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Afghanistan's Hidden Treasures Go On Display in US

WASHINGTON (AFP) — More than 200 ancient artifacts from Afghanistan, many of which were believed lost to posterity as the country was rocked by decades of war, this week begin a tour of US museums with an exhibition at Washington's National Gallery.

"The artifacts that we have gathered for this exhibition bear witness to the thousands of years of history of Afghanistan," Afghan culture minister, Abdul Kaim Khuram, said at the launch of the Washington exhibition.

The 228 artifacts on display in the exhibition -- entitled "Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum Kabul" -- date from 2200 BC to the second century AD.
Indian ivories, Hellenistic bronzes and Greco-Roman glass found at Bagram, about 60 kilometres (37 miles) north of Kabul, show Afghanistan's position at the crossroads of the Silk Road, where ancient Indian, Chinese and Greek civilisations intersected.

But the highlight is perhaps the famed 2000-year-old Bactrian gold, consisting of exquisite jewellery and burial decorations discovered in 1st century tombs in 1978 near the northern Afghan border at Tillia-Tepe.

The pieces, ranging from a gold crown worn by a high-ranking nomadic woman in around the first century before the birth of Christ, to the fragment of a gold bowl, dating from around 2200 BC, were recovered from four sites, where archaeological digs were conducted in the 1930s, 1960s and late '70s.

The treasures were thought to have been lost during the 1978-1989 war between Afghanistan and the then Soviet Union, the civil war that followed and the rule of the hardline Taliban in the late 1990s.

"In Afghanistan, the imposed wars could have easily destroyed these artefacts," Khuram said.

But the treasure trove had been preserved by the bravery of a handful of museum staff, who squirreled away parts of the historical collection in the vaults of the central bank, where the artefacts resurfaced in 2003.

Situated at the heart of the Silk Road, Afghanistan evolved over the centuries as a mosaic of cultures and civilizations, all reflected in its artistic heritage.

"Although this mosaic was shattered by war and terror, both the spirit of the Afghan people and our cultural heritage survived," Said Tayeb Jawad, Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States, said at the launch of the exhibition.

From Washington, the exhibit will travel on to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, Houston's Museum of Fine Arts and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York over the course of the next 16 months.

"This exhibition is a celebration of Afghanistan", Jawad said.

Around 40 percent of the proceeds of the exhibition, which held pride of place last year at Paris's Guimet Museum, will go towards restoring Afghanistan's National Museum, Jawad told AFP.

The National Museum of Afghanistan was bombed in 1988 at the tail-end of the decade-long Soviet occupation.

When Afghanistan plunged into civil war in the 1990s, around two-thirds of the museum's priceless collection vanished, and many feared it had been plundered and melted down.
From 1996 until 2001, the museum was systematically pillaged by the hardline Taliban regime, which regarded any non-Islamic art as idolatry.

Published May 22, 2008

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