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Back out in the world

Museum workers hid a cache of Afghan antiquities during the years of civil war and the Taliban. These dazzlers are now on tour.

June 15, 2008|Stanley Meisler | Special to The Times

WASHINGTON, D.C. — IN AN act that provoked worldwide outrage, the fundamentalist Taliban rulers of Afghanistan in March 2001 destroyed the monumental statues of Buddha that had been carved into the rock cliffs of Bamiyan 1,600 years ago. The shocking destruction was not an isolated event.

As part of the same campaign, the Taliban sent hordes of militants into the Kabul Museum to smash every statue, no matter how small, that depicted a human figure or any other creature. With its strict interpretation of Islam, the Taliban believed that the artistic representation of a living thing was idolatry and therefore blasphemous.

The marauding raid seemed to signal the last gasp of the museum. "You have to remember," says Fredrik Hiebert, an archaeologist with the National Geographic Society, "that the museum was devastated in three ways. First, it was struck by missiles after a militia made the museum its headquarters in the civil wars [that followed the 1989 Soviet withdrawal from the country]. Then it was looted; trucks could be seen carting objects away. And then came the Taliban."

But the museum did not die. Unknown to outsiders, museum director Omara Khan Massoudi and his assistants had packed the finest treasures of the museum during the 1980s and placed them in the vaults of the Central Bank in the presidential palace. "What kept them safe," says Hiebert, "was the code of silence."

A generous sampling of these finds is now on display at the National Gallery of Art in an exhibition called "Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures From the National Museum, Kabul." Organized by the National Gallery and the National Geographic Society, with Hiebert as the curator, the show closes in Washington on Sept. 7 and goes on to the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco in October, then the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. A similar exhibition, organized by the Musee Guimet in Paris, traveled from Paris to Turin, Italy, to Amsterdam during the last year and a half.

The exhibition in Washington displays works from four archaeological sites. Taken together, the objects reflect the rich history of antique Afghanistan, especially its role as a vital crossroads for armies and caravans from both Europe and Asia. Northern Afghanistan, known as Bactria, was at the center of the Great Silk Road, the trading route that linked the Mediterranean and China from 300 BC onward.

'Golden hoard of Bactria'

The MOST spectacular rooms are devoted to the gold objects discovered at the site of Tillya Tepe in north-central Afghanistan, not far from the border with Turkmenistan. In 1978, a Soviet-Afghan team led by Russian archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi uncovered a series of tombs for a nomadic chief and five women and found that all had been buried with many gold decorative pieces attached to their clothes or placed alongside their bodies. The tombs date from the 1st century BC or the 1st century AD, when nomadic Kushan tribes from the north dominated Bactria.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan closed down the excavations a year later. Sarianidi and his team took their finds, known as "the golden hoard of Bactria," to the museum, where they were stored and later hidden without ever being put on exhibition in Kabul.

The rooms devoted to the hoard offer a glittering display of gold pieces in myriad shapes and forms. One of the most unusual is a crown worn by one of the women, probably a princess. Befitting nomadic life, the crown is collapsible, made up of six separate tree-like pieces that fit into a band. The tomb of another woman contained a pair of intricate pendants that reflect the varied cultural influences on northern Afghanistan. The main figure in the design is what archaeologists call a "dragon master" who is holding two mythical creatures at bay. The man is dressed like a local nomad but sports an Indian spot on his forehead and an Iranian crown.

There are a surprising number of pieces of Greek art in another section of the show. Bactria became part of the Greek empire when Alexander the Great conquered the Persian empire in the 4th century BC. The city of Ai Khanum, founded by Greek colonists in 300 BC on what is now the border with Tajikistan, became the easternmost outpost of Greek culture in the world. The Greeks were driven out by the invading nomads 150 years later.

Ai Khanum lay buried until 1961, when the king of Afghanistan, on a hunting trip, was shown a Corinthian capital by some villagers. He notified French archaeologists working in Afghanistan, and they excavated the city during the next two decades.

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