KARACHI: Pakistan is just 70 years old, but it is situated in a region that had been home to the centuries-old civilizations like Mehrgarh, Indus Valley, and Gandhara.
The South Asian Muslim state hosts scores of archaeological sites — dating back to 8,000 years — many of them revered for not only the followers of the world’s three major religions — Buddhism, Sikhism and Hinduism — but also from some pre-historic religions such as Aryan, Barhaman, and ancient Iranian and Greek religions.
However, the country has failed not only to preserve and protect its corroding architectural treasure by the ravages of time but also to curb the widespread theft and smuggling of ancient artifacts.
The country’s southwestern Balochistan — home to 8,000-year-old Mehrgarh civilization — and the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhawa (KP) province — which hosts 70% of the sites in the country sacred to Sikhs and Buddhists — have long been suffering from illegal antiquities trade.
“Pakistan has already lost an uncountable chunk of its repository of ancient artifacts in recent decades through a systematic process of theft and smuggling,” Yar Jan Badini, a Quetta-based archaeology researcher told Anadolu Agency.
“This has not only caused a colossal loss to the country financially but has also made it harder for anthropologists to tell us about the lives of people who lived here,” Badini added.
Last week, France returned some 445 stolen artifacts to Islamabad including ancient busts, vases, urns, bowls and goblets with an estimated value of $157,000, according to Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry.
The rare artifacts dating back to second and third millennium B.C., were stolen and smuggled from Pakistan to France and seized by French Customs at Paris Airport during 2006-7, the ministry said.
Experts see a nexus between organized smuggling rackets and the government officials apart from lack of awareness among the local communities, and tribal feuds as key reasons behind the theft of antiquities, which according to him goes still unabated.
“In addition to Mehrgarh, Balochistan is filled with archaeological sites from Zhob district [in the north] to Gwadar [in the south]. It’s smugglers and their local facilitators who have been engaged in illegal excavations right from Zhob to Gwadar with impunity,” he fumed.
“I have personally seen our stolen and smuggled artifacts in several European museums. But we have no proof and will to get them back. One cannot believe that this all could happen without connivance of our concerned government authorities,” he maintained.
Smugglers associated with international art markets, Badini said, had also hired local agents who would buy precious antiquities accidentally found by local residents at throw-away prices.
“Local people [around these sites] are mostly illiterate and gullible. They have no idea about the worth and importance of the artifacts, which are later sold out against thousands of dollars in the international market,” he went on to say.
Local chieftains also allow excavations in their respective areas against some amounts or for fake archaeological surveys having no idea what would it cost the country.
Also in KP — once known as the heart of the Gandhara civilization — organized rackets have long been operating taking advantage of loose government control and lack of awareness among locals.
Large to medium-size stupas of Gautam Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, and other objects mainly from Takhtbai or Takht-i-Bhai (throne of origins) — a small scenic town located some 160 kilometers (99 miles) from capital Islamabad and the most visited site by the Buddhists — have been smuggled to Europe.
“Artifacts are mostly smuggled via Afghanistan from KP,” Abdul Samad, director of Archeology and Museums in KP, told Anadolu Agency, referring to the advantage of mountainous nature of the border between the two countries.
The most unfortunate part of the already irreparable damage is that the government has no figures or record of stolen treasure.
Zafar Buledi, secretary of Balochistan’s Culture and Archeology Department, too admits the fact.
“As such we do not have exact figures of the stolen artifacts from the province,” Buledi told Anadolu Agency, adding that the federal government had transferred the archeology-related affairs to the provinces in 2014 following a constitutional amendment, however no such record or figures were provided.
Samad vindicated Buledi’s view saying the provincial government had no record or estimates of stolen and smuggled objects.
“The two provinces are full of archeological sites making it harder for the government authorities to keep a complete check on theft of artifacts. One can even find a historical site after every 10 miles, especially in KP,” he maintained.
Buledi observed excavations in Balochistan — which covers 42% of Pakistan’s total area — has been carrying out even before the creation of Pakistan, and a large chunk of local archeological treasure was moved to other parts of the country, and even abroad.
Recently, he added, the provincial government had brought back around 20,000 artifacts from Karachi.
Hailing the French government’s move, he said the government was in touch with Italy and other European countries to bring back stolen artifacts.
Balochistan and KP governments have recently fielded archeologists to stop illegal excavations and theft of precious objects, apart from launching public awareness campaigns.
“Antique smuggling is a worldwide phenomenon. It is not easy to fully contain this due to the involvement of big mafias,” Buledi said, adding: “But we are doing our best to curb this phenomenon.”
The strategically important province, which is also a key route of multi-billion-dollar China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is set to have its first “state-of-the-art” museum in September this year.
So much so, the antiquate smuggling is feeding the organized criminal and terrorist groups in the country, a security expert said.
Ikram Sehgal, a Karachi-based security analyst, told Anadolu Agency that 10% of the total terror financing in Pakistan comes through illegal antiquities trade.
“It’s a huge business worldwide involving organized smuggling gangs, terrorist groups, and the international art markets,” he added.