Afghanistan: Nation Protects Storied Bactrian Treasure
By Golnaz Esfandiari
More than two decades of war and
conflict in Afghanistan had a catastrophic effect on the country's rich and
unique cultural and historical heritage. But some ancient works of art survived
unscathed. They include the famed Bactrian gold collection. The cache lay
dormant under the Hill of Gold, or Tillya-tepe, for 2,000 years until Soviet
archeologists exposed it shortly before the 1979 invasion. Decades later, it was
rediscovered and unveiled in 2003 to ease fears that it had been plundered
during wartime. RFE/RL examines the storied Bactrian gold -- and why Afghans and
the rest of the world must wait to see it.
PRAGUE, June 9, 2006
(RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan's parliament -- eager to protect what remains of the
country's heritage -- in May rejected a proposal to send the Bactrian gold on a
The priceless collection has been displayed only
rarely, and very few people have ever seen it.
But the director
of Kabul's national museum, Omara Khan Massoudi, is among the lucky
"They are very delicate pieces," Massoudi says. "Gold pieces
constitute most of the treasure, and they doubtlessly have great value in
shedding light on the history of Afghanistan and its elegant arts. We are proud
that we still have the collection with us."
Found at a
2,000-year-old burial site of rich Kushan nomads, Massoudi says the collection
contains thousands of pieces of gold jewelry, figurines, funeral ornaments, and
The hoard was discovered in
1978 and 1979 by a group of Afghan and Soviet archeologists led by a
Greek-Russian archaeologist named Victor Sariyannidis.
Bactrian treasure was found in Jowzjan Province in six graves that belong to the
first century [before Christ] and the first decade of the Christian calendar,"
Massoudi says. "It totaled 21,618 pieces. It was delivered to the [Afghan]
National Museum the same year, in 1979."
Out Of Sight, Not
About a year later, some of the pieces were
displayed briefly in an exhibition at the museum in Kabul. But with the arrival
of Soviet troops and other threats, the treasure was hidden away in the
In 1988, the gold pieces were transferred to a highly
secure vault within the central bank at the compound of the Afghan presidential
palace. The treasure was viewed only once in the next few years -- when
President Mohammad Najibullah wanted foreign diplomats to see that the Soviets
had not absconded with (eds: stolen) it.
"During the rule of Dr.
Najibullah, we had a one-day exhibition of these works in the Arg Palace,"
Years of civil war followed, during which a
significant portion of Afghanistan's historical heritage was looted or
Loyal bankers thwarted efforts by various sides in the
ensuing years to even see the Bactrian gold. But such secrecy also spawned
speculation that the treasure had been lost, stolen, or perhaps worse: melted
the central bank's vaults were opened in 2003, the country was assured that the
treasure was safe.
An internationally aided inventory followed,
and the 22,000 pieces were photographed and catalogued in Dari and
In 2004, several items were displayed to selected guests
-- including President Hamid Karzai, cabinet ministers, foreign diplomats, and
National Museum Director Massoudi says security
concerns, inadequate facilities to house the treasure, and a lack of expertise
conspire against the Afghan public, which will have to wait to see the Bactrian
"It is very difficult for me to predict [when the Bactrian
gold might be displayed publicly]," Massoudi says. "As you know, Kabul's
National Museum was severely damaged during the civil war -- [about 70 percent
of] its items were looted. Following the fall of the Taliban, with the Culture
Ministry and the help of international organizations -- especially UNESCO -- we
have done our best to restore the museum. But we are still facing many
Protected For Posterity
The world will also have to wait to see the Afghan treasure. The Afghan
parliament in May rejected a proposal to exhibit the collection in a tour of
European and U.S. museums.
Parliamentarian Shukria Barekzai tells
RFE/RL that too many risks are involved to allow this iconic Afghan treasure to
"Lack of strong insurance from a reliable company was one
issue. There were also concerns that these objects could be destroyed or
damaged," Barekzai says. "Their packing was also of concern -- and [there were
fears] that they could be replaced with replicas. All of these led to the
decision [not to tour it]. We don't want to lose what is left of our historical
heritage. We have lost enough of our archeological heritage. We have to do our
best to preserve what is left."
Barekzai adds that lawmakers are
not opposed to displaying the collection. On the contrary -- with the right
measures in place, they want the world to see more of Afghanistan's proud
"Every nation likes to display its rich history and its
past," Barekzai says. "We might also try to have an international museum inside
Afghanistan to attract more tourists to come to Afghanistan and see the
historical heritage of this land -- some of which may be unique in the
Barekzai says that exhibiting the Bactrian gold could buoy
the spirits of beleaguered Afghans and help strengthen national identity by
documenting a proud history. Two thousand years after it was deposited in the
Bactrian soil, it might also continue to inspire future
Copyright (c) 2006 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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