rich, even though the cupolas have collapsed and only one supporting arch still stands. Its age makes the Haji Piyada Mosque a structure of unparalleled cultural and architectural significance, but at the time of its placement on the watch list, the structure was highly vulnerable to erosion, looting, and lack of proper maintenance. To assist with preservation efforts, the World Monuments Fund worked with UNESCO and other agencies to develop and implement a long-term conservation plan, which was completed in 2010.

 

Image courtesy Richard Layman | Flickr

 

Old City of Herat, Herat (1998 and 2010 World Monuments Watch).

A key stop along the ancient Silk Road, Herat is home to a spectacular assortment of medieval Islamic buildings, including the Qala Ikhtyaruddin citadel and the famous Friday Mosque. However, the entire Old City has suffered as a result of military conflict, looting, earthquakes and, more recently, pressures brought on by rapid development and intensive construction. Alongside the World Monuments Fund, many other organizations are working to implement protection and preservation efforts in Herat, most notably the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.