‘Lost’ treasures see the light

For 25 years a priceless part of Afghanistan’s national heritage lay hidden in a secret vault. Miraculously, the ‘Bactrian gold’ survived the Russian invasion, the civil war and the Taleban regime. Now some of the ‘lost’ treasures can be seen in the Musée Guimet, Paris.

The museum is showcasing 220 works of art spanning 4,000 years from Afghanistan’s Bronze Age to the Kushan Empire (second century BCE – third century). In return for lending France its treasures, Afghanistan will receive 1 for every paying visitor – a likely total of 100,000. The money will help with reconstruction work at the National Museum of Afghanistan, as well as museums in the provinces.

“It is very important that Afghan people know about the value of museums and get a clear idea of past civilisations,” said National Museum Director Omara Khan Masoudi. “We want them to take responsibility for helping the government to safeguard their cultural heritage.”

Security problems in the country made travelling difficult; it was important therefore to have museums within easy reach for people to visit, said Mr Masoudi. Herat in western Afghanistan recently reopened its museum to the public but there was still a lot of work to be done at other local museums. Detailed plans also exist for a new National Museum, cultural centre and library in Kabul.

In the nineties the present museum in Darulamen, five miles from Kabul, was in the line of fire between warring Mujahadeen factions. In 1993 a rocket sent the roof crashing down on the upper galleries. Not only was the museum the target of attacks, it was also systematically looted of its contents.

Unknown even to museum staff, the Bactrian gold lay all this time in a vault under the Presidential Palace in Kabul. To keep the trove of 22,000 pieces safe from looters, only seven people were given keys and none knew who had the others. The collection was opened up in 2004 – three years after the fall of the Taleban – and found intact.

But the National Museum’s collection of ancient statues was smashed on the orders of the Taleban . Since 2002, museum staff, with help from UNESCO, the Guimet and British museums and several donor countries, have been working to restore the collections and catalogue every last object.

The crowns, pendants, bracelets, statuettes and other objects on display in Paris were unearthed from four sites in northern Afghanistan. Crossed by the Silk Road, the country was the meeting point of many civilisations – Near Eastern, Indian, Scythian, Chinese and Greek. Its treasures reflect an age-old exchange of cultural influences.