Return of the Bactrian Gold

Ancient Afghan treasures, nearly lost to the Taliban

By Andrew Lawler|Monday, March 26, 2007

/~/media/import/images/5/5/3/48-crown-300(Courtesy of Thierry Ollvier, Musee Guimet.)
A collapsible crown made of gold and studded with
flowers and semiprecious jewels.

To see a collection of artifacts from the Bactrian hoard, take a look at our photo gallery.

At the close of 2003, a small group of Afghan, Russian, and U.S.officials gathered in the high-walled presidential compound in Kabul towitness the opening of a long-hidden collection of Afghanistan’s mosttreasured artifacts. From a dusty storeroom belowground camebreathtaking collapsible gold crowns from the 2,000-year-old graves ofnomadic princesses; delicate ivories from the ancient summer palace ofthe rich rulers of the Hindu Kush, whose empire stretched from today’sIndia to today’s Iran; and Alexandrian glass, Chinese mirrors, andIndian coins brought by camel and horse from the far reaches of the OldWorld 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—acollection of more than 20,000 gold objects recovered from a mound innorthern Afghanistan on the eve of the 1979 Soviet invasion, whichplunged 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 ahalf-dozen wealthy nomads—mostly women—wearing gold sandals, goldjewelry, even dresses with gold thread. The artifacts displayed anastonishing combination of styles—Siberian-­influenced animals, Chinesedragons, Greek goddesses. Among the artifacts were coins minted inRome, Parthia, and India—testimony to the vibrant Silk Road of thatcivilization’s day. The remarkable site promised to illuminate thelives of Central Asian nomads and their close connections to the greatempires of that age. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan cut shortfurther excavation, though, and the artifacts were put in storage. Whenthe mujahideen edged toward Kabul in the late 1980s, the collection wasquietly locked away in the presidential treasury.

For more than a decade rumors swirled concerning the gold’swhereabouts. Did the Russians abscond with it? Did the warlords melt itdown? It is now clear that Omar Khan Massoudi, director of Kabul’sNational Museum, and a few other Afghans risked their lives to protectthe artifacts from the Taliban, who were intent on destroyingimages—and who, in 2001, succeeded in blowing up the famed BamiyanBuddhas, towering stone sculptures carved into the mountainside bymonks 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.

/~/media/import/images/5/e/e/composite-500(Courtesy of Thierry Ollvier, Musee Guimet.)
Clockwise from top left: Gold flowers adorned with pearls worn as decorations by the Bactrian
nomads, the hilts of a dagger found in the grave of a man, features a type of Siberian bear,
antelope-head bracelets, earrings with heart-shaped turquoise inlays were found in even the
most modest of the burials.

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