Rescuing Afghani Art And History

an object from an exhibit of Afghanistan art hidden for years from the ravages of war
The exhibit "Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures From The National Museum, Kabul," is at the Naitonal Gallry of Art through September 7, 2008.

The destruction of a centuries-old Buddha carved into a cliff in Afghanistan was a baffling event to Americans. And for many of us, it was the first time we were aware of the group behind that deed: The Taliban. And their plans for the destruction of Afghan culture had only just begun. To explain a show of rare Afghan artifacts that's now under way in Washington, here is Morley Safer of 60 Minutes.

For more than a quarter-century Afghanistan has been in continuous war - the
Soviet invasion, followed by civil war, the Taliban, Osama bin Laden, the American-led
Invasion, and it goes on.

In 2001, the towering ancient Buddhas of Mamiyan were obscenely erased by the Taliban, who with knives and sledgehammers went on to obliterate 2,000 works of art from the National Museum in Kabul - stunning objects declared offensive under strict Islamic law.

Hundreds more were lost to looting and bombing. An ancient world lost … or so we thought.

In 1988, a small group of museum workers carefully culled the most precious objects, packed them, sealed the boxes, and hid them in a vault under the presidential palace ...

… And took a vow of silence.

In 2004, after the fall of the Taliban, they broke their silence (as well as the seals on the boxes).

Fred Hiebert, a National Geographic archaeologist, was there.

"It was an amazing moment for everybody in that room," he said, "a transforming moment where you could see in the eyes of Afghanis who had thought they had lost their heritage, of Western scholars, including myself, who thought that we would never, ever see these treasures. There they were."

"It's remarkable that a secret is something known by one person," said Safer, "and once it's known by more than one, it's no longer a secret."

"Yeah," said Hiebert. "Well, it was known by this small group of people and I know that many, many people asked them about the whereabouts of these collections. And it's something about the noble character of Afghans that they kept their secret."

A treasure hunter's fantasy - bronze sculptures, intricate ivory carvings, painted glass, and more than 20,000 gold pieces. These are among the nearly 230 objects on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Most of the artifacts in this exhibition have never been exhibited here in the United States.

When you look at these "hidden treasures," you begin to understand why - they are some of the most important archaeological discoveries of our time, dating from 2200 B.C. to around the second century A.D. The oldest are a set of gold bowl fragments from Tepe Fulloi.

"They were found by a series of farmers in northern Afghanistan who had no idea that these were 4,000-year-old treasures," said Hiebert, the curator of the exhibition. "And they were so happy with their good luck of having found these golden bowls that they immediately started to divide up their good luck."

For thousands of years, Afghanistan attracted settlers and nomads, traders and artisans ... and conquerors, beginning with Cyrus the Great of Persia in the sixth century B.C., followed by the Greek Alexander the Great 200 years later. His followers founded cities like Ai Khanum in northern Afghanistan, known in ancient times as Bactriaj.

One object, a water spout, was still is working condition when it was found, Hiebert explained. "It's completely iconic of the kind of art that the Greeks would bring to the Afghan area to impose and to show their culture. And it became part of the fabric of the art of Afghanistan."

There are stone sculptures made in the Greek style, a Corinthian capital, an ancient sundial, and one of the oldest artifacts found at Ai Khanum, a ceremonial plaque made of gilded silver dating from around 300 B.C.

By 145 B.C., Alexander's cities fell to nomadic tribes, and for the next 200 years Afghanistan thrived as a cosmopolitan center - a true melting pot - at the crossroads of the Silk Road.

"It was a very, very important commercial route, correct?" Safer asked.

"Absolutely. There is, in fact, no road. It's a series of caravans, serais, those are trading places, which are connected by traders. And they go east and west connecting Rome with China, but also north and south connecting Siberia and Russia."

At the center of it all was Begram, a trading town northwest of present-day Kabul. About 2,000 years ago, scholars believe that in time of war a wealthy merchant sealed up two storerooms. They were discovered intact by archaeologists; inside was a treasure chest of gems traded along the Silk Road, Hellenistic bronzes, Greco-Roman plaster medallions, ivory carvings from India, glassware from Roman Egypt.

Or this - the remains of a nomadic warrior and five princesses dating from the first century A.D., adorned with more than 20,000 pieces of gold.

Viktor Sarianidi, a world-famous Russian archaeologist, found it all in 1978 at Tillya Tepe in northern Afghanistan. The so-called Bactrian hoard was a breathtaking spectacle of treasures - anklets, bracelets, hairpins and necklaces, an exquisite pair of boot buckles fit for a conqueror, a pair of gold shoe soles on which to tiptoe into the afterlife, even a gold crown from the first century A.D.

Many of these gold objects, like a tiny mountain goat, are believed to have been made locally, by a single hand. It is craftsmanship, artistry, at its finest.

"There's a real sense of a kind of universal design that goes back to pre-history practically," Safer said.

"Absolutely," said Hiebert, "and I think it's important to understand that Afghanistan was a critical link in trade, in cultures east and west, as much two thousand years ago as it is today."

But today, a seemingly endless war goes on, with no "golden age" in sight.

"The future of Afghanistan looks pretty bleak; there's no indication that this country, like its history, is going to be much different," Safer said.

"Well, Morley, I'll have to admit that I'm perhaps an impossible optimist," Hiebet said. "But actually I see a lot of hope in Afghanistan."

"I'm not playing devil's advocate," Safer said. "It's simply a fact. Much of its wealth is based on illicit trade of drugs and warlords still seem to rule the day."

"We have a lot of challenges in Afghanistan," Hiebert said. "That's why I actually think that an exhibition about the ancient culture of Afghanistan, about the heritage, about giving Afghans their sense of pride, is so important not only for us here in the United States but for people back in Afghanistan."

The sign on the museum in Kabul reads: "A nation stays alive when its culture and history stay alive." Few national mottoes have been more severely tested.

The exhibit "Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures From The National Museum, Kabul," is at the National Gallery of Art through September 7, 2008.