Roland Besenval is a magician. With a few words and expansive hand gestures, the French archaeologist conjures a magnificent city from the millenniums-old ruins that crown a windswept plateau in Afghanistan's far north. Stabbing a finger in the direction of misshapen hillocks made of eroded mud brick, he describes massive battlements built to repel barbarian raiders from the north. Balkh, as the city was known, would have needed them. More than 1,000 years before Marco Polo visited its ruins, Balkh was renowned throughout the ancient world for its fabulous wealth and advanced culture. It was the birthplace of one of the world's first monotheistic religions, and the city where Alexander the Great took his second bride, Roxanne. Seemingly oblivious to the recently spent ammunition rounds dislodged by his footsteps, Besenval who heads the French archaeological delegation to Afghanistan paints over the war-scarred landscape with his colorful descriptions of Zoroastrian fire altars, Buddhist monasteries, Christian shrines and Muslim mosques. "Here, you are standing on 3,000 years of life," he says, as he walks over scattered shards of blue and green glazed pottery that he casually dismisses as "early Islamic, 11th century or so."
In Afghanistan, history literally crunches underfoot. The country's location at the crossroads of Asia's major trade routes drew merchants, artisans, nomads and conquerors. The ruins of Balkh, along with those of hundreds of other ancient cities and religious sites, speak of a rich heritage that spans centuries as well as cultures. Artifacts unearthed at these centers of commerce shed light not only on Afghan history, but that of Western civilization. Ai Khanoum, established by Alexander in 328 B.C., still bears remnants of columns that wouldn't look out of place in the Parthenon. Bamiyan was the seat of a vast Buddhist civilization whose artisans dressed their idols in Greek fashions, leading academics to wonder if Buddhist philosophy influenced Greek thought as much as Greek styles had an impact on local art. Excavation of the earth around Masjid-i-No Gumbad, a 9th century brick mosque thought to be the oldest still standing in the world, could illuminate many of the mysteries regarding Islam's spread to Central Asia. In 1978, a Russian archaeologist uncovered a vast trove of gold ornaments in a 2nd century nomad necropolis. The find, which included a collapsible crown, golden daggers and thousands of jeweled buttons, "speaks to the riches of the trade routes across Afghanistan," says Brendan Cassar, UNESCO's culture specialist in Afghanistan. "If nomads had this kind of riches, you can only imagine the wealth of trade going through Afghanistan."
Burying the Past
Imagining may be all that future archaeologists will be able to do. In the seven-year battle since 2001 to set Afghanistan back on its feet after more than two decades at war, the country's historical sites have been ignored. Its ancient heritage has fallen victim to an epidemic of pillaging on par with the depredations of Genghis Khan's army that in 1220 left the city of Balkh in ruins. Unauthorized excavation on the scale of organized crime is carried out by professional gangs supported by local warlords and even government officials, with ties to the international black market in antiquities. While estimates of this illicit trade vary widely, government authorities put it at as high as $4 billion, roughly on par with the country's drug trade. This hurts not only historians and archaeologists who are just starting to understand the country's important role in the development of Central Asian civilization many experts say that Afghanistan compares to Egypt in terms of the historical value of its archaeological sites but also Afghans themselves.