Buddhism’s “Dead Sea Scrolls”

From: matt6219
Message: 14639
Date: 2002-08-27


Buddhism's "Dead Sea Scrolls" for sale to Norway
Saved from Afghanistan by top collector, the manuscripts pose an
ethical problem

By Martin Bailey

LONDON. Thousands of ancient manuscripts smuggled out of Afghanistan
are now likely to be sold. Known as "Buddhism's Dead Sea Scrolls",
they belong to Martin Schøyen, a Norwegian businessman who is
regarded as the world's greatest 20th-century collector of
manuscripts. His library includes important examples from virtually
every major civilisation around the world. Mr Schøyen, aged 60, now
wishes to sell his entire collection to a public institution for £70
million in order to raise money for his human rights and development
aid charity.

Mystery surrounds the origin of Mr Schøyen's Buddhist manuscripts,
but Professor Jens Braarvig of the University of Oslo, who is
heading the scholarly publication programme, believes that the
overwhelming majority come from the Bamiyan area. "Reports suggest
they were found by local people taking refuge from the Taliban
forces in a deep cave in the cliffside, within a few kilometres of
the two giant Buddhas," he told The Art Newspaper. Professor
Braarvig says that this cache of manuscripts, although obviously
very different, is of "comparable importance" to the Buddha statues,
which were destroyed by the Taliban last year.

It was in 1996 that the first group of manuscripts was discovered.
The finders set off towards Pakistan, and after being chased by the
Taliban in the Hindu Kush they managed to cross the Khyber Pass,
eventually reaching Islamabad. There the manuscripts passed through
dealers before being acquired by London specialist Sam Fogg, who
sold the 108 fragments to Mr Schøyen. This was followed by further
batches, which were considerably larger and usually included
hundreds of folios and the occasional complete manuscript.
Altogether around 15 separate consignments of Bamiyan material have
been acquired by Mr Schøyen.

Latest arrival

The most recent batch of manuscripts reached Europe in July, and
again passed through Sam Fogg to the Schøyen Collection. These texts
are believed to have been purchased by a middleman in Bamiyan
earlier in the year, but they are all small fragments and this has
raised new concerns. Since the fall of the Taliban, talismans have
been produced for sale in Bamiyan which incorporate a fragment of
ancient Buddhist text. This new practice has not only pushed up
market prices for manuscripts, but it also appears that folios are
now sometimes cut up into small pieces in order to maximise profits
for the seller.

Altogether the Schøyen Library now has eight complete Buddhist
manuscripts, over 5,000 folios and sizable fragments from 1,400
different manuscripts, plus more than 8,000 small fragments. These
are on palm leaf, birch bark or vellum, and some seem to have been
damaged in antiquity. The majority of the texts are in Sanskrit, and
most probably originated in India and were brought to Bamiyan by
pilgrims. They include many previously unknown Buddhist texts, as
well as some of the oldest surviving scriptures of Mahayana
Buddhism. The earliest manuscripts have been dated to around 100 AD,
and hence the comparison with the Jewish scrolls found near the Dead

Professor Braarvig believes that nearly all of Mr Schøyen's Buddhist
material comes from a monastic library near Bamiyan. This may well
have been the monastery of Mahasanghika, whose existence was
recorded by a Chinese traveller in around 633 AD. The texts come
from a 600-year period (from around 100 to 700 AD) and much of the
collection are in single folios, many of them damaged. It has
therefore been suggested that the manuscript cache could have
comprised damaged sheets which were recopied for the main
library. "When folios were copied, the discarded ones may well have
been ritually buried in the cave," suggests Professor Richard
Salomon, of the University of Washington, Seattle.


Mr Schøyen has recently indicated that he wishes to sell his entire
collection of 12,500 world manuscripts, ideally to the Norwegian
State, for the National Library. The bulk of the Schøyen Library
does not pose any special difficulties, but the fact that the
Buddhist manuscripts were smuggled out of Afghanistan has sparked
off an impassioned debate in Norway.

In a statement, the Schøyen Library points out that the Buddhist
manuscripts are the only ones that do not come from old
collections, "but were acquired to prevent destruction, after
requests from Buddhists and scholars." The statement goes on to
address the question of whether these manuscripts should be returned
to Afghanistan, "after they have been published, and if peace,
order, religious tolerance and safe conditions have been established
in that country." But after analysing the history of Afghanistan,
the Schøyen Library concludes that it is "not the right and safe
home for these manuscripts in the future."

Bendik Rugaas, director of Norway's National Library, has already
welcomed Mr Schøyen's proposal to sell his entire collection to the
State. But even if the money is raised, and the sale goes ahead,
this does not resolve the question of what should eventually happen
to the Buddhist material. Although Mr Rugaas would be happy for the
manuscripts to remain in Oslo, John Herstad, director of the
National Archives, is among those who support the return of the
manuscripts to Afghanistan when conditions are appropriate.


The story of the Buddhist manuscripts raises difficult issues.
Professor Braarvig points out that the Bamiyan cave has not been
examined by archaeologists. "From a scientific point of view the
fact that the exact find-spot is unknown and that proper excavations
have not been carried out is deplorable, since the manuscripts are
shorn of context," he explained. Instead, it has been left to local
looters to take the material, keeping the source of their treasure a

But what would have happened if those fleeing the Taliban and
seeking refuge in the cave had not been able to sell their find? Had
the manuscripts not had a financial value, the fragile items might
simply have been discarded or allowed to disintegrate. There was no
Afghan government authority which could have stepped in to save the
find. The Kabul Museum had already suffered serious damage and
looting during the civil war, although this was to soon to be
overshadowed by the deliberate destruction which took place under
the Taliban early last year.

When Mr Schøyen began to buy the Buddhist manuscripts, he was
purchasing items which had been smuggled (although no legal offence
was being committed by dealers or collectors outside Afghanistan).
In retrospect, following the Taliban's destruction of the giant
Buddhas, Mr Schøyen's action may well be applauded, but at the time
Unesco was opposing the acquisition of illegally exported
antiquities. However, with the defeat of the Taliban, the situation
is rather different and the purchase of manuscripts which have been
illegally exported from Afghanistan this year is much more

The Schøyen case is unusual, because a single collector appears to
have acquired the bulk of the material from a major find, despite
the fact that it was separated into numerous separate consignments.
It would obviously have been very unfortunate if the folios and
fragments had been dispersed to dozens of private collectors, making
it virtually impossible for scholars to study the material as a
coherent group.

One fact, however, is indisputable, and that is that Schøyen has
been generous in allowing scholarly access to the material and
encouraging its prompt publication. This is now well under way: the
first volume on the Buddhist manuscripts was published in Oslo by
Hermes in 2000 and the second volume will be out later this month.
Eight further volumes are scheduled within the next few years.

And as for the future, Professor Braarvig hopes that ownership of
the Buddhist manuscripts will be very carefully considered. He
personally believes that the Norwegian State should consider giving
them back to Afghanistan, but only after conditions there are
entirely suitable, and this could be many years away. Professor
Braarvig's overriding concern is that "Buddhism's Dead Sea Scrolls"
must be accessible, both to scholars and the public.