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May 28 2011

Gandharan Buddha thought looted from Kabul will be on show at the British Museum until mid-July

Gandharan Buddha will be on show at the British Museum until mid-July

An anonymous art dealer passionate about Afghan heritage has teamed up with the British Museum in an effort to buy and repatriate a spectacular antiquity believed to have been looted from the Afghan national museum in Kabul during the 1990s.

The British dealer, who said he had a "very strong emotional attachment" to Afghanistan, resolved to buy the 2nd-century Gandharan Buddha after he recognised it in a photograph sent by a colleague in Japan. The sculpture, which had disappeared in the bloody civil war, had been bought by a Japanese collector.

The British dealer, who is insisting on anonymity but spoke to the Observer about his determination to save the Buddha, said: "I begged him to give it back. He didn't care. In Japan, even if the object is stolen, you can't prosecute. So I decided to buy it."

The problem was that in Britain, purchasing stolen goods is a criminal offence, but the dealer was undeterred. He informed only the director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, and a curator, St John Simpson, of his plan.

"It was a big risk, but I had the [museum's] blessing," he said. "I thought that could have helped, although Customs officers don't believe in 'good faith' and there could have been serious trouble. I was doing something very moral, but illegal."

He has an enduring passion for Afghanistan, having travelled extensively there in the 1970s: "I saw the piece in Kabul then. I remember perfectly where it stood. This was my homage to their civilisation and their suffering."

Simpson, curator for ancient Iran and Arabia, said: "We had to seek legal advice. But the consensus was that, if this was the only way in which this piece could be returned, that's what we had to do. The clear public benefit outweighed the grey area."

With the museum's blessing, the dealer used his own money to persuade the Japanese collector to sell the 1.2 metre-high Buddha. Negotiations lasted a year.

Simpson described the rescue as "terribly appropriate", coming as it did on the 10th anniversary of the Taliban's destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan: "They're gone forever. But one very important piece can be returned. This is a very important and stunningly beautiful piece."

Omara Khan Massoudi, director of the National Museum of Afghanistan, described it as "one of our most treasured objects". One source put the sculpture's value at £600,000, but the British Museum said it is "without value, given its provenance".

The Buddha, which is shown performing a miracle with flames rising from his shoulders and water pouring from his feet, will be displayed in the British Museum's Enlightenment Gallery from Wednesday, before it is returned to Kabul after the close of "Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World". The show has proved so popular that it has been extended until 17 July.

About 75% of the Kabul museum's antiquities have been destroyed or looted. They reflected the rich heritage of a land that was once a crossroads of eastern and western ancient civilisations. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 26 2011

Why war has spring in its step

The timing of the Taliban prison escape reminds us that war and springtime have been linked in art for centuries

News that 480 Taliban prisoners have escaped in time for this year's "fighting season" in Afghanistan is hardly something to be taken lightly. But the fact that this war has a fighting season is a strange reminder of the dark side of springtime. For centuries, before mechanised conflict, the seasonal nature of war was a familiar fact, recorded in famous works of art.

Paolo Uccello's early 15th-century painting The Battle of San Romano is a joyous depiction of war. It captures the brilliant colours and dramatic display of medieval chivalry in a bouncing carnival of tubular armoured bodies, hovering banners and prancing horses. In modern terms it is a lie, as any glorification of battle must be. But it is historically simplistic to dismiss the culture of chivalry, with its treatment of war as a beautiful game, as cynical. They simply saw things differently in those days. Uccello weaves a spell of martial spectacle. The way he does it is to root war in the landscape of Tuscan spring and early summer.

The Battle of San Romano was fought by Florentine and Sienese armies on 1 June 1432. In the three paintings that narrate this Florentine victory, Uccello stresses the seasonal delights of nature. Dogs chase hares across the fields; great round fruits glow orange among dark leaves on the trees, just as they do in Botticelli's Primavera (Spring).

The same abundance that graces Botticelli's allegory of spring proliferates in Uccello's pageant of battle. War is associated with the vitality of spring: it is a lusty natural rite in The Battle of San Romano.

Michelangelo's Battle of Cascina, by contrast, portrays a battle out of season. A 14th-century Florentine army was headed towards the enemy city Pisa on 28 July 1364. The war season had run into the heat of full Italian summer: instead of joyous springtime pilgrims, the soldiers were sweaty and faint inside their heavy armour. So they stripped and jumped in the river Arno for a swim – only for the alarm to be sounded. Michelangelo depicts the naked soldiers jumping out of the river. Where Uccello's vision of war might seem complacent, Michelangelo's is anxious and tense. The season is wrong, spring's promise has decayed into summer fever (the Florentine commander was apparently suffering from malaria). Nothing about war is comforting.

Perhaps a deeper change lies behind Michelangelo's image. When he designed it in the early 1500s, artillery was changing warfare. It was starting to be about guns rather than chivalry. Displays of banners and knights meant little when the cannon fired. Michelangelo portrays a new age when war can come at any time, and death obeys no rituals. Yet in the unique and difficult landscape of Afghanistan, it seems that ancient habits still apply. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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July 05 2010

Pakistan: Bloodshed In Lahore And The State Of Denial

By Salman Latif

Data Darbar - shufi srine in Lahore. Image by Flickr user Ikhaninc, CC BY-NC-SA

Pakistan faces yet another episode of terror as one of it's more revered shrines in Lahore, popularly known as Data Darbar, came under attack. According to media reports the shrine was attacked by two suicide bombers who were able to sneak in and blow themselves up despite the security arrangements. Huge losses were incurred as the death toll rose to 45 with about 150 injured.

Immediately after the attack, the Pakistani blogosphere was fraught with posts filled with horror and anger. Most of them blame the serious lapse on security directly on the provincial government, who's official stance still stays far from admitting Taliban as the real enemies. In my own blog I wrote:

The worst part of the entire episode is the deluded denial the Punjab government still seems to dwell in. Sideeq-al-Farooq, the PML N spokesperson, openly defined the provincial government’s stance in a talk show on Samaa TV: that to them, Taliban are the good lot who successfully established a glorious rule in Afghanistan. He didn’t go beyond that. Nothing said on the show would stir him to admit that the Taliban were now the terrorists killing innocent people and are now a threat to national security.

Ahsan notes in his blog Five Rupees:

“It is this point which, for me anyway, is cause for the most angst and anger. If you picked a random person off the street from anywhere in Lahore, or even Pakistan, and asked them to name five potential sites for a terrorist attack in Lahore, Data Darbar would make most everyone's list. In addition, given Lahore's recent lapses in security — from the Ahmadi mosque attacks last month to the Moon Market attacks to assorted others — you would think that the shrine would be heavily protected, especially given the fact that just two days ago, the Interior Ministryhad informed the Punjab government of intelligence on an impending attack. But you would be wrong.”

The attack has also disenchanted those who believed Taliban would stay away from the shrines and other holy places. Clearly, to the militants, every thing different from their own version of Islam is a viable target. It is important to note here that Taliban belong to a rather puritanical faction of Islam, Deobandi which views shrine-going as an act of 'shirk' (worshiping someone other than God). Barelvis, on the other hand, are a faction that believe in shrine-going and many other rather unorthodox practices. The latter has a long history of peaceful existence, refusing, at all points, to resort to armed struggle.

Dr. Mubarak Ali, a famed Pakistani historian, cites in a BBC Urdu article that the Deobandis, the faction Taliban belong to, has been actively supported by Saudi Arabia. The translation reads:

“Barelvis didn't get any support from abroad. On the other hand, Deobandis and those belonging to Ahl-e-Hadees faction had Saudi support. Their madressahs were well funded and patronized by the Ahl-e-Hadees scholars. And because of this, Deobandis emerged much more powerful, politically and financially.”

A lot of other Pakistanis are also pointing fingers at petro-dollars for the virtually infinite funding that seems to be pouring into Taliban pockets. In a rather angry remark, Ale Natiq's facebook status reads, “its time all the Muslims in general and Pakistanis in specific stand against the Islamofascism exported by the KSA. Barelvis, Ahmedis, Shia, Sufi, Christians - who's turn now ?”

He also goes on to cite a number of research articles concluding sufficiently that the Saudi money, trickling down the Deoband madrasahs in Pakistan, has actively contributed towards furthering a much more radical, violent version of Islam.

While most of the blogs have expressed their angst over the attack, many of them have demanded the Punjab government to immediately come out of it's deluded denial and accept that Taliban are a reality, and a bitter reality for that matter. However, so far, the provincial government remains undecided as to whether or not take up the cause of eliminating the terrorist, evidently in fear of losing a part of its vote bank.

March 06 2009

March 05 2009

February 23 2009

December 23 2008

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