It was one of the world’s great cultural mysteries, a tantalising rumour of ancient Afghan treasures hidden from the Taliban during its brutal rule. As the Melbourne Museum prepares to unveil a glorious collection once feared lost, Andrew Stephens charts an extraordinary tale of rediscovery.
Curators examine items recovered after being hidden for decades. Photo: Ken Garrett, National Geographic
The ancient treasures of Afghanistan, including a huge hoard of gold, were long gone when photographs circulated in 1994 showing Kabul's National Museum with its roof destroyed. It had been hit by rockets, a fire had been lit and chunks of its vast collection had been hidden, looted, damaged or spirited away to the international black market. The building had been annexed by the military, the city was in terror, and it was a disaster zone.
Another great Afghan treasure, the 1600-year-old giant Buddha statues a few hundred kilometres away at Bamiyan, couldn't be sold or melted down. Instead, they were dynamited in March 2001 by the Taliban. The world was aghast at pictures showing the shattered sockets where the two monumental statues, 55 metres and 38 metres tall, once nestled beautifully in the side of the cliff. Their destroyers also laid waste to more than 2500 pieces of art that had somehow survived at the museum.
As cultural heritage was obliterated, people were, too.
Fredrik Hiebert finds the extremities perplexing: knowing there is a small minority of people who can kill others and seek to erase culture, while there are also people who nurture each other and create astonishing works of beauty, such as the Buddhas or the delicate golden treasures – necklaces, crowns, medallions – that were kept in Kabul's museum.
He remains optimistic. As he says, such histories and cultures can be powerful tools for diplomacy. Hiebert's own story has become a form of ambassadorship for Afghanistan, and it is a story that has caused many tellers of his tale to invoke Indiana Jones. It has all the ingredients: priceless piles of ancient Afghan gold, treasures buried, found and lost again, single-minded archaeologists making spectacular finds, and a violent enemy that would stop at nothing to achieve its aims.
This tale began in 1988, when Hiebert was 19 and travelled to Afghanistan's neighbour, Turkmenistan – then part of the USSR – to research his PhD on the Silk Road, the ancient trade route that stretched from China and south-east Asia to Europe, via central Asia, Africa and the Middle East. There, he met the man who was to be his co-supervisor: a famous, much older Greek-Russian archaeologist named Viktor Sarianidi.
Banners at the National Museum of Kabul declare: 'A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive'. Photo: Pierre Cambon, courtesy Musee Guimet
Hiebert is now a renowned archaeologist and explorer. He is a fellow with the National Geographic Society and the curator of an exhibition touring the world named Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul, but the meeting with Sarianidi was portentous for the course the younger man's career would follow.
"It was amazing," he says. "We were sitting outside under the stars, in central Asia, in this mystical land, and I asked Viktor, 'What was your best find?' " The archaeologist sat back, looked at the stars and said that 10 years earlier he had been working in Afghanistan and found this incredible treasure: almost 22,000 pieces of intact gold in six burial mounds at a place called Tillya Tepe, or the Golden Hill. No person had touched that gold for more than 2000 years. Finding the Bactrian Gold – or the Bactrian Hoard, as it was known – made headlines around the world.
The wonder was short-lived.
Sarianidi told Hiebert it was impossible to imagine what it was like to be an archaeologist with 22,000 pieces of gold sitting in your hands. "He said it was the most glorious moment of his life, and the most difficult because as he was finding these intact golden treasures, which were, in fact, the first Silk Road art, there were armed horsemen riding around saying, 'You better get out of here because something is about to happen'. Revolution was in the air."
Sarianidi photographed some of the treasures, put them in paper bags and took them to the National Museum in Kabul. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan the following year, 1979, and millions died in the uprising that ensued. The country fell into chaos; the museum was plundered. Within a few years, Sarianidi could get no information about where the invaluable objects were. His glorious treasure seemed lost.
Hiebert wanted to tell the tale and convinced National Geographic to do a report, which it did in March 1990. The article ended by asking readers to look well at the photos because no one knew where these golden treasures were, or if they even still existed. Hiebert, Sarianidi and the world's leading archaeologists believed the hoard had been destroyed and lost forever – probably melted down to get cash to fund a terrorist cell or to buy passports out of the war-ravaged country.
The story haunted Hiebert, who kept in touch with Sarianidi. They concocted theories about the fate of the Bactrian Gold, but deep down believed it would never be seen again.
"The problem was after the Taliban got chased out of Afghanistan in 2001 and the country came back onto the world's radar screen, questions about the treasure came up," Hiebert says. "I was absolutely sure it was gone." But in 2003, rumours (albeit flimsy ones) suggested it might not be.
Hiebert again went to National Geographic magazine and convinced it to send him to Kabul on the off chance. There he visited the National Museum and asked the director, Omara Khan Massoudi, about the treasure. It seemed to be a dead end. He asked if the treasures were preserved and was told "maybe", but that the keys had been lost. "It was like The Wizard of Oz," Hiebert says. As he was walking out the door, Massoudi said, "Wait, don't go away." If Hiebert promised to inventory the items from Tillya Tepe – all 22,000 of them – the crates containing them could be found, the director said.
Hiebert does not know why Massoudi chose that moment, and chose him, to finally reveal that the treasure was safe. "Maybe we will never know the answer."
He returned to the US and encouraged National Geographic to employ him and fund the inventory. After some time, the museum asked Hiebert to return to Kabul and he was taken, along with Viktor Sarianidi, who had been flown in from Turkmenistan for the occasion, to see the "lost" treasures. There, someone with a blowtorch and a circular saw was ready to cut open the steel boxes. The keys, indeed, had truly been lost – probably deliberately so – but the treasures had secretly been kept safe in a presidential bank vault.
What was even more astonishing than the treasures being rediscovered was that about 30 Afghans – mainly workers at the National Museum – had somehow managed to maintain silence for all those years about the treasure being hidden. While some of the museum's collection had been stored in a suburban residence – objects were piled to the ceiling in basements and hallways – the Bactrian Gold had been packed in the steel boxes and conveniently "forgotten" at its secret location.
Now the boxes were cracked open and Sarianidi, their first discoverer who knew them so well, verified their authenticity. And now they are touring the world – they are about to be unveiled at Melbourne Museum – and are a form of cultural ambassadorship for a country Hiebert believes will rise from the ashes. "You see the effects of war everywhere in Kabul," he says. "Every street corner, every intersection, in the eyes of every person. War is hell, let me tell you that. But to think they had the sense of self to preserve this.
"It was the most amazing moment, humbling and honouring to actually witness [the rediscovery]. That sense of transformation from art heritage that has been stolen to saying, 'We are the stewards of the past'. These are people who have lived day-to-day for the past 20 years in a war-torn country. This made all the difference; it was about the Afghan people."
Sarianidi took Hiebert aside after the unveiling – or rediscovery – and told him he had already inventoried the 22,000 items, in 1978. Now it was Hiebert's turn. It took a few months; not one item was missing.
How on earth, though, did those 30 key holders, as they were known, manage to keep the Bactrian Gold's location a secret? How did they even keep the fact that they had been hidden in the first place a secret?
"You can have five or six different stories about why they initiated this process," Hiebert says. "We will never know what happened. We in the West want to know the truth but maybe one of the ways they kept it secret was that they had five different stories, all of them true in their own way. It confused everybody."
Dr Patrick Greene, director of Museum Victoria and also an archaeologist, knew when he saw the Afghan treasures on display in London a few years after the rediscovery that he had to bring them to Australia. "That rediscovery was a sensation, and what an enormous relief that the material has survived because the Kabul National Museum is going to be important for Afghanistan's future in terms of its knowledge of itself and its material," he says.
Some of the Bactrian Gold is part of the exhibition. There are also bronze and stone sculptures, ivories, painted Roman glassware and other ancient works of art and – astonishingly – material from a Greek city that was founded in Afghanistan in the 4th century BC by one of Alexander the Great's generals. "That Greek city was there for about 300 years and this was not known about until the 1960s," Green says. "During excavations they found a gymnasium, stadia, theatres, a grid layout – a planned city – all sorts of things, even down to busts of the philosophers."
The exhibition ranges from 2200BC to the 2nd century AD and comes from four archaeological sites in Afghanistan: the ancient city of Fullol, the former Greek city Ai Khanum, treasures from what is thought to be a merchant's storeroom in Begram and the gold treasures found in the nomads' graves in Tillya Tepe.
Greene marvels that all these treasures have come out of Afghanistan, a country whose image – correctly – is of a land beset by war, with much destruction and death.
"And not just in terms of the current conflict," he says. "But there is another story and that is of a very beautiful country. It doesn't look particularly beautiful when you see the news shots, but for people who have been there, they speak glowingly of just what a beautiful place it is. And it is also a country with a rich cultural history, a lot of which Icertainly didn't know but which will come out very strongly with this exhibition."
Greene's interest in the importance of cultural heritage is echoed passionately by Hiebert, who notes its humanising effect, its ability to draw people together from vastly different parts of the world, and to promote mutual understanding. As he says, the hidden treasures Sarianidi discovered are not only artistically splendid but they unlock mysteries about "our ancient shared past" on the Silk Road, a route that transformed much of the world and connected East, south and West.
Hiebert says he "might be over-psyching it", but he suspects understanding this sense of Afghan identity that goes back 2000 years is really important given today's situation. The tribalism of modern Afghanistan is, he says, a recent fracture. In the long-term trajectory, such tribalism is "the outlier, the variant – not the core".
At that core is a sense of who the Afghans are, their long history. "This is something more important than a pretty picture," Hiebert says. "You can be poor and in a difficult situation, but if you have a sense of self and a sense of heritage, you can overcome all this. You may not be literate or you may not have the iPhones and computers that people who live in the US, Australia or the UK have, but [a sense of heritage] is a very noble thing."
He is especially admiring of those 30 key holders who kept their lips sealed for more than 20 years, knowing all the while the treasure was safe from those who sought to plunder and destroy. "I have tried many times to say that these guys are heroes but they really reject that," Hiebert says. "They would say they were just doing their jobs. And I'd say, 'But you guys just saved Afghanistan's cultural heritage'."
■ Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul is at the Melbourne Museum from March 22 to July 28.