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Afghanistan’s Secret Treasure Volume 61 Number 5, September/October 2008
by Zach Zorich

[image] A plaster medallion from Begram shows the cherubic god Eros clutching the princess Psyche, depicted as a butterfly, to his chest. The medallion was probably an example of an item that could be ordered from a workshop and customized. (© Thierry Ollivier/Musée Guimet)

Three gold bowls shining in a glass case pull visitors into the National Gallery of Art’s exhibit Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul. Visitors peer intently into the case, trying to make out the impressions of abstract Central Asian designs and Mesopotamian-influenced images of bearded bulls that decorate the 4,000-year-old bowls from a burial mound at Tepe Fullol. Gold items like these drove mujahideen fighters and Taliban zealots to search relentlessly for the museum’s treasures since 1988, when Omara Khan Massoudi, director of Afghanistan’s National Museum in Kabul, and a team of museum workers hid 22,607 of the museum’s finest artifacts dating from 2000 B.C. to A.D. 100. Unknown to nearly everyone, the ancient masterpieces, including ivory carvings from Begram and elaborate gold jewelry from Tillya Tepe, sat in a vault at the presidential palace as the nation’s capital descended into civil war following the end of Soviet occupation.

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A silver plate with gold leaf from Aï Khanum shows the Greek goddess of nature, Cybele, presiding over the sun, moon, stars, and earth from a chariot. (© Thierry Ollivier/Musée Guimet)
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A pendant from Tillya Tepe shows a man grasping the arms of two dragons. (© Thierry Ollivier/Musée Guimet)

For 20 years the archaeological community believed the artifacts had been destroyed or had disappeared into the antiquities market as a succession of mujahideen warlords won and lost control of Kabul. Finally the Taliban came, and smashed any artifact that seemed vaguely like a religious idol. With the museum collections destroyed or in hiding and the Afghan people struggling to survive, a two-decade rift has opened between the Afghans and the history that defines their nation. An entire generation now entering adulthood has grown up knowing almost nothing about Afghanistan’s place as a melting pot of civilizations from Greece to China.

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Right, a first-century fish-shaped glass flask found at Begram. Left, an ivory plaque from Begram shows women standing under three gateways. The architecture and clothing resemble styles from India. (© Thierry Ollivier/Musée Guimet)

In 2002, Massoudi revealed the secret he and his staff had risked their lives to keep, but the crates were not opened until March 2004. “You can’t believe the emotions,” says Fred Hiebert, an expert in Central Asian archaeology who was part of the team of scholars who catalogued the artifacts in the bank vault and is curating the exhibition. “We would open up a box and out would come some treasure from the museum’s collections...95 percent of the masterpieces survived intact.” Because of security concerns the artifacts were taken out of Afghanistan without being shown. Then they were exhibited at museums throughout Europe before arriving in the United States in May. The exhibit devotes a room to each of the four major archaeological sites where the treasures were found: Tepe Fullol, AÏ Khanum, Begram, and Tillya Tepe. It will be in Washington, D.C. until September 7; San Francisco October 24–January 25, 2009; Houston February 22–May 17, 2009; and New York June 23–September 20, 2009.

Zach Zorich is an associate editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.

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