All Is Not Lost


Treasures from Kabul Reveal Afghanistan’s Crossroads

Now that much of the original hype surrounding the landmark exhibition “Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul” has faded, what’s left to consider?

Forget for a moment all the fanfare, lectures, films and other events that often accompany a major international display of ancient relics — especially one from a country with such global relevance.

Forget for a moment, too, that the exhibition carries with it a rousing tale of intrigue, discovery and courage in the face of extreme adversity. After all, these cultural treasures dating back to 2200 B.C. were long thought to have been consumed by 25 years of conflict from the Soviet invasion to the rise of the Taliban — all which came on top of thousands of years of more trials and tribulation than any country should have to endure.

Amazingly enough, these precious artifacts survived, not lost or stolen but rather hidden and protected by the Afghan people. Their existence was revealed to the world in a dramatic announcement made by the National Museum in Kabul in 2003, and they are now being presented for everyone to see in all their glory, even as their country’s trials and tribulations continue.

But forget all that. A month after the exhibition opening, there remains a basic question: Is it worth seeing? The answer: Absolutely and emphatically yes.

If nothing else, gold, especially of the ancient sort, is always an attraction. But here we are in the presence of antiquity — very, very old antiquity — that was part of a historic crossroads of cultures and civilizations spanning thousands of years.

That historic allure casts a haunting spell over the exhibition and adds meaning to the sheer beauty of the artifacts themselves. A fancy gold bowl is one thing — knowing that gold bowl had artistic links to Mesopotamia long before the time of Christ is quite another.

Nearly 230 objects speak to Afghanistan’s geographical role as a kind of back-and-forth trading route that sat at the heart of the Silk Road and linked cultures from Asia to the Mediterranean. Treasures from all walks of life not only traversed this route, but would forever change and shape the nature of the country they crossed over.

Here we have a wealth of archeological finds, from elaborately carved Indian ivory reliefs to a gilded silver plaque depicting the Greek goddess of nature, along with a bounty of other treasures, including bronze and stone sculptures, painted glassware, robes, headdresses, bowls, figurines, jewelry, coins, crowns and even tombs. These objects not only represent an astonishing overlay of ancient cultures, they’re also the footprints of competing civilizations, from the Persians of Cyrus, to the Greeks of Alexander, to the Romans of Tiberius.

All the items are magnificent, humbling even, with loads of supportive material to help you imagine the sort of world that these artifacts existed in. But there are four main archeological areas that pull together the story of these ancient relics: the site of Tepe Fullol, dating to the Bronze Age 2,000 years ago; the Greek settlement at Aï Khanum (“Lady Moon”) founded by descendants of Alexander the Great 400 years before Christ; the trading city of Begram; and Tillya Tepe, a necropolis where the remains of high-ranking nomads and their families were discovered along with thousands of stunningly beautiful objects.

From Begram, for instance, excavations in the 1930s and 1940s produced narrative plaques made of ivory, a beautiful medallion depicting a three-dimensional young man, a horse statuette, a scale weight, a painted goblet depicting figures harvesting dates and many other finds. Begram speaks to a daily life of belief, socialization and sometimes, the sheer love of human beauty.

Tillya Tepe, meanwhile, appears to be all about going out in style — living proof that like the Egyptians, the Silk Road nomads wanted to take as much as they could with them when they died. Here alone are 100 gold ornaments from a collection of 20,000 pieces known as the “Bactrian Hoard,” which was discovered in 1978 by a Soviet-Afghan team in northern Afghanistan.

Dating from the first century B.C. to the first century A.D., this collection of jewelry and other gold ornaments comes from the graves of six nomads who overran Bactria and brought an end to the Greco-Bactrian kingdoms that had flourished there. The nomads apparently wanted to be buried with everything they conquered and created, and fortunately for us, everything was artistically gorgeous.

All of these objects are worth seeing in and of themselves, but the very story of their existence adds to their appeal. Beside the fact that they were hidden in a vault below the president’s palace in Kabul, their discovery and subsequent travels throughout Europe and the United States are meant to send a message. Looking at them, you stop thinking about the bomb attacks and people still dying in Afghanistan. Rather, you see a country that has served as a haven for many different civilizations — some of them among the greatest the world has ever seen.

The gold on display here shines a light, a resilient light, on a diverse, rugged country that is still transforming itself — yet again.

Afghan Ambassador Said Tayeb Jawad spoke about this theme of resurrection at the opening of the exhibition. “Today is a celebration of unforeseen hopes and new victories over past tragedies,” he declared.

“Our nation’s tradition is as brilliant and beautiful as the gold on display here at the gallery, but it has been covered by the ashes of war and neglect,” he added, noting, “Our hidden treasures are a fusion of Roman, Greek, Persian, Chinese, Indian and Balkan art influences with unique Afghan-Bactrian characteristics.”

He concluded, “These priceless artifacts are a testament to the Afghan people and to the heroism of the brave and selfless Afghans who preserved and protected them” — for which the world and history should be grateful.

Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul through Sept. 7 National Gallery of Art on the National Mall between 3rd and 9th Streets at Constitution Avenue, NW For more information, please call (202) 737-4215 or visit

About the Author

Anna Gawel contributed to this article. Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.