More Than 1,500 Stolen Afghan Artifacts Return to Kabul

Gretchen Peters
for National Geographic magazine
March 6, 2009

With so much bad news coming out of Afghanistan these days—a resurgent Taliban, spreading violence, and a booming opium trade—it might be easy to overlook another tragedy taking place: Across the war-shattered nation, scavengers, looters, and thieves are pillaging antiquities from more than 1,500 ancient sites around the country and smuggling them abroad.

"It's like a sickness that kills us slowly," said Omara Khan Masoudi, director of the National Museum of Afghanistan. "Every day, we lose a bit more of our cultural heritage."

But now Afghanistan is finally getting something back. The British government, with the help of the National Geographic Society and the British Red Cross, has returned 3.4 tons of stolen antiquities that were confiscated over the past six years at London's Heathrow Airport. (See photos.)

(The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)

On February 17, a Red Cross freighter plane touched down at the Kabul Airport, carrying the looted treasure back to its homeland. The artifacts are now at the National Museum. Returning the enormous shipment took more than a year to organize, and involved the cooperation of participants from around the globe.

The Heathrow collection includes more than 1,500 objects spanning thousands of years of Afghan culture: a 3,000-year-old carved stone head from the Iron Age and hand-cast axe heads, cut rock crystal goblets, and delicate animal carvings from the Bactrian era, another thousand years earlier. The oldest artifacts in the collection include a marble figure of an animal showing similarities to artifacts dating to the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods, dating as far back as 8,000 years.

The collection also contains gilded bronze pieces, coins, and ornately inscribed slabs dating from Afghanistan's early Islamic period (8th-9th centuries A.D.) and treasures from the Medieval Islamic period (10th-14th centuries A.D.) that serve to replace the decimated collection at the National Museum, which was hit by a rocket in 1993 during the civil war, then repeatedly looted.

Lost and Found

Through a quarter-century of violence, Masoudi and his staff somehow managed to save about 90 percent of the National Museum's masterpieces, an incredible feat. But the museum still lost about 70,000 objects, most of them from the reserve inventory kept in storage.

(Related: "Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul")

Two 12th century metal trays in the Heathrow hoard are nearly identical to ones that were previously on display. Plus there are a number of magnificent metal objects from the Ghaznavid era, including a bronze brazier in the form of a peacock.

Museum director Masoudi, who has spearheaded efforts to locate Afghan antiquities scattered around the globe, first heard about the objects piling up at Heathrow from British diplomats posted to Kabul. He contacted U.S. archaeologist and National Geographic Fellow Fredrik Hiebert, an expert on ancient Central Asian cultures, who arranged with officials in the U.K. to come to London and examine the artifacts.

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