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Ancient Afghanistan, smuggled in pieces

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Across the border in Afghanistan, the Taliban government has destroyed every Buddha it can get its hands on, images it considers idolatrous. Demolition of the massive standing Buddhas of Bamiyan, confirmed by dramatic photographs last week, sent a shock wave through academic and religious circles as these icons of the Afghan Buddhist civilization were consigned to dust.

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But in Naseer Ahmed's shop in Peshawar's antiques market, relics are still trickling in and finding refuge. Like the displaced Afghans who bring them, Afghanistan's endangered Buddhist and Hellenic statues are coming to Pakistan for shelter and safety - and to be sold.

Opening a false door in his show room and walking into a dark, musty chamber, Mr. Ahmed says, "you come into my museum." A Greek terra cotta head is one recent arrival that could date back to the invasion of Alexander the Great. Others are altarpieces that tell the life story of Buddha. "You want big Buddha, small Buddha, it's no problem; but take to your country, it's a big problem at airport," says Ahmed.

Afghanistan's Taliban rulers prohibit anyone from transporting, possessing, or selling religious idols. Pakistan's customs department also restricts their transport into the country, regarding them as stolen goods. But as the hammers and explosives of Afghanistan's religious rulers continue to do their work on their country's historical legacy, the trickle of antiquities may become a flood. Many statues may end up in the hands of people who have little idea of their importance.

"This region, from Peshawar to Bamiyan, played a vital role in the development of Buddhism," says Fidaullah Sehrai, an archaeologist and former director of the Peshawar Museum, and a specialist in the art of the Afghan Buddhist, or Gandhara, culture, which combines Asian and Greco-Roman influences. "It was here that Buddhism was transferred to China, Korea, Japan, along the old Silk Route," says Mr. Sehrai. "It was here that the image of Buddha becomes an important source of worship, and where the mass production of statues begins. And it was here that Tantric Buddhism takes the form of Buddhism that is still practiced in Tibet.

"It is significant, because it is on the crossroads of cultures," he adds. "This is the history of the people of Afghanistan, and it should be maintained as a colorful example of pre-Islamic Afghan culture."

In the US, Taliban officials have said that the destruction was angrily ordered after international aid offers were made specifically to save statues, instead of ease Afghanistan's famine. As photographs pour in from various parts of Afghanistan - the final destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, rubble in Ghazni where a reclining Buddha used to be - it is clear that this pre-Islamic history is disappearing day by day, statue by statue.

It's a situation that puts Afghan historical experts into a quandary. On one hand, removing a relic from its historical surroundings destroys its archaeological value. On the other hand, leaving the statues in Afghanistan guarantees their destruction.

But for the traders of Peshawar's antiques market, such lofty concerns are somewhat beside the point. There are more earthly matters of supply and demand. Prices for a genuine hunk of Greek or Buddhist history have been dropping rapidly, as fewer Japanese and European customers arrive, kept away by Pakistan's trade sanctions and the unresolved issue of accused terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.

As a result, the market in antiquities has flipped. Authentic Buddhist idols, brought in cheaply by refugees, sell for less than the mass-produced statues from the factories of the nearby city of Taxila.

"There are more Buddhas coming out of Afghanistan, but we don't have space to store them," says Nadir Khan, owner of a coin shop in Peshawar, who occasionally deals in Buddhas. "But the influx of these statues is not very much because the Taliban have imposed restrictions. It's very difficult to take them out of the country."

Ironically, the destruction of Buddhas in Afghanistan has not raised the price of those Buddhas that survived, because of the lack of buyers. "The prices have gone down, because foreigners are not coming these days," says Mr. Khan, who is nonetheless trying to train himself on how to distinguish real statues from fake ones.

"With these coins, I have books I can read to find out how old it is, where it is from, and how much it's worth," he says. "But with statues, I ask an expert. Is it better if one is sitting or standing?"

While nearly every antique shop in Peshawar has old, or at least old-looking Buddhas to sell, some shopkeepers actually voice support for the Taliban's idol-smashing.

"As a Muslim, I support the Taliban," says a shopkeeper named Salar, who has a safe full of Buddha heads and figurines. "They are doing a good job."

But an antiques dealer named Ghaznavi decries both the Taliban's destruction of Buddhist relics and their removal from his native country of Afghanistan.

"Being an Afghan, I will not encourage anyone to go and take a Buddha," he says, standing in a shop filled with Iranian, Afghan, Greek, and Saracenic artifacts. "Those statues, they belong to my country, and to my history. If I get an ancient piece, I would rather preserve it than sell it."

"But I'm a businessman," he says, stroking his beard, "and if my family gets hungry, I have no choice."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor