Lost & Found

Ancient gold artifacts from Afghanistan, hidden for more than a decade, dazzle in a new exhibition

Crown from the Tillya Tepe, Tomb VI, 1st century BC - 1st century AD. Crown is gold and imitation turquoise (Thierry Ollivier / Musée Guimet)
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Based on Indian works discovered at the site, Bernard believes that in the second century b.c., Ai Khanum became the Greco-Bactrian capital city Eucratidia, named for the expansionist king Eucratides, who likely brought the pieces back from India as spoils from his military campaigns there. After a century and a half as an outpost of Hellenistic culture in Afghanistan, the city came to a violent end. Eucratides was murdered in 145 b.c., apparently touching off a civil conflict that left the city vulnerable to marauding nomads, who burned and destroyed it the same year. Sadly, the archaeological site of Ai Khanum met a similar fate; it was looted and nearly obliterated during the years of Soviet occupation and civil strife in Afghanistan.

A Fortress in the Hindu Kush
In 329 b.c., Alexander the Great is believed to have established the fortress city of Alexandria of the Caucasus in a lush river valley south of the Hindu Kush mountains about 50 miles north of Kabul. Now known as Begram, the city was an important trading center for the Greco-Bactrian kingdom from about 250 to 100 b.c. and continued to thrive under the Kushan Empire that arose in the first century a.d.

According to Sanjyot Mehendale, a Near Eastern authority at the University of California at Berkeley, the Roman glass and bronze, Chinese lacquer and hundreds of Indian-style ivory plaques and sculptures unearthed at Begram in 1937 and 1939 suggested that the city had been a major commodities juncture along the Silk Road. Although French archaeologists Joseph and Ria Hackin, who excavated the site, concluded that Begram was the summer residence of the Kushan emperors, Mehendale believes that two sealed rooms containing what the Hackins called "royal treasure" were actually a merchant's shop or warehouse.

The glassware and bronze, she says, likely arrived by sea from Roman Egypt and Syria to ports near present-day Karachi, Pakistan, and Gujarat in western India, and were then transported overland by camel caravan. The exhibition's Begram section includes plaster medallions depicting Greek myths; ivory plaques recounting events from the life of Buddha; and whimsical fish-shaped flasks of blown colored glass.

In retrospect, National Museum of Afghanistan director Omara Khan Masoudi's decision to hide the Bactrian Hoard and other archaeological treasures in 1989 seems fortuitously prescient. Once an impressive cultural repository, the Kabul museum suffered massive damage and extensive looting during the factional conflicts of the 1990s. Then, in March 2001, the Taliban rampaged through the museum, smashing sculptures of the human form it viewed as heretical, destroying more than 2,000 artifacts. Although the National Museum was recently rebuilt with foreign assistance, it is not safe enough to display the country's most valuable treasures. The museum has received funds from the current exhibition tour, and there is a proposal to build a new, more secure museum closer to the center of Kabul, but it will be years before such a project can even be started. During the past year, about 7,000 visitors came to the museum; the numbers seem to matter less than the symbolic importance of keeping the building open. "The war destroyed so much," says Masoudi, "so whatever we can do to show off our ancient civilization—here and abroad—makes us proud."

Masoudi and Said Tayeb Jawad, Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States, believe the current exhibition represents a cultural reawakening and, perhaps, even a turning point. "We hope this exhibit will help overcome the darkness of Afghanistan's recent history," says Jawad, "and shed some light on its rich past, thousands of years old, as a crossroads of cultures and civilizations."

Author Richard Covington lives outside Paris and writes frequently on art, culture, the environment and social issues.

About Richard Covington

Richard Covington is a Paris-based author who covers a wide range of cultural and historical subjects and has contributed to Smithsonian, The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, among other publications.

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