Nomadic Crown depicting trees of Life, 2nd quarter of 1st century AD, Gold, imitation turquoise.

Afghanistan and the Treasure of the East-West Trade Route

Circular medallion with Eros and Psyche, Begram, Room 13 , 1st century AD, Plaster, National Museum of Afghanistan, Photo © Thierry Ollivier/Musée Guimet.

Male or female head, Aï Khanum, Temple with niches, Courtyard , 2nd century BC, Unfired clay, National Museum of Afghanistan, Photo © Thierry Ollivier/Musée Guimet.

First Century handle of a weapon measuring 7.2cm from a tomb in Tillia Tepe, Afghanistan, provided by The Afghanistan National Museum. (Photo by Thierry Ollivier/Musée Guimet/Exclusive by Getty Images).

Young horse-rider, Begram, Room 13 , 1st century AD, Bronze, National Museum of Afghanistan, Photo © Thierry Ollivier/Musée Guimet.

Excavations at Tillya Tepe in 1978 by Russian archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi. Six golden burials from the second quarter of the 1st century AD were found amongst the ruins of an older Bronze Age fortress. Photograph courtesy Viktor Sarianidi.

Painted beaker, Begram, Room 10 , 1st century AD, Glass, National Museum of Afghanistan, Photo © Thierry Ollivier/Musée Guimet.


National Gallery
4th and Constitution Avenue NW
Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures
from the National Museum, Kabul

May 25-September 7, 2008

Strategically located on the trade routes between East and West, ancient Afghanistan was at the crossroads of civilisations in central Asia. This is evident from the magnificent archaeological finds that have been made there. The exhibition presents 250 archaeological objects, most of which were "rediscovered" in 2004 in the vaults of the Central Bank in Kabul and brought to Europe in 2006 for restoration and for this travelling exhibition.

Four archaeological sites play a key role. The oldest, Tepe Fullol, dates from the Bactrian Bronze Age (around 2000 BC). In the exhibition it is followed by a larger section dealing with Ai Khanum, a city founded by Greeks in the wake of Alexander the Great's campaign of conquest and that bears witness to Hellenism on the edge of the steppes (4th to 2nd centuries BC). The famous gold treasure of Tillya-tepe is renowned: jewellery and other art objects from six graves from the 1st century AD which were excavated in 1979 by a Soviet-Afghan team led by the Russian archaeologist Sarianidi. They form a splendid mix of the art of the steppes, Graeco-Roman iconography, Indian objects and Chinese mirrors. Finally, in Begram, also from the 1st century AD, in 1937 and 1939 two sealed chambers were revealed containing elaborate Indian furniture in ivory, glass, vases and plaster emblemata of Hellenist origin.

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.

Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul explores the rich cultural heritage of ancient Afghanistan from the Bronze Age (2500 B.C.) through the rise of trade along the Silk Road in the first century A.D. Strategically located on the commercial routes between China and India in the East and Europe in the West, Afghanistan was at the crossroads of civilizations in Central Asia.

The works of art are from collections belonging to the National Museum of Afghanistan, Kabul. The gold objects from graves excavated at the northern site of Tillya Tepe were long thought to have been stolen or destroyed during the years of conflict in the region. In August 2003 Afghan president Hamid Karzai surprised the world when he announced these treasured gold artifacts had been located intact in the presidential palace bank vault in Kabul, more than 25 years after they had vanished from public view. The find was chronicled in the December 2004 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Assisting the team of Afghan archaeologists who verified and inventoried the recovered objects were National Geographic fellow Fredrik T. Hiebert, who curates the U.S. exhibition, and Carla Grissmann, a specialist of the collections at the National Museum of Afghanistan, Kabul.

The National Endowment for the Humanities, which provided financial support for the inventory in Afghanistan, has granted a Chairman’s Special Award for the U.S. exhibition that will make possible a wide range of interpretive and educational materials.

The selection of objects on display was unearthed in modern Afghanistan and attest to the region’s importance as an ancient crossroads of culture and commerce, central to the exchange of goods and ideas from Asia to the Mediterranean along trade routes known collectively as the Silk Road.

Drawn from four archaeological sites, the works of art from the collections of the National Museum of Afghanistan, Kabul, are the sole property of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

The earliest objects in the exhibition, from Tepe Fullol in northern Afghanistan, are fragmentary gold vases dated between 2500 B.C. and 2200 B.C.

The second group of archaeological finds, from the site of the former Greek city Aï Khanum in a region that was conquered by Alexander the Great, reflects the Mediterranean influence in the region between the fourth and second centuries B.C. The works include Corinthian capitals and bronze, ivory and stone sculptures representing Greek gods, as well as images of Central Asian figures carved in a Hellenistic style.

Items of trade from the third site, at Begram, date from the first century A.D. and include elaborately carved Indian ivory reliefs used as decorative elements on furniture and ivory statues, as well as vases, bronzes and painted glassware, many imported from Roman, Indian, Chinese, and East Asian markets.

The fourth group consists of some 100 gold objects from among those discovered in 1978 at Tillya Tepe in northern Afghanistan, dating from the first century A.D. The site contained jewelry and gold ornaments from the graves of six Bactrian nomads. On view will be an exquisite crown, as well as necklaces, belts, rings, and headdresses — most made of solid gold with insets of semi-precious stones such as turquoise and garnets. Many of the Bactrian objects reflect local artisans’ distinctive blend of motifs known from Greek, Roman, Indian, and Chinese art.

Through text panels, short films, an audio tour and educational materials, visitors to the exhibition will learn of the cultural significance and historical context of the works of art and the link between ancient and contemporary Afghanistan. Visitors also will gain insight into how the artifacts survived the recent decades of war and chaos and will learn the stories of heroic Afghans who risked their lives to save these and other national cultural treasures from destruction during Soviet occupation and Taliban rule.

A fully illustrated exhibition catalog, edited by Fredrik T. Hiebert and Pierre Cambon, and published by National Geographic Books, will describe and explain the objects, the archaeological excavations, the cultural exchange along the Silk Road, and the rediscovery of these treasures in 2003. The book will feature more than 300 color and archival images. Contributors include Paul Bernard and Viktor Sarianidi, the original excavators of Aï Khanum and Tillya Tepe respectively.

Headdress ornament in the form of a ram (Tillya Tepe, Tomb IV), Ist century BC - 1st century AD (cat. 108), gold, h x w x l: 5.1 x 1.9 x 3.6 cm (2 x 3/4 x 1 3/ 8) - National Museum of Afghanistan © Thierry Ollivier / Musée Guimet.

Afghan children sit atop the ramparts of the ancient Bala Hizar fortress of Balkh, Afghanistan on Oct. 12, 2006. The French Archaeological Delegation to Afghanistan (DAFA), is excavating at the site, searching for the exact location of the capital of Alexander the Great around the 4th century BC, Photo by John Moore / Exclusive by Getty Images, John Moore, 2006 Getty Images.