National Geographic News: NATIONALGEOGRAPHIC.COM/NEWS
 

 

"Lost" Treasures of Afghanistan Revealed in Photos

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
November 17, 2004
 
During Afghanistan's civil war in the 1990s, the National Museum outside Kabul was literally on the front line, repeatedly attacked by rocket fire and looted by warlords.

Then, during the reign of the fundamentalist Taliban regime, all non-Islamic statues and tombs were ordered destroyed. This led to the loss of two-thirds of the hundred thousand items in the Kabul museum.

The Taliban was forced from Kabul after the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan in late 2001. Before then, the Taliban's culture minister supervised the destruction of many of the remaining exhibits at the museum.

What the Taliban didn't know was that many of the most magnificent objects had already been spirited away. More than 25 years ago museum staff had hidden the treasures as the bombs started to fall. (See photos of the Afghanistan museum treasures.)

The Afghanistan government found the hidden treasure boxes in 2003 and made the announcement on August 25, 2003. It quickly asked for international assistance in conducting an inventory of the artifacts. The work was done in April, May, and June of that year.


Earlier this year a safecracking at a presidential palace vault in downtown Kabul revealed that the entire trove was intact. Now an inventory project funded by the National Geographic Society has catalogued the more than 22,000 objects. The collection includes exquisite ivory statues and 2,500 years' worth of gold and silver coins.

The discovery is a ray of hope in the quest to restore Afghanistan's cultural heritage, most of which has been destroyed forever by decades of war and looting.

"By the end of the Taliban's reign, most of us thought there was nothing left—just destruction and despair," National Geographic Fellow Fredrik Hiebert said. Hiebert led the inventory project with support from National Geographic and the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities.

Bactrian Gold

Although virtually unknown to the world public, Afghanistan's cultural heritage is one of the world's richest. Afghanistan was for a long time a cultural crossroads. The lost treasure represents a Silk Road melting pot of precious objects from China, India, Egypt, Greece, Rome, and ancient Afghanistan.

Perhaps the most important of the lost treasures were the famed Bactrian gold pieces, great icons of Afghanistan's cultural heritage. The hoard—discovered in the fall of 1978 by Soviet archaeologists—included more than 20,000 gold objects from the 2,000-year-old Silk Road culture of Bactria, an ancient nation that covered parts of what is now Afghanistan.

The inventory that was done this year was led by Hiebert and a team of 18 Afghans, including museum director Omara Khan Masoodi, and U.S. scholar Carla Grissman. They made a full accounting of the entire collection, first describing each artifact in both English and the local Dari language, then photographing them, and finally repackaging the objects.

Among the other important artifacts were nearly 2,000 gold and silver coins dating back to the fifth century B.C.

"Put together, the coins formed a portrait gallery of Afghan kings," Hiebert said.

Other finds included three classical ivory statues, each nearly three feet (90 centimeters) tall, representing historic water goddesses. The cache also included hundreds of Buddhist terra-cotta sculptures.

The objects were all in great condition. "Every box we opened was like a Christmas package," Hiebert said.

Bamiyan Buddhas

Before the wars the Kabul museum had built up the most opulent collection in Central Asia, spanning 50,000 years of Afghan cultural history—prehistoric, classical, Buddhist Hindu, and Islamic. But during the years before the Taliban capture of Kabul in 1996, 80 percent of the treasures were looted.

After years of civil war, little remained in the southern part of Kabul, where the museum is located, except miles and miles of rubble.

Things didn't get better during the Taliban regime as the religious police continued to systematically destroy many of the artifacts.

In 2001 Taliban leader Mullah Omar issued a decree that all non-Islamic artifacts should be destroyed. The decree led to the demolition of the ancient Bamiyan Buddhas, giant sculptures carved into a mountain. That event sparked an outrage among archaeologists and historians around the world.

The looting of archaeological treasures continues unabated. Many sites, such as an ancient Greek settlement near Ai Khanoum in northern Afghanistan, have already been completely plundered. Ancient Balkh, another site in the north, is currently seeing much illegal digging, according to observers.

The government, with its meager resources, is virtually powerless to stop the looting. Meanwhile, the lucrative black market in Afghan artifacts, much of it based in neighboring Pakistan, has continued to flourish.

The recent recovery is thus good news for the beleaguered Afghan government.

"This project has been an enormous boost for Afghanistan—finding the treasures intact and then working with the outstanding team to inventory each one of them, preserving our heritage for our children," said Afghanistan's minister of information and culture, Sayed Makhdoom Raheen.

Susan Huntington and John Huntington, wife and husband and art historians at Ohio State University in Columbus, photographed much of the Kabul museum collection in 1970. She said she was equally thrilled to learn of the preservation and rediscovery of the ancient treasures.

"Like so many others, I had assumed that the ivories, terra-cottas, coins, and gold objects had been lost to the world forever," she said. "We all owe a great debt to the individuals who sequestered and protected these works of art from harm."

"It is impossible to underestimate the collective sigh of relief by the scholarly world that will emerge once this news becomes known," John Huntington said. "Afghanistan was a core part of the silk-route trade, and the artifacts in the Kabul museum are part of the pan-Asian heritage documenting many important aspects of it. Many of the objects have only been partially studied, and their return to international awareness could not be more welcome."

Not everyone is pleased with the opening of the treasure, however. Christian Manhart, UNESCO program specialist for Asia in the division of cultural heritage, is based in in Paris. He said UNESCO opposed the opening of the treasure. "We knew it was there. There was quite a lot of discussion about whether it should be opened or not, because it might pave the way for treasure hunters."

The collection is now held in a secret location in Afghanistan, not on display. There is discussion about building a new museum in downtown Kabul. Until then, there is a possibility that the collection could be going on an international tour.

Don't Miss a Discovery
Sign up for the free Inside National Geographic newsletter. Every two weeks we'll send you our top news stories by e-mail.
 

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.