The Dust of Kabul

Afghanistan has one of the richest architectural legacies on earth. Its future, like that of the country and its people, is uncertain.

An Afghan man prays at the tomb of a relative, Shuhada cemetery, Kabul © Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images.

Afghanistan’s ancient Buddhist legacy is defined to the world by an absence: the vacant niches that, until 2001, were graced by the gigantic Bamiyan Buddhas. The Chinese monk Xuanzong passed by them in the early seventh century ad, a century after their erection, and recorded that these huge sandstone figures were richly decorated with gold and precious jewels.

In an event televised proudly to the world, artillery was turned on the priceless treasures not long after Afghanistan’s National Museum was reopened by the ruling Taliban in August 2000, amid a host of promises to protect the nation’s material heritage. Vast swathes of the museum’s collection were later destroyed. What is perhaps less well known is that soon after these iconoclastic events took place, the Taliban massacred members of the Shia Hazara minority – now once again in peril – in Bamiyan province’s Yakawlang district.

You do not have to travel deep into Afghanistan’s interior to come into contact with its Buddhist heritage. Venturing south from the centre of Kabul will take you to the Shuhada-e-Saliheen, the capital’s largest cemetery. 

On Ash Wednesday, Christian worshippers are reminded that ‘You are dust and to dust you shall return.’ The Pashto word for ‘dust’, khak, similarly symbolises a return to one’s origins. A final resting place in Shuhada is coveted among the Afghan diaspora, which has only become more scattered in recent months. As well as a place of rest, it has long been a place of pilgrimage. Though its saints now are Muslim, Shuhada has been a continuous site of pilgrimage for more than 2,000 years. Before Islam, now the religion of more than 99 per cent of Afghans, it was sacred to both Buddhists and Hindus, indicative of the many cultures and religions that have crossed paths in Afghanistan.

Extraordinary architectural work has been carried out in the country in recent decades, in Kabul and far beyond. Much of it is recorded in the latest edition of the classic text, The Archaeology of Afghanistan, first published in 1978. That task is now on hold. One wonders if it will resume again.