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Hidden Treasures of Afghanistan- Four Seasons Magazine


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Hidden Treasures of Afghanistan- Four Seasons Magazine

  1. 1. hidden treasures from the National Museum of Kabul are once again on view thanks to dedicated efforts to preserve the country’s cultural heritage. By susan Weissman | Photography by Cade Martin & thierry Ollivier 142 issue three 2008 | FOUR seasOns magazine
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  3. 3. HiDDen aF gHanis Tan M Abundant riches Left: gold collar inset with turquoise, garnet Museumgoers in Washington, D.C., stood three deep and pyrites. Bottom, in front of exhibition cases gleaming with gold and jewels. What left to right: gold floral hair ornaments; they wanted was a chance to get a closer look at the priceless garment clasps fash- artefacts that would travel the United States for 17 months in an ioned as cupids riding exhibition titled “Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the on dolphins; heart- National Museum, Kabul.” What they saw was a snapshot of a shaped earrings of gold and turquoise. culture thousands of years old. On view: a collapsible crown used Preceding pages: by nomads, clasps for a robe wrought in the shape of cupids, ivory statue of a bejewelled daggers and swords, urns of alabaster and fantastical woman atop mythical creature, and viewer, glassware blown in the shape of fish. What they would learn were Washington, D.C. the lengths to which modern-day Afghans would go to save these remarkable treasures. Centrally located along the Silk Road—a network of long- distance trade routes over sea and land linking the Mediterranean to China from roughly 300 BC to 1200 AD—Afghanistan is a mosaic of cultural influences reflecting contact with ancient Greece, Mesopotamia, India, China and Central Asia. But in modern times, preserving the artistic legacy of this diverse country has been tenuous. For nearly three decades, the country has been ravaged by war, beginning with the Soviet invasion in 1979, ongoing civil strife and the rise of the Taliban to prominence in 1996. During this protracted period of struggle, Afghanistan’s National Museum fell prey to destruction. Between 1992 and 1995, it is estimated that 35,000 gold coins were Discoveries from tillya tepe stolen from the museum’s The Russian-afghan excavation storerooms and nearly all the of Tillya Tepe, “The Hill of gold,” pre-Islamic glassware in its in 1978, was led by the Russian archaeologist Viktor sarianidi. six collection destroyed. In 2001, nomadic burial sites dating to the the world watched in horror as first century aD were uncovered, the Taliban blew up the revealing a cache of gold, silver magnificent Buddhas at and other precious objects. Below: Bamiyan and thereafter a gold dagger is removed from Tomb iV by an afghan excavator. desecrated the museum, looting nearly everything and reducing this repository of irreplaceable art to a mere set of walls. But all was not lost, and a seeming miracle happened just 144 when the situation seemed darkest. It was learned that in 1988 the museum’s archaeo- logical treasures dating back thousands of years and national museum of afghanistan Photography © Thierry Ollivier, musée guimet issue three 2008 | FOUR seasOns magazine
  4. 4. thought gone forever were in the safekeeping fact hidden in the Central Bank of the Presidential of Afghanistan’s Palace, secreted away in crates most cherished at great personal risk by the artefacts was museum’s director, Omara a behind-the- Khan Massoudi; the Deputy scenes effort Minister of Information and whose planning Culture, Omar Sultan; and others who worked with them. began in 1979, The safekeeping of at the time of Afghanistan’s most cherished the soviet inva- artefacts was a behind-the- sion—curators scenes effort whose planning and museum began in 1979, at the time of workers hiding the Soviet invasion—curators and museum workers hiding those items that those items they could and they could and recovering those damaged by recovering those war. In 2003, the Ministry of damaged by war. Information and Culture unofficially confirmed that objects from the museum’s collections were found intact in the vault of the Central Bank. But what would be found once the vault was opened was a mystery. In 2004, with the help of a National Geographic Society contingent led by Dr. Fredrik Hiebert, a Society archaeology Fellow and esteemed antiquities scholar, the vault was opened, the crates unsealed and many of the museum’s long unaccounted- for masterpieces revealed. Included in the discovery was the famous Bactrian Gold, a cache of more than 20,000 gold and precious stone–encrusted ornaments found originally in 1978 in Tillya Tepe, the burial site of six nomads. Bactria, the northern area of what is modern-day Afghanistan, was rich in natural resources such as gold, copper, lapis, garnet and carnelian. Its capital was Balkh, a city described by Marco Polo as “Balkh the beautiful, Balkh, the mother of all cities.” “When they started removing objects from the vault and it was clear that many of the treasures were from the famous Bactrian Gold, I was especially excited,” Hiebert says. “I was the student of Viktor Sarianidi, the original excavator of the Bactrian Gold, and to be able to return his find to the public eye and the 145 Afghan people, who have endured so much, is the fulfilment of a personal quest.” Also found in the inventory of objects overseen by Hiebert were artefacts from three other important ancient archaeological F O U R s e a s O n s m a ga z i n e | i s s u e t h r e e 2 00 8
  5. 5. Fragile Beauty This page: Three glass flasks shaped like fish; a glass kantharos, or drinking cup, etched with grape-leaf motif. Opposite page: glass vases and drinking vessels. artefacts on these pages date from the first century aD and were discovered at Begram. 146 issue three 2008 | FOUR seasOns magazine
  6. 6. Afghan Ambassa- dor said t. Jawad emphasises that the artefacts in the exhibition are a testament to the tenacity and spirit of the Afghan people. they exist because of the bravery and selflessness of those who could do no less than preserve and protect their heritage. 147 F O U R s e a s O n s m a ga z i n e | i s s u e t h r e e 2 00 8
  7. 7. HiDDen aF gHanis Tan sites: the Greco-Bactrian city of Ai Khanum, founded by followers of Alexander the Great, who conquered the area in the fourth century; the trading city of Begram, where artefacts were found from Egypt, India and China; and the Bronze Age site of Tepe Fullol, with artistic ties to Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley, or present-day Pakistan. Bactrian Wonders “After 9-11, as a Central Asian specialist, I considered it my Left to right: golden ornament rendered duty to tell the world what I could about Central Asia and its as the aphrodite of great ancient cultures. In the exhibition, you see objects that Bactria; one of a pair seem very familiar—they display Roman and Greek iconography, of pendants depicting Indian iconography and Chinese iconography. It’s all here and it’s the Dragon master, all part of Afghan art,” he says. gold with inlay of precious stones; Even though the artefacts in the exhibition may be thou- diminutive golden sands of years old, their relevance remains timely, connecting ram believed to be contemporary Afghan society to its heritage and revealing to worn as an ornament the world a complex history and a people’s ongoing respect for on a head covering beauty and diversity. “Most people have gotten their exposure to Afghanistan through the Cold War, the Soviet invasion and then later, the Taliban, but Afghanistan isn’t a country just about war,” says its Ambassador to the United States, Said T. Jawad. “This country has such a long history and rich heritage,” he says. “It was at the crossroads of civilisations and a melting pot of different cultures.” He emphasises that the artefacts visitors will encounter in the recovering Lost treasures exhibition are a testament to Dr. Fredrik Hiebert, a Fellow of the the tenacity and spirit of the national geographic society and Afghan people. They exist a student of archeologist Viktor sarianidi, who first discovered the because of the bravery and Bactrian gold, played a leading selflessness of those who could role in the recovery of the lost do no less than preserve and artefacts. To be able to return his protect their heritage. Perhaps mentor’s find to the public eye that’s because many of the and the afghan people was the fulfilment of a personal quest. objects actually belonged to individuals. He is quick to explain that Afghanistan was not like Egypt, where there were kings with great wealth. In Afghanistan, to the contrary, 148 there was significant local wealth enjoyed by a thriving merchant class. The Ambassador recalls one man, a caretaker at the national museum of afghanistan Photography © Thierry Ollivier, musée guimet issue three 2008 | FOUR seasOns magazine
  8. 8. Presidential Palace, who would A caretaker sometimes go for months without pay, arriving one day arrived with a with a marble fish that he had marble fish that been safeguarding wrapped in a he had been towel. His devotion was so safeguarding great that he gave the fish back wrapped in a only when he was sure the towel. his devo- museum would be restored, telling the curators exactly tion was so great where it should be positioned that he gave the in the collection. fish back when “Any one of the custo- he was sure the dians,” he says, “the key museum would holders to the museum, could be restored, tell- have sold any piece of this collection and gotten their ing the curators passports and visas to a where it should be European country and had a positioned in the comfortable life . . . which is collection. not such a bad idea when you live under the tyranny of the Taliban, and it seems there is no hope for the future and you have a family to feed. But they didn’t do that. They chose to put their lives on the line and care for the art because ultimately this choice is more noble than to live with millions of dollars.” Today, objects such as the marble fish and the spectacular collapsible crown have a home again and Afghanistan is rebuilding its national museum. With the aid of cultural organisations worldwide, there is the hope that additional artefacts will find their way home. Aptly, the museum embraces the motto: “A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive,” a fitting tribute to the renewal empowered by brave Afghans who would not allow barbarism to strip them of their heritage. 4s susan Weissman is the executive editor of Four Seasons Magazine. A First-hAND LOOK Afghanistan: hidden treasures from the National Museum, Kabul was organised by the national geographic society and the national gallery of art, Washington, D.C., with support by a grant from the national endowment for the Humanities and corporate 149 support from national Construction & Logistics and Hamed Wardak. Other U.s. stops: Asian Art Museum of san Francisco October 24, 2008–January 25, 2009; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, February 22–may 17, 2009; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, new York, June 23–september 20, 2009 F O U R s e a s O n s m a ga z i n e | i s s u e t h r e e 2 00 8