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Afghanistan museum intrigue saves country's gold

Long before Afghanistan was torn apart by war, it was a vital trading post of ancient empires, lying in the middle of what was called The Silk Road.

The country has a remarkable - and irreplaceable - history. And on "The Early Show" CBS News correspondent Seth Doane shared the story of man's desperate fight to save it.

Artifacts, Doane reported, usually tell the story of ancient times. But the pieced-together artifacts found at the National Museum of Afghanistan, bear the scars of modern history.

Omara Khan Massoudi is the director of the embattled Kabul Museum, which he joined in 1978. Massoudi told Doane 70 percent of the museum's artifacts were looted. Most of Massoudi's three-decade-long tenure has been marked by war.

After the Soviet invasion in 1979, there was civil war. More than two-thirds of the collection was looted and the museum itself came under rocket attack.

Massoudi said the museum had no ceiling, no roof and lacked windows.

"It was completely barren," Massoudi said.

National Geographic fellow Fred Hiebert told Doane, "They were working in a war zone; they had treasures that were irreplaceable anywhere."

Half a world away, in Washington, D.C., Hiebert, an American archeologist watched the destruction - and worried most about the legendary Bactrian gold.

Hiebert said, "This was a treasure that was found in 1979 in northern Afghanistan, 22,000 pieces of gold, exquisite, just on the brink of chaos in Afghanistan."

But in Kabul, Massoudi was keeping a secret.

Massoudi said, "I can't imagine what happened within these few years, what happened to this museum. But it was not the time to sit - but it was the time to have action."

In 1988, many of the most important artifacts were squirreled away and hidden in vaults deep underneath the city streets in Kabul. Massoudi, along with the museum staff, secretly hid some the greatest treasures. But the assault didn't stop. In 2001, the Taliban began destroying artifacts depicting humans or animals, including the giant Buddha statues from the 6th century that were more than 10 stories high.

At the museum, at least 2,500 artifacts were smashed. But - despite mounting pressure - Massoudi kept quiet.

Hiebert said, "They knew the treasures of Afghanistan had been hidden away and not a single one - not Massoudi, not even the lowest guard who knew about that - told anybody that he treasures still existed in Afghanistan."

Finally, in 2004, Hiebert, along with National Geographic - which filmed the journey - joined Massoudi, who after 14 years, helped reveal the 2,000-year-old gold.

"He opened the door and out flew all these little plastic bags - with gold in it," Hiebert said. "All of a sudden, this sense of understanding, that they, themselves, the Afghans had saved their cultural heritage, came over. It was one of the most amazing moments of my life."

Still today, Massoudi's staff continues to painstakingly catalog and repair many of the artifacts.

Some of the gold is on a traveling exhibition in Europe, while much of it remains hidden.

Massoudi said, "We have to transfer these pieces very safely to the next generation. I think this is our job. This is our duty."

Massoudi says it's his responsibility to save these artifacts, and, with that, preserve his culture, too.

Doane added on "The Early Show, "Massoudi is most proud of having the National Museum of Afghanistan open and seeing student groups inside. He says it's important for the world to see in Afghanistan, it is about more than just war."

"Early Show" co-anchor Erica Hill said, "Of course, it is such a different picture than what we normally see, but a lot of concern about what is going to happen to Afghanistan in the coming years. Is he concerned about how the very delicate political climate there could perhaps lead to issues again with these national treasures?"

Doane said, "It is something out of a movie really. A handful of guys still have keys. A lot of the gold is still hidden, and after the interview, he pulled me aside in that deep voice, he said, 'Be careful about what you say.' I read that to be, be careful, we still have some concern that some of these treasures may still be at-risk."

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