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Breathing life into history: the new Swat Museum

November 10, 2013

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November 1963; Dr. Guiseppe Tucci addressing (from L-R) major General Abdul Haq Jehanzeb, (Wali of Swat), Gen Ayub Khan, the Nawab of Dir, and Wali Ahad Miangul Aurangzeb at the opening of the first Swat Museum.
November 1963; Dr. Guiseppe Tucci addressing (from L-R) major General Abdul Haq Jehanzeb, (Wali of Swat), Gen Ayub Khan, the Nawab of Dir, and Wali Ahad Miangul Aurangzeb at the opening of the first Swat Museum.
Part of a frieze attributed to the work of a single atelier under the guidance of the ‘Maestro of Saidu’.
Part of a frieze attributed to the work of a single atelier under the guidance of the ‘Maestro of Saidu’.
A statue of a devotee from Saidu Sharif I main stupa: first half of the 1st century CE.
A statue of a devotee from Saidu Sharif I main stupa: first half of the 1st century CE.
Part of a frieze attributed to the work of a single atelier under the guidance of the ‘Maestro of Saidu’.
Part of a frieze attributed to the work of a single atelier under the guidance of the ‘Maestro of Saidu’.

Fifty years ago, on November 10, 1963, a team of dedicated scholars and government officials from Pakistan and Italy celebrated the opening of the Swat Museum at Saidu Sharif. A joint endeavor of the mission of the then Italian Institute for Far and Middle East (IsMEO) and the Department of Archaeology and Museums (DOAM), Government of Pakistan, the museum emerged as a result of the sensibilities of the scholars who had explored the rich cultural heritage of the area as well as the sensitivity of the Wali, Maj. Gen Miangul Jahanzeb (who ruled from 1949 until acceding to Pakistan in 1969) who perceived the immense and universal value of the heritage being unearthed by the Italian Archaeological Mission (IAM) and their Pakistani counterparts.

In 1955, Professor Dr Giuseppe Tucci established a permanent mission of the then IsMEO in Swat, housed through the generosity of the Wali at the location which still serves as the headquarters of the Italian Archaeological Mission. This small complex, set amidst stately coniferous trees, dates from the era when the State of Swat benefitted from the progressive vision of its rulers who allocated state resources for the construction of public buildings such as schools and colleges, and who persevered in the development of a utilitarian and elegant architectural style reminiscent of the sleek lines of the Art Deco movement in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.

Beginning from the first IsMEO expedition of 1956, the Italian Archaeological Mission, in cooperation with DOAM, carried out the archaeological excavations of Udegram and Barikot, and in the Buddhist shrines of the Mingora Valley: Butkara I, Panr I, Saidu Sharif I, etc. Since the beginning, a great number of artefacts were unearthed and therefore there was a need for a place in which the artefacts could be stored, catalogued and exhibited in an appropriate way. For this reason a room at the Jehanzeb College in Saidu Sharif was initially allocated as a Museum. However, since 1958 the Wali had pointed out to the Political Agent of the then Malakand Agency that the archaeological finds were too many and too valuable to be stored in a single room. It was imperative that appropriate arrangements for the housing and display of the invaluable collection be made. The possibility of a setting up a museum was presented by Dr Tucci to F.A. Khan, Director General of the DOAM; the preliminary plans and designs for the Museum were realised by Prof Vittorio Caroli. In 1959, the Wali Sahib ordered the building of an edifice to be used as a museum, and appointed Caroli for its design. The new museum would house his private collection and the Gandharan artefacts collected by IAM. His aim was to preserve for future generations the rich archaeological heritage of Swat.

In 1961, the DOAM acquired the edifices of the first museum and of the Darul-Uloom, both located in the same compound, at the cost of Rs98,000. Both buildings were modified according to the approved plan. The new museum project called for the boarding up of the windows located at the lower part of the galleries in order to accommodate the ever-growing number of artefacts. The Darul-Uloom was converted into a Reserve Collection. The new project saw also the construction of two blocks, one for the curator’s office and the other for the library, overlooking the garden in front of the museum.

On November 10 1963, Field Marshal Muhammad Ayub Khan, then President of Pakistan, inaugurated the renovated museum in the presence of the last Wali. In his speech on this occasion, Dr Tucci spoke about the “the great historical significance of one of Asia’s most important countries with regard to the contribution it has brought to culture, and to the richness of its artistic output.” Also present at that occasion, were the Head of DOAM, F.A. Khan, the Nawab of Dir, the Wali Ahad H.A. Miangul Auranzeb, and other dignitaries from Italy and Pakistan.

Damaged by the 2005 earthquake, and during the Taliban insurgency of 2007-2009, the Swat Museum has been given a new lease of life. In March 2011, the ACT project took on the rehabilitation/reconstruction of the Swat Archaeological Museum. There was a need to upgrade the structure’s seismic resistance to a level consistent to the area’s high seismicity, and to design a new master plan and new artefact displays. A professional team was formed to achieve these objectives, consisting of ACT’s architects Ivano Marati and Candida Vassallo, and the Consultancy Cell from University of Engineering and Technology (UET), Peshawar. With the addition of new ethnological materials from the greater Swat Valley, the character of the original museum changed from a collection of archaeological finds to a wider scope including the material culture of living communities. Amongst the then 2,000 objects on display visitors will also enjoy important findings discovered in the last ACT excavations at Saidu Sharif, Barikot, Amluk-dara and Gumbat.

Funded by the Italian government, in the framework of the Pakistani-Italian Debt-for-Development Swap Agreement (PIDSA), the construction of a new Swat Archaeological Museum in Saidu Sharif is further evidence of Italy’s commitment in contributing to the protection of the legacy of Pakistan’s rich past. The project lies within the Archaeology-Community-Tourism (ACT) scheme implemented by the Italian Archaeological Mission (IAM) and Directorate of Archaeology and Museums, Government of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, aimed at enhancing and supporting the economic development and the income generating capacity of the Swat Valley communities, providing training and employment to local excavation and restoration workers.

Designed to respect the vernacular traditions of the valley as well as architectural principles that enhance the purposes of display and interpretation of cultural resources while protecting them from natural disasters and destructive human behaviour, the Swat Museum is testimony to the unflagging spirit of both the Italian team and their Pakistani partners. Fifty years ago a dream was realised; 50 years hence, another dream unfolds and takes shape under the clear sky of Gandhara, the Land of Many Fragrances.