Buried Treasures

Pierre Cambon peers at the intricately carved second-century ivory statuettes, his eyes sparkling. The head curator of Afghan arts at Paris's historic Musée Guimet is contemplating the elegance of the sculpted female figures. "One cannot ignore the homage to femininity these represent," he says, keenly aware of the irony of their provenance. They were discovered in 1937 by Cambon's predecessor, the French archeologist Joseph Hackin, in Afghanistan, where women have since been forced to hide their feminine forms under burqas.

These figures are among the 220 remarkable artifacts that have survived the Soviet occupation, a civil war and the rise of the Taliban to compose the eye-opening exhibit "The Rediscovered Treasures of Afghanistan" (through April 2007). Many of the pieces have not been seen since 1988, when the Soviets departed and President Mohammad Najibullah ordered treasures stored in the vaults of the Afghan central bank and the Ministry of Culture for safekeeping. Others--including the ivory statues--have never been displayed before. Their arrival in Paris is an important reminder of the country's resilience. "This exhibit shows that Afghanistan is something other than a war zone," says Roland Besenval, head of the French Archeological Delegation to Afghanistan (DAFA). "International organizations dealing with the reconstruction of the country must not ignore the important role of this cultural heritage in the Afghan identity."

Visitors will receive a colorful crash course in Afghan history. The exhibit journeys from the Greco-Bactrian civilization (2200-1800 B.C.), which re-presented the eastern frontier of the Hellenistic world during the Bronze Age, to the Kushan Empire (A.D. 100-300), which once extended across Afghanistan from the Caspian Sea to the Ganges Valley. Separate galleries are devoted to four of the country's most important archeological sites. Artifacts from Fulol include gold vases representing the last vestiges of the Bactrian Greco-Buddhist style and the influence of the Indus Valley civilization. The gold pieces from Ai-Khanoum, built by Alexander the Great in the fourth century B.C., reflect Hellenistic influences. The royal tombs of Tilla Tepe reveal astounding gold jewelry, adorned with Afghan lapis lazuli, Indian garnet and Chinese jade. And the treasures from the silk-route town of Baghram include Hellenistic bronzes and Greco-Roman glassware. Together they offer a clear picture of the rich and diverse traditions that shaped the country. "Afghanistan has stood at the crossroads of civilizations throughout the millennia," says Cambon. "The region represents the place at the end of the world from both Eastern and Western perspectives--a land where cultures intermingled to give birth to new forms of art and craftsmanship."

Why stage the show in Paris instead of Kabul? The National Museum of Kabul reopened in October 2004, thanks to the support of several international bodies including the U.S. government, UNESCO and the National Geographic Society. But it is currently undergoing reconstruction. "Moreover, there is still an element of security risk," says Cambon. Paris is a natural alternative; French-Afghan collaboration in the field of archeology goes back to Afghanistan's 1919 independence from Britain, when King Amanullah invited French archeological missions to the country. In 1922, DAFA was born. Throughout the 20th century it made several important discoveries, including those at Ai-Khanoum and Bagh-ram. DAFA was dissolved in 1982 under the pro-Soviet government but re-created after the fall of the Taliban. Today it is again operating in Afghanistan, working on the preservation of historical sites, the excavation of new ones and the restoration of museum collections.

There is much work to do. At the time of the Taliban's highly publicized destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001, 70 percent of the collections of the National Museum of Kabul were feared destroyed. In response, several museums with important private Afghan collections--including the Guimet, La Caixa Foundation in Barcelona, Berlin's Museum of Indian Art and the Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C.--decided to launch an exhibition of their holdings titled "Afghanistan, a Millenary History," which toured Europe and the United States. "In 2001, our objective was to show that the dynamite at the service of brutal savagery would never erase an important part of global heritage from our memories," says Jean-François Jarrige, president of the Musée Guimet and a member of the French National Academy of Arts and Sciences.

As it turns out, while plenty of treasures were destroyed, a surprising number were saved. When President Hamid Karzai's government announced the rediscovery of stashed Afghan treasures in 2004, Jarrige, Besenval and Cambon decided it was time for the Guimet to propose a new collaboration with the Afghan government. The current show is the fruit of their efforts. It is also a symbol of hope for Afghan citizens. After all, it was the local staff at the museum and the ministries who saved these objects. "Certain items were wrapped in toilet paper, others in newspaper," says Cambon, pointing to a stunning first-century A.D. glass goblet from Baghram, intricately inscribed with scenes of hunting and fishing. "The citizens of Kabul did what they could to protect their land from deliberate cultural cleansing."

As Afghanistan looks forward to a future of reconstruction, this exhibit is a new chapter in the history of these collections: one in which, through international effort, restored treasures and cultural memory represent a victory of civilization over barbarism. Today the exquisite ivories of Baghram are once again free for the world to admire. It is only a matter of time before they will be displayed in their rightful home, so that the girls of Kabul can marvel at the beauty before them, and be reminded of their own.

Buried Treasures | News