Return of the Bactrian Gold

Ancient Afghan treasures, nearly lost to the Taliban.

By Andrew Lawler|Monday, March 26, 2007
RELATED TAGS: ARCHAEOLOGY
At the close of 2003, a small group of Afghan, Russian, and U.S.officials gathered in the high-walled presidential compound in Kabul to witness the opening of a long-hidden collection of Afghanistan’s most treasured artifacts. From a dusty storeroom below ground came breathtaking collapsible gold crowns from the 2,000-year-old graves of nomadic princesses; delicate ivories from the ancient summer palace of the rich rulers of the Hindu Kush, whose empire stretched from today’s India to today’s Iran; and Alexandrian glass, Chinese mirrors, and Indian coins brought by camel and horse from the far reaches of the Old World two millennia ago. Now a sample of these magnificent artifacts ison display at the Musée Guimet in Paris through the end of April, andthe exhibition is likely to travel to other cities in Europe and theUnited States.

The stars of the show are pieces from the hoard of ­Bactria—a collection of more than 20,000 gold objects recovered from a mound in northern Afghanistan on the eve of the 1979 Soviet invasion, which plunged the country into more than two decades of bloody conflict. In1977 Soviet archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi had begun nosing around the2,000-year-old mound—tellingly called Gold Hill by the locals.

What Sarianidi and his colleagues found were the remains of a half-dozen wealthy nomads—mostly women—wearing gold sandals, gold jewelry, even dresses with gold thread. The artifacts displayed an astonishing combination of styles—Siberian-­influenced animals, Chinese dragons, Greek goddesses. Among the artifacts were coins minted in Rome, Parthia, and India—testimony to the vibrant Silk Road of that civilization’s day. The remarkable site promised to illuminate the lives of Central Asian nomads and their close connections to the great empires of that age. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan cut short further excavation, though, and the artifacts were put in storage. When the mujahideen edged toward Kabul in the late 1980s, the collection was quietly locked away in the presidential treasury.

For more than a decade rumors swirled concerning the gold’s whereabouts. Did the Russians abscond with it? Did the warlords melt it down? It is now clear that Omar Khan Massoudi, director of Kabul’sNational Museum, and a few other Afghans risked their lives to protect the artifacts from the Taliban, who were intent on destroying images—and who, in 2001, succeeded in blowing up the famed Bamiyan Buddhas, towering stone sculptures carved into the mountainside by monks about 1,500 years ago.

Massoudi and his staff “are the real heroes,” Sarianidi says, for saving the remains of a remarkable culture from oblivion.

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