Afghanistan, Sharing Its Treasures
Friday, December 21, 2007
They survived the collapse of civilizations and crossed the known world on camelback. Some lay buried for centuries in an Afghan nomad's sepulcher. Others were spirited out of a museum in modern-day Kabul under siege from looters and religious fanatics, then hidden in secret vaults under the presidential palace.
Now, a selection of Afghanistan's ancient artistic treasures -- from a dagger hilt carved with a Siberian bear to Greek coins from an excavated city called Woman of the Moon -- is scheduled to come to Washington next May and continue on a 17-month national tour, the National Geographic Society and the National Gallery of Art will announce jointly today.
The exhibit, which will be on display here for nearly four months before traveling to museums in New York, San Francisco and Houston, aims to provide a rare glimpse of the long-lost, creative melting pot that Afghanistan once represented -- centuries before it became known to most Westerners as a grim Cold War battlefield and a victim of horrific Islamic repression under the Taliban.
"We hope this exhibit will help overcome the darkness of Afghanistan's recent history and shed some light on its rich past, thousands of years old, as a crossroads of cultures and civilizations," said Said Tayeb Jawad, Afghanistan's ambassador in Washington. "We also hope it will showcase the courage of people who put their lives on the line to safeguard and preserve these treasures."
As a trove of history, the artifacts are as edifying as they are beautiful. Selected from four separate sites, they span 3,000 years, beginning circa 2500 B.C. (during the Bronze Age), and include designs, scripts and images from a dozen cultures as far-flung as India, China and Rome.
The exhibition is dominated by gold: bowls decorated with Afghan and Mesopotamian motifs, coins minted in the Greco-Bactrian era of the 1st and 2nd centuries B.C., a floral crown with collapsible leaves and a four-pound belt with designs of a man astride a mythical beast. There are also thrones and table legs of carved Indian ivory, glass pieces from Rome and ornaments made with local Afghan turquoise.
The modern-day accounts of concealments and excavations that preserved and unearthed these objects are as fascinating as the ancient cultures that produced them when foreign pilgrims, warriors and kings traveled the legendary trade route known as the Silk Road across Afghanistan.
The National Museum in Kabul, from which many of the artifacts come, endured rocket attacks during the Afghan civil war in the early 1990s, an orgy of idol-smashing under the radical Islamic Taliban regime in the spring of 2001 and a final bout of looting during the chaos of the U.S.-led assault that toppled the Taliban the same winter.
It was widely rumored that museum officials and employees had retrieved some objects and hidden them for safekeeping; other pieces were said to have been stolen and smuggled abroad. In 2003, a group of boxes from the museum was unexpectedly located in a sealed vault under the presidential palace. A year later, a team of international experts and Afghan officials began opening them.
"We had no idea what treasures were inside. It was a fantastic moment of rediscovery," said Fredrik T. Hiebert, a National Geographic fellow who is curating the U.S. exhibition and has traveled repeatedly to Afghanistan to organize it. "We kept finding more and more boxes. There were objects from the Paleolithic era to the Buddhist period. It took us three months, working seven days a week, to inventory everything."
One of the exhibit's four original sources was an abandoned and half-buried city in northern Afghanistan known as Woman of the Moon, built by Greco-Bactrian nobles who passed through Afghanistan more than 2,000 years ago. It was lost to history until the 1960s, when a French archaeologist began a painstaking, 15-year excavation. Hiebert said the exhibit will re-create parts of the city, including the treasury, theater and gymnasium.
Another, equally exotic locale was the walled-up, basement tomb of a 1st-century noble Afghan nomad, discovered by chance in 1978. It contained six mummies -- a man and five women -- adorned with elaborate gold ornaments and other pieces with designs from Rome and Scythia, a region of what is now southern Russia, as well as the dagger hilt with the Siberian bear.
"Nomads are so hard to find archaeologically. They don't have houses or temples. So this discovery was a real victory. It showed what a crossroads Afghanistan once was," said Hiebert. The walled-up burial site, which he also inventoried, contained 22,000 objects as well as the carefully preserved remains of the noble and five "princesses," who he speculated might have died from drought or plague.
Although the monetary value of the collection is incalculable, the Afghan government has agreed to let it tour the United States in exchange for $1 million. A few critics have suggested that Afghanistan, one of the world's poorest countries, should have been paid a much higher sum or negotiated a percentage of special museum admissions fees.
But Jawad said his government was satisfied with the financial arrangement and that Afghan President Hamid Karzai saw the exhibit as one way to give something back to the Western countries that have defended and assisted his government for the past six years. He said it would be presented in conjunction with a festival of Afghan crafts and carpets, on sale to benefit artisans back home.
"We appreciate that people want us to get the most out of it, but this is a good deal for us culturally as well as financially," he said. Jawad added that the Kabul government also hopes to bring some of the officials who hid the museum pieces, so they can tell their stories. "They could have gotten passports and fled like other people, but they stayed and saved these treasures," he said. "They are the real heroes."