Afghan Artifacts, Feared Lost, Are Discovered Safe in Storage

By CARLOTTA GALL, New York Times, November 18, 2004

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Thousands of valuable artifacts from Afghanistan's National Museum, long feared destroyed or stolen, survived two decades of war hidden away in storage, the museum's director and the minister of information and culture said Wednesday.

"They are intact,'' said the minister, Sayed Makhdum Raheen. "They have been packed away since the Russian times," referring to the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980's.

Museum staff and experts from the National Geographic Society recently completed an inventory of dozens of crates and boxes containing 22,513 items that spent the past 16 years in vaults, through the civil war and the rise of the Taliban movement in the 1990's.

In a conference call from Washington, Frederik Hiebert, an archaeologist and research fellow with the National Geographic Society, said it was widely believed that about 70 percent of Kabul's museum collection, one of the richest in South and Central Asia, and ranging over 5,000 years of civilization at the heart of the Silk Road, had been stolen, melted down or otherwise destroyed. But this summer, at the invitation of the museum staff, he found that the collection was not only largely intact, but in outstanding condition.

"Sometimes they were wrapped in pink toilet paper, sometimes in newspaper, but all were very carefully placed in the boxes," he said.

Among the rediscovered artifacts is a third-century glass vase depicting the lighthouse at Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, Mr. Hiebert said.

Omara Khan Massoudi, the museum's director, confirmed in an interview that Afghanistan's most famous archaeological finds are safe. These include intricately carved second-century ivory panels, known as the Bagram ivories from the capital of the Kushan Empire, Buddhist frescos from the caves of Bamiyan, stucco Buddhist figures from the site of Hadda in eastern Afghanistan, and thousands of Greek and Bactrian gold and silver coins from Alexander the Great's cities in northern Afghanistan.

The collection's survival owed much to the quiet efforts of museum personnel, including Mr. Massoudi, who was a junior staff member in 1988, when the decision was made to move the most important artifacts. It was near the end of the Soviet occupation and the Afghan Communist leader, President Muhammad Najibullah, foresaw that attacks from the mujahedeen rebels would only increase. "We knew and the government knew changes would come," Mr. Massoudi said.

More than 200 crates and boxes of artifacts were moved from the museum, on the outskirts of Kabul, downtown for storage in the ministry building. The most valuable pieces, including the Bactrian Gold, a collection of over 20,000 items from 2,000-year-old burial mounds, had already been stored in the presidential palace compound.

But the harder-to-move pieces and less valuable pottery were left behind in the museum, and suffered the greatest damage in the years that followed. In 1993 the museum was hit by a rocket and a fire broke out, destroying all the paper records.

When the Taliban seized Kabul in 1996, it brought a welcome order. But in the next five years as Muslim fundamentalists gained power, the museum's treasures, especially those depicting the human form or representing other religions, like statues of the Buddha, were at risk.

In April 2001, the Taliban blew up the giant Buddhist sculptures at Bamiyan, causing an outcry around the world and striking fear into the hearts of the few museum personnel who knew what was hidden in Kabul.