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Going, Going, Ghazni: Ancient Afghan City Crumbling Under Weight Of Neglect, Corruption

The largest of the Ghazni citadel's 36 towers collapsed on June 11.
The largest of the Ghazni citadel's 36 towers collapsed on June 11.

The ancient city of Ghazni was once a great center of Islamic power and culture, filled with treasure-adorned minarets, grand libraries and mosques, and a towering fortress overlooking a vast empire.

But today the city in southeastern Afghanistan pales in comparison to its glory days, when it anchored a dominion that reached far and wide -- to modern-day northern India in the east, and spanning Iran to the west.

Ghazni, which means "jewel" in Dari, is now a city plagued by violence and poverty. Its 150,000 residents live in fear of extremist Taliban fighters and without adequate electricity or water.

And the relics of the city's famed past are crumbling from government neglect and corruption, say locals.

The imposing Citadel of Ghazni, a 45-meter-high fortress built in the 13th century, was the latest victim.

The largest of its 36 towers collapsed on June 11. Fifteen of its towers have been severely damaged or have completely collapsed over the years.

Ghazni provincial officials blamed the collapse of the tower on heavy rain, the proximity of a major road to the fortress, and a ferocious weeklong battle with Taliban militants last year.

But activists and residents attributed the collapse to government negligence and rampant corruption that have hampered efforts to preserve the historical site.

The famed citadel is just one of hundreds of ancient treasures scattered across Afghanistan that are under threat from government inaction and graft -- as well as decades of violent conflict.

Government Jobbery

When the Islamic Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (ISESCO) chose Ghazni as an Islamic Capital of Culture for the year 2013, hopes were raised that the city might be restored to its former grandeur.

A budget of around $10 million was allocated to build an airport, pave 150 kilometers of roads, build a fully functioning power grid, construct an Islamic cultural center for a museum, and restore some 100 damaged historical sites, including two 43-meter-high minarets from the 12th century and the old city walls. Ghazni is Afghanistan's only remaining walled city.

Citadel of Ghazni in better days
Citadel of Ghazni in better days

Of the 65 restoration projects, only a handful were ever completed.

Asef Hussaini, a journalist and activist in Ghazni, says the $3 million allocated to historical sites was lost to government corruption. "If the money was actually used towards restoring and preserving these sites, the towers of the citadel wouldn't be collapsing," he says.

Afghanistan is one of the most corrupt countries in the world and has failed to make progress in tackling graft. The international community has sent many billions of dollars in aid to Afghanistan, but much of it has ended up in the pockets of the corrupt elites.

Years Of Neglect

Local resident Sayed Abadullah says parts of the largest tower of the Ghazni Citadel had collapsed in three stages. "Now it's completely gone," he says. "We repeatedly told the provincial government that the tower was on the verge of collapse. But the government didn't take any action."

Noor Mohammad, another resident, says the government has not listened to their warnings. "The entire citadel is crumbling," he says. "The government urgently needs to take action."

Bashir Mohammadi, the head of the provincial Information and Culture Department, says heavy snowfall and rain contributed to the collapse of the tower.

He also says the citadel was damaged during the long battle in Ghazni city in August 2018 when the Taliban launched a major offensive and seized control of parts of the strategic city, located 130 kilometers from the capital, Kabul.

Mohammadi says a team from Kabul will soon arrive in Ghazni to draw up a plan to restore the fallen tower. "We will try to save this important historical monument," he says.

Asadullah Jalalzai, a history expert in Ghazni, says the fortress is one of the city's most significant historical monuments. "The citadel is a relic of a vast empire," he says. "It is a monument that represents a unique civilization. It is one of the sites that gives Ghazni such historical importance."

Ghazni was a flourishing Buddhist center up until the seventh century, when Arab armies invaded and brought Islam to the region. Sultan Mahmud Ghaznavi, a Turkic ruler, transformed his capital, then Ghazna, in the 11th century into a cultural center rivaling Baghdad.

The Ghaznavid dynasty lasted until the 13th century, when the city was destroyed by the Mongol armies of Genghis Khan.

History Under Threat

Afghanistan has been plagued by decades of civil war and foreign invasions and the country's antiquities and historical sites have suffered years of destruction and looting as a result.

In 2001, the Taliban shocked the world when it demolished the ancient Buddhas of Bamiyan, in central Afghanistan, a testament to the country's pre-Islamic history.

The Bamiyan Buddha was destroyed by the Taliban.
The Bamiyan Buddha was destroyed by the Taliban.

Around the same time, the Taliban also destroyed the country's third-largest Buddha statue, located just outside Ghazni city. The 16-meter-long, reclining Buddha at a temple in Tape Sardar was reduced to rubble alongside another famous statue depicting Buddha with his foot on a calf. The statues were built some 1,500 years ago, around the same time as the twin statues in Bamiyan.

Last month, the 800-year-old Minaret of Jam in the province of Ghor was on the verge of collapse after a flood caused by torrential rains.

The tower was saved from imminent danger after the government deployed hundreds of workers to divert the floodwaters. But the rescue work was halted after the Taliban seized control of the site, prompting concern for the archaeological treasure.

Written by Frud Bezhan based on reporting by Habibur Rahman Taseer of RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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    Habibur Rahman Taseer

    Habibur Rahman Taseer is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan.