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News and Views

To Guard Afghan Treasure, Silence Golden

By Bay Fang

Chicago Tribune

Washington Bureau


WASHINGTON—For years they kept the secret. A dozen men, the "key-holders" of a fabulous treasure, told no one about the gold they'd buried deep in a palace vault, hidden from the ravages of war, looting and a regime bent on destroying Afghanistan's cultural heritage.

Now, some 20 years later, that collection thought lost forever is being exhibited for the world to see. Opening in the U.S. with a show in Washington on May 25, it spans the beginning of the Silk Road trade through a country most Americans associate with violence and destruction.

"The story of the hidden treasures is like the story of Afghanistan," noted Said Tayeb Jawad, Afghanistan's ambassador to the U.S. "It is about precious culture and traditions covered by the ashes of war and neglect. You don't know what remains under the ashes, and when you see the glitter of gold, you almost can't believe it."

The exhibition is filled with artifacts of almost unbelievable artistry—collapsible gold crowns that belonged to nomad princesses, a chubby Aphrodite figurine with wings and a forehead mark in the Indian tradition, a golden tree hung with pearls for fruit.

Accompanying the collection as it travels to Washington, San Francisco, Houston and New York are some of the key-holders, the men who protected the collection from the violence of mujahedeen and Taliban.

"In Afghanistan there's a different curatorial system—these men are bonded by law to their collections, and they bear personal responsibility for them," said Fredrik Hiebert, curator of the U.S. exhibition.

Sitting beside him on a couch in the National Gallery of Art, looking somewhat ill at ease, Abdullah Hakim Zada, one of the key-holders, said that when he and his comrades packed away the treasures, they could not have foreseen that there would be a civil war followed by the reign of the Taliban. "At times during the years, we worried that we hadn't put the right materials in the boxes for them to be stored so long," he said.

Throughout his career as an Asian archeologist, Hiebert said everyone in the field thought the famous Afghan collection lived on only in legend. Rumors abounded: that it had been taken to Moscow after the Soviet invasion, that it had been looted or stolen, that the gold had been melted down. Afghanistan's National Museum had been shelled and set on fire, and its storerooms looted.

The so-called Bactrian Hoard, one of the greatest archeological finds of the 20th Century, is the heart of the trove, discovered accidentally in 1978 by Russian archeologist Viktor Sarianidi, Hiebert's mentor. Six 2,000-year-old nomadic tombs, from an area in northern Afghanistan that was once an important crossroads on the Silk Road, contained more than 20,000 beautifully crafted pieces.

Before Sarianidi could study the items, the Soviets invaded, and he rushed the pieces to Kabul, where they went to the National Museum. That was the last he saw of them.

Unbeknownst to him, 10 years later, as the communist government weakened and rockets rained on the city, a group of museum workers packed the most important artifacts into boxes, sealed them with their signatures and brought them to the presidential palace, where they were stored in a vault.

"Only 13 to 20 people knew about the treasures, and as fighting between the different groups got worse we decided not to tell anyone about them," said Omara Khan Masoudi, now director of the National Museum in Kabul.

It was not until 2003 that a new government under President Hamid Karzai entered the palace and discovered — in a massive Austrian-made vault, alongside the government's gold bullion — piles of sealed boxes. Hiebert heard about these and traveled to Kabul that October with his colleague Thomas Barfield, now chairman of the anthropology department at Boston University. They met with then-Minister of Finance Ashraf Ghani.

"The question then was, did it really exist?" said Barfield. The archeologists remained skeptical – until, two hours before their plane was supposed to leave, Ghani took them to the palace basement. " 'Well, boys,' [Ghani] said, 'I can't show you the gold, but I can show you the silver.' And he opened his hand and showed us this two-headed ancient Greek coin, almost as big as his palm, that we had also thought were completely gone. That was when we thought, if this stuff exists, there's no reason to doubt the Bactrian gold was there too."

Ghani told Hiebert that if he agreed to do a scientific inventory on the items, they would open the boxes thought to contain the gold.

A group of ministers and scholars, including Sarianidi, gathered around to open the sealed boxes with a power saw, sparks flying. "We literally didn't know what we would find," Ghani said in a telephone interview. "When we saw that it was actually what we hoped, it was the feeling of regaining a part of your being, of connecting our generation to those who lived thousands of years before us and for millennia to come."

Still, further squabbles erupted before the collection left the country for the exhibit. Some feared letting it out at all. Others thought Afghanistan should negotiate for more money.

"I pushed the idea that no matter where it goes, it should be touring for the next 10 years," said Tim Moore, cultural attache at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

In the end, this is the story of the hidden treasure, and the fact that it survived. "It was our job," key-holder Masoudi said. "Even if we just saved one piece or 100 pieces, we cannot be too proud, because it is just our job. Archeological pieces belong not to one person, but to the world."

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