Heart of Gold

  • Thierry Ollivier / Musee Guimet

    Early Afghan artifacts are a reminder that the country was once at the confluence of several trade routes

    These days, Afghanistan is usually associated with war and deprivation. But millennia before the Soviet invasion unleashed 30 years of upheaval, and well before the Taliban's brutal reign, Afghanistan was a meeting place for artisans and traders, not warlords, insurgents and private security guards.

    That's the message of the British Museum's latest blockbuster exhibition, Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World . Running until July 3, it features 230 objects that have survived bombings, lootings and deliberate destruction by the Taliban. "Afghan people aren't just fighting with each other. They love their culture, their art, and know the value of these things," says Omara Khan Massoudi, the director of Kabul's National Museum, which has loaned the artifacts while it is being rebuilt after years of war.

    The Afghanistan on show has all the color you'd expect from a place that was just a camel ride away from the frontiers of China and the Greek Empire. In one display, a voluptuous female figurine in ivory stands on a makara , a sea creature of Hindu mythology. A few feet away, a bronze Eros looks bemused at the fact that he was exhumed north of Kabul instead of in Athens. Most impressive, however, are the rows of golden objects unearthed in Tillya Tepe in northern Afghanistan. Found in the tombs of a prince and five of his female relations, the trove includes a Chinese pendant of a man taming two dragons and a crown consisting of four golden trees.

    While the beauty of the artifacts gives the exhibition its sheen, the story of their survival lends gravity. Over the past 30 years, around 70% of the artifacts — about 70,000 items — housed in Kabul's National Museum were destroyed or looted. In 1994, a rocket attack destroyed many that remained (and much of the museum, which was being used as an Afghan military base at the time). Taliban officials later smashed other relics in an effort to erase the country's pre-Islamic history — a policy that, most notoriously, saw them dynamite the 6th century Bamiyan Buddha statues in March 2001.

    During those dark days, museum officials risked their lives to keep some artifacts safe, hiding the treasures — among them a priceless stash of Bactrian gold — in vaults beneath the Central Bank. Five men held a key, and the vaults required all five keys to open. Officials — including Massoudi, one of the key holders — successfully resisted Taliban pressure to reveal the location of the objects. They remain reticent about their suffering, but Aghan President Hamid Karzai, in a prologue to the exhibition catalog, makes clear just how selfless they were. "A single piece of gold would have been a ticket to escape the war and destruction that afflicted our country, but not a single piece was lost," he writes. Karzai, with the help of Massoudi and the other key holders, opened the vaults in 2003.

    Since the Taliban's ouster in 2001, officials from the Kabul National Museum, working with UNESCO and Interpol, have traced roughly 8,500 pieces of Afghan artifacts to countries including the U.S., the U.K. and Switzerland. They have also drafted a list of missing antiquities and distributed it globally.

    One of the great successes of that list can be seen at the British Museum show in the form of 20 ivory artifacts depicting the Buddha's previous lives. They were stolen from the National Museum in the early 1990s. A philanthropic donor in London recently discovered the items on the black market and purchased them in order to save them. Conservators at the British Museum worked with their Afghan counterparts to restore the carvings, and they are the last items on display. Their story forms a fitting finale. "After the exhibition, they will return to the National Museum of Kabul," British Museum director Neil MacGregor says. "We're particularly pleased that the exhibition can end on this note of hope."

    — with reporting by Elizabeth Tyler / London