I’ve never been as moved at a museum as I was when I viewed the new exhibit “Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul" at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (After D.C., the exhibit will travel to San Francisco, Houston, and New York.) I love to visit museum exhibits, and am often awed and bedazzled, but moved to tears? Not so much.
But this exhibit has such an extraordinary backstory that it’s hard not to be touched by it.
The objects on display are amazing enough: 228 pieces from the National Museum’s collection, ranging in date from 2,200 B.C. to the third century A.D. They include a Bronze Age goblet made of finely beaten gold, fish-shaped glass flasks from the first century A.D., and a gold crown from the famed “Bactrian Hoard” that’s so delicate the dime-sized, paper-thin disks of gold dangling from it jiggled when people walked by its display case.
They tell of a land, as Marco Polo wrote, “rich in gold and gems”—a hub of Silk Road trade and a crossroads of civilizations. When the so-called Bactrian Hoard was discovered in Tillya Tepe in 1978, it was as significant a find in the archaeological world as that of King Tut’s tomb. The gold and bejeweled objects found in the six nomad graves of Tillya Tepe were a mix of cultural influences—Chinese, Greek, Roman, Siberian, Indian—clear evidence of extensive commerce between east and west in ancient times.
But then Afghanistan descended into what would be some 30 years of war and turmoil. The National Museum was bombed and looted several times, and other Afghani cultural treasures destroyed (remember the heartbreaking destruction of the third-century, giant Buddha statues of Bamiyan by the Taliban in March 2001?). The Bactrian gold disappeared.
The fact that we can view these relics today is thanks to real heroes who risked their lives to secret away as many cultural and historical objects as they could and kept a code of silence as to their whereabouts until it was safe for them to come forward.
In 2003, the museum cache resurfaced. Since the keys to the trunks where the cache was stored had long been lost, they had to crack the safe. Cue the triumphant music: The entire hoard of Bactrian gold was intact, as was the rest of the museum collection that had managed to be stashed away.
When this exhibit toured Europe last year, it was originally called “Lost Treasures of Afghanistan.” When the exhibit was reorganized for its U.S. tour, the subtitle was changed to “Hidden Treasures” because, as Afghan ambassador to the U.S. Said T. Jawad pointed out during the media preview, “To those who would destroy them [the Soviets, the Taliban], they were lost. To us [the Afghan people], they were never truly lost."
There are still many looted objects to be repatriated from around the world. The Kabul Museum is currently being rebuilt, and sometime soon all its cultural treasures will once again be displayed for Afghans and travelers to Afghanistan to appreciate.
In the meantime, a new inscription on the museum’s front gate reads, in English and in the local Dari language, “A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive.”
Photos: Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art