"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.

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