The Mystery of Afghanistan's Fabled Treasures

It reads like a movie script: in the late 1980s, around the time the Soviet army was withdrawing from Afghanistan, a mysterious Afghan with the power to protect the fabled "Bactrian gold" decided it was in danger of being stolen or destroyed. The unidentified protector may have been the communist ruler of Afghanistan at the time, Mohammad Najibullah, or it may have been someone who worked for him. (The Taliban castrated and murdered Najibullah in 1996, before hanging his bloody corpse from a lamppost, so he can't comment.) The mystery man stashed 20,000 items—including a 2,000-year-old crown, a warrior's belt and carefully wrapped pieces of glistening jewelry—in an underground vault of the presidential compound. More than 20 other Afghan officials, including "keyholders" entrusted with individual museum collections, shared the secret. They maintained a code of silence through waves of war, looting and chaos.

By the time the Taliban was toppled in 2001, foreign archaeologists feared that the hoard of ancient golden artifacts had vanished forever. Kabul was rife with rumors: rebel leader Ahmed Shah Massoud had made off with it; the Soviets took it back to Moscow. Some of the original "keyholders" had by then disappeared, believed to be dead or in exile. Others maintained their silence, apparently waiting to evaluate the policies and stability of the new government of Hamid Karzai. Not until 2003 did officials of Karzai's government learn about the stash. The president then invited foreign and Afghan experts to help unseal several old safes in a nondescript building of the presidential palace in Kabul.

Fredrik T. Hiebert, an expert on trade along the ancient Silk Road and an archaeologist for the National Geographic Society, was present when officials used metal-cutting circular saws to open the safes. He watched in astonishment and wonder as the ancient gold spilled out. Now the Afghan treasure is on display through Sept. 7 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the first stop on a tour of four venues in the United States. Hiebert, the curator of the exhibition, spoke recently to NEWSWEEK's Jeffrey Bartholet about the tale of the treasure and some unresolved mysteries. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: When was the trove of antique Afghan gold, jewelry and other treasures stashed away?
Fredrik T. Hiebert:
It's difficult to understand exactly when things were hidden in Afghanistan. That's because the veil of mystery about what happened is part of the reason they were kept safe. But as far as we know, it was 1988 when the majority of these items from the National Museum were taken to the presidential bank vault. Some brilliant person had the foresight to take the masterpieces of the Kabul museum off display and put them in safekeeping. We don't even know who it was.

You still don't know who did that?
Nope. And I have stopped pursuing that question. What is more important is the act of this group of people who knew about the objects that were hidden away—the act of heroism of a group of some 20 people, maybe 25 or 30 people, who knew that these treasures were there and kept this code of silence. That's the really important thing: that code of silence from 1988 through the civil war in the early '90s, through the development of the Taliban in '96, right up through 2001.

Who were those 20 to 30 people?
It was a group of people at the museum, some of them keyholders—

What do you mean by "keyholders"?
The Afghan curatorial system is based on individuals who actually have a sort of ownership of these objects. They're bonded to these objects. If anything happened to one of these artifacts, they were personally responsible. It's an ancient curatorial system that probably goes to back to the Ottomans or before.

So you had separate keyholders for separate groups of artifacts?
That's absolutely right. And if that keyholder disappears, the key disappears. That was one of our issues in terms of rediscovering these items.

Some of these people were from the museum, some from ministries?
Some were from the museum, some were from the National Bank. We didn't know all those years that these objects were hidden away beneath a building of the National Bank of Afghanistan. The people who knew were from these two groups, and a select group from outside. Between war, chaos, bullets flying, 5 million people leaving Afghanistan—including many of the intellectuals—this group of people decided to stay. Some of those I spoke to stayed in part for family reasons; some stayed to preserve their country's heritage.

Why didn't the Taliban rulers, when they took over, think to open the presidential vaults?
Maybe they did. But we believe that this code of secrecy meant that they didn't know about these specific museum treasures, and they hadn't fully explored the vaults. And the demise of the Taliban came incredibly quickly. It was like Dorothy's house falling on the Wicked Witch of the East.

You were there when the vaults and lockboxes were opened. Can you tell me about that?
It was a magical, amazing set of days. We learned about these boxes in 2003, when President Karzai announced there were some museum boxes in the presidential bank vault. It took a couple of months to figure out what to do. It was at that time that I found out that the keyholders of certain collections were gone. The minister of finance and the minister of culture suggested we do a scientific inventory of these boxes. I had to go back to the U.S. and convince the National Geographic Society to fund that. It was only in April 2004 that I was able to return. I brought the vice president of the National Geographic Society. We went to the bank vault, and we waited. [Laughs] It was a kind of an awkward moment for me, but it turned out that the keys to the lockboxes were really lost. We waited until we got a presidential decree from Karzai saying we could open the boxes [by other means]

How long did that take?
It was a long and grueling experience. We thought everything was set. But we waited for a week, 10 days. Finally, that fateful day came, and we must have had 30 or 40 people jammed into the basement of this bank vault. A very small room.

Is it a cement or steel vault, or just a room that is locked?
You have to go through a series of doors that all have keys. Every door had somebody who had the key. So you unlock one door, then you unlock another door, and then you unlock another door. And then there's this big old Austrian bank vault door, made of steel. I wasn't allowed behind that. But the important people who knew what was going on would go down into that and bring out these safes. There were six of them. These were the safe treasures of Afghanistan. But they were locked, and we didn't know quite what to do at first. I was a little worried when they came upon the idea of using a circular saw to open up the first box. We didn't know what the contents of the safes were. I was worried that if it was soft gold, and they used a circular saw, we might find a puddle of gold at the bottom of the safe from the heat generated from the circular saw. Separately, I was concerned there'd be a little note inside, saying, "Ha ha, we got here first." So it was a nervous point for everybody in the room. I had brought along Viktor Sarianidi, the Soviet archaeologist who had originally found the Bactrian gold, because most of the people in the room had never seen it before. Most of the people couldn't verify what it was we were going to open. The moment came. The circular saw opened up the box, the door opened, and out literally poured plastic bags with small gold appliqués, jewelry, fine pieces of gold. They hadn't melted, and that was it. The emotional level in that room at that particular moment was so energized. It was a magical moment.

What are the crown jewels of this collection?
The first six safes that we opened held the gold of the great Bactrian hoard that had been found in 1979: some 20,000 pieces of gold, truly a king's ransom. Unbelievable—not only in terms of the quantity of gold, but the artistry of these objects was just fantastic. One or two of those pieces are of world importance. There's a crown, a collapsible nomadic crown, which is similar to what we think of as being European crowns. The only difference is that this crown is 2,000 years old.

Some of the hoard was also ivory and carvings. Is that correct?
When we were done with the inventory of the Bactrian gold, we were packing up. We had been there for three and a half months, and I was tired, I was out of money, I wanted to go home. But the museum director, Mr. Omara Khan Masoudi, said, "No, no, no, you can't go home … There's more." That's when the other crown jewels of Afghanistan came out. We started opening up boxes with extraordinarily fragile ivories, extraordinarily fragile glass and bronze from a separate site called Begram that had been excavated in 1937 by French archaeologists. It's a site whose artifacts we thought had been destroyed when the National Museum was destroyed and looted—or in 2001 when the Taliban ordered all graven images of humans to be destroyed. But when we opened these other boxes that were saved in the bank vault, we saw these absolutely sumptuous ivories, with depictions of courtly scenes: women sitting, dancing, talking.

What do these objects tell us about the story of Afghanistan?
We often have a misunderstood concept of what trade was like across Asia at this metaphorical time and place called the Silk Road. There's no road, of course; it's just trade between East and West. But the concept that it was only Rome that was interested in the objects of China, and only China interested in the objects of Rome—this collection shows us that's not true. In Afghanistan there were merchants, there were artisans, and they were creating their own Silk Road style, and it was being traded East and West.

How many Afghan museum pieces were lost during this recent period of war and chaos?
We have two ways of gauging that. These heroes who hid away the masterpieces of the Kabul museum did a masterful job. They took the really valuable pieces and hid them away. Of that group, we have about 95 percent preserved. That's fabulous. The museum, of course, had storerooms and maybe had a total of about 100,000 objects. Unfortunately, when we finished our inventory, we inventoried only about 33,000.

Do you have a sense of how much of that was destroyed by the Taliban?
We know the Taliban smashed about 2,000 statues. But the thing is, these Afghans are kind of obstinate, right? And as soon as the Taliban smashed these things, other Afghans went about picking up the pieces and gluing them back together. It's kind of a remarkable story. This is a group of people we should tell the world about.

How much is on the international black market?
There's a certain amount on the market, but there are more objects on the market from illicit excavations [than stolen museum pieces]. The situation in Afghanistan is like Iraq, where looting is a little bit uncontrolled. [Yet] a whopping 1,500 archaeological sites are still extant in Afghanistan. The map of Afghanistan with those 1,500 sites on it makes it look like an archaeological wonderland.

What is the Afghan National Museum like today?
International aid groups have helped put the roof back on. It's beginning to be a functional museum. But I think Afghanistan deserves a new museum. We would love the world to get together and realize that this is one of the treasures of the world, and build a new museum someplace where all Afghans can see these treasures.