"We'll always have Paris" - Casablanca, 1942.
Present-day northern Afghanistan was the former kingdom of Bactria, which was conquered by Alexander the Great in 327 BC.
What is remarkable about the Afghan treasures currently on display at the Musée Guimet in Paris is that they exist at all. For 27 years of war, this treasure trove known as the Bactrian Gold, has been squirreled away in a bank vault under a royal palace in Kabul.
“The heroes of this story include Muhammad Najibullah, Afghanistan’s last Communist president, who in 1989 ordered that the treasures be hidden. Curators and employees of the Kabul Museum who shared the secret also later resisted threats and torture by Taliban militants demanding entry into the safes containing the treasures. Thanks to this foresight and courage, then, Afghans can still boast a record of their ancient civilizations back to the Bronze Age, “ says Alan Riding of the New York Times.
“The highlight of the exhibition is a selection of 100 objects from among the 21,618 pieces of Bactrian gold discovered in 1978 by a Russian-Greek archaeologist, Viktor Sarianidi, at a site called Tillia-Tepe in northern Afghanistan. In six tombs from the 1st century A.D., gold objects that once decorated the bodies and robes of five women and one man lay untouched. Yet because relatively little is known about the Kushan dynasty which ruled the area at the time, the objects are in effect called upon to speak for themselves.”
Please read the rest of Mr. Riding’s excellent article here.
The national museum in Kabul was first looted by mujahadeen, then vandalised by the Taliban. As the chaos intensified in the late 1990s, tribal factions and then the Taliban attacked the vault trying to find the treasure they suspected was inside, but the inner doors stood firm. Bank employees "were beaten almost senseless ... but resisted." Ultimately local locksmiths opened the doors. Just a handful of people knew what was there - and finally, in 2003, the gold was uncovered, hidden in modest crates under piles of old currency. On a day in August, Afghan President Hamid Karzai provided a guided tour of the presidential palace's secret vault to show Afghans it had not been plundered.
Afghanistan's golden cache has never been shown in public to the Afghan people for security reasons. They have never seen it, which reminded me of a discussion you and I had about the wonderful treasures of the Vatican Museum.
‘Afghanistan, Rediscovered Treasures: Collections of the National Museum of Kabul’ runs through April 30, 2007. Guess what? After it's visit to France, the Bactrian Gold comes to the United States!