In 1988, Afghanistan was ten years into a violent civil war. As the security situation in the capital worsened, government and National Museum officials worried the Kabul museum, home to thousands of historical artifacts and works of art, would be destroyed or looted. They made a plan to transfer many of the objects to secret hiding places.
By 1989, the transfer was complete, and caches of priceless historical objects were secured in the Ministry of Information and the Central Bank treasury vault at the presidential palace. Among the hidden treasures were Bronze Age gold pieces, hundreds of ancient coins, and the famous "Bactrian hoard," a collection of some 20,000 gold, silver, and ivory objects from burial plots at Tillya Tepe in northern Afghanistan.
Workers involved in the transfer swore secrecy and designated "key holders" for the vaults. They kept their covenant through civil war and Taliban rule at enormous personal risk.
The objects remained hidden despite nearly constant conflict and political upheaval in Kabul. But a campaign by the Taliban in 2001 to "destroy all images" resulted in the loss of thousands of irreplaceable artifacts throughout the country, including many of the items hidden in the Ministry of Information. But the palace treasures survived.
In 2003, after the Taliban had been thrown from power by a U.S. military campaign and Afghanistan's first open elections had installed Hamid Karzai as president, a report from the Central Bank in Kabul revealed that the museum trunks deposited at the palace vault in 1989 were intact.
A team of local and international experts, including archaeologist and National Geographic Fellow Fredrik Hiebert, assembled in Kabul to see the vault opened and verify the authenticity of its contents.
When the first safe was finally cracked, the team saw piles of small plastic bags with old labels, each one containing beads and jewelry. Russian archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi, whose team had discovered the Tillya Tepe objects in 1979, smiled when he spotted an artifact with a small wire repair that he'd made with his own hands.
In June of 2004, an announcement was made to the world that the Bactrian hoard and other hidden treasures of Afghanistan were found, and an international effort was mounted to preserve these collections and put them on exhibition for the world to see.
"Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures From the National Museum, Kabul" offers the world a look at a selection of the contents of the Central Bank vault. It is a collection of some of the most remarkable archaeological finds in all of Central Asia, pieces that are not only artistically splendid but also reveal a diverse and thriving ancient culture.
The exhibition includes four separate collections. One is from the ancient city of Fullol and includes a Bronze Age set of gold bowls that hint of the native wealth of Afghanistan. Another contains artifacts from Aï Khanum, a Greek city in northern Afghanistan. A third features untouched treasures from what is thought to be a merchant's storeroom in Begram, sealed up 2,000 years ago. And the fourth is the Bactrian gold, a collection of the precious items discovered in the graves of six nomads in Tillya Tepe.
"Hidden Treasures" offers visitors a look not only at the rare and beautiful objects themselves but also at the history and significance of Afghanistan as a place of remarkable diversity. Aside from Fullol, the Bronze Age site, the collections relate to one of the most dynamic periods in Afghanistan's history, from the third century B.C. to the first century A.D., which covers the beginning of Silk Road trade.
Exhibition opening March 2013, in Melbourne, Australia
Buy the companion book.
See the stories of heroism and bravery that saved ancient treasures in war-torn Afghanistan.
Follow a harrowing journey into war-torn Afghanistan and the lives of its people struggling against the Taliban.
This dual-sided map shows the borders, history, landscape, and peoples of Afghanistan.