March 2013

Arts & Letters

A Few Brave Men

By Christopher Kremmer
The Bamiyan valley, after the destruction of the famed Buddha statues. © Duncan Dalzel-Job
‘Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures’

In the late 1970s, with war and a Soviet invasion looming, an Uzbek-born, Russian-trained archaeologist working in northern Afghanistan unearthed a priceless hoard of gold and gem-encrusted treasures from an unpromising mound outside a rural village. Tillya Tepe, meaning “Hill of Gold” in the local Turkic language, would eventually yield some 20,000 artefacts from six graves belonging to Central Asian nomads, whose tribes had laid waste to Bactria, an ancient Greek civilisation that existed on the Silk Route around the first century AD. But the treasure’s moment in the sun was brief. For most of the next 30 years, the whereabouts of the hoard would remain buried in rumour and mystery.

So begins one of the great tales of modern archaeology, a story unveiled in Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures, the exhibition beginning a year-long, four-city national tour at the Melbourne Museum later this month. It is a secret story of what lies beneath the surface – the heroism of ordinary folk in a war-torn land, and the beauty and grandeur of a nation now known mainly for its horrors.

The archaeologist, Viktor Sarianidi, had no time to make a proper inventory of his spectacular discovery, let alone plaster copies of what he’d found. Instead, the treasures were handed over to museum officials in Kabul, and Sarianidi fled a country whose catastrophe has now entered its fourth decade. He returned briefly in 1982 to photograph the hoard.

Little displayed, the Bactrian gold remained secure but rarely seen by the public during a decade in which Kabul avoided the destruction unleashed in the countryside, as armed resistance to the Soviet occupation raged. But around the time the Russians withdrew in 1988, the treasure disappeared completely from view. Rumours proliferated that it had been spirited away to Moscow, or dispersed and sold by corrupt officials to international art dealers.

By July 1991, when I interviewed the then president, Mohammad Najibullah, in Kabul, the hoard had been removed from the National Museum and placed in a vault beneath the presidential palace, known as the Arg. Other priceless cultural treasures were secreted in hiding places in the National Bank and Ministry for Information and Culture, with the multiple keys required to access the vaults dispersed among anonymous officials designated as “the key-holders”.

There they would stay, throughout the civil war that followed Najibullah’s capture by the victorious mujahideen rebels in 1992, when nothing and no one was safe as Islamist factions from different ethnic groups shot and shelled the capital into a new dark age. The Arg itself was looted. As the fighting continued, street by street in subsequent years, the National Museum was reduced to a roofless ruin. Yet at every stage, often at risk to their lives, the devoted, poorly paid custodians did everything in their power to keep the exact whereabouts of the Bactrian gold and other treasures secret.

The artefacts they guarded originated between the third century BC and the second century AD, and included antiquities from Aï Khanum, the easternmost Greek city of ancient times, unearthed by French archaeologists in 1964; graceful stone statues of the Buddha draped in Greco-Roman robes sensitively carved by Central Asian Michelangelos before the birth of Christ; and the treasures of Bagram discovered in the 1930s, a site unique for the far-flung origins of what was found there, from Roman coins and Chinese lacquers to ivory objects from India.

The Taliban seized power in 1996, summarily executing Najibullah and banning music and figurative art in the name of Islam. Taliban militiamen, acting on the order of their supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, smashed scores of priceless sculptures held in the moribund National Museum building. In March 2001, the iconoclastic rampage reached its apogee with the demolition of the colossal sixth-century Bamiyan Buddhas.

Then came 11 September 2001, and a new war. The Taliban were overthrown and an elected parliament was restored. In August 2003, President Hamid Karzai announced that several museum boxes had been found in the presidential bank vault under the Arg. The first boxes were opened in the presence of Viktor Sarianidi eight months later. Also present was Fred Hiebert, an American protégé of the great archaeologist, and the curator of the current touring exhibition.

“The first safe was cracked, and finally after weeks of tense negotiations, confusion and uncertainty, we could peer inside,” Hiebert tells me. “And it was like, ‘Oh, my god. There it is. The Afghans have saved their cultural heritage.’”

The heroes were the long-serving museum and government officials and bank staff, about 20 of them, who had remained faithful in the dark years when betraying the secret could have easily bought safe passage for them and their families out of Afghanistan’s terror.

“This is something I want to tell my children about,” says Hiebert. “These Afghans lived through hell but retained their dignity, their sense of history and honour. They defended their culture with no thought of personal reward, and for that I admire them so much.”

Much has been lost, but much also has been saved. The years of uncertainty, however, expended the patience and interest of the man who first discovered the Bactrian gold, Sarianidi. “It was like seeing a lost child for him,” Hiebert recalls. “His heart and soul were in those things. He helped us identify the first couple of dozen pieces, but then said he was leaving. He took me by the arm and said, ‘There are 22,000 objects. I’ve already counted them once before. Now it’s your turn.’”

Museum Victoria’s CEO, archaeologist J Patrick Greene, says the exhibition of 233 pieces from four major sites affirms Afghanistan was once among the world’s richest and most sophisticated lands.

“That a Greek city like Aï Khanum, with gymnasiums and theatres, existed in what we today call Afghanistan – that was a revelation to me,” says Greene of the city where Homer was read and the plays of Sophocles were once performed. He compares the significance of the artefacts on display to those of ancient Egyptian Tutankhamun’s tomb, revealing as they do a major period in world history, the life of the ancient Silk Route.

Now, as in the past, Afghanistan’s strategic location and lucrative mineral resources are a blessing and a curse. “In such a place, everyone wants a piece of the action,” says Greene. “We think of Afghanistan as dry, dusty, poor and war-torn, when in reality it’s a breathtaking landscape with a rich cultural history.”

Permission for the National Museum’s treasures to leave Afghanistan was a sensitive matter that required a debate in parliament to approve it. The exhibition has been on the road for several years now, having travelled to North America, Britain and Scandinavia, and will probably continue for several years more. It will have been in Australia for a year before Sydneysiders see it in 2014.

With the Taliban likely to resume a role in government after international forces withdraw next year, the question arises as to whether the treasures can safely return to their homeland. Have the Taliban mellowed during their years in the wilderness? Or are they still the same iconoclasts who smashed thousands of exquisite sculptures and dynamited the Bamiyan Buddhas? Fred Hiebert is an optimist.

“The Afghans have already saved their culture once, and I believe they will defend it again if needed. But I hope peace and stability return because I’d love to go back and start digging. I mean, Viktor found one Tillya Tepe, but there’s no such thing as one site. There must be dozens or hundreds of related sites out there.”

The Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures exhibition opens this weekend at Melbourne Museum.

Christopher Kremmer
Christopher Kremmer is a journalist and novelist. His books include The Carpet Wars, Bamboo Palace, Inhaling the Mahatma and The Chase.

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

From the front page

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

U2 performing in the Las Vegas Sphere

Where the feats have no name: ‘U2:UV’ at Sphere

It’s no surprise it took U2 to launch post-stadium rock via a spectacular immersive show within the technical marvel of Las Vegas’s newest venue

Grace Tame running in the 2023 Bruny Island Ultra Marathon

Running out of trouble

How long-distance running changed the life of the former Australian of the Year (and earnt her a record win in an ultramarathon)

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Might as well face it

Lively discussions take place around the country every week on ethical non-monogamy, love addiction and how much sex is too much

In This Issue

‘Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott’ by David Marr, Black Inc, 256pp; $19.95

Political Animal

The Making of Tony Abbott

Quarterly Essay 49, ‘Not Dead Yet: Labor's Post-Left Future’ by Mark Latham, Black Inc, 101pp; $19.95

The Rise of the New Right

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Pemulwuy & Black Caesar

© Karen Kasmauski / National Geographic Stock

Fat City

What can stop obesity?


More in Arts & Letters

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Pictures of you

The award-winning author kicks off our new fiction series with a story of coming to terms with a troubled father’s obsessions

Jordan Wolfson, ‘Body Sculpture’ (detail), 2023

Call to arms: Jordan Wolfson’s ‘Body Sculpture’

The NGA’s newest acquisition, a controversial American artist’s animatronic steel cube, fuses abstraction with classical figure sculpture

U2 performing in the Las Vegas Sphere

Where the feats have no name: ‘U2:UV’ at Sphere

It’s no surprise it took U2 to launch post-stadium rock via a spectacular immersive show within the technical marvel of Las Vegas’s newest venue

McKenzie Wark

Novel gazing: McKenzie Wark’s ‘Love and Money, Sex and Death’

The expat writer and scholar’s memoir is an inquiry into “what it means to experience the self as both an intimate and a stranger”


Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality