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Illustration by Ansellia Kulikku. Image credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art. Head of a Buddha or Bodhisattva, Afghanistan, 5th-6th century. Clay with inset garnet eyes.

To find the remains of the Buddhist monastery at Tepe Naranj, or Orange Hill, you have to travel to the Shuhada e Saliheen, Kabul’s largest cemetery. The road to this graveyard of the “Pious Martyrs” runs along the southern edge of the city, some distance away from the bustle of its center. It weaves by the Chaman-e-Huzoori maidan, the public meadow that served as a golf course during the monarchy and then a venue for Republic Day parades in the 1970s. It crosses more recently abandoned buildings and unfinished shopping malls, ghostly reminders of Kabul’s post-2001 real-estate bubble. Eventually the road branches past a dense collection of bazaars and then a lake. And quite suddenly you are in Shuhada, a city of the dead, circled by a suburb of the living.

For old Kabulis, being buried in Shuhada was the only possible end to their journey. It was their khak, a word that translates as dust but really refers to a sense of identity, the place where your ancestors were from, where they are buried. It is the dust that will eventually claim you. That is why many Kabulis who spent years living abroad returned to be buried in Shuhada—a final gesture of defiance against the currents that had cast them from their homes. Today, the valley of the cemetery has absorbed some of the flood of people who flocked to the capital after 2001, displaced from the Afghan countryside, fleeing war and hunger. Houses have mushroomed between graves, with flowered curtains fluttering in their windows, overlooking tiny gardens that grow suspiciously fine blooms and large, lush grapes. By the roadside, stalls sell tea and bolanis (stuffed fried bread), turshi (pickles) and ice candy. On the bare face of a mountain framing the valley is etched a single word in large letters: Allah.

Tepe Naranj is a hill in the middle of this busy plain, its slopes home to the remnants of a small but important monastery from Afghanistan’s rich Buddhist past. The word naranj, or orange, perhaps refers to the color the slopes appear at sunrise, tinged with the ochre soil, or maybe to the hundreds of monks in orange robes who once called the monastery home. On Thursdays, the valley buzzes with devotees who come to pay their respects at the shrines that dot its arid ground. While the objects of their reverence are now Muslim saints, these pilgrimages date back centuries. Before Islam came to the region, the valley was revered by Kabuli Buddhists and Hindus. Shuhada has been hallowed land for nearly 2,000 years.

I came to this cemetery on a spring morning in 2013 to meet Zafar Paiman, an Afghan archaeologist who has been leading an excavation at Tepe Naranj for almost eleven years. Over this time, Zafar’s team had unearthed the remains of an elaborate Buddhist monastery, lovingly raising up prayer halls and temples and statues from the clutter of ruined graves and growing families. The day I visited happened to be last day of work for the archaeological team on the site. The next morning, it was to be closed down and handed over to the government, and an uncertain future. From the moment I saw it, the monastery on the hillside was hanging by a thread.

Initially, it was this sense of urgency that drew me to the site, the feeling of breathless struggle embedded in the story of this archaeological mission. But as I followed Zafar’s work from a distance, I realized that it was in fact imbued with a subtler, more challenging truth. The excavated bricks of Tepe Naranj can be read as a parallel, contemporary narrative of the city. In its exposed vulnerability, and in its slow vanishing into precarious memory, this shrine from Kabul’s past is an apt monument to its tortured present.

* * *

Afghanistan’s Buddhist past is often invoked with a sense of hushed pathos. What comes to mind for most are the ruined Buddhas of Bamiyan, destroyed by the Taliban government in the spring of 2001. But for Kabulis of a particular generation, who remember life before war, Afghanistan’s diverse heritage is still an inherent element of their lives. I once met a young man who was named after one of the most prominent kings of the region, Kanishka. His father, he told me, had given him that name to reclaim the history of his land. Away from people like me, who mistakenly assumed his name was Indian.

Kanishka’s name links him to the histories embedded in Afghanistan’s soil, ranging from the Hellenic influences that followed Alexander the Great’s conquest, to the emperor Ashoka’s evangelical zeal. Buddhism was an important strand in this web that ties the region together. From the first to about the third century, Kabul was a part of a powerful empire that stretched from India to Central Asia, astride the ancient Silk Route. This period saw a flourishing of Buddhist art forms and patronage to monasteries by rulers like Kushan Kanishka, the “King of Kings.” The region went on to be ruled by the Hephthalites, or “White Huns,” in the fifth century, and the Hindu Shahi kings until the ninth. Today, Hinduism and Buddhism in Afghanistan are virtually nonexistent—the country is more than 99 percent Muslim. But these empires left behind vast and varied reservoirs of material remains that are still being uncovered.

One of the most prominent examples of the country’s archaeological riches is Hadda, a fifteen-square-mile complex near Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan. Hadda was one of the largest Buddhist temple and pilgrimage sites in the world between the first and third centuries AD, when it lay on the route to Bamiyan. Archaeologists have unearthed several monasteries and hundreds of dome-shaped Buddhist shrines known as stupas, as well as tens of thousands of sculptures made of stucco, clay, and limestone. From the caves and sanctuaries of the site emerged “meditating Buddhas and Bodhisattvas to small heads of grimacing demons, monsters, penitent donors, helmeted warriors, noblewomen, heads of lions, elephants, winged tritons, and bacchanalian scenes,” wrote historians. The faces of the men and women found here ranged across diverse modes of expression and dress, status and rank.

But the most potent symbols of Afghanistan’s Buddhist past are still the Buddhas of Bamiyan—or the vacant niches where they once stood. In the sixth century, Bamiyan was on the traveler’s path between India and China, an important caravan stop in a basin ringed by mountains. When the Chinese Buddhist monk and traveler Xuanzang, who visited the valley around 629 AD, saw the massive sandstone-carved figures, they were decorated with gold and fine jewels. Both were encircled by artificial caves forming a complex of Buddhist monasteries, chapels and sanctuaries, decorated with paintings.

The first I heard of these sculptures was the news of their destruction. As a student in Delhi, the event was my introduction to Buddhism’s history in Afghanistan. In 2006, I made my first journey to Kabul, where I worked with Afghan filmmakers and journalists for several months. At the end of the assignment, I drove with my husband to Bamiyan on a bumpy road to see what remained of the monuments I had seen tumbling down all those years ago. In 2013, when I attempted to plan another trip to the region, the road had been improved, but the route was considered too dangerous to risk driving. To pay my respects to the mountainside that held the memory of those beautiful statues, I was told, I would have to fly. On the same trip, I learned of Zafar Paiman and his attempts to save the ancient monastery on Tepe Naranj, in the middle of Kabul’s largest graveyard.

* * *

When I approached the archaeological team’s tent, I saw Zafar skittering down the mountain, a slight, wiry man in his sixties, sure-footed in rubber slippers. Years of working in the sun had weathered and darkened his face, and when he smiled, his face broke into deep-etched lines that created a striking resemblance to the kinds of statues he routinely unearths. Looking at him, I thought of timeless images in clay, men with similar furrows on their faces working with soil.

From this vantage point, Kabul’s textured history was spread before me like a map, as clear as pages in a book.

Informal excavations and reports on Afghanistan’s sites began in the 19th century, at a time when the British and Russian empires were expanding towards this great unknown on the maps of their territories. The enterprise tended to attract a particular type of floating adventurer—deserters, people on the edge of the law, or restless souls beating a path away from respectability. Often these so-called explorers were spurred by a hunt for treasures or espionage, or a mix of such motives.

Contemporary Afghan archaeologists have a complicated relationship with the legacy of these earlier expeditions. They acknowledge their contributions, but, as Zafar told me, they have also encountered evidence of plundering. Zafar was part of a generation of Afghan archaeologists who came of age in the 1960s, at a time when a thirty-year French monopoly over survey and excavation work in Afghanistan had ended, and different countries had established dig sites there. In 1964, the government stipulated that all finds from these expeditions remain in Afghanistan, rather than be divided up with the foreign delegations. Thousands of pieces poured into Kabul’s small National Museum, making it one of the finest in the world.

During this time, Zafar studied history at Kabul University, and whetted an early appetite for archaeology on a year-long expedition to study the caves and sites in Bamiyan in the late 1970s. In 1980, as Afghanistan entered an era of war, like many of his contemporaries, Zafar left his country. He traveled to France, where he studied at the University of Paris and joined France’s national archaeological association, AFAN. He went on to work at sites across Pakistan, Afghanistan, Switzerland and Uzbekistan.

Among his contemporaries in archaeological circles in Afghanistan, Zafar is something of a paradox. He is well-respected by many for his formidable knowledge of Buddhism and for his scrupulous honesty. He is also known for his lack of access to networks and powerful contacts in the heady Afghan antiquities circuit, and his frugally funded projects. Over the same period that Zafar’s team has been trying to preserve Tepe Naranj, the world has heard hundreds of stories of Afghanistan, and Afghans, being rescued in different ways. But despite the site’s luminous beauty and historical significance, as well as its proximity to the large international press corps based in Kabul, virtually nothing has been written about this monastery on a hill, or of the Afghan archaeologist struggling to save it.

I followed Zafar up the staircase leading to the monastery. We stepped onto the level earth of an artificial terrace, out of breath and facing the surviving base of a small, perfectly proportioned stupa. Tiny details of its columns and bricks shimmered in the sun. From this vantage point, Kabul’s textured history was spread before me like a map, as clear as pages in a book.

On my left was Bala Hissar, the ancient citadel that had housed assorted armies through the ages, from Babur’s to the current Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’s. Opposite was Tepe Maranjan, named for a wealthy magician of pre-Islamic times, who was reputed to have turned his riches into ashes to form the mountain. On top of the hill stood the large domed tomb of King Nadir Shah, who was assassinated in 1933. There were also the graves of Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan, and his wife, Humaira Begum. Both had lived for decades away from the country, after they were displaced by a coup in 1973, returning only after the ouster of the Taliban government. Towering next to these mausoleums was a sign in Pashto that read Zhowandai Dawey Afghanistan: Long Live Afghanistan. Ahead glittered the lake, and beyond it the road to Logar, connecting to the historic trade route to Peshawar, another city colored with shades of Buddhist orange, and further, to India. The monastery’s position indicated that it was both a sanctuary and a reminder of strength, perched far away and high enough from the city, overlooking the routes of its empire.

Occasionally, the city raises an aspect of its past almost as if to prove that it did exist, as a reminder of how much is lost, how much remains within.

When I first came to Kabul, I had, like so many others, known it through war. Moments like these forced me to ask myself why it should come as a revelation that a 3,000-year-old city has layers that are diverse and different from its present. It says something about the way we perceive and talk about Kabul. Perhaps it is just human nature to ignore what is buried and only pay attention to what is apparent and overt. But occasionally, the city raises an aspect of its past almost as if to prove that it did exist, as a reminder of how much is lost, and how much remains within.

* * *

The archaeological team believes that Tepe Naranj was a monastery for the royal elite. The living quarters of the monks were possibly located below the stupa, I was told, at a spot fed by a spring. That area is now a shrine dedicated to a Muslim saint, another indication of the densely written and rewritten terrain of Shuhada.

Just above the stupa loomed three chapels in a row, which Zafar’s workers had enclosed with walls and a low roof. We entered the dimly lit interiors from the bright sunlight outside, temporarily blinded and waiting for the room to take shape. Out of the darkness emerged beautiful carvings and the remainders of huge statues. They were partly destroyed, but what remained were festooned with lifelike details, made even more evocative by their incompleteness. In the center of the room was a large pedestal with four niches, each probably intended for an idol of the Buddha, each a different color depending on the direction it faced. Green for north, Zafar said. West in red, yellow for the south, and to the east, blue. The central niche would have seated a four-headed image of the Buddha.

In the second chapel, a large statue of the Buddha in the dhyanmudra, or meditation position, dominated the room. His attendants knelt and stood around him, their clothes a pristine white. The top halves of the entire group had been erased. Yet there was a completeness to the assembly of warriors, princes and Bodhisattvas, ranged around to pay obeisance to the contemplating figure. Zafar scraped off some of the dirt covering the Buddha’s robes. They emerged in red, and his locks in blue, cascading to his shoulders.

I watched as Zafar moved around the chapel with ease and fluency, treating each of the figures as though they were old friends. To the right of the Buddha was a seated figure of Vajrapani, one of the protective deities. Further to the right stood a smaller statue wearing a knotted lungi, or loincloth, likely a devotee of some importance, and perhaps a traveler from central India. Next to him stood a man wearing boots and a short cloak, a soldier or a member of the military aristocracy from the region. The cloak, I noticed, still had its minute buttons intact.

Zafar pointed out a figure kneeling at his feet. The head of this figure had earlier been discovered nearby, wearing a crown decorated with three crescents and embellished with pearls. It was thought to represent a Hephthalite king who had adopted Buddhism. Zafar had referred to this richly decorated visage in the expedition’s report, calling it the only relic of its kind to be found in Afghanistan. I asked Zafar if I could see it. He told me that when he had returned from a trip to Europe, he had found it damaged.

These links to the past are so fragile, made of clay and dust. So easy to break, so easy to return to the earth they came from. Yet these are also the objects that remind the forgetful world, and Afghans themselves, of what they used to be, of the confluence of ideas and civilizations that formed their khak, their ancestry. When I asked Zafar why he works so hard to excavate and preserve the material remains of Afghanistan’s history, he replied flippantly, “Because I am in love with Buddhism, and archaeology.” If so, it is a fraught romance, as the country’s past has been erased over years of war, and now, over an uncertain, uneven peace. Zafar has learned to be like the patient lover of a volatile partner. He cherishes what he has, without asking how long it will stay.

* * *

It is often assumed that the Taliban years represented the worst period of Afghanistan’s history, socially and culturally. But for Zafar, the darkest period of Afghan archaeology was during the long years of war, when different factions of Afghan mujahideen battled first the government and Soviet forces, and then each other. From the late 1970s through the ’90s, the country’s material heritage was pounded to dust. A tank battle between the Soviets and Afghan forces destroyed a large part of Hadda’s Buddhist sites, and different factions of Afghan militias reportedly fired at Kushan minarets for target practice. Even the antiquities that had been brought to the National Museum were not safe. As the once-distant war moved closer to Kabul, the museum building, located on the outskirts of the city, became vulnerable. In late 1989, the most important objects in the collection—including the Bactrian Hoard, of more than 20,000 pieces of gold, silver, and ivory—were moved on the orders of President Najibullah to secret locations in the city. Remarkably, those entrusted with this information managed to maintain a discreet silence over the years of war, until the collection emerged from a vault in the Presidential Palace in 2003, untouched.

The National Museum itself was left with the pieces that were too heavy to move. Over the years of factional violence that followed from 1991 until the Taliban’s capture of Kabul in 1996, the site of the building was shelled and rocketed repeatedly. This was a time when each hill, each street of the city, was virtually a sovereign territory, held by groups who fought over the inches brutally and indiscriminately. The building was looted several times, emptied of its world famous collections, its inventories and documents burnt. Photographs from the time show the corridors buried under a mass of rubble, sunlight pouring in from the ruined ceiling.

The museum was reopened with great fanfare and pomp by the Taliban government in August 2000. This followed Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s decree that his government would protect all historical relics and stop their smuggling out of the country. Speeches were made, and the museum was opened for four days. But in early 2001, Mullah Omar reversed his decision. The Taliban destroyed major pieces in the National Museum, and unleashed tanks and artillery at the Bamiyan Buddhas. There are several versions of the reason behind this sudden shift. In an interview in 2004, Omar told a journalist that this reversal was prompted by “foreigners” who wanted to repair the damaged statues, rather than provide for the thousands of Afghans who were dying of hunger. “That is why I ordered its destruction,” he had said. “Had they come for humanitarian work, I would have never ordered the Buddhas’ destruction.”

That same winter, as the country reeled from the impact of a severe drought, the Taliban had undertaken a massacre of the Shia Hazara minority in Yakawlang district, Bamiyan province. A brutal purge of the past and the present, justified by the notion of purity.

By late 2001, the US-led coalition had routed the Taliban out of Kabul. Aid poured in to help reconstruct the country, elections were held and a new government took charge. The museum building was repaired and reopened somewhat hastily in 2004. Over the following years its remaining collections were inventoried, repaired and exhibited, even as the city moved from the early buoyancy of optimism to the reality of escalating conflict. And now, as the capital faces frequent attacks from a resurgent Taliban, shrinking foreign funds as well as a rise in crime, the museum workers and the riches of Afghanistan’s history once again face a hazardous future. In this recurring story of hope and disappointment lies the key to understanding the wry feeling, barely articulated but often present among those who work with Afghanistan’s past. That the safest way to preserve the country’s archaeological heritage is to leave it buried.

The site was being excavated and preparing for burial at the same time, a place that could easily vanish under a city that circled it hungrily.

This sense of resignation has certainly rubbed off on Zafar. Even as he talked of his plans and hopes for the site of Tepe Naranj, there was a constant undercurrent of reality, persistent caveats and nods to the fact that it may all come to nothing, once again. Listening to him, I wondered how he’s achieved this kind of calm detachment in his work. Perhaps it is the outcome of hanging out with the serene faces and delicately curved hands that populate his sites. Or merely years of dealing with government bureaucracies and red tape across Europe, Afghanistan, and South Asia. We talked about a site he had worked on years ago, and a colleague remarked that the entire area had been destroyed and closed down. Zafar barely skipped a beat. “It’s gone?” he asked. “Very good, my troubles are over.”

Outside in the bright sunshine, the wind threw up the sounds of prayers, and announcements made on loudspeakers spread across the valley. “Funerals,” said Zafar laconically. “There are 15 a day. Who has the time?” As we spoke I saw people pass by, schoolgirls going home, a neighbor calling out cheery salaams on his way down the hill. The archaeological site was practically the only empty spot on the hill, a tiny oasis amid booming construction. Years earlier, Zafar’s team had installed a wire fence around the perimeter of the site, along with the walls and roofs over the statues, in part to protect the relics from the elements. They were also intended to keep out people looking to salvage construction materials, neighbors tempted to build their new homes using the ancient stones of buried structures, as so many in the Shuhada cemetery had done.

But as the air hummed with the sound of mixers and the slap-slap of mud on bricks, even as the dig wound down to its last few hours, the slender wire fences around the site seemed at best a tenuous promise. The site was being excavated and preparing for burial at the same time, a place that could easily vanish under a city that circled it hungrily.

It does not always take zealots with ammunition and rocket launchers to erase these spaces. At Tepe Naranj, I saw that it is possible to do so simply by looking away.

Zafar’s problems are not unique. Unauthorized excavations and theft, often by a collaboration of thieves and warlords, mean that many priceless pieces of Afghanistan’s history have ended up on the international black market for antiques. Along with narcotics and weapons, it is reportedly one of the most lucrative illegal markets in the country. But on the day I met Zafar, that final day of work at Tepe Naranj, the reason behind the site’s closing was more prosaic. Zafar’s grants had been exhausted, and despite his efforts at fundraising, he had been unable to find willing donors. He simply didn’t have the money to continue.

There was an edge of absurdity to this, given the mega-budgets that have marked the international community’s engagement with Afghanistan. For all the attention to similar archaeological sites, and for all his experience and relevance, the constellation of agendas and donor goals that shaped his country after 2001 have reduced Zafar to a lonely, isolated figure, fighting against the odds to preserve his finds. Now, I think of him when I see pictures of the empty hollows in Bamiyan, or when I see images of flattened earth elsewhere, where there were once pillars and temples. Embedded in their barrenness, I realize, is the fact that it does not always take zealots with ammunition and rocket launchers to erase these spaces. At Tepe Naranj, I saw that it is possible to do so simply by looking away.

* * *

As we walked up to the last stage of the complex, close to the summit of the hill, Zafar spoke of his dreams for the site if he ever got the money to return to Tepe Naranj. “I would convert this entire area into an open-air museum, with the monastery complex restored so Afghans can come and see this side of their heritage.” As a clever touch, he proposed to build restaurants at the top and bottom of the hill. “This way, we take their money at both places, when they are thirsty from climbing up, and then again when they are parched from walking down,” he said, smiling. The museum is an idea drawn from Tepe Shotor at Hadda, which was preserved for a time as an in-situ museum for tourists. The site was looted over the years of the civil war, its pieces destroyed or smuggled. When Zafar himself went to Tepe Shotor in early 2001 to assess the damage, he ended up being thrown in jail by the Taliban. Besides trying to take pictures, he told me, his crime was that he had worn white socks, which was deemed an insult to the white Taliban flag.

We reached the highest room in the monastery. This chamber was circular, with a ledge running around one wall. In the center was a furnace that may have been used for rites. As Zafar conducted an argument in absentia with various western archaeologists about the function of the room, (“And so I will tell them, whether they like it or don’t like it”), I sat on the ledge, taking in the sunlit airiness, and the faint etchings of leaves on the walls. This could have been where the elite and the powerful met to make important decisions related to war, or the economy, or religious matters, or for prayers. And perhaps, added Zafar, the furnace set here also served as a sign, a beacon. I thought of dark nights during long Afghan winters, with monks lost in prayers and farmers readying their families for bed, and the sight of a blaze on the Orange Hill.

Around us, workmen rushed against a ticking clock to finish completing the protective walls around this room. They used pails made of discarded rubber tires, and daubed the walls with mud. We walked back down the hill to the tent where there were bolanis and a fiery green chutney ready for us. Some of Zafar’s friends passed through to say hello, friends he had stayed in touch with through the war and during the Taliban years. One of them shared stories about a prominent archaeologist who has a reputation for getting drunk and sentimental with recovered artifacts. “Thank you o Buddha,” he said in Dari, mimicking the man’s inebriated slurring. “Without you, how would I feed my family?”

Over the laughter, I asked Zafar once again why he had chosen to become an archeologist. He muttered under his breath, his words nearly lost in the babble of talk around us. “Because this,” he eventually told me, gesturing energetically at the earth, the sky, the stupas and temples on the hill. “All this was Afghanistan also.” He paused and continued more calmly. “Because the Buddha was ours also.”

* * *

I was reminded of Tepe Naranj as I watched the news of the destruction of the ancient city of Nimrud in Iraq, vandalized by the forces of the Islamic State, and again when they captured Palmyra in Syria. I thought of it also when IS claimed to have made inroads into Afghanistan, and when the Taliban wrested control over the northern city of Kunduz. In photographs of the city before it fell to the insurgents, its streets appear as empty as ruins.

Over this time, I learned through a mutual friend that Zafar had returned to the monastery at Tepe Naranj to protect it as best he could against the winter. And he had come back again after that, with a small grant to excavate another site nearby. This work, though brief, had revealed promises of even richer finds, an even wider sweep of potential discoveries. But that money had also run out, and Zafar was now trying to raise funds to turn the entire place into his dream open-air museum. He was still hopeful, our friend wrote. He was still trying.

On our way down from the summit at Tepe Naranj on that spring day in 2013, Zafar had stopped me at a small covered enclosure. Our companions were a little behind us, and their laughter and voices floated down to us in snatches. Zafar had leaned into the enclosure, lifted the plastic sheets and gestured at me to look inside. Underneath the protective covering were a pair of massive feet, the remnants of a standing Buddha, facing east. From the size of the pedestal and the feet, it was clear that the figure would have been huge, visible from a great distance. At the same time, this particular statue seemed oddly positioned, set aside from the others, almost aloof. Zafar remained looking at the statue after I moved away. They stood side by side for a bit, the Buddha and his unlikely disciple, marooned on their scrubby Kabul hillside. In that moment, they both appeared to me as relics of a vanished past, remains of a certain way of being. Like the land they’re tied to, caught in a cycle of birth and brittle rebirth, hope and uncertainty, a wheel that keeps on turning, without the luxury of an end.

Taran N. Khan

Taran N. Khan is a journalist based in Mumbai. She has been traveling to Afghanistan since 2006. She is working on her first book, a collection of nonfiction essays on Kabul, from which this piece is excerpted.

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