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Saving Afghanistan's Art

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National Museum of Afghanistan © musée Guimet / Thierry Ollivier

Left: Standing ram, Tillya-tepe, grave IV, Second quarter of the 1st century AD., Gold.
Right: Hermes pillar, Ai Khanum, Gymnasium, 2nd century BC., Limestone

The Taliban's dynamiting of the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan in March 2001 was only the most dramatic expression of their mission to obliterate all "idolatrous" images from Afghanistan's pre-Islamic past. They also destroyed 2,500 other cultural artifacts from Kabul's National Museum of Afghanistan, many of them priceless. But thanks to the heroic efforts of curators, they didn't get it all. Hidden Afghanistan, a traveling exhibit that recently opened in Amsterdam's Nieuwe Kerk (New Church), gives a tantalizing glimpse of Afghanistan's stunningly diverse cultural legacy, and tells an engrossing tale about how these remnants of it were saved. In May the exhibition will go to Washington to start a 17-month tour of the U.S.

"The message of this exhibit is that Afghanistan is not only a country of war, destruction and terrorism, but of life, culture and art," said Omar Sultan, Afghanistan's Deputy Minister of Information and Culture, at the exhibition's opening. "We have a cultural heritage that belongs not only to Afghanistan, but to the world."

That's partly because the world has so often come to Afghanistan. Located on the trade routes between East and West, the country has always been at a crossroads of civilizations. The Silk Road provided a vector for Buddhism to come from the east, while Hellenistic and even Egyptian influences flowed the other way. Alexander the Great's eastward conquest essentially ended there in the 4th century B.C., and Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang passed through in the 7th century A.D. on his quest for Buddhist texts. "Amsterdam, Berlin and London today are the Afghanistan of 2,000 years ago," says Khalid Siddiqi, a former Afghan refugee who is on the advisory committee for the exhibit. "It was a crucible of different cultures that came together and melded, showing the enrichment — not impoverishment — of different cultures."

The Amsterdam exhibition presents 250 objects from four archaeological sites — Tepe Fullol, Ai Khanum, Tillya-tepe, and Begram — dating back as far as 4,000 years ago. It includes gold and silver vases from the Bactrian Bronze Age; a Greek limestone pillar and sundials from the 2nd century BC; Indian-related ivory figures and furniture from the 1st century AD; and a spectacular gold collection from Tillya-Tepe that includes bracelets, hearts, a crown, and even a pair of golden shoe soles meant to convey an aristocrat's disinclination for walking.

But just as Afghanistan's geography invited cultural influence, so too did it draw a sequence of invasion and conquest that has put the country's heritage in constant peril. The Taliban's destruction of art was the culmination of years of catastrophe visited on the National Museum, and the extraordinary story of how the surviving art got here is as much part of the exhibit as the art itself.

The National Museum first opened its doors in 1922, and by the time the Soviets Union invaded in 1979, it had some 100,000 objects on display. But many of its treasures were plundered in the course of the ensuing war against the Soviet invaders, which left two million dead. In the years following the Soviet Army's withdrawal in 1989, what remained of the museum's collection survived further looting, a direct rocket attack, fire, a collapsed roof and resulting snow damage. The victorious Taliban had every interest in completing the destruction.

That anything is left at all is in large part due to the efforts of museum director Omar Khan Massoudi, his staff, and a small group of concerned archeologists and politicians. In 1988, they secretly moved the highlights of the collection to a vault in the Central Bank at the presidential palace. Massoudi, who risked his life to preserve his country's cultural heritage, was one of seven men who had keys to the vault. All seven keys were needed to open it, so by spreading them around and keeping their locations secret (in case of death, a key reverted to the keeper's eldest son), they were able to preserve the treasures.

"During the civil war these people knew about the transfer of these pieces and never gave any information to anybody," says a modest Massoudi. "In this case we keep this like a separate memory during the war, especially during the civil war and even during the Talibanů At that time I remember most of the Afghan and foreign journalists asking about these treasures. 'Where is it? Is it looted or is it here? Is it safe or not?'"

It wasn't until 2003, more than a year after the overthrow of the Taliban, that the Afghan government confirmed the existence of the treasures and restoration work began. Less than one-quarter of the museum's original collection survived. Afghanistan is still deemed too unstable for the art to go home, and the museum itself remains badly damaged. So currently this traveling exhibit is the only way Afghans can see the museum's collection. Curators hope the exhibit will go home in the not too distant future, but for now, it will continue making its rounds abroad: it was in Paris and Turin before Amsterdam, and after Washington will travel to New York, San Franciso and Houston. The exhibit's catalogue, though, has been translated into the Afghan languages Dari and Pashtu and will be distributed to every school in the country. Deputy Minister Sultan has no doubts about the future of his country's art. "If they were able to save it at that time," he says with a smile, thinking back, "I promise you we can save it for as long as we are alive."