The Silk Road, Paved in Gold

A exhibition of Afghanistan's ancient artistic treasures will begin a 17-month tour of the United States in May 2008. Washington's National Gallery of Art will be the first venue for the landmark show, organized by the museum and the National Geographic Society, in cooperation with the National Museum of Afghanistan, Kabul.
By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 25, 2008

You can go see Indiana Jones and the temple of whatever if you like, but it's probably not going to be as good as the Bactrian Gold and the Secret of Tillya Tepe.

The former is at any multiplex. The latter is only at the National Gallery of Art.

It's one of those ripping good yarns of yesteryear, the kind you used to see on cliffhanger serials before the main feature. This one is set in a dusty corner of Afghanistan. It's about ancient art, sealed rooms, looters, gravediggers, the Russians, the French, the Taliban, an invasion or three, civil war, the Silk Road, the Dragon Master and 22,607 pieces of gold and ivory and lapis and turquoise. There's a princess in Tomb I, a surprising role played by pink Chinese toilet paper and six mysterious safes in a sealed underground vault at the presidential compound.

Okay, so the plot gets a little crowded. That tends to happen when your story is true and covers more than 2,000 years.

The show is "Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures From the National Museum, Kabul,'' and it is a remarkable display from a remote outpost in the world of antiquity: a dusty land of foreign traders, violent nomads, dangerous women and the unmistakable glint of gold. It has a great subplot of archaeologists winning one against the black market. It opens today and plays until Sept. 7. Like any good archaeological thriller, this one features valuable antiquities and modern twists, set into world-shaping international politics. After being covered by dirt and mud for nearly 2,000 years, most of the artifacts in this show were discovered in digs made during the 1930s or the 1970s. Then, once found, they were lost again, as the Soviet invasion in 1979 and the rise of the Taliban in 1996 raised successive clouds of dust over their whereabouts. Most archaeologists feared they had been lost forever to the black market or destroyed by the Taliban.

Then, three years after the Sept. 11 attacks and the subsequent defeat of the Taliban, the sealed cases and footlockers were opened in vaults in the Arg, the Afghan presidential compound in Kabul.

Nobody was sure what was in them -- the keys had been lost -- until they were broken open with a hammer, crowbar and finally a power saw.

"This power saw starts going -- bbbrrrzzzzttt!!!-- and the sparks are flying, and at first I thought we were going to open them to find a couple of potatoes in a sack with a note saying, 'We got here first! Your friends, the Taliban,' " says Frederik T. Hiebert, the show's curator, who was representing the National Geographic Society when the safes were hacked open. "Or I thought the sparks would set something on fire, and it would burn up all these great artifacts inside."

Hiebert's worries were well founded. It turned out much of the ivory and gold and glasswares had been packed in pink Chinese toilet paper. Which did not catch fire, and instead had preserved tens of thousands of items the wider world has not seen since the time of Christ.

Here was the fabled Bactrian gold, named for the region in Afghanistan where it was found, in the graves discovered at a place called Tillya Tepe ("hill of gold"): Bracelets. Necklaces. A golden belt. A woman's crown, thin hammered orbs of gold, designed to be pulled apart into five pieces and stored flat. Pendants depicting the Dragon Master of lore, a nomadic man holding a dragon's foreleg in each hand. Here, in another case, ivory carvings from the ancient warehouses found in archaeological digs in the city of Begram. A woman astride a mythical leogryph. A fish-shaped flask, made of glass, stunningly blue. A bronze statue of the Greco-Egyptian god Serapis-Heracles. More than 23,000 objects in all. Goods that had been passing through here from China, Egypt, India, Greece, or made in workshops in Bactria itself. Historians were dazzled at the testament to the mix of cultures that artisans there worked with: Here, a golden Aphrodite, Greek in concept, but with an Indian forehead mark denoting marital status and the wings of a Bactrian deity. Northern Afghanistan had gone multi-culti 2,000 years ago.

"This is probably our best picture of how the Silk Road actually worked," Hiebert is saying, giving a walk-through of the exhibit. He gets enthusiastic, pointing to a series of decorative plaques. They are flat and rectangular and carved of ivory. They depict women in various poses, sitting, standing, reclining. All these were part of an elaborate chair or throne, the rest of which is missing. On the adjacent wall, a flat-screen monitor shows a rotating three-dimensional re-creation of how all the pieces would have been placed together on the throne. "This is the first time in 2,000 years anyone has seen that throne," Hiebert says.

The Silk Road of which you'll hear much in this exhibit was not actually a single thoroughfare, but a series of trails, pathways and trading routes that ran from Rome, Greece and Egypt, and stretched all the way to China, with connections to Siberia, India and Persia. Those roads pretty much all ran through northern Afghanistan. Alexander the Great came and founded Greek cities. The exhibit showcases a snapshot of what some of life would have been like in that remote era.

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