Afghan Students Learn to Combat Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Property

April 4, 2019

Students in Afghanistan attended an online UA class developed to raise their awareness of illicit trafficking and help them protect important cultural artifacts.

Nineteen students from different Afghani universities are learning the value of cultural heritage and how to protect it thanks to a unique partnership involving the University of Arizona.

This spring, students in an illicit trafficking course were given the tools to evaluate and document cultural properties, map looted sites, and examine illicit trafficking through local and global perspectives in a unique UA offering. This program is all the more important because in Kabul, Afghanistan, the National Museum of Afghanistan has seen more than 70 percent of its collection damaged or smuggled out of the country.

The online class was taught by Rachelle Hornby, a research specialist in the UA's Center for Middle Eastern Studies, which leads the Afghan Cultural Heritage Education Project, or ACHEP. The UA is a central member of the ACHEP, which was created by the National Park Service Archeology Program and the U.S. Department of State Cultural Heritage Center.

The current class is an evolution of the ACHEP's goals to build the capacity of Afghan institutions to safeguard and preserve cultural heritage.

“Trafficking in illicit cultural heritage is linked to other kinds of crime, including drug and human trafficking,” says David Gadsby, a National Park Service official and program officer of the Afghanistan Cultural Heritage Education Project. “So understanding the networks through which looted antiquities travel helps with other law enforcement efforts.”

Last year, students at Kabul University participated in “Introduction to Anthropology and Archeology,” an online class taught by Jodi Reeves Eyre, then a visiting scholar at the UA. And prior to that, the UA College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture collaborated with the National Park Service and Kabul University to hold the first in-person training in the U.S.

“In spite that there are a lot of things happening because of the war, they are still coming to class and the project is still happening,” says Atifa Rawan, a librarian emerita who led Afghanistan projects at the UA Libraries and was an integral part of the ACHEP through its early years. "Through bumpy roads, ups and downs, the project has now landed in a solid, stable and supportive environment.”

Relationships between UA faculty and staff and Afghanistan conservation professionals continue, thanks in part to the guidance of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, or CMES, in the UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. The ACHEP has received praise from faculty and students who want to keep the program running and are eager to continue training.

“We are engaged in a number of online initiatives to bridge divides between U.S. and Middle Eastern institutions and students," said Anne Betteridge, director of the CMES.

Regardless of the amount of external help and diplomatic relations, the commitment of young professionals and conservation officers is a compelling factor to safeguard cultural heritage in Afghanistan.

“Sadly, a lot of their history is gone or lost forever. They live there. It’s their culture," Hornby said of the students who participated in the illicit trafficking class. "We can teach as much as we want, but that personal human aspect is a big component to this process.”