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Under Taliban guard, Afghanistan's national museum has reopened

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

When the Taliban returned to power last year, Afghanistan's National Museum went dark. Cultural heritage advocates around the world worried history might repeat itself - that the group would smash statues or other objects it found offensive. The museum has reopened, and NPR's Arezou Rezvani made a visit.

AREZOU REZVANI, BYLINE: On a sweltering Saturday afternoon, a couple of Taliban are guarding the entrance of Afghanistan's National Museum in the heart of Kabul. They are young, armed and snacking on a plate of grapes.

(Non-English language spoken).

It's a startling scene because it was just over 20 years ago that the Taliban blew up colossal Buddha statues in Bamiyan and smashed some of the priceless treasures that were on display in this museum. This time is different, they say. They want to protect cultural heritage. And so my colleague Fazelminallah Qazizai and I have come to see what's here. We see centuries-old ceramic bowls in green, yellow and blue, urns with Quranic verses etched into the sides.

Wow. Look at that.

Hordes of coins - some so gold, they almost glow. One room has wooden totems on display from a remote part of Afghanistan and old weapons with mother-of-pearl inlay.

These are amazing.

We meet an employee of the museum, who we're not naming for his security, and he tells us things are going fine.

UNIDENTIFIED MUSEUM EMPLOYEE: (Through interpreter) Luckily, with the change, with the arrival of the Taliban, the museum was safe. Security was established, and there was no obstacle for our work. Everything is going as normal as it was before.

REZVANI: As we walk around, we realize there are no other visitors. It's just us. Gone are the days of busloads of Afghan school kids coming in for a tour, running around with sketch pads. We then come across a sign on the wall.

Buddhist heritage of Afghanistan. Huh.

Two thousand years ago, Afghanistan was a major ancient Buddhist hub. We do see three small sculptures of Buddha heads, but a lot is also labeled contemporary - a marble coffee table with jasper inlay, the year 2000 etched into it; a couple of ceramic bowls from a contemporary artist. A curator here calls it kid's art.

After our visit, I reached out to archaeologist Gil Stein. He's the director of the Chicago Center for Cultural Heritage Preservation and has spent years advising the museum.

GIL STEIN: When you were at the museum and you saw these empty galleries, one of the first things that they did was they took all of the early Buddhist art off display in the galleries, and they put it into the storerooms. And the second thing is, they started to be very, very careful in their public communications.

LAURA TEDESCO: That the stuff is stored away, I'm not happy about it. But if it's safe, then that's good.

REZVANI: Laura Tedesco is also keeping a close eye on the changes. She's a cultural heritage and preservation specialist with the State Department, who, over the years, has worked with the museum staff.

TEDESCO: The National Museum for Afghanistan was, once upon a time, the finest museum in Central Asia, and that is not an exaggeration.

REZVANI: She recalls visiting when galleries were full of prehistoric figurines, Buddhist artifacts and life-size human figure statues - all of it capturing the country's diverse blend of cultures over millennia.

TEDESCO: And that is unique to Afghanistan because it was this cultural crossroads.

REZVANI: Experts like Gil Stein aren't sure what to make of the Taliban's promise to protect that unique cultural heritage. But he says there's reason for hope, that heritage can be protected under the Taliban.

STEIN: It is possible. It would be a terrible mistake for the West to write them off completely. There is space to negotiate things. I think that's almost always true in Afghanistan, but we all have to be very cautious on it because, in so many domains, the Taliban have been violating their promises.

REZVANI: Under the Taliban, so far, it seems the museum is being spared the worst from its past. But it's also not clear that it can return to what it once was anytime soon.

Arezou Rezvani, NPR News, Kabul, Afghanistan.

(SOUNDBITE OF JESSE COOK'S "TOMMY AND ME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Arezou Rezvani is a senior editor for NPR's Morning Edition and founding editor of Up First, NPR's daily news podcast.