Photograph by: Richard Barnes, National Geographic June 2008
Afghanistan, a nation with a rich history and rare, ancient artifacts, has long been a cultural crossroads. After decades of war, however, many of the nation's treasures have been lost or destroyed, often intentionally—the Taliban regime ordered the destruction of all non-Islamic statues and tombs.
One bright spot is the Bactrian gold collection. Among Afghanistan's most prized treasures, it was thought to have been stolen and the pieces sold on the antiquities black market. But the gold was uncovered in 2003 and is currently on tour as part of a National Geographic exhibition.
The Bactrian objects were first discovered in 1978 by Russian archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi, who’d gone to Afghanistan in search of Bronze Age pottery. Instead he found a royal nomad family’s hidden tombs filled with gold. Sarianidi unearthed more than 20,000 golden artifacts that date back some 2,000 years.
Before the Soviets invaded in 1979, the artifacts were moved to the National Museum in Kabul. Years of war followed, and the museum was bombed. But its director, Omara Khan Massoudi, and a handful of other museum officials secretly hid Afghanistan's ancient treasures, including the Bactrian gold, in vaults under the presidential palace.
In 2003, after the Taliban was overthrown, Massoudi thought the time was right to unearth the treasures again, and he invited National Geographic fellow Fredrik Hiebert to catalog them. These treasures, a reflection of Afghanistan’s magnificent past, will no doubt help bolster national pride when they finally return to the National Museum for all to admire.
Atwood, Roger. "Afghanistan's Hidden Treasures." National Geographic (June 2008), 130-145.
Lawler, Andrew. "Mending Afghanistan." National Geographic (December 2004), 28-41.
Sarianidi, Viktor. "The Hoard of Bactria." National Geographic (March 1990), 50-75.
Begram ivory and bone carvings.
Comiteau, Lauren. "Saving Afghanistan’s Art." Time (January 8, 2008).
Some eight months passed between the moment the safes suspected to contain the Bactrian gold were found and when they were opened. The primary reason for this delay was that no one could find the keys—or at least their keeper. A vital member of an honor system for holding property that dates back to the Ottoman Empire, the talwidar, or keeper of the keys, was the only person allowed by law to open the safes. This system helped protect these treasures from an outsider's grasp.
But no one had known of this talwidar's whereabouts or that of his sons, who were next in line to assume responsibility for the keys, for at least a decade. Only after a lengthy appeal process was a decree issued stating that a representative from the Ministry of Justice could assume the talwidar's role. Then the safecracking could begin. —Karen C. Font
Font, Karen C. "More to Explore." (December 2004).
Last updated: April 17, 2008