Idols chopped up by Taliban back at Kabul Museum

Kabul, December 4, 2004 - A collection of pre-Islamic wooden idols chopped up by the Taliban in 2001 in their drive for a pure Muslim state is back on display in Afghanistan after painstaking repair in a project financed by the Austrian government. The near life-sized idols, some bearing at least a passing resemblance to the mysterious stone statues of Easter Island, went on display this week at the Kabul Museum, which was badly ravaged in Afghanistan's civil war and Taliban rule until 2001.

The idols come from Kafiristan -- literally "Land of the Infidels" -- a near legendary region of the majestic Hindu Kush mountain range straddling the borders of eastern Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan. They date back to a period of ancestor worship before Islam was imposed in the late 19th century and the area became known as Afghanistan's Nuristan province and Pakistan's Chitral district.

"I consider this to be a most important collection," said Max Klimburg, a retired University of Vienna professor who oversaw the restoration effort financed by the Austrian government. "It goes back to the time when that population of Nuristan was not yet Islamised and had their own very traditional beliefs in different gods, ghosts and deities."

The collection is made up of more than a dozen statues brought taken by the Afghan army in the 1890s. It also includes artifacts collected by Klimburg and returned to Afghanistan in 1978 as a gift from the German government, which had purchased his collection.

Having survived one bout of iconoclasm in the 19th century and bloody factional fighting that racked Kabul in the 1990s, the collection was targeted after the Taliban took Kabul.

"Most of the figures had been chopped up by the Taliban and they were restored, very nicely as you can see," Klimburg said. "No figure has been lost."

The Taliban attempted to destroy the idols because they considered such images an affront to their purist concepts of Islam. In early 2001, the Taliban shocked the world with the extent of their intolerance by blowing up two giant stone Buddhas that had overlooked the central town of Bamiyan for some 1,600 years.

Restoration work on 11 of the wooden figures in the museum's collection was carried out in May by an Italian-Austrian specialist, Giovanni Rindler. Experts at the Kabul Museum restored three others. Among the figures is the upper half of an ancestor effigy from the Kalasha Valleys of Chitral, where about 3,500 inhabitants of the former Kafiristan still live and adhere to their traditional beliefs. Klimburg said the figure had been sawn into two pieces to facilitate its illegal export from Afghanistan to a collector overseas in the 1970s. It was confiscated at the Kabul airport, but the lower half of the figure is still missing. Other objects in the collection include house and temple posts and chairs and utensils such as water pots.

Klimburg said his own collection had included three long-stemmed silver cups and a large male bust, but these were now missing, apparently looted and sold to collectors abroad as part of a massive illegal worldwide trade in antiquities.