"A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive."
This is the motto of the Kabul Museum, recently printed in bold letters on a banner above the entrance. In that spirit, I want to draw attention to a National Geographics exhibition that is presently on tour in the U.S. It is called Afghanistan, Hidden Treasures From the National Museum, Kabul. The exhibition consists of more than 22,000 ancient objects of gold, a collection that includes exquisite and priceless artifacts dating back more than 2,000 years. The exhibit highlights Afghanistan's rich past as a dynamic economic power in the Silk Road culture and its fascinating cultural history.
The exhibition is a miracle. But so is the story of how it came to be. The Bactrian Gold, as it is known, would never be on display today if not for the heroic acts of a handful of Afghans nearly 30 years ago. In its heyday, the Kabul Museum was home to more than 100,000 pre-Islamic and ethnographic objects. The curators took great care to preserve these artifacts for the edification and enjoyment of future generations. But when war broke out in the late 1970's, Afghanistan's economic and cultural infrastructure was destroyed. Museums were plundered and priceless artifacts stolen or vandalized. Taking matters into their own hands, officials from the Kabul Museum hid the famed Bactrian Gold in hidden vaults of the Central Bank in the presidential palace. The treasure would stay there -hidden from view, its location known to only a handful of men- for a quarter of a century. During that time, the Soviet war claimed more than a million Afghan lives. Kabul was reduced to ruins in the ethnic conflict that followed. The Kabul National Museum was pillaged, its artifacts sold on the black market, and the building itself was shelled. When the Taliban took power, they destroyed more than 2,000 artifacts using hammers. I saw the remnants for myself when I visited the museum in 2003. It was a heartbreaking experience. The museum at that time consisted of little more than crate after crate of destroyed artifacts, some dating back to the time of Alexander The Great.
But then, in 2003, President Karzai announced the discovery of several boxes in the presidential bank vault in Kabul. An international team of archeologists, along with officials from the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture, opened the boxes, and were delighted to find the Bactrian Gold intact. This was a moment of great national pride, finding these relics of Afghanistan's cultural past. The boxes contained brilliant sculptures, ancient jewelry, and magnificent gold that demonstrate the cultural kaleidoscope that is Afghanistan and highlight its rich past as a meeting place of cultures.
The Exhibit is on tour in the U.S. I hope you will go and see it for yourself. The exhibit can be viewed in Houston from march 1st through May 17, and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY from June 23 to Sept 20th, 2009.
Lastly, it was my honor to be associated with this project. National Geographics graciously asked me to narrate the video that accompanies the exhibit, which I was more than happy to do. A longer version of the video runs on PBS in the cities hosting the exhibit. I hope you will check out this amazing exhibit. It is well worth seeing.