“When I first went to Bamiyan when there were no paper guides, and no two-legged ones either!”
My name is Nancy Hatch Dupree.
I first came to Kabul with the American Embassy many years ago. Then I married Louis Dupree, who was an archaeologist, and ended up spending most of my life here.
I became a Historian by accident, when I was working with an Afghan tour company, Garzandoi. I went to Bamiyan when there were no paper guides, and no two-legged ones either – even though it’s one of the wonders of the world.
So I told the president of Garzandoi, “This is a scandal. You are trying to attract tourists but you don’t have any information about the most important tourist site in Afghanistan.” He smiled and said, “Well, you do something about it.” So I went to all the caves and studied everything, and then I wrote the guide to Bamiyan.
After that I became a guide writer. I wrote on Kabul and then Herat, the north, and then finally, I published a general guide to all of Afghanistan.
Afghans respect foreigners, or they used to. They respect women also. So I had no trouble travelling alone. People were always very, very hospitable and they wanted to help me.
Much of the time I was collecting information for the guidebooks, and my husband was looking for pre-historic caves in the same areas. He also he was my photographer. It brought us closer together.
The Kabul museum is very dear to my heart. To see it looted the way it was during the war was very disturbing.
But now, everything is money, money, money. People give speeches about preserving the culture of Afghanistan. But are they really? What can happen now is far worse than what they did during the war when they were plundering the archaeological sites.
It’s like Khair Khana district of Kabul. It produced three fantastic marble statues of the Hindu Zair period, which we don’t know much about, but now it’s all cement. We will never know what Khair Kharna could have told us. If enough of us raise our voices, we can slow down this destruction of heritage.
The exploitation of minerals is now paramount. Afghanistan needs to improve its economy and there are many people who are looking at the mines as the base of future economic prosperity.
They have blinkers on, so all they see are the trillion dollar contracts. The soil of Afghanistan is so rich in archaeological heritage. There should be something in the contracts that says if you find something, you’ve got to stop. But there isn’t.
We have Mes Aynak, the site of a major ancient monastery, which we didn’t know anything about. The pieces coming from there are gorgeous; they make your jaw drop. It’s very disturbing that this is being excavated as an emergency, because the Chinese have a contract to open up a big copper mine there. They should be doing a thorough excavation over 20 years but they have to do it in two or three years.
In the 1950’s people had a sense of responsibility. They were building a road near Puli Kumri and found a rock that looked funny. It turned out to be something like the Rosetta stone for the Kushan language. It was their responsibility to show it to the archaeologists, which resulted in them and the government changing the route of the road. If they had just said ‘no we’re going to bulldoze this’, we still wouldn’t know about the Kushani language.
Now I am setting up the Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University. It is a collection of 60,000 documents related to Afghanistan, that Louis and I collected over the last four decades.
There wasn’t much preservation of information, and that’s one of the reasons for ACKU, my centre. I’m collecting the things that everybody is working, all the research that is being done now. Because usually what happens, with these big agencies, they bring a reporter or a consultant, pay them big money, and they write a report and they circulate it for a short time and then it disappears. So all that information is wasted. So we collect, or try to collect, all the reporting that is being generated.
These documents are no use unless somebody takes them off the shelves and reads them. So in order to distribute more widely, we’re digitizing them, we are three quarters done now. We put all of this digitized material on DVDs, and we send them to Herat, Mazar, Kandahar, Khost, wherever there is a university, wherever there is the facilities to use it.
I have about 23 people who are working here: the digitizers, cataloguers, finance and IT. All are Afghans, except me. I’m going to be replaced with a very superior Afghan who will be joining us in October. I’m very happy about that.