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.
"This is the most important gold treasure ever found in Asia, maybe the world," said Christian Manhart, an Afghanistan expert at UNESCO, the United Nations' cultural heritage agency. "No one knew what happened to it," he said. Rumors were rampant that it had disappeared, fueled by the appearance on the black market in the 1980s and '90s of similar gold items, apparently raided from nearby tombs at Tillya Tepe. "It's really a miracle that it survived," Manhart said.
On Wednesday, visitors to the Guimet Museum viewed items from the hoard, glittering gold pieces that testified to Afghanistan's rich, historic culture: brilliant medallions of Athena and Aphrodite, magnificent adornments showing cherubs riding dolphins, a panther mauling an antelope, and a love scene with two people riding what appears to be a cross between a tiger and a dragon.
Hiebert cited two artifacts as among his favorites: a pair of turquoise-encrusted, gold boot buckles, each with a chariot covered by a parasol being pulled by a Chinese dragon; and a gold dagger with a Siberian bear carved on the handle -- "a masterpiece of art and gold workmanship," he said.
Taken together, the exhibit illustrates Afghanistan's key place at the crossroads of Europe, the Middle East and Asia, along the famed Silk Road. Several pieces in particular show the influences of India and China and Hellenist vestiges from the 4th-century B.C. reign of Alexander the Great.
Despite the keyholders' efforts, experts say, much of Afghanistan's art and cultural heritage did fall victim to the almost continuous warfare that has ravaged the country since the Soviet invasion. The era between the Soviets' 1989 withdrawal and the 2001 U.S. invasion was particularly brutal. First, rival militias bombed the capital and looted its riches to fund their fighting; then the fundamentalist Taliban waged a systematic campaign to destroy Afghanistan's art troves on religious grounds.
The National Museum in Kabul was particularly hard-hit. It was rocketed numerous times, looted by guerrilla groups and finally visited in 2001 by Taliban and al-Qaeda members who smashed its statues with sledgehammers. According to UNESCO's Manhart, about 70 percent of the museum's 100,000 artifacts were stolen or destroyed.
But the museum guards and curators had spirited away the most valuable artifacts for safekeeping, according to Hiebert. They were "hidden in boxes around Kabul, some covered with mud and dented, some with the locks broken, but despite being 2,000 years old, in excellent condition."
Details of who took this initiative remain cloudy -- many of these people, museum officials, prefer to remain anonymous. "Somebody selected the very finest pieces to be preserved -- I mean the 700 to 800 objects on display that were the masterpieces, the flagship pieces," Hiebert said. For instance, he said, "there were 40,000 coins, and 38,000 are gone, but the 2,000 that were preserved are the very finest pieces."
Many of the artifacts that went to the presidential palace were put in a German-made vault that withstood numerous efforts to crack it, according to Manhart. These included an attempt in 1996 by Afghan warlord Ahmed Shah Massoud to bomb it open before he retreated from Kabul as the Taliban took the city.
Statues and other treasures were secreted in the basements of the culture ministry and the national bank. Elsewhere, more subtle tactics were used. One curator applied watercolors to cover human figures in the museum's painting collection.
The keyholders kept their mouths shut, even though the head watchman at the museum was tortured. The museum director, Omara Khan Massoudi, went without pay for 20 years and sold potatoes in the Kabul market to support his family.
"The guards at the palace who were tortured and Mr. Massoudi, they are the real heroes," Manhart said.
"With their knowledge, they could have taken objects to Europe and sold them for a very high price, but they didn't," Manhart added.
"The curators and keyholders were so intent on maintaining the country's cultural heritage," Hiebert said. "It's all due to the bravery of the Afghan people. I would love to know where that spirit comes from and how we could clone it."