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Afghanistan: Archaeological sites 'bulldozed for looting'

Published: 22nd Feb, 2024


Dozens of archaeological sites in Afghanistan have been bulldozed to allow systematic looting, according to researchers at the University of Chicago.

Key Highlights

Key-highlights of the Researchers’ findings

  • The analysis of satellite photos provides the first definitive photographic evidence that looting patterns that began under the previous government have continued since the Taliban returned to power in 2021.
  • Ancient settlements dating back to the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age - some earlier than 1000BC - are among those they say have been damaged.
  • Most of the sites identified are in northern Afghanistan's Balkh region, which more than two millennia ago was the heartland of Bactria.

Bactra (Balkh region)

  • The ancient city of Balkh in what is now northern Afghanistan was one of the great trading posts of the region and served as a political and religious center for millennia. 
  • It was one of the richest and most populous regions of ancient Afghanistan under the Achaemenid Empire in the 6th Century BC.
  • By 327BC, Alexander the Great had conquered the region and married a Bactrian woman named Roxana, after defeating the Achaemenid ruler.
  • Located on a major east-west Silk Route, the region's central city Bactra - later called Balkh - has been a centre of both the Zoroastrian faith and Buddhist learning. It later became an important Islamic city.

New pattern in the Balkh region

  • The researchers from the University of Chicago's Center for Cultural Heritage Preservation have identified more than 29,000 archaeological sites across Afghanistan, helped by satellite imagery and other tools.
  • But they spotted a new pattern in the Balkh region from 2018 onwards.
  • They have identified specks on the images that they are confident are bulldozers because of the way they appear and disappear over time, and the tracks they leave in their wake.
  • These freshly bulldozed areas then appear in later images, covered with pits dug by looters, Prof Gil Stein, the centre's director explained.
  • But only 97km (60 miles) away lies Tela Tepe, where a hoard of 2,000-year-old Bactrian gold was discovered in 1978.
  • The "Hill of Gold" contained 20,000 rare items including gold jewellery, an intricate crown and coins, dubbed the Lost Treasures of Afghanistan.
  • Balkh, including northern Afghanistan's largest city Mazar-i-Sharif, was among the first areas to fall to the Taliban before they captured the capital Kabul in August 2021.
  • Bamiyan Buddhas: Back in 2001, the Taliban caused shock around the world when they blew up the 1,500-year-old Bamiyan Buddhas, once the largest standing Buddha statues in the world, during their first stint in power.

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