February 9, 2009 / 1:31 PM / 10 years ago

Afghan king's shrine neglected as city modernizes

JALALABAD, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Jalalabad in east Afghanistan has new asphalt roads, traffic lights and a public park, but some residents say it is at the expense of historical treasures such as the tomb of an Afghan king and national hero.

The shrine of Amanullah Khan, one of Afghanistan’s last monarchs and credited with liberating the country from British involvement in 1919, is in a large marble plaza, covered by a dome roof held up by blue columns in the heart of Jalalabad.

But his memorial has not been afforded the usual dignity expected of a revered king, as it is used as a trading spot for the city’s firewood sellers and pakora makers, while others defecate on the footpath a few feet away.

“I think the garden shrine should look better as an entertainment site but we can’t do the additional work ... it will lose its authenticity,” Awrang Sameem, head of the cultural department of Nangarhar province, told Reuters.

Amanullah died in exile in Switzerland in 1960 after abdicating in 1929. He is buried at the shrine, alongside his wife, Soraya Tarzi, and his father whom he helped assassinate.

Amanullah is often described by Afghans as a modernizer inspired by his wife to improve women’s rights in a deeply conservative society, but traditional Afghans who viewed his reforms as too Western rebelled against him.

“I agree the site should look greener and Afghan people have a great responsibility to respect their hero,” Sameem said.

Some passersby outside the Bagh-e Amir Shaheed, which means garden of the martyred emir or king, had little knowledge of Amanullah.

“I don’t know anything about Amanullah Khan or his family,” said Sayed Jan, a young boy from neighboring Kunar province, adding with a laugh that he had just come to use the garden as a toilet.

The older generation who remember Amanullah seem to have more knowledge of the man and bemoan the shrine’s run-down state.

“He was one of the biggest and most respected figures in Afghan history who had a great role in Afghanistan’s independence ... but the government has not paid attention to make his graveyard a historical site,” said an elderly man who was reading Amanullah’s epitaph.

Almost three decades of war in Afghanistan have led to the neglect or destruction of many cultural and historical sites.

The capital city Kabul is dotted with palaces and dilapidated historical buildings derelict from war and neglect.

The Taliban did not have a policy of restoring heritage sites, and destroyed those deemed un-Islamic, such as two Fifth Century sandstone Buddhas in north Afghanistan demolished in 2001.

“Amanullah Khan brought us independence but we are still victimized by the hands of foreign troops. His struggle to bring victory has gone wasted,” a nearby shopkeeper said.

Nearly 70,000 troops from 41 nations are currently engaged in fierce fighting to counter a growing Taliban insurgency.

For some, the most important thing for Jalalabad is security and peace, not the ornate memorial of a long-gone leader.

“Cultural sites are the second or third priority for the government, we need security jobs and secure lives,” a government employee Shereen Khan said.

Editing by Golnar Motevalli and Jerry Norton

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