Italian and Pakistani archaeologists have made the exciting discovery. Religious prejudices explain the low vigilance against vandalism.
by Massimo Introvigné
In December 2021, the Italian Embassy in Pakistan announced that, in collaboration with Pakistani colleagues, Italian archaeologists had unearthed what may well be the oldest Buddhist temple in the country. It is located in the Bazira district of Barikot tehsil in Swat and dates back to the 3rd century before our era.
Italian archaeologists said the find was of groundbreaking significance as it proved the presence of Buddhism in Swat since the 3rd century. Coins of the Indo-Greek ruler Menander found at the site also confirmed the theory that the king supported Buddhism.
The Swat district is believed to still hide archaeological treasures and in fact only 5% of the area with archaeological potential has been excavated.
In the past, public order and the religious situation in the region had created problems. According to the newspaper Dawnbefore the most recent excavations, locals who were aware of the presence of Buddhist relics had vandalized and looted the site.
Dawn said endemic police inefficiency is only part of the story. The police may be looking the other way because Islamic fundamentalists in Pakistan, like their counterparts in Afghanistan, do not want new historic Buddhist sites open to the public.
“In the fever of religious obscurantism which continues to envelop and engulf [Pakistan], commented the newspaper, the very presence of the Buddhas poses a threat to certain elements. Those who pursue this infantilized line of thought fear that Muslims will begin to worship the inanimate figures of the Buddha and that individual Muslims will not be strong enough or intellectually robust enough to resist the lure of these figures.
It also poses a problem for Pakistani museums, where Buddhist and other non-Muslim artifacts are sometimes not displayed for fear of criticism from Muslim fundamentalists.