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.
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