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Faced with these problems, Afghans have gathered their ancient treasures into a dazzling exhibition and sent it on an international tour. The Afghan government asked National Geographic to inventory the artifacts and help organize the exhibition, which is currently at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., after a two-year spell in Europe. In addition to safeguarding the treasures, the Afghans hope the exhibit will elevate the image of their country.

"The history of Afghanistan is one of receiving the arts of others, and then turning them into our own way of expression," says Massoudi. He believes the exhibit will help people see beyond his country's recent history of intolerance and isolation to the open, cosmopolitan spirit that long characterized this creative melting pot and hub of the Silk Road trade.

Walk through the bazaars in Kabul or Mazar-e Sharif and you'll see why, for more than two millennia, people have been calling Afghanistan the crossroads of Asia. One face looks Mediterranean, another Arab - or Indian, or Chinese, or eastern European. Eyes range from pea green to chestnut brown to something approaching orange. Successive invasions and influences wove a tapestry of ethnicities and left behind what the exhibition curator, Fredrik Hiebert of the National Geographic Society, calls "some of the most remarkable archaeological finds in all of Central Asia."

The ancient city of Begram supplied many of the luminous objects. Today Soviet-era land mines litter its grassy landscape, and American fighter jets from a nearby air base howl overhead. But 2,000 years ago this was the opulent summer capital of the great Kushan Empire, which stretched as far as northern India. Traders brought ivories and art from all corners of Asia. Courtiers stuffed themselves on local figs, pomegranates, and grapes against the majestic scrim of the snowy Hindu Kush.

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