Ironically, the site that Olivieri was most worried about during the Taliban’s reign in Swat was an Islamic one — the roughly 1,000-year-old Udegram Ghaznavid mosque, the third-oldest in Pakistan. He feared the militants would occupy and damage it, but that never happened.
Pakistani security officials say the Taliban are again trying to infiltrate Swat, but militants are not the only threat to the archeological sites. Looters are perhaps a bigger problem. Many relics looted from Swat are in private and public collections around the world.
In December last year, police arrested several men in Swat and seized a roughly 1m-tall, 1,800-year-old Buddhist statue that could have fetched tens of thousands of dollars on the international antiquities market.
The Italian mission has posted guards at the most important sites and is also training them to become guides by teaching them English, first aid and basic conservation techniques, Olivieri said.
The mission opened in 1955 in an office provided by the Wali of Swat, the one-time princely ruler of the territory. To furnish a taste of home, its first draftsman painted a mural of Rome’s Spanish Steps in the dining room.