Back out in the world

Special to The Times

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.

The Ai Khanum section of the show includes some typical Greek work such as a Corinthian capital, the bust of an old school official placed on a pillar in the gymnasium and a gargoyle water spout in the form of a delightful theatrical mask. There are also pieces that reflect an amalgam of both Greek and Asian cultures. A gilded silver plate, for example, depicts the Greek goddesses Cybele and Nike escorted by Asian priests toward an altar usually found in Syria and Iran. Archaeologists also uncovered a carved fertility doll at Ai Khanum that resembles an African sculpture. Nothing like it has ever been found elsewhere in the Greek world.

From the Great Silk Road

Afghanistan’s role as a trading post on the Great Silk Road is demonstrated in a third section of the exhibition that displays some of the pieces found in two storerooms excavated by French archaeologists near the city of Begram just north of Kabul in the 1930s and ‘40s.

Many archaeologists now believe that the storerooms belonged to rich merchants in the 1st or 2nd century whose wares included pieces from all reaches of the Silk Road. Some pieces may also have been crafted in local workshops using models from the east and west.

One of the most striking pieces is an ivory carving, probably from India, of a woman riding a leogryph -- a mythical beast with the body of a lion, wings of an eagle and beak of a parrot. The rider and beast are leaping out of the mouth of a makara -- a different mythical creature that is part elephant, part crocodile and part fish. This carving was used as a bracket for the arm of a wooden chair that disintegrated during the last two millenniums.


The fourth archaeological site featured in the exhibition is Tepe Fullol, the remains of an urbanized Bronze Age civilization in northeastern Afghanistan. Farmers came upon the site in 1966 and found several decorated golden bowls. To share the wealth of this gold, the farmers broke the 4,000-year-old bowls into fragments.

The fragments are on display in the show. Little is known about the people who produced the bowls. Archaeologists have seen no evidence of a written language. But the fragments offer persuasive evidence that northern Afghanistan was a crossroads even then, embracing outside influences. The bowls were made locally from local gold, but the designs on the bowls, especially the depiction of bearded bulls, were inspired by designs popular in Mesopotamia in what is now Iraq.

When the exhibition tour ends in New York at the close of September 2009, the pieces will have traveled outside Afghanistan for almost three years. By then, according to present plans, the museum in Kabul will be restored and its staff fully trained in conservation, inventory and other museum skills. The treasures would then go on permanent display in Afghanistan.