Return from Afghanistan

Arriving back in Kabul, our final three days had been set aside for visits to Mes Aynak, the newly excavated Buddhist/Kushan city close to the Capital, and the much damaged remains of a stupa at Guldara, famous (or infamous) for having yielded such a hoard to the British Museum coin collection. At least a week’s worth of negotiation had gone into obtaining the necessary permits and guides for these two sites which were additional to the original itinerary. The displays at the Kabul museum certainly suggested that they would be worth visiting and I was feeling too close to home by this stage to have any objections to going along with the group decision.

When it finally arrived, permission for the first site stipulated “no women” and so we three “Ladies” were dispatched for a half day outing to the appropriately picturesque Panjshir Valley. This deprived the group of its only French speaking member (me) and its only real archaeologist (not me) but, as it turned out, we probably had the best out of the deal. Mes Aynak is apparently the subject of a desperate rescue excavation by the French before the whole site disappears into the $3 billion Chinese operation to develop the second largest copper mine in the world. Stories abound of allocated funds not reaching the experts working on-site and pocketfuls (if not truckfuls) of artifacts being smuggled out via Pakistan. It really isn’t sour grapes when I say that the whole thing would have depressed me to hell and that I’m very relieved that I didn’t get to go.

In contrast, the Panjshir Valley makes a pretty little sightseeing trip to one of the most “regenerated” areas of Afghanistan. Home of the legendary Lion of the Mujahideen, Ahmad Shah Massoud, and birthplace of the popular revolution against the Russian occupation, it shows plenty of investment by both the government and the NGOs. The roads are pristine and even the schoolgirls have matching satchels with UNICEF logos. To visit this defensible and fertile region is to see how an intelligent resistance leader could re-provision while simultaneously blocking off the entry to the valley and hiding the populations of whole villages in the mountains to protect them from aerial attack. Massoud’s much visited tomb stands at upon a promontory with an idylic view across the valley and seems to sum up a great deal of the Afghan character. Here is a man who captured the hearts of his countrymen to the extent that his image adorns every aspect of their daily lives: patriotic, charismatic, photogenic and dead these last eleven years.

As for the second site: this was the subject of a “misunderstanding” that had the whole group driven off for an excursion in completely the wrong direction. The village of Guldara (North West of Kabul) was “accidentally” substituted for the stupa of Guldara (South East of Kabul) and when the mistake was challenged we were told that the stupa lay in a region that wasn’t safe for us to visit. This waste of our time echoed Elisabeth’s frustrating and fruitless attempts to reach the site when she visited Afghanistan in April and I wouldn’t have minded seeing the site of one of Charles Masson’s most important finds.

Masson (real name James Lewis) was not so much an archaeologist as an adventurer: East India Company deserter, self-taught Orientalist and some-time spy, he seems to have been one of the archetypal English characters to populate the works of such writers as Kipling and Masters. Almost too exotic to be believed, his exploits and consequent acquisitions endowed the British India Museum and later the BM with many of their Punjab and Afghan treasures. Never mind: if I managed to tour the little-visited Buddhist heartland of India last year (on my own), I can probably survive without seeing this remote and poorly preserved Afghani outpost. After all, I doubt I shall be going back.

It is hard to decide yet whether the trip to Afghanistan was worthwhile; some of it was undeniably beautiful and it certainly filled some gaps in both my historical and geographical understanding of the region but did I really need to undergo such discomforts or, more importantly, cause such anxiety to the people at home? Well, you can’t put the genie back into the bottle and, thanks in part to the forbearance of my travelling companions, I’ve been to places that few people in the modern world will ever visit, seen sights that I wouldn’t have believed could have existed, gained a little understanding of a country that receives only biased or inflammatory snapshot coverage in the media and made it home safely. Mashallah.

Categories: Central Asia


  • grace says:

    Do you have a book I can borrow about James Lewis? He sounds fascinating!

  • Nicola Ainsworth says:

    I couldn’t find much until I came upon an on-line article written by a chap named Bijam Omrani. I’ll send you a link.

  • Chris says:

    What happened to the picture of the tallest building in the world, then?

  • Nicola says:

    It was very misty when we came through Dubai although I did see it briefly. I didn’t mess about trying to get a photograph because I was just so upset about finding that my airline seat from Dubai to London had been bumped to “standby”. I was in real danger of not getting onto my flight home but when he saw my face at the chap behind the transfer desk knew he was in deadly danger! As you know, I DID get the flight home in the end but the Burj Khalifa will have to wait. Certain priorities can be pretty all consuming!

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