Over the last 35 years of near-constant conflict in Afghanistan, the country’s National Museum has seen some 70 percent of its collections destroyed or stolen. In one particularly devastating example from 2001, Taliban fighters pillaged the museum, smashing every artifact they could find bearing a human or animal likeness, which they considered sacrilegious. Yet over the last few years, several hundred of the most important of the destroyed objects have been painstakingly reassembled, while international authorities have intercepted thousands more stolen artifacts and returned them to the museum.
Located on the Silk Road trade route linking China with the eastern Mediterranean, ancient Afghanistan was a magnet for settlers from different ethnicities and religions, from Hindus, Muslims and Jews to Buddhists and Zoroastrians. The National Museum’s collections reflected this diversity, including priceless objects dating back to the Bronze and Stone Ages. Among its most prized artifacts were a statue of King Kanishka, ruler of the Kushan empire that ruled much of South Asia from the 1st to the 4th century A.D., and the Bactrian Hoard, a cache of some 20,000 gold, silver and ivory objects recovered from ancient burial mounds in northern Afghanistan in the late 1970s.
In 1988, nearly a decade into Afghanistan’s bitter civil war, National Museum and government officials made the decision to transfer many of the museum’s most valuable artifacts (including the Bactrian Hoard) to secret hiding places at the Ministry of Information, the presidential palace and other locations. “Key keepers” for these secret vaults went to great lengths, at considerable risk to their personal safety, to keep such valuables hidden through the civil war and the years of Taliban rule that followed. During their rampage through the museum in March 2001, Taliban fighters destroyed some 2,500 artifacts, including two giant statues of the Buddha carved from the cliffs of Bamian province in central Afghanistan some 1,400 years ago.
Then in 2003, after a U.S. military campaign ousted Taliban from power and the nation’s first open elections installed Hamid Karzai as president, the Central Bank in Kabul reported that museum trunks left in its vault in the presidential palace in 1989 were found intact. A team of international experts later verified that the artifacts recovered there included the Bactrian Hoard, which many feared had disappeared during Islamist rule. Meanwhile, the National Museum reopened in 2004 with its collections still in disarray. Fragments of the destroyed artifacts remained in boxes and bags in storerooms, and even those objects left intact had been damaged after attacks left museum without a roof.
In the years since then, however, archeological teams (mainly French) have helped to reassemble the destroyed artifacts, piece by piece. In addition, Interpol and UNESCO joined forces with international governments to intercept and return at least 857 stolen objects to the museum, with the help of customs agents around the world on alert for ancient Afghan art headed for the black market. Some 11,000 additional artifacts have been seized at Afghanistan’s own borders. As reported by the New York Times this week, a team from the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute is now in the midst of a three-year grant from the U.S. government to catalog every object in the museum’s collections digitally in order to guard against theft and aid in future restorations and research.
Among the 300 of the most important of the 2,500 objects destroyed by the Taliban that have been reassembled over the past few years are the statue of King Kanishka; a larger than life-sized, cross-legged statue of Bodhisatva Siddartha dating to the second or third century A.D.; and a series of Greco-Bactrian Buddha statues that are some of the earliest representations of Buddha in human form. Many other priceless artifacts are awaiting similar restoration. Efforts by the Chicago team to catalog the collection have also resulted in some striking new finds, such as a clay tablet with cuneiform writing belonging to the sixth century B.C. Persian civilization of Cyrus the Great. Originally found in an ancient Kandahar trash dump and long thought lost, it was uncovered in a basement storeroom at the museum.
Funds are being raised for a planned new home for the National Museum, including proper humidity control, lighting, fire protection and security. Meanwhile, the museum’s crown jewels, the Bactrian Hoard, have been on tour since 2007, visiting France, the Netherlands, Britain, North America and Australia. Billed as the “Hidden Treasures of Afghanistan,” they have provided the museum with $3.5 million in much-needed revenue so far.