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« Reply #30 on: March 16, 2009, 11:11:14 am »

                                     Rescued Afghan treasures on display in Houston

March 16, 2009
Houston Chronicle

Walking through the galleries where "Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures From the National Museum, Kabul" is installed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, curator Fredrik Hiebert still can't quite believe what he sees.

"Every time I look at these objects, I feel that I'm looking at something that is so special, because it shouldn't be here," says Hiebert, a National Geographic archaeology fellow. "It should have been melted. It should have been stolen."

But the 228 intricately crafted gold ornaments and other ancient artifacts, which reflect not just one country's heritage but much of the ancient world's, were saved from looting and destruction by a group of determined Afghans. They are on display at the Houston museum as part of a tour organized by the National Geographic Society and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

For most of his career, Hiebert, like the rest of the world, believed these masterpieces had fallen victim to some 25 years of conflict that had plagued Afghanistan.

After all, he knew Viktor Sarianidi, the Russian archaeologist who discovered the six 2,000-year-old nomadic burial grounds containing more than 21,000 pieces of gold in 1978, on the eve of the former Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. The first evidence of ancient nomads' trading routes in northern Afghanistan, they revealed a synthesis of Greek, Roman, Persian, Indian, Chinese and Siberian styles.

"He literally had to excavate these six burials right through the winter in the freezing cold and then take all the artifacts in brown paper bags in buses down to Kabul, inventory them very quickly and then hide them away," Hiebert says.

Sarianidi photographed the objects but had no opportunity to study or display them. He told Hiebert the story of his find in 1987, when the two were on a dig in the deserts of Turkmenistan. In 1990, Sarianidi wrote an article for National Geographic magazine that Hiebert translated.

The last line of the article read: "Look well at these pictures of the Bactrian masterpieces that follow. Who knows when they will be seen again."

Four years later, as civil war raged, the National Museum, Kabul, was struck by a rocket and burst into flames. Reports spread that a large number of works had been stolen. That was that, Hiebert and Sarianidi thought.

"Our mantra was, 'Everything's gone lost, melted or stolen,' " Hiebert says.

Then, in August 2003, Hiebert heard a BBC Radio report that Afghan President Hamid Karzai, then the newly appointed interim president, had been "snooping around the presidential palace and found that there was a bank vault in the basement, which hadn't been breached," Hiebert says. "His minister of finance and the bank director went in there and found the gold bullion of Afghanistan. It hadn't been breached by the Communists, not by the mujahideen, not even by the Taliban and there it was."

That's because National Museum officials, including Omara Khan Masoudi, who has been the museum's director since 2002, had secretly transferred many of the most precious objects to the vault during an escalation of violence in 1988, when Masoudi was head of the exhibitions department.

"The people who were involved in the transportation [of the artifacts], some of them left the country. Some of them died during the civil war," Masoudi says. "But the few people who were left alive, we took this decision never to give any information to anybody. Why? Because we knew that if people knew about the value of the artifacts ... it would be too dangerous."

National Geographic sent Hiebert to Kabul, where Masoudi agreed to open the locked boxes if Hiebert would do an inventory. After three months inside the vault, Hiebert determined that "every single piece of gold that [Sarianidi] had counted from the Bactrian hoard was there," he says.

But that wasn't all. Masoudi and his colleagues had also hidden treasures from three other archaeological sites in the vault and at a second location. They included fragmentary gold bowls with artistic links to Mesopotamia and Indus valley cultures; bronze and stone sculptures and a silver gilded plaque from a former Greek colony; and bronzes, ivories and painted glassware that had been imported from Roman Egypt, China and India and excavated from ancient storerooms discovered in the 1930s and 1940s.

Now a selection of the masterpieces is on tour, showcasing a side of Afghanistan not seen by the outside world in recent decades. National Museum staffers accompany each stop, receiving training in current curatorial and conservation practices and learning English, which helps connect them with the global art world.

"The fact that we can show these objects here, this exhibition, is a testament to modern Afghans to their bravery and their nobleness for preserving their culture," Hiebert says. "Because it's not just the culture of Afghanistan. ... This is the center of the Silk Road, so it's the composite of all our worlds, which is why, when you look here, you see many familiar things."Plan your life

"Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures From the National Museum, Kabul" continues through May 17 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet St., Houston. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 12:15 p.m. to 7 p.m. Sundays. $7, with discounts. 713-639-7300.
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