On Display, The Fruits Of Afghan Altruism

The treasures  --  more than 220 artifacts from the Afghan National Museum  --  are on display at the Guimet Museum in Paris through April.
The treasures -- more than 220 artifacts from the Afghan National Museum -- are on display at the Guimet Museum in Paris through April. (By Antoine Antoniol -- Bloomberg News)
By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 7, 2006

PARIS, Dec. 6 -- Mountainous and isolated, caught for centuries between competing empires along one of the world's great trading routes, Afghanistan has always been a place of legends. Twenty-eight years ago, another one was born.

It was then, on the eve of the Soviets' 1979 invasion, that a small group of Afghans put love of art and country above all else and hid many of their country's cherished national treasures. These museum guards, curators and other antiquities lovers became known as the "keyholders" because they held the keys, literally and figuratively, to a priceless fortune in art, including 22,000 pieces of gold known as the Bactrian Hoard. And they pledged never to give up their secret.

Years turned into decades, and Afghanistan became a failed state, the battleground of a succession of warlords, drug lords, tribal chiefs, terrorists and Islamic fundamentalists. They included Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, which ordered the destruction of any art with a human likeness and in March 2001 blew up two giant stone Buddhas in Bamian.

Kabul became a killing field, and entire families lived on less than $1 a day. The National Museum in Kabul was bombed and looted, and rumors circulated that its treasures were fetching millions on the international black market. One keyholder was tortured, international art officials say. Another survived by selling potatoes in the Kabul market. Through it all, they kept their secret.

On Wednesday, the fruits of their silence went on display at the Guimet Museum in Paris. It began exhibiting more than 220 artifacts from the Afghan National Museum, including masterpieces of gold and ivory that have never been seen in public and that a few years ago were believed lost forever.

In fact, the pieces had been delicately wrapped in toilet paper and newspaper and stashed in such places as a bombproof vault in the basement of Afghanistan's presidential palace, where keyholders finally revealed them to Afghan President Hamid Karzai about three years ago.

"It was heroism by silence. It was the Afghan curators and keyholders themselves who preserved these things and . . . made sure no one got into the storerooms," said Fredrik Hiebert, an archaeologist at the National Geographic Society who inventoried the artifacts at the request of the Afghan government. "They were safeguarding these treasures even when people couldn't eat, and when people said they would kill them if they didn't give them up. But they didn't."

It is the first major exhibit of art from inside Afghanistan to be displayed internationally since the overthrow of the Taliban five years ago and thus has a strong political component, organizers said. "This exhibit is important to show the world that Afghanistan is not only war and killing and terrorism," said Pierre Cambon, chief curator at the Guimet, where the objects are to be on display until April 30.

Hiebert said he hoped the show would travel to the United States in about a year, but details are still being discussed. Americans "need to see this more than any country in the world," he said. "People need to know why we're in Afghanistan. We need to put a face on Afghanistan, so it does not once again become a forgotten country."

The most astonishing part of the exhibit, "Afghanistan, Rediscovered Treasures," is the Bactrian Hoard -- a collection of about 100 artifacts totaling more than 22,000 pieces of gold, some smaller than a teardrop, that is considered one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the 20th century. It has never been shown in public.

The pieces date back about 2,000 years. They were discovered in 1978 by Russian archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi while he was excavating the burial site of a nomadic royal and five of his wives in Tillya Tepe, northern Afghanistan.

The Bactrian Hoard was quickly hidden in the face of the Soviet invasion the following year, apparently in the presidential palace in Kabul. Afghan leader Mohammad Najibullah, the Soviet puppet who ruled for three years after the Soviet army withdrew in 1989, reportedly showed the treasure to a small group of diplomats and journalists in the early 1990s. Karzai displayed several pieces for a few hours this year to a select group of cabinet ministers, diplomats, members of parliament and journalists.

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