A Happy Ending for Afghanistan's Gold

The Associated Press
Monday, December 11, 2006; 2:24 PM

PARIS -- The mystery baffled archaeologists for more than two decades. What happened to 22,000 pieces of gold _ jewel-encrusted crowns, daggers and baubles from an ancient burial mound _ that had apparently vanished from Afghanistan in the 1980s?

With the country mired in wars and general chaos, rumors swirled. Had the 2,000-year-old gold treasure trove been spirited away from the Afghan National Museum to Russia, or sold on the black market, or melted down? Many assumed it was gone forever, yet another cultural loss for a country that had become accustomed to such ruin.

This tale, though, had a happy ending.

The Bactrian gold, as it is known, went on display this month at Paris' Guimet Museum. The treasure, and a host of other masterpieces, had been saved by a mysterious group of Afghans who patiently kept them hidden away underground, at great personal risk.

The group was known as the "key holders," because they held the keys to the basement vault on the grounds of the presidential palace where the gold and other museum treasures were hidden during troubled times, archaeologists and curators said.

"Over the last 20 to 25 years, during food shortages and money crises, this handful of people ... could have sold these collections instead of going hungry, but they never once sacrificed their own cultural heritage," said Fredrik Hiebert, an archaeologist with the National Geographic Society.

The major threat came from the hard-line Taliban regime, which in 2001, destroyed much of the country's pre-Islamic art in the belief that it was idolatrous or offensive to Islam. The rampage culminated with the dynamiting of two giant Buddhas carved into the side of a cliff.

Yet there were other dangers, too. The key holders are believed to have hidden the treasures sometime after the 1979 Soviet invasion, keeping quiet throughout the civil war of the 1990s and the period of Taliban rule that preceded the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

The Taliban is believed to have tortured a security guard who refused to give up secrets, said Christian Manhart, a specialist on Afghanistan with United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The regime also purportedly tried to crack the lock with a diamond-tipped drill-bit, he said.

Yet stories about the treasure must be taken with caution.

"The Afghans are adept at the art of secrets, and they really know how to create a mystery," Manhart said. "Every time you ask, you hear a different story."

The identity of the key holders is still not public knowledge, and it is not even clear how many there were. Manhart believes there may have been only one key holder, though legend says otherwise.

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