Politicization of Afghanistan’s Archaeological Postage Stamps
Commemoration and Destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas
By J. Eva Meharry
In 2001, the extremist branch of the Taliban infamously destroyed the two colossal Bamiyan Buddha statues, which stood for more than 1,400 years in the heart of Afghanistan. The following year UNESCO issued a 25,000-Afghanis Bamiyan postage stamp, abstractly illustrating one of the empty Buddha niches buried in the statue’s fallen rubble; and in 2003, the Afghan government issued a ‘Heritage of Afghanistan’ series, including four postage stamps depicting fragmented Buddhist artefacts. Two of the stamps illustrated broken fragments from a Bamiyan fresco and statue: a 20-Afghanis ‘Fragment’s of a Woman’s Face’ and a 100-Afghanis ‘Monumental Buddha Hand’, respectively. The fragmentation of the Buddhist iconography presented in the postage stamps commemorated, both abstractly and literally, the country’s colossal cultural heritage loss at the hands of the Taliban.
Yet Afghanistan’s postage stamps have not only commemorated momentous acts of pre-Islamic heritage destruction at transitional political moments over the course of Afghanistan’s modern history, they have also instigated protests of that heritage. In 1932, four years after Afghanistan joined the Universal Postal Union (Hopkins 1965: 155), the government issued the First Definitive Monuments Series, designed by the Afghan artist Abdul Ghafour Khan Breshna. The series included a 3-Afghanis postage stamp plainly titled ‘Bamian’, which depicted the large Bamiyan Buddha statue (Uyehara & Dietrich 1995, 151–152). The red and white bichrome stamp illustrated the niche of the Buddha statue nestled in the Bamiyan Cliffs, though the statue was partially hidden in the niche’s shadow.
It was an inauspicious period to print pre-Islamic archaeological images in Afghanistan, with tensions bubbling between progressive and conservative political factions. In 1929, the progressive King Amanullah (r. 1919–1929) had been overthrown in a coup d’états by the ulama, conservative Islamic leaders, who, broadly speaking, were frustrated by the heavy taxes imposed to support the king’s progressive national campaign and liberal laws concerning women’s right. Four years earlier, the ulama led a mob to the Buddhist site of Hadda in eastern Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan, and smashed the unearthed Buddhist statues (Godard n.d.). Amid the 1929 coup, another mob looted and destroyed the Hadda collection housed at the National Museum in the Presidential Palace in the heart of the capital (Dupree et al. 1974: 24). Almost predictably then, in 1932 the conservative ulama erupted in protest of the printing of the ‘Bamian’ postage stamp. The government quietly withdrew the stamp from circulation and replaced it with set designs by the National Council (Bonatz 1933, 321–323; Patterson 1964, 42–43; Uyehara & Dietrich 1995, 151–152).
In 1951, the Afghan government issued a 20-poul Bamiyan postage stamp in the Second Definitive Monuments Series. The bichrome beige and black 20-poul stamp depicted a close-up shot of the large Bamiyan Buddha statue. While the only pre-Islamic monument included in the seventeen-part collection printed by the UK-based Waterlow & Sons, Ltd., seven other postage stamps depicted Islamic monuments, notably the Ghaznavid minaret and the Qala-e Bost Arch. The second illustration of the Bamiyan Buddhas was suggestive since postage stamps were then highly-politicized state-sponsored material (Cohen 2012). During the 1940s, the Afghan government began issuing postage stamps to celebrate Pashtunistan Day, a national day created to protest the border dividing Pashtun tribal territory along the North-West Frontier of then-India, which continued post-Partition in 1947. Though King Zaher Shah (r. 1933–1963) led a more moderate national modernizing campaign, tensions still ran high between progressive and conservative factions in Afghanistan. Again, the conservative Islamic leaders protested the depiction of the pre-Islamic Bamiyan Buddha; and again, the government quickly and quietly withdrew the Buddha postage stamp from circulation (Patterson 1964, 51–53).
With the provincial Bamiyan government, national Afghan government, and international community continuing to contemplate the reconstruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas amid the ongoing political turmoil today, it seems plausible that the archaeological site of Bamiyan and its state-sponsored depictions will continue to be embroiled in twenty-first century politics.
J. Eva Meharry is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge, researching the historical role of archaeology in Afghanistan's nation-building (1919-2001). Thanks to a National Postal Museum research award, she recently spent time in the museum's library, examining the depiction of archaeological motifs on Afghan postage stamps.
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