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'Hidden Treasures' Exhibit Seeks To Reveal Another Afghanistan

  • Nikola Krastev

Uzbek archaeologist Victor Sarianidi (left), who discovered and excavated the nomadic tombs at Tillya Tepe in northern Afghanistan, in 1978

Uzbek archaeologist Victor Sarianidi (left), who discovered and excavated the nomadic tombs at Tillya Tepe in northern Afghanistan, in 1978

NEW YORK -- Ask Americans about their perceptions of Afghanistan, and they'll likely point to images of drug-trafficking, religious extremism, and war.

The organizers of a new exhibition at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art are hoping to change that.

Ancient Afghanistan was home to highly developed civilizations with distinctive styles of art. Located at the crossroad of major trade routes, Afghanistan through the centuries was host to invaders and nomads, all of whom left their mark on the country's cultural map.

The exhibition in New York -- titled "Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures From The National Museum, Kabul" -- presents a selection of works from four archaeological sites. Highlights include gold vessels from the Bronze Age; architectural elements from the Hellenistic city of Ai-Khanum; ivory sculptures, bronzes, and Roman glass from the city of Bagram; and turquoise-encrusted gold jewelry from the nomadic tombs at Tillya Tepe in northern Afghanistan. It runs from June 23 to September 20.

An Afghan headdress pendant
Most of the items on display had been in the collection of the Afghan National Museum in Kabul but were kept hidden in Afghanistan during the country's quarter-century of fighting between 1978 and 2003.

Waiting For Two Years

During that time, many art lovers inside and outside the country had become convinced they had been sold abroad or destroyed by the Taliban. In fact, they had been placed in crates and stored in the basements of several buildings in central Kabul, including the presidential palace.

Even when the Taliban was ousted in 2001, says exhibit curator Fredrik Hiebert, it took museum officials more than two years to feel trusting enough of the new Afghan government to reveal that the artifacts were safe.

“The artifacts, the treasures, of the Kabul Museum had been hidden in safe places in Kabul," Hiebert said. "Every time there was a rumor about these artifacts being sold or disappearing somewhere, [museum officials] never said anything. They never said 'yes' or 'no.' And that saved the treasures.

"So finally, in 2003 when they were ready to say, 'Yes, we have them,' it was a surprise to everybody -- the whole world.”

Not all Afghan artifacts have been that lucky. In 2008, the International Council of Museums published a "red list" of Afghanistan antiquities at risk -- artifacts from the country's pre-Islamic and Islamic periods that have been lost or stolen.

Police in Europe have been on high alert since 2004, when up to four tons of antiquities from Afghanistan were seized in illegal shipments. According to some reports, plundering from archaeological sites in Afghanistan has exceeded that in Iraq, and has often been violent. Police officers guarding archaeological sites have sometimes been murdered.

Someone Should See Them

Said Tayeb Jawad, Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States, says he has been actively involved in the process of recovering a number of his country's stolen artifacts.

A beaker depicting figures harvesting dates
"It is our first priority to have these items in the museum in Afghanistan," Jawad says. "But until we have the security that is needed in order to display these things, I don’t mind if they are displayed in a museum in London or Moscow or in Paris, so the rest of the world can see them and it’s clearly labeled as an item from Afghanistan. What I am more concerned about is when they end up in a vault of a personal collector and nobody sees them.”

Jawad says that during the Taliban's five-year rule, many priceless artifacts ended up in Pakistan.

“In the past, especially during the [rule of the] Taliban and others, some high-ranking officials of the Pakistan government -- including Army General [Nasseerullah] Babar -- were involved in collecting and purchasing these things," Jawad says. "In fact, sometimes they would send people in with clear instructions on what item to look for and to take out [of the country].

"But this kind of looting unfortunately takes place inside Pakistan, too. The same criminals have been doing it in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

Training Local Staff

Hiebert says the current New York exhibit is just the beginning of a five-year sponsorship program aimed at tracking down and returning stolen artifacts, and improving security in the National Museum in Kabul.

An important goal, he says, is to train the local Kabul staff in museum administration and art preservation.

“Training, training for the Afghans. Can you imagine a museum that’s been closed for 25 years?" Hiebert asks. "The museum director didn’t have access to any of his colleagues. The curators didn’t have anything to curate. The photographers didn’t have any objects to photograph.

"So now our job is very serious. We have to help build the capacity in Afghanistan so that they can show these artifacts to the most important group -- Afghans and Afghanistan itself.”