Afghan ambassador in Washington celebrates return of stolen antiquities

Jenna McLaughlin
·National Security and Investigations Reporter
·7-min read
Recovered Afghan artifacts: Head of a Bodhisattva with a headdress - 3rd century AD - valued at $2000;  Standing Buddha - 3rd-4th century AD -  valued at $167,500; and, Relief depicting Buddha’s first sermon - 3rd century AD - valued at $55,000. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: New York District Attorney's Office)
Recovered Afghan artifacts: “Head of a Bodhisattva with a headdress,” 3rd century, valued at $2,000; “Standing Buddha,” 3rd-4th century, valued at $167,500; and “Relief depicting Buddha’s first sermon,” 3rd century, valued at $55,000. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Manhattan district attorney’s office)

WASHINGTON — Ambassador Roya Rahmani never cried as a young woman in Afghanistan.

Tears were a sign of a woman’s “weakness,” she recalled being told, a dogma she said she swore to defy. Then she turned on the television in March of 2001 and saw the Taliban detonating explosives to destroy the ancient Buddhas of Bamiyan, a pair of towering statues carved into a cliffside.

“I started weeping,” she said during an event Tuesday evening at the Afghan Embassy in Washington, D.C. “The bullets and dynamite chipped away, piece by piece, one of the greatest architectural monuments in Afghanistan.”

The destruction took place just months before the 9/11 attacks, which led the U.S. to invade Afghanistan, toppling the Taliban government. As the U.S. two decades later prepares to leave Afghanistan, the destruction of the Buddhas remains a lasting physical reminder of the Taliban’s rule.

The Buddhas of Bamiyan were “more than stone,” Rahmani said. “They were a bridge between the past and present.”

On Monday, Ambassador Rahmani received back what she described as “other pieces of that bridge,” in the form of 33 Afghan artifacts dating back to the 2nd century.

Ambassador Roya Rahmani speaks at the Afghan Embassy in Washington, DC on April 20, 2021. (Jenna McLaughlin/Yahoo News)
Ambassador Roya Rahmani speaks at the Afghan Embassy in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. (Jenna McLaughlin/Yahoo News)

The pieces were recovered as part of Operation Hidden Idol, a years-long investigation into an art smuggling ring by the Manhattan district attorney’s office and the Department of Homeland Security’s Investigations unit. Those relics were returned to the Afghan government in a repatriation ceremony on Monday.

In July 2019, the Manhattan DA’s office filed criminal charges against Indian art dealer Subhash Kapoor and seven co-conspirators, alleging that he and his compatriots, working out of his New York City art gallery, made over $143 million looting and reselling ancient relics from around the world, including the ones on display from Afghanistan as well as some from Nepal, Pakistan, India, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar and elsewhere.

Kapoor is currently facing criminal trial in Tamil Nadu in southern India, where he has been held since 2012, though the DA’s office filed paperwork for him to be extradited to the United States to face additional charges once the trial concludes. While he was arrested in Germany in 2011, investigations into his smuggling ring began years earlier.

“Today is one of the most gratifying days of my tenure here in the United States,” said Rahmani. “Without respecting and celebrating our past and present, we will not be able to move forward to a future where Afghanistan is at peace.”

Recovered Afghan artifacts: Mask of Silenus (Greek) - 2nd century AD - valued at $165,000; Head of a Bearded Man (CRATED) - 3rd -4th century AD - valued at $175,000; and, Head of Buddha - 3rd -4th century AD - valued at $167,500. (New York District Attorney's Office[3])
Recovered Afghan artifacts: “Mask of Silenus,” 2nd century, valued at $165,000; “Head of a Bearded Man,” 3rd-4th century, valued at $175,000; and “Head of Buddha,” 3rd-4th century, valued at $167,500. (Manhattan district attorney’s office)

The event at the embassy was aimed at celebrating the South Asian country’s rich cultural history, amid a news cycle populated by headlines about President Biden’s recent decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan 20 years after the U.S. invaded the country in response to al-Qaida’s 9/11 attacks.

Neither the war nor its end was mentioned, but the timing of the event — just seven days after Biden announced that the U.S. would withdraw its remaining troops by Sept. 11 — was clearly meant to highlight Afghanistan’s progress under the current government.

The artifacts were briefly on display in New York following the investigation, and flown to Washington, D.C., on Tuesday for a brief reception, before heading off to Kabul on Wednesday afternoon.

Edgar Zambrano, the president of an international shipping company hired to transport the artifacts, told Yahoo News he got the call about moving the antiquities from New York about a week ago, and he traveled with them to make sure they made it to Washington safely. Zambrano, who has lived in the Washington area for the last 20 years, says he has long transported cultural artifacts and art for embassies, recently moving a 1,400-pound bust to the Turkish ambassador’s residence.

Moving the Afghan antiquities felt special, he said, particularly after listening to the ambassador talk about them Tuesday evening. “After hearing her speak about it, it’s really kind of an honor,” he said.

Recovered Afghan artifacts: Seated figure with leaves - 3rd century AD - valued at $2000;  and, Head of Buddha - 3rd-4th century AD - valued at $15,000. (New York District Attorney's Office  [2})
Recovered Afghan artifacts: “Seated figure with leaves,” 3rd century, valued at $2,000; “Head of Buddha,” 3rd-4th century, valued at $15,000. (Manhattan district attorney’s office)

The antiquities on display, including several Buddhist heads made of schist stone, stucco or baked clay, were valued by the Manhattan district attorney’s office at approximately $1.8 million. According to Fredrik Hiebert, an archaeologist and National Geographic fellow who spoke at the reception, many of the Buddhist statue heads were stolen or separated from their bodies in Afghanistan over the years and are in “markets throughout the world.”

Now that some of the pieces are being repatriated to Kabul, there’s a hope that the statues will be made whole, he said.

Prior to the Muslim conquest of the region in the 7th century, Buddhism was a prominent religious force south of the Hindu Kush mountains, a result of the influence of one of the earliest Indian dynasties, which extended to parts of modern-day Pakistan and Afghanistan. That area was also along a major trade route, and Alexander the Great established several cities in the region, leaving behind bits of Greek culture, visible in the artifacts, according to Hiebert.

The oldest piece on display, from the 2nd century, was a Greek work made of bronze: a mask of Silenus, a companion of the god of wine, Dionysus, in Greek mythology.

Perhaps the heaviest and most intricate piece featured Hindu religious figures from the 8th century: a marble sculpture of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction and regeneration, and his wife, Parvati, who represents fertility, love and beauty, weighing in at approximately 150 pounds.

'Shiva and Parvati' - 8th century AD - valued at $120,000. (Jenna McLaughlin/Yahoo News)
Recovered Afghan artifact: “Shiva and Parvati,” 8th century, valued at $120,000. (Jenna McLaughlin/Yahoo News)

According to the Afghan Embassy, there are “more [artifacts] to come” as investigations into worldwide art smuggling continue.

As a result of years of conflict, Afghan relics have disappeared or been destroyed over time. The return of the Buddhist relics surfaces painful memories of the Taliban’s previous attempts to erase all evidence of a time before Islam reached Afghanistan.

In contrast, Rahmani said, the Afghan government will “cherish” these relics.

Returning stolen artifacts has been an ongoing mission of a group of investigators within the Manhattan district attorney’s office and the Department of Homeland Security. The DA’s office has its own Antiquities Trafficking Unit, and a team within the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency is tasked with investigating “cultural heritage properties and returning them to their countries of origin.”

Recovered Afghan artifacts: Head of a Bodhisattva - 6th-7th century AD - valued at $125,000; Bodhisattva under a tree - 3rd century AD - valued at $35,000; and, Figure of a winged Atlas/Cherub - 3rd century AD - valued at $55,000. (New York District Attorney's Office [2])
Recovered Afghan artifacts: “Head of a Bodhisattva,” 6th-7th century, valued at $125,000; “Bodhisattva under a tree,” 3rd century, valued at $35,000; and “Figure of a winged Atlas/Cherub,” 3rd century, valued at $55,000. (Manhattan district attorney’s office)

ICE has been working with the State Department’s Cultural Heritage Center and the Smithsonian Institution to repatriate more than 12,000 objects to more than 30 countries since 2007.

In recent weeks, the Manhattan district attorney’s office and DHS also returned artifacts to the governments of Sri Lanka and Nepal.

“Crimes of culture involving looted and stolen religious relics, such as the nearly two dozen Buddhist statues being repatriated today to the people of Afghanistan, not only tear at the societal fabric of nations but also deprive millions of believers worldwide of the earliest sacred symbols of their faith,” District Attorney Cyrus Vance said in a statement Monday.

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