Afghanistan's Hidden Treasures on Display in D.C. Centuries ago, Afghanistan was a vital stop along the ancient Silk Road where cultures of the East and West converged. Artifacts from that rich cultural crossroads are currently on display at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. — after being hidden away for more than two decades in Kabul.
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Afghanistan's Hidden Treasures on Display in D.C.

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Afghanistan's Hidden Treasures on Display in D.C.

Afghanistan's Hidden Treasures on Display in D.C.

Afghanistan's Hidden Treasures on Display in D.C.

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/91123409/91343114" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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A 2,000-year-old pendant made of gold, turquoise, garnet and pearl is one of the many ancient artifacts on display in the Hidden Treasures exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Thierry Ollivier/Musee Guimet hide caption

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Thierry Ollivier/Musee Guimet

A 2,000-year-old pendant made of gold, turquoise, garnet and pearl is one of the many ancient artifacts on display in the Hidden Treasures exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Thierry Ollivier/Musee Guimet

In the early 1980s, the staff at the Kabul Museum hid the objects to protect them from brewing political chaos. They remained hidden for two decades. Above, a collapsible gold crown discovered in a grave in northern Afghanistan. The crown could be folded up for easy transport by the nomads. Thierry Ollivier/Musee Guimet hide caption

toggle caption
Thierry Ollivier/Musee Guimet

In the early 1980s, the staff at the Kabul Museum hid the objects to protect them from brewing political chaos. They remained hidden for two decades. Above, a collapsible gold crown discovered in a grave in northern Afghanistan. The crown could be folded up for easy transport by the nomads.

Thierry Ollivier/Musee Guimet

Golden bowls more than 4,000 years old are the oldest artifacts in the exhibition. Above, a fragment of a bowl depicting bearded bulls dating back to 2200-1900 B.C. Thierry Ollivier/Musee Guimet hide caption

toggle caption
Thierry Ollivier/Musee Guimet

Golden bowls more than 4,000 years old are the oldest artifacts in the exhibition. Above, a fragment of a bowl depicting bearded bulls dating back to 2200-1900 B.C.

Thierry Ollivier/Musee Guimet

Exhibit curator Fredrik Hiebert says that the ancient nomads wore their wealth "day in and day out." Above, heart-shaped earrings made from gold and turquoise. Thierry Ollivier/Musee Guimet hide caption

toggle caption
Thierry Ollivier/Musee Guimet

Exhibit curator Fredrik Hiebert says that the ancient nomads wore their wealth "day in and day out." Above, heart-shaped earrings made from gold and turquoise.

Thierry Ollivier/Musee Guimet

The history of Afghanistan is bloodied with wars, warlords, invasions and occupations, but as a vital stop along the ancient Silk Road, Afghanistan was also a place where traditions of the East and West met — a crossroads of cultural riches.

The National Gallery of Art in Washington is exhibiting some artifacts that have outlasted all the wars and conflicts. The show is a mix of breath-catching beauty, artistry, derring-do and heroism.

Hidden for Safety

Exhibit curator Fredrik Hiebert explains that in the midst of the political chaos in the early 1980s, the staff of the Kabul Museum sneaked boxloads of cultural objects away and hid them for more than 20 years.

Thousands of precious gold, bronze and glass pieces were transported from the museum to a secret hiding place — a bank vault in the presidential palace just a few miles outside Kabul.

"They kept them safe by a code of silence," Hiebert says.

If the museum staff had not hidden the ancient objects, the artifacts very likely would not have survived, says Abdul Wasey Feroozi, head of the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage.

"They are real heroes for having the understanding in the 1980s to take these treasures and hide them," Hiebert says. "That's what saved their culture."

A Cultural Crossroads

Traders traveling between China and Rome passed through Afghanistan for centuries, bringing aspects of their cultures with them. Traders left cups, plates and jewelry behind, and Afghan artisans incorporated the designs into their own work.

The objects on display at the National Gallery are exquisitely designed, both for everyday use and for special ceremonies. Golden bowls, dating back more than 4,000 years, are the oldest artifacts in the exhibition.

"It's really unusual to find ancient gold," Hiebert says. "Gold itself doesn't rust, doesn't deteriorate, so people tend to take old gold and melt it down."

One of the most impressive pieces in the show is a golden crown from the first century B.C., found in the tomb of a well-fixed lady nomad. It was unearthed by Russian archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi in the late 1970s near the dividing line between Afghanistan and the former Soviet Union. Sarianidi had a moment of panic when he couldn't find the precious artifact in his tent at the excavation site.

"Viktor went crazy," Hiebert remembers. "It turns out that this particular crown is a distinctive crown of nomads; it's a collapsible crown. It's made out of six separate pieces. Five pieces on top are shaped like trees, and they can be taken off and the bottom part folded up and placed in a package so the ancient nomad could gallop away. Well, one of his assistants had taken the crown apart, folded it up, and it was still in the tent."

Wearing Their Wealth

It is not known how often the nomad woman wore her collapsible golden crown, but Hiebert says that Afghanistan's ancient herders used their gold objects all the time.

"They wore them day in and day out ... you can see the signs of wear," Hiebert says. "The definition of a nomad is someone who doesn't have a house. If they don't have a house, then they don't have banks. You are looking at the nomadic banking system. They are literally wearing their wealth."

Looking at the golden crown, the turquoise-studded jewelry — necklaces, bracelets, rings, even the clasps that held their clothing together — it's clear, Hiebert says, that these first-century nomads were a people with a clear sense of self and a deep appreciation for beauty.

In the harsh, brutal landscape of central Asia, beauty was either created or carried through by the Romans, Indians, Greeks, Chinese and others who plied the Silk Road many centuries ago.

"Every time that people went through or invaded Afghanistan they left a little bit of themselves," Hiebert says.

The National Museum of Afghanistan has the motto, "A Nation Stays Alive When Its Culture Stays Alive." In these days of Afghan tensions, the hidden treasures from Kabul's National Museum may find more tranquillity here than they would at home.

The artifacts will be on view at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. through early September and will then travel to San Francisco, Houston and New York through September 2009.