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.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

The history of Afghanistan is bloodied with wars, warlords, invasions and occupations, but it's also a history of cultural riches. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., is exhibiting some artifacts that have outlasted all the wars and conflicts. NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg reports.

SUSAN STAMBERG: The show is a mix of breath-catching beauty, derring-do and heroism. Curator Fredrik Hiebert says in the 1980s, in the middle of political chaos, bombing, looting, the staff of the Kabul Museum snuck crates of objects away and hid them for 20-some years.

FREDRIK HIEBERT: They kept them safe by a code of silence, not telling anybody where they were or what items were left. And this is what really kept these items safe.

STAMBERG: Abdul Wasey Feroozi heads of the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan Cultural Heritage. He tells how thousands of precious gold and bronze and glass pieces were transported from the museum to a secret hiding place.

ABDUL WASEY FEROOZI: Just they moved by the trucks, and they packed in the metal boxes, and we shipped it to that area.

STAMBERG: The area was just a few miles outside of Kabul, a vault in the presidential palace. There they remained in safety and silence until now.

HIEBERT: So they are real heroes for having the understanding in the 1980s to take these treasures and hide them. That's what saved their culture.

STAMBERG: A culture formed at the center of Asia, where caravans traveled for centuries. Afghanistan was a crossroad for traders between China and Rome. They left cups and plates and jewelry behind, which Afghan artisans copied and embellished or ignored to create their own things - exquisite objects for every day or ceremonies. Again, curator and National Geographic archeologist, Fred Hiebert.

HIEBERT: We're looking at three golden bowls that are more than 4,000 years old. It's really unusual to find ancient gold because gold itself doesn't rust, doesn't deteriorate. So people tend to take old gold and melt it down.

STAMBERG: But these bowls lasted and are the oldest objects in the National Gallery exhibition. The most beautiful piece in the show is a golden crown from the first century B.C., found in the tomb of a well-fixed lady nomad. It's from the north, on a dividing line between Afghanistan and the old Soviet Union.

VIKTOR SARIANIDI: The river between Tajikistan, Afghanistan.

STAMBERG: A Russian archeologist named Viktor Sarianidi unearthed the crown and then almost lost it. Fred Hiebert tells the tale.

HIEBERT: And Viktor went crazy. He didn't know what to do. He couldn't find the crown. How could his best, most magnificent piece disappear? Well, 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. The 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 that 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.

STAMBERG: He didn't gallop away with it.

HIEBERT: He didn't gallop away with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STAMBERG: Now, it is not known how often the nomad woman wore her golden crown, but Hiebert says those ancient sheep and goat herders used other gold objects all the time.

HIEBERT: They wore them day in and day out. And when you look at the belt, you can see the signs of wear. How would you like to wear 20 pounds of gold every day?

STAMBERG: That's a lot of gold, because gold is very light.

HIEBERT: Gold is really heavy.

STAMBERG: Oh, is it, really? I guess I never had any.

HIEBERT: Now I have an explanation for this, why these were such wealthy nomads. If they don't have a house, they don't have banks. You are looking at the nomadic banking system. They are literally wearing their wealth.

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

HIEBERT: Every time that people went through or invaded Afghanistan, they left a little bit of themselves in Afghanistan.

STAMBERG: In Washington, through early September, these cultural artifacts will travel to San Francisco, Houston and New York through September, 2009. The Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul may find more tranquility here in these days of Afghan tensions than they would at home. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: You can see some of the treasures we've just heard about on exhibit at npr.org.

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