The Jewels of Afghanistan

National Gallery Displays Artifacts That Resurfaced

Posted May 21, 2008 at 4:33pm

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, it threw the central Asian nation into turmoil, killing more than a million people and forcing countless others to flee a land that their ancestors had called home for centuries.

Thought to be lost in the chaos were an array

of priceless artifacts from the National Museum in Kabul, some dating back 2,000 years to a time when Afghanistan was a central trading point between the East and West.

In the scheme of things, the fate of the ancient objects was not the biggest priority when Afghanistan began to rebuild after the fall of the Taliban nearly seven years ago. After all, much of the nation’s infrastructure had been ruined during years of war, and fighting still raged in many of the country’s tribal provinces.

But that didn’t change the fact that when Afghani officials unearthed the artifacts in a crate hidden in the presidential palace in 2004, the discovery provided a spectacular moment of hope.

The pieces had survived, and Afghanistan would, too.

Starting on Sunday, many of the artifacts will be on public display at the National Gallery of Art, providing an opportunity for Americans to understand the incredible history of a country they have heard so much about but perhaps understand so little.

“This exhibit speaks to Afghanistan’s ancient history as well as her present day struggles,” noted Said Jawad, Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States, during a preview. “It showcases the sacrifices of our people to protect and preserve our heritage.”

The National Gallery is hosting the exhibition in partnership with the National Geographic Society. Dating from 2200 B.C. into the second century A.D., the treasures in the collection showcase Afghanistan’s importance as a trade route and highlight its relationship with an array of nations, including China, India, Greece and the Roman Empire.

For centuries, Afghanistan was a nation rich in gold, copper, tin and gems, and the pieces in the collection speak to this. Among the golden highlights are treasures found in the tomb of a nomadic chieftain and five female members of his household who were buried alongside him. They are believed to date back to sometime around 145 B.C.

The graves — excavated in 1978 by a team of Soviet and Afghan archaeologists — were placed in an earthen mound, with the chieftain in the center and the women surrounding him.

The women were believed to have been dressed in long tunics draped over leggings, some with headcoverings — a typical fashion for nomads of the era. But all that remained of the outfits were golden ornaments; their position on the skeletons gives a sense of how the outfits themselves might have looked.

Perhaps the highlight of the tomb collection is a golden crown found on the skeleton of a young woman. The woman, who is thought to have died when she was about 20, likely was of a high rank, judging by the crown and multiple layers of gold-embellished clothing found on her remains.

The crown itself is collapsible, with a base decorated with flowers that were once inlaid with turquoise centers. Five tall trees are inserted into small golden tubes at the crown’s base, and golden birds appear on the upper branches of four of the trees.

Aside from the golden items, there are a number of statuettes in the collection showcasing Afghanistan’s long history as a trade route. One statuette — dating to the first century A.D. — may depict the Indian river goddess Ganga, a creature part crocodile, part elephant and part fish.

Then there’s a bronze mask of Silenus, dating back to the first century A.D. and believed to have been imported from the Greco-Roman world. (Silenus is a companion of Dionysos, the ancient god of wine.)

Fredrik Hiebert, a National Geographic archaeologist who helped catalog the collection, noted that it helps archaeologists to understand how the world worked 2,000 years ago. Those who secretly hid the treasures of the Kabul museum just before the Soviet invasion are heroes, he added.

Jawad noted that when the exhibit was displayed in Europe, it was known as the “Lost Treasures of Afghanistan.” But a decision was made to give it a more fitting title for its trip to the United States.

“It was lost to the Taliban, it was lost to the Soviets, it was lost to those who wanted to destroy it,” he said. “But it was never lost to us.”

“Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul” is scheduled to run through Sept. 7 at the National Gallery of Art.