Blinded by the Light: Afghanistan’s Hidden Treasures

Without art, there would be no record of the culture. —Fredrik Hiebert, National Geographic Society. 

 

packaged-buddha1 

Statue of the Buddha at moment of unwrapping, April 2004, Kabul (©National Museum of Afghanistan)

 

The context in which we view art often infuses it with additional meaning the artist never conceived or intended. Sometimes the contextual circumstances are so compelling that they become our predominant experience of the piece, eclipsing even the work’s artistic merits. 

Such is the case with the art on exhibit in Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul on view at the Asian Art Museum until January 25. The story of how these 228 items came to be on view—and, conversely, of how they easily might never have come to be on view were it not for the efforts of a small group of Afghanis—is thrilling. Like a good tale of espionage, this too is chock-full with elements of wartime danger and intrigue, brutish villains, high suspense, selfless acts. At its core this is a tale of collective heroism committed in the name of a greater good, in this case art. 

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One of a pair of pendants showing the Dragon Master, Tillya Tepe, Tomb II; Second quarter of the 1st century CE; Gold, turquoise, garnet, lapis lazuli, carnelian and pearls, National Museum of Afghanistan (Photo © Thierry Ollivier/Musée Guimet)

 

First, the details of the story. The National Museum in Kabul was established in 1922. By mid-century its collection totaled some 100,000 items, including pre-Islamic and ethnographic pieces uncovered in 20th-century archeological digs throughout the country. Arguably the most famous of the excavated items—known as the Golden Hoard—were exhumed by Viktor Sarianidi in the fall of 1978 from an unassuming mound known as Tillya Tepe in the ancient land of Bactria

The Museum’s collection unequivocally established Afghanistan as a country with a sophisticated cultural heritage that stretched at least as far back as the Bronze Age. Moreover, the collection reflected the country’s central position at the cross-roads of great human migrations—Alexander’s march to the Indus, Buddhist monks trekking to China, Islamic armies fanning out from the Arabian peninsula, Silk Route traders, the campaigns of Persian conquerors, the invasions of Genghis Khan. And although the art of the Afghan region is stylistically unique, the museum’s artifacts displayed the telltale signs of the influences of Greek, Mesopotamian, Persian, Indian, Buddhist, Chinese, and nomadic tribal cultures.

afghani-statue

Statuette of a woman standing on a makara, possibly a furniture ornament, Begram, Room 10, 1st-2nd c. CE, ivory 


The 1978 coup and ensuing Soviet invasion in 1979 made it clear that artifacts housed in Afghanistan’s museums were in grave danger.  It wasn’t until 1989 that curators began the process of moving pieces from the National Museum in Kabul, hiding them locations around the city, including the Ministry of Information and the Central Bank Treasury vault within the Presidential Palace.  Over the next few years, thousands of pieces were transfered. Workers were sworn to secrecy; “key holders” for various vaults were unknown beyond a tiny circle of people. Curators kept silent throughout the years of civil war and Taliban rule at enormous personal risk.

Unfortunately, not all of the collection could be moved by the Spring of 2001, when the Taliban mounted a catastrophic campaign to “destroy all images.”  Many will remember the most public of the casualties, the Buddhas of Bamayan.  But, museums suffered mighitly. As a result of the campaign, nearly two thirds of the 100,000 pieces in the National Museum’s collection, including many of the items stashed in the Ministry of Information, were destroyed or stolen.  

In a dramatic moment in 2004, after the Taliban had been run out of the country, curators gathered in at the Presidential vault. Sealed since 1989, noone knew what to expect. Museum inventory records had long been destroyed. Miraculously,  the Golden Hoard and many others of the magnificent treasures of the National Museum were safe.

Opening of the safe found to contain a trove of priceless Bactrian gold objects,  April 2004. (Photograph by Kenneth Garrett, ©National Geographic Society)

 

Given this extraordinary context, the exhibit cannot help but transcend pure artistic considerations. This is not to say that the pieces here are not delicate, elaborate, sophisticated, finely-wrought, entertaining, and fascinating for the glimpse they provide into lost civilizations. In the vein of Hiebert’s thought, however, it seems apparent that the overriding message of Hidden Treasures—the light that blinds us—is the enormous finality of culture extinguished. It’s almost impossible when viewing these recovered treasures not to ask “What if the Taliban had succeeded in removing this art from the world’s view?”  Thus, we are reminded that at stake is more than the culture of one peoples, but an exquisite record of humankind. 

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Decorative plaque with a narrative scene, Begram, Room 13, 1st century CE, ivory and paint, 5.9 x 11.3 cm (©National Museum of Afghanistan)

 

Connections

Hidden Treasures brochure

Vandalised Afghanistan—Frontline (Hindu on Net)

Afghanistan Wants its “Dead Sea Scrolls” of Buddhism Back—British Library acknowledges that it has no idea how the scrolls came to London from Hadda.

Afghanistan: Images from an Era of Peace

Nancy Hatch Dupree—Museum under Siege and List of Stolen Items

Other Images

LACMA Head of a Bodhisattva (Gandahara)

Unique lunette with Buddha surrounded by adorants from Hadda area.

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2 Responses to “Blinded by the Light: Afghanistan’s Hidden Treasures”

  1. Afghanistan in the news today
    an insightful article on President-elect’s Afghan strategy from Robert Dreyfuss at the Nation:

    “Hey Obama, Don’t Let Afghanistan Be Your Quagmire”
    http://www.alternet.org/waroniraq/117816/

  2. I was enchanted by the exhibit. But it saddened me even more to realize that it’s not safe to return these treasures to their country of origin. It’s a tragedy that the beauty of the past is hostage to the politics of the present.

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