A collection of exquisitely enlarged reproductions of rare miniature Afghan paintings brings the images back to their now troubled place of origin.

ESPITE IT BEING a particularly warm afternoon, the halls of the Queen’s Palace in the Babur Gardens of Kabul were filled with light chatter. The bright May sunshine did not seem to have deterred the students, visiting from a local university, who moved slowly through its long corridors, carefully inspecting one display after another, engaging in muted conversations.

They had come to observe a series of Mughal-era paintings that were exhibited in the 500-year-old complex that also serves as the resting place of Babur, the emperor who ruled over large swathes of the Indian subcontinent in the early 16th century. An initiative of the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies (AIAS), this exhibition, and another in the city of Herat, features a collection of exquisitely enlarged reproductions of rare miniature Afghan paintings from the 15th to 18th centuries. The works had been gathered and curated from museums and libraries around the world to be exhibited in Afghanistan — their place of origin — for the first time since they were created.

A small cluster of students was huddled close to one particular painting that seemed to attract a lot of interest and debate. “It shows how Afghan women were educated and a part of literary history, even 500 years ago,” one young woman pointed out, drawing comparisons to the state of women’s conditions in Afghanistan in the last three decades, particularly during the Taliban regime, which banned women’s education.

“The ravages of Afghanistan’s culture and national identity has been so terrible that one of the first things that anyone concerned with the revival of this country has to take into account is restoring awareness of its most glorious artistic heritage,” explained Michael Barry, a professor of history at the American University of Afghanistan and the curator of the exhibits. “Affirming defense of cultural heritage is absolutely inherent to protecting human rights.”

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