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Published: June 2008

Afghan Treasures

Gold Pendant

Afghanistan's Hidden Treasures

How a trove of priceless antiquities survived.

By Roger Atwood
Photograph by Richard Barnes

Omara Khan Massoudi knows how to keep a secret. Massoudi is director of the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul. Like the French citizens during World War II who hid works of art in the countryside to prevent them from falling into Nazi hands, Massoudi and a few trusted tahilwidars - key holders - secretly packed away Afghanistan's ancient treasures when they saw their country descend into an earthly hell.

First came the Soviet invasion in 1979, followed about ten years later by a furious civil war that reduced much of Kabul to ruins. As Afghan warlords battled for control of the city, fighters pillaged the national museum, selling the choicest artifacts on the black market and using museum records to kindle campfires. In 1994 the building was shelled, destroying its roof and top floor. The final assault came in 2001, when teams of hammer-wielding Taliban zealots came to smash works of art they deemed idolatrous. When they finished, more than 2,000 artifacts lay in smithereens.

Throughout those dark years, Massoudi and a handful of other museum officials kept quiet about the hoard of museum artifacts - among them the crown jewels of Afghanistan, the famed Bactrian gold - that they had hidden in vaults under the presidential palace in 1988, as the Soviet occupation gave way to civil war. Researchers the world over despaired of ever seeing the objects again, thinking they'd been sold piecemeal into the illicit antiquities trade or destroyed by the Taliban in their final, iconoclastic frenzy.

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