Ashoka and the Bamiyan Vandals

Archaeological Diggings and its sister publication, Diggings, are both devoted to the archaeology of the Middle East - but where exactly are the boundaries of that amorphous entity to be drawn? The old days when one could claim that the Roman Empire included all the known world - and be believed - are long gone. Rome had a flourishing trade with India and ambassadors were exchanged with sundry Indian princes.

Then, of course, there was Parthia, lineal descendant of the ancient Persians and Rome's great rival who several times bid fair to conquer all Rome's eastern provinces - Asia Minor, Egypt and Palestine/Syria.

An inscription by the Indian king Ashoka found at Kandahar in southern Afghanistan.
An inscription by the Indian king Ashoka found at Kandahar in southern Afghanistan.

The Greek "Alexander Romance" records tales of Alexander's largely mythical doings in Afghanistan and India and the awe in which he held the "sages" of India - better known to us, perhaps, as Brahim gurus. Even better, we have inscriptions by the Indian king Ashoka who sent Buddhist missionaries to the Greek successors of Alexander - and he correctly names and identifies the rulers to whom his missionaries were dispatched. Several centuries later, Apollonius of Tyana travelled widely through Persia to India, where he sat and exchanged philosophical debate with these same gurus.

In short, we are forced to the conclusion that India was an integral part of the Middle East with which we are primarily concerned and although we do not intend to delve deeply into the history and archaeology of the sub-continent, we are certainly justified in reporting discoveries and developments that have a bearing on life in the Middle East.

Buddhism was one such development, for although Ashoka's missionaries do not appear to have made many converts to their religion, it is noteworthy that it is at precisely this time that Gnosticism and Gnostic ideas begin to appear in the literature. There are many parallels between Gnosticism and Buddhism - not, perhaps, enough to justify claiming that they are the same religion, but certainly enough to support the idea that Buddhism strongly influenced the school of thought that became Gnosticism.

It is for this reason that we have, in the past, reported the horrific destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taleban in Afghanistan, in an effort to placate an apparently angry deity and bring an end to a drought that had been affecting that unhappy country for nearly a decade. It is pleasing to report that although the wanton vandalism at Bamiyan did nothing for the weather, the arrival of the Americans and the destruction of the Taleban resulted in an almost immediate termination of the drought. It would appear that Napoleon's dictum about God being on the side of the big battalions was truer than he realised!

Now we have the pleasure of reporting another development in this field, one for which we have mixed feelings. It would appear that the international attention given to Bamiyan by the vandalism of the Taleban had the unintended effect of giving the locals the idea of doing their own investigations - in other words, illegal digging and looting. On the one hand we unreservedly deplore such activities, for an object taken out of its context loses most of its archaeological value. On the other, with mindless morons like the Taleban on the loose, we can only be glad when anything, however small, is saved from the wreckage.

For the last ten years a Norwegian multi-millionaire businessman called Martin Shoyen has been buying up Buddist documents from Bamiyan. It would appear that they come from a hidden cave in the hills near where the Buddhas once stood and probably represent the library of the monastery (or whatever it was) that grew up around the massive statues. They have been smuggled out of Afghanistan by Buddhist activists and Afghan well-wishers, though it would seem that neither of these groups is responsible for the initial finding.

Martin's collection now includes eight complete manuscripts, 5,000 folios, fragments from 1,400 different documents and 8,000 smaller fragments whose identity cannot as yet be determined. Almost all these texts are written in Sanskrit and they include the oldest known scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism. The documents date from 100 to 700 AD and are thought to be the equivalent of a Jewish "geniza" - in other words, a place where worn-out texts are stored which are considered too holy to be thrown out or destroyed.

It is greatly to Shoyen's credit that he is not only purchasing these documents, but is also paying for them to be published and there are even plans to put them on-line at some future date. Regrettably the Afghan government is making acquisative noises and may be considering a demand that the documents be handed over to it.

We can only hope that Mr Shoyen does not do anything so foolish and that he will be supported by any courts that may become involved in the dispute. The Taleban are, unfortunately, still around and even if they are defeated, recent events in Afghanistan, Pakistan and a number of Western countries show that the sort of Muslim fanatics who destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas are by no means extinct.

In another deveopment, the Buddhist literature acquired by Sir Aurel Stein in the early 1900s from the Cave of a Thousand Buddhas in western China, is now being put on-line by the International Dunhuang Project, which is working with those who actually hold the manuscripts, such as the British Library, to digitise and publish - weblish? - the documents.

We cannot praise this step highly enough. In the first place, although I personally have no particular interest in Buddhist literature, there are those who do and this most valuable collection should be made available to all who wish to study it. In the second place, various countries and national groups - China being one of the loudest - are demanding that the texts be handed over to them. Most, such as the Uighur Turks, simply do not have the standing or the resources to care for the documents properly. China, which might have the resources, has such an apalling record of not only human rights abuses but also of wanton destruction of cultural property - particularly Tibetan art, libraries and architecture - that it would be almost criminal to let them get their grubby red fingers anywhere near such priceless objects.

I look forward to the day when a similar enlightened attitude is adopted by those who hold the documents and objects in which I am interested: the Dead Sea Scrolls, the documents from the Cairo Geniza and those in Sinai's St Katerina Monastery, the artistic treasures in the various museums around the world, all should be published fully and on-line as soon as possible.

In my opinion it is high time that UNESCO abandoned its policy of attempting to uphold national ownership of such treasures and instead adopted a policy of international ownership. These things belong to the world, not to any one country, and if they are destroyed or kept hidden away it is the world which is the poorer.

© Kendall K. Down 2009