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Ancient Afghanistan, smuggled in pieces

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Across the border in Afghanistan, the Taliban government has destroyed every Buddha it can get its hands on, images it considers idolatrous. Demolition of the massive standing Buddhas of Bamiyan, confirmed by dramatic photographs last week, sent a shock wave through academic and religious circles as these icons of the Afghan Buddhist civilization were consigned to dust.

But in Naseer Ahmed's shop in Peshawar's antiques market, relics are still trickling in and finding refuge. Like the displaced Afghans who bring them, Afghanistan's endangered Buddhist and Hellenic statues are coming to Pakistan for shelter and safety - and to be sold.

Opening a false door in his show room and walking into a dark, musty chamber, Mr. Ahmed says, "you come into my museum." A Greek terra cotta head is one recent arrival that could date back to the invasion of Alexander the Great. Others are altarpieces that tell the life story of Buddha. "You want big Buddha, small Buddha, it's no problem; but take to your country, it's a big problem at airport," says Ahmed.

Afghanistan's Taliban rulers prohibit anyone from transporting, possessing, or selling religious idols. Pakistan's customs department also restricts their transport into the country, regarding them as stolen goods. But as the hammers and explosives of Afghanistan's religious rulers continue to do their work on their country's historical legacy, the trickle of antiquities may become a flood. Many statues may end up in the hands of people who have little idea of their importance.

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