By October 2003 - more than two years after U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban regime - most of the key holders had disappeared or had fled Afghanistan. Massoudi felt it was time to see if the objects had survived the war. When a team of locksmiths wrenched open the safes that month, every last piece of the Bactrian gold was there, trussed in the same tissue paper in which the museum staff had wrapped it. Five months later, researchers opened a set of footlockers stashed in the same underground vault and made another jaw-dropping discovery: priceless 2,000-year-old ivory carvings and glassware that had been excavated in the 1930s from a site known as Begram and given up for lost. Massoudi's staff had cloistered those away too, and they were remarkably well preserved.
"If we had not hidden them, the treasures of Afghanistan would have been lost. That is a fact. Those who knew the truth kept silent," says Massoudi, sipping ginger tea in his spartanly furnished office. His museum - Afghanistan's museum - has been rebuilt with help from UNESCO and other international donors, and it hums with activity now. Exhibit planners stroll from gallery to gallery, taking measurements for future installations; teachers lecture in Dari to groups of schoolgirls in head scarves. At the door, policemen in gray-flannel uniforms keep a close watch. Visitor numbers have inched up to about 6,000 a year. Storerooms are filling with looted artifacts intercepted by customs agents around the world and restituted to Afghanistan, including some 5,000 confiscated artifacts returned from Switzerland and Denmark. More than four tons of loot seized by British police sit in a warehouse in London's Heathrow Airport awaiting repatriation.
In the museum lobby, Massoudi demonstrates what it means to rebuild heritage. Standing in a display case is a life-size statue of a bodhisattva, a type of Buddhist deity, dating from the third century A.D., an era when Afghanistan was a predominantly Buddhist land. Taliban hammers had shattered the fired-clay statue, and museum conservators recently finished reassembling the fragments. A jigsaw of cracks is still visible, but the statue's face again glows with rapturous piety.
"As we finish the restoration of pieces, we bring them out to show the public, one by one. We will be doing this for many years," says Massoudi. Yet the choicest artifacts - the ones he and his staff concealed for so long - won't be on display in Kabul for some time to come. The museum lacks an adequate security system and remains short on staff, while a series of suicide bombings around Kabul have underlined the continuing risks.