Guardians of Heritage

Far beyond strategic military imperatives, the U.S. and Afghanistan have become partners in saving a rich cultural heritage.

Following is an interview with Laura Tedesco, PhD, formerly the Cultural Heritage Program Manager for the United States Embassy to Afghanistan, conducted on 16 August 2011 by Joanie Meharry and Shaharzad Akbar:



Q: Would you begin by relating a little about your background, about what brought you to Afghanistan, and how your interest in archaeology began?

LT: I didn’t really know anything about archaeology until I attended university and became completely obsessed with global cultural heritage and archaeology, and then was very fortunate to begin working on archaeological excavations in Europe and in the former Soviet Union. In graduate school, I studied the region of Afghanistan extensively, but it wasn’t possible to travel there at that time. As an independent woman scholar it simply wasn’t a viable country to come do work, but I always maintained an interest in the history of Afghanistan because of its location in the world and the fact that so many cultures passed through that country. The history is so rich.

A little less than two years ago, the State Department and the embassy in Kabul needed a cultural heritage specialist in order to support US initiatives to protect and preserve Afghan heritage. I was very intrigued by the position and decided, with some encouragement from friends and colleagues, that I would apply, and I was very lucky to be selected. I had no prior experience in Afghanistan before going there.


Q:  What kinds of projects are you involved in and what kind of work do you do? 

LT: I work in the Public Diplomacy section of the embassy, so the programs we administer involving cultural heritage are really diplomatic initiatives to identify major sites in Afghanistan that are significant for Afghans. Thus, I work closely with Afghan counterparts to become familiar with sites that are most important in terms of Afghan history. Then we try to identify through the US Embassy how best to protect those sites and raise awareness about them, both for Afghans and internationally. The fundamental idea is that a country that has a strong cultural identity also has the foundation of a civil society.

Some of the major projects involve the National Museum, as it is a symbol of Afghan unity. When I first arrived in Kabul and visited the National Museum, I was very impressed because I had known its history of having been looted and bombed. I was very impressed with its condition, but I could also see its short comings as the focal point of efforts for protecting Afghans’ material culture. So, through many conversations and cups of tea with the museum director and the Ministry of Information and Culture, we decided that a good program would be to try to build a new National Museum: a building that is safe, is secure, and more welcoming to the public, and that could offer educational programs to children to learn about their own Afghan history. What we would really like to see is this travelling exhibition of Afghanistan treasures to come home to Afghanistan, as so many people around the world have had the benefit of seeing Afghanistan’s treasures but very few Afghans have been able to see their own history in this way. Therefore, our ultimate goal is to create a building that is a new home for this nation’s heritage.


Q: In your work, the US Embassy is also involved in development, and now you are also here to work with cultural heritage. But there are some tension areas, particularly with projects like Mes Aynak. What is your role in that? Do you have a supporting role or an advising role?

LT: Concerning the Mes Aynak project in Logar Province: That site is very complicated, although it is one of the most important archaeological sites in Afghanistan, perhaps the most important; however, it also happens to be co-located with the world’s second largest copper deposit, which is very important for the future of Afghanistan in that it can bring revenue to the government and the people of the country. The issues revolve around how to manage Afghanistan’s most plentiful resources, which is a very rich cultural heritage and very rich natural resources.

I work as an advisor to the Ministry of Information and Culture, the Ministry of Mines, and as an observer and an assistant in developing a management plan for preserving as much of the history as possible from Mes Aynak, while concurrently allowing the industry of mining to move forward; the mining versus the preservation of cultural heritage does not have to be an either/or situation. It can be a win/win situation for Afghanistan. So presently we are hiring international archaeologists to work at the site. There is a very tight timeline on how much time there is to recover what can be found at Mes Aynak. It’s very important for understanding more of Afghanistan’s history, and we work closely with the Ministry of Mines so that the archaeological effort coincides with what the Ministry of Mines is doing.


Dr. Laura Tedesco, archaeologist and Cultural Heritage Program Manager, U.S. Embassy Kabul, and Eileen O’Connor, Director of Strategic Communications and Public Diplomacy, U.S. Embassy Kabul, discuss ceramic artifacts unearthed at Mes Aynak, Logar Province, Afghanistan on Saturday, October 29, 2011. Courtesy U.S. Embasy Kabul, Afghanistan  See pictorial of Mes Aynak, below.


Q: Security is another concern for cultural heritage sites in Afghanistan. You work in Ghazni and travel there often. How does security interfere with preservation work?

LT: The security situation in Ghazni, in particular, really limits the extent of what we can do in preservation work there. I started travelling to Ghazni about a year ago to identify projects in cultural heritage that the embassy could support under the banner of Ghazni 2013, when the city will be the Islamic cultural capital of the Asian world. I very quickly realized that any kind of long-term field work on monuments in Ghazni was not practical. It’s simply not safe. So, in an effort to make some contribution to Ghazni’s heritage, yet think creatively about what we could do, we have identified some other projects that I think are very valuable, though perhaps modest. Specifically, I noticed that none of the monuments in Ghazni have any signs on them, so people don’t know what they’re looking at when visiting. One of our initiatives is to create signs to identify these as historic places with some information about the history of the site. The signs will be in Dari and Pashtu, and they should be installed later this year.

Also, education is a critical aspect of cultural heritage. We can preserve all the sites in Afghanistan, but if we don’t educate the population, and particularly the children, about the significance of those sites, the efforts are almost useless. So we decided to develop some children’s books for all school children in Ghazni about Ghazni’s heritage, and how rich it is and what a center of the world Ghazni was in the 11th and 12th centuries, particularly when it was the Ghaznavid Empire. And so we’re producing two books: one book for younger children, five or six years old, with a lot of visual culture in it, coloring images to familiarize children with the richness of the history; and another book for a slightly older set of children with more historical information, images of the monuments. The books will be distributed to all school children in Ghazni later this year.

Our third project in Ghazni involves the very famous and very important monuments: the Ghazni towers, often called minarets. Their condition is deteriorating, and so in the absence of being able to actually do preservation work on the ground we decided the best, first step for preserving the towers would be to document them in detail.  So the embassy invited two specialists from the United States who work for the National Park Service in the United States to come to Ghazni and perform what’s called laser scanning of the towers, with the outcome of creating very detailed architectural drawings of the towers and of their current condition. Those drawings will allow the Afghan Government, an NGO (non-governmental organization), or any organization, to then plan a long-term preservation plan for the towers. That information from the laser scanning will be made free and open to the public, so anyone can access that documentation of the towers and use it for developing some kind of long-term preservation plan.


Old Ghazni City.  Public domain, Wikimedia Commons


Q: Building on that, what is your impression of the local cooperation for preserving cultural heritage sites, and what do you think about your Afghan counterparts and their level of commitment to cultural heritage?

LT: Among the Afghans that I work with closely, mostly from the Ministry of Information and Culture and the National Museum and the Provincial Directorates of Information and Culture, are very committed to preserving Afghan heritage. The question in almost every project is finding people who can enact preservation projects and find funds to see projects through. That is always the challenge with any project that we start. With any Afghan that I work with there is surely a will, an interest, and an acceptance of how important this is, but it is a question of what can be done right now with the available human capacity and money for cultural heritage preservation.


Q: What was done at the US Embassy regarding cultural heritage before your arrival, or is it a recent focus? And what are the future plans at the US Embassy for preserving cultural heritage?

LT: Previously, before I came as the specialist in cultural heritage, there were initiatives that the embassy was supporting in cultural heritage, but those initiatives and projects fell under a larger cultural umbrella, so they were perhaps not as specifically directed or given as much attention. But there was always an interest in heritage preservation and dating back to 2003-04 were some of the first cultural heritage projects that the US Embassy was supporting in Afghanistan.

Since I have been here, this has been my only focus, so I am able to spend full-time identifying projects, talking with Afghans about what is important in different provinces. I travel around very often to look at sites, identify sites, and allocate resources toward preserving sites —  not just archaeological sites, but standing monuments, as well. We also support the preservation of intangible heritage, which is equally important: traditional music, poetry, calligraphy, traditional arts, things like that.

I expect that the future of US support for Afghan cultural heritage is very strong, that these programs will continue, and I will leave Kabul eventually and a new specialist will come in and take up this effort.


Q: What are your hopes and fears for the future of Afghanistan in general and cultural heritage as an important component of it, especially after 2014?

LT: My hopes are that the sites that we are working to preserve now will stay safe and that more Afghans will be able to visit them, and the country will be safe enough that the public can go out and enjoy this magnificent history and learn about it and experience it.

My fears are that security will deteriorate and that won’t be possible. One of my biggest fears is this: The US Embassy is supporting the construction of a new National Museum. It is a very big program, very ambitious, but very risky. When this new museum is constructed, the security situation in Kabul may impact this new building and prevent people, and children in particular, from being able to visit this new museum. It’s very difficult to predict. It is difficult to predict the security situation here. I think that is the biggest unknown.


Pictorial of Mes Aynak

(All Photos Courtesy U.S. Embassy Kabul, Afghanistan)

Tepe Kafiriat in Mes Aynak, Logar Province.


A stupa at Mes Aynak, Logar Province.


  A stupa at Tepe Kafiriat in Mes Aynak, Logar Province.


A niche for a statue in a Buddhist stupa at Mes Aynak. 


The remains of standing figures in a chapel at Tepe Kafiriat in Mes Aynak.


 Dr. Laura Tedesco, archaeologist and Cultural Heritage Program Manager, U.S. Embassy Kabul, visits Mes Aynak.


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Joanie Eva Meharry is currently completing an MA in International and Comparative Legal Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. This summer she lived in Kabul while researching the archaeological site of Mes Aynak with a Global Heritage Fund Fellowship and a Connecticut Ceramics Study Circle Grant, as well as directing the project, Untold Stories: the Oral History of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage, with a Hollings Center for International Dialogue Grant. She writes often on Afghanistan’s culture and politics. Joanie also holds an MSc in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Edinburgh.

Shaharzad Akbar is partner and senior consultant with QARA Consulting, Inc. in Kabul, Afghanistan. Shaharzad studied anthropology at Smith College and recently completed an MPhil in Development Studies at University of Oxford.

Shaharzad has extensive media and development work experience in Afghanistan. In 2005, she was the journalism intern for the book Women of Courage. Reporting for the book, she traveled across Afghanistan to meet and interview active Afghan women in all sectors. She has also worked as local reporter for BBC for Afghanistan, producer and host of a youth talk show on radio Killid and writer and editor for several Afghan magazines and newspapers. In 2009, Shaharzad worked as a senior analyst and reporter for the principal domestic elections observers group in Afghanistan. She has also played a lead role in organizing several national conferences and events, most significantly the Afghan-Pak Joint Peace Jirga in 2007.