University of Chicago
In case you’re not breathlessly following recent developments in American cultural policy, here’s an update: on May 9 President Obama signed the Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act, which would outlaw the importation of almost all Syrian archaeological artifacts into the US. The rationale is simple: stop the flow of antiquities to lucrative western markets and you’ve shut off an important source of revenue for the Islamic State. As far as policy motives go, it’s a good one. It promises both to undermine ISIS’s horrific program of terrorism and despotic rule, and to protect historic sites and objects for the people of Syria and the elusive “universal” cultural constituency. I support the act—it’s a step in the right direction—but it does have me thinking about some of the unintended consequences of cultural policy, particularly the intersection between local and global interests. Since the ISIS situation is still unfolding and we don’t yet have outcomes to study, let’s look at an older but related case: the Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan.
Many of you will remember that in March 2001, the Taliban blew up two colossal, 1500-year-old statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley. The political drama leading up to the event has been studied in detail by Finbarr Barry Flood and Jamal Elias. The Taliban were so determined to obliterate the sculptures that when their first round of rockets caused significant damage but didn’t fully destroy them, they sent men up onto the statues to plant even more powerful explosives on the heads and shoulders. It worked. Today, the niches are eerily empty.
UNESCO and the World Monuments Fund, two powerful international cultural organizations, have advised against rebuilding the statues. The ruined state of the sculptures was effectively reified in UNESCO’s 2003 decision to enlist Bamiyan as World Heritage Site, which came two years after the Taliban destruction. UNESCO had indefinitely postponed the original petition for enlisting Bamiyan in 1983, when the statues were still intact (Rodney Harrison has a particularly insightful discussion about this episode). You can read the full decision of the UNESCO committee here (see especially page 125). Criterion VI stands out for me: “Due to their symbolic values, the monuments have suffered at different times of their existence, including the deliberate destruction in 2001, which shook the whole world.” The empty niches, then, were honored precisely for having been victimized. For UNESCO, they bear witness to the vulnerability of universal heritage to political violence and religious intolerance.
But rebuilding the statues is important for another constituency: the local Hazara people, a persecuted ethnic minority who have inhabited the Bamiyan Valley for hundreds of years. For them, the statues represented mythical ancestors. The catch is this: the only way to rebuild the statues is to supplement the recovered rubble with modern materials. The smaller of the two statues can just about be rebuilt using half original material/half modern material. So little remains of the larger statue, however, that it will require substantially more than half of modern material. At that point, it risks falling outside the definition of “authenticity” operationalized by UNESCO. Delistment is rare—it’s only happened twice—but it’s possible, and local people wish to avoid it given their reliance on tourist income (which could fall if the site is stripped of its World Heritage status). The integrity of the monument, the international community’s interest in universal heritage, and the Hazara people’s traditions and livelihood are all at play here. Can UNESCO policy accommodate them all?
From banning the importation of Syrian antiquities to rebuilding a 7th century statue complex in Afghanistan, cultural objects are socially complex in a way that policy instruments struggle to reckon with.
Note: I am indebted to Professor Kavita Singh for drawing my attention to the plight of the Hazara people.
Fiona Rose-Greenland is a cultural sociologist with research interests in art and iconography, nationalism, history, and material culture. She is currently working on a book manuscript about cultural power in Italy, and a series of articles on the global trade in looted antiquities.