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Hidden Treasures

October 23, 2008

The newly-renovated National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul has the following inscription on it: "A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive." This statement should be the mantra accompanying visitors as they look around Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul, a globe-trotting exhibition of some of the war-ravaged country's most precious artifacts, which opens at San Francisco's Asian Art Museum tomorrow.

More than a dazzling collection of beautiful objects from the crossroads of the Silk Road trading route dating as far back as the Bronze age, the exhibition represents the endurance of an ancient and extremely rich culture against all the odds.

To stare at the soberly-lit glass cases filled with such objects as a glowing pair of gold shoe soles found in the tomb of a nomadic princess or the smooth clay head of a temple sculpture from the Greek-influenced royal city of Ai Khanum, is to begin to grasp the deep heritage of a country that seems, owing to its near-constant presence in current new headlines, to have no past -- just a destructive present.

It's amazing that these objects, alongside some 226 others selected for public display -- have made it as far as San Francisco (the only west coast city presenting the show) at all. Their journey from various excavation sites in Afghanistan to the present time tells an amazing story of survival and endurance.

National Geographic archaeologist Fredrik Hiebert, the guest curator of the exhibition and an expert on ancient trading routes like the Silk Road, was on hand at the Asian Art Museum's press preview yesterday to provide some background.

Hiebert's story begins in 1987 when he went to Turkmenistan, part of the former Soviet Union, to work with the Russian archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi on a desert dig. Sarianidi told Hiebert, then a grad student, about the greatest find of his career to date -- the discovery of the Bactian Gold in neighboring Afghanistan ten years previously. Sarianidi had excavated six intact tombs filled with 22,000 pieces of gold jewelry and offerings, the first evidence of ancient nomadic life in Northern Afghanistan (known as Bactria).

Sarianidi would later write about his discovery in a 1990 issue of National Geographic Magazine. The final line of his article was particularly foreboding: "Look well at these pictures of the Bactrian masterpieces that follow. Who knows when they will be seen again."

Immediately following Sarianidi's discovery, Afghanistan fell into political chaos. The archaeologist hurriedly put the treasures into boxes before the onslaught of Civil War and hid them away.

The rise of the Taliban in the 1980s and the ensuing destruction of much of the country's infrastructure and cultural sites (including the National Museum in Kabul which was bombed in 1993) caused most people, including Hiebert, to believe that the Bactrian cache, together with countless other Afghan artifacts, had been lost forever.

But in 2003, President Hamid Karzai announced that the Gold and other Afghan cultural relics had been found in unmarked boxes in the Presidential bank vault in Kabul. They had been secreted away by a group of daring conservationists, known as "key holders", who vowed to preserve the treasures throughout their country's decades of upheaval.

When he heard about the discovery, Hiebert approached National Geographic about allowing him to go to Kabul to follow-up on Sarianidi's story. The Afghan government granted permission for the boxes in the bank vault to be opened if The National Geographic facilitated a scientific inventory of all the items. Both sides agreed to the arrangement and Hiebert flew to Kabul.

Working closely with 18 staffers from the National Museum, Hiebert and his colleagues inventoried 33,000 objects. "We had to get a presidential decree from Karzai to allow us to open up the boxes," recalls Hiebert. "And when we finally pried them open, there it was -- the Bactrian Gold. In this country which had experienced more than two decades of chaos, this stoic bunch of Afghans had saved the nation's culture."

Following the inventory process, the Afghan government agreed to put some of the items on display. The exhibition which traveled first to France and other European cities and then to the US (launching in Washington DC before coming to San Francisco) showcases objects from four different sites. These include the Bronze Age civilization known as The Oxus, the Alexandrian city of Ai Khanum, the 1st Century BCE trading settlement of Begum, and Tillya Tepe, the resting place of the Bactrian Gold.

Though modest in size (the entire show is more or less housed in 2 large rooms) the exhibition presents a radical view on Afghan culture to people like myself whose knowledge of the country extends barely further than news stories about suicide bombers, lost lives and destroyed cities. In these times of increasingly narrow thinking, Afghanistan broadens perspectives.

The exhibition is on display at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum from October 24, 2008 through January 25, 2009.


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