Thousands of priceless objects unearthed from a series of ancient sites in Afghanistan, including bronze and stone sculptures, gold ornaments, painted glassware, and gold bowls dating from 2,200 B.C. to the 2nd Century A.D., were rediscovered in 2003, hidden in Kabul’s Presidential Palace. Until their rediscovery, the world believed these objects had been destroyed in the 1993 bombing of Kabul’s National Museum.
National Geographic Archaeology Fellow Fredrik Hiebert, the curator of the spellbinding exhibition Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul, which is on view March 1 through May 17 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, talks about the discovery and the importance of preserving a country’s cultural treasures.
“First of all, to put the exhibition in context, you must realize that Afghanistan is one of richest archeological countries in the world, due to its location at the center of the Silk Road. The country has an amazing mixture of ancient cultures, including Chinese, Indian, Siberian, and Mediterranean Greek and Roman cultures. The best pieces that were found in Afghanistan were kept in a small museum in the capital city of Kabul.
“The most famous find was a group of gold objects we call the Bactrian Hoard, which was discovered in 1978. The date is a little ironic, really, because in 1979, the country fell into Civil War, and everything, including archeological work, stopped. One of the casualties of that war was that the National Museum got bombed in 1993; in fact, 70 percent of the city was destroyed. We didn’t learn until recently that around 1988, someone had boxed up the masterpieces and hidden them in another building. Meanwhile, the whole world thought the treasures of the Kabul museum had been destroyed. The whole world cried.
“That’s the way it was until 2003. I had a chance to go to Afghanistan to inquire whether any museum objects had survived. That’s when I found that some boxes had been hidden in the national bank in the Presidential Palace. Think about this: 20 or 30 people had known the entire time the whereabouts of those gems and jewels. They honored a code of silence. This was ancient treasure. Mind you, these were personnel of the museums, very poor people. One piece of that treasure would have been their passport out of the country. They cared enough about the cultural heritage of their history that they never told anyone.
“When I went to Afghanistan in 2003, I assumed there were just a few boxes. There were, in fact, six crates. They don’t have curators in the museum; they have keyholders—these are the individuals who actually had the keys. Well, when the six crates were found in the bank vault, they couldn’t find the keyholders. We had to get a presidential decree from President Karzai to authorize us to open the box. We had to use a circular saw, and it generated a lot of heat. There is a photo of us at the moment of the opening, and we have very scared expressions on our faces. We didn’t know what we’d find—a pile of melted gold? An empty box?
“For me, it was the most glorious moment of my life. The treasures had been locked up for decades. People in the room thought at first they were fakes. We brought in the original excavators from 1978 to look at the objects.
“In Tomb number 6 at the site of Tillya Tepe, original excavator Viktor Sarianidi, who is Russian, had found a five petaled, hairpiece. He held it up. He said, ‘Oh, I see a repair that I made myself in 1978.’ At that moment, that veil of disbelief fell from the Afghans’ eyes. They realized that they themselves had saved their cultural heritage. That sense of pride, the joy that they were regaining their sense of history spread around the room like wildfire. Very soon the news was out in Kabul that the national treasure had been saved.
“We spent many months in Afghanistan. At first there were six boxes. Then there were 25 boxes. Then 50. We eventually inventoried 150 boxes—30,000 pieces in all. They had preserved 95 percent of the museum’s masterpieces.
“It was an Afghan idea to open the boxes, an Afghan idea to do this tour. They wanted to show the world a good news story. It’s a terrific opportunity to tell the world about Afghanistan in a different way that what you read about in the papers. After all, we’re going to continue to be engaged in Afghanistan. When you go through the exhibition, you realize these are very strong people, with noble character.
“The thing I most hope for the people of Texas to take away is a sense of surprise at how familiar these ancient artifacts look. You think of Afghanistan, and you think of a country that has been war-torn for so long. But when you walk in the galleries, you see these exquisite pieces made of gold, art that looks like it came from Greece and Rome. And you come away realizing there is a connection between classical culture and Afghan culture that brings us all together.”