Paris-based author Richard Covington has covered a wide range of cultural and historical subjects and has contributed to Smithsonian, The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Sunday Times of London, Reader's Digest, Art in America, and Salon. A fan of French history, he has published biographical profiles of Napoleon, Charlemagne and Marie Antoinette. He is also a contributor to What Matters, a collection of essays on critical environmental, health and social issues due out September 2008. His latest project details the cultural transformation of the Silk Road.
What drew you to this story? Can you describe its genesis?
When I first saw the exhibition at the Guimet Museum in Paris last year, I was struck by the beauty of the artifacts from a part of the world known principally for terrorism and civil war. I wanted to portray another side of Afghanistan, to tell the story of its rich cultural heritage dating back millennia. I was also immensely moved by the risks taken by the director of the National Museum in Kabul, Omara Khan Masoudi, and his staff to save these endangered artistic treasures.
What surprised you the most while covering the cultural artifacts of Afghanistan?
I was surprised that the country's archaeological heritage is so little-known and remains relatively unexplored. The ongoing conflict means that rampant looting of sites and smuggling of artifacts continue virtually unchecked. War with the resurgent Taliban also greatly interferes with archaeological surveys by placing much of the country off-limits and making it well nigh impossible to train local archaeologists.
What was your favorite moment during your reporting?
I have to say my favorite moment was when I first saw the Bactrian gold jewelry. The whimsical fat cupids riding dolphins (or some sort of fish), the tiny Aphrodite figure with wings, the delicately-incised ram and the dagger handle with a Siberian bear were astonishing and mystifying. It made me wonder: who were these nomads, how did they become such sophisticated artisans and why don't we know more about them?
Was there anything fun or interesting that didn't make the final draft?
Among the many tall tales surrounding the treasures was one from an Afghan bank official who claimed he had been tortured by the Taliban and refused to reveal where the works were hidden. Carla Grissmann told me this was absolutely untrue, dismissing it as a "very Afghan self-dramatization." Grissmann, on the other hand, deserves a great deal of credit for spotting eight of the pieces in the exhibition on the black market in Peshawar. The items—ivory and plaster medallions from Begram—had been stolen from the National Museum of Kabul. She bought them on the spot and placed them in safekeeping.
The Taliban's elimination of "heretical" artworks is not the first time that cultural artifacts have been altered or destroyed because they no longer fit in with current moral or aesthetic values. How ought we treat works of art that are no longer deemed acceptable by the culture in which they exist? Why?
In the 16th century, Daniele de Voltera covered figures in Michaelangelo's Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel with strategically placed loincloths. Hitler tried to ban so-called "degenerate art" by the likes of Max Beckmann, Chagall, Klee and Kandinsky. But of course, works by these artists proved far more enduring than works the Nazi dictator chose for the proposed Fuhrermuseum he planned to create in Linz, Austria. And more recently, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had a Tiepolo nude retouched in his official residence so her bare breast would not show up behind him during television interviews. (The title of the painting was The Truth Unveiled by Time.) And that is what happens to masterpieces that are banned or covered over. Time ultimately vindicates the truth of the artwork, but I believe we still have to fight to make that happen.