Precious Afghanistan heritage reclaimed

A Melbourne exhibition of Afghan treasures is a remarkable affirmation of a troubled land's ancient culture and a tribute to the people who saved them, writes Sue Green

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 June, 2013, 4:07pm

It’s a tale with the lot: war and destruction, brave heroes, buried treasure. Best of all, there’s a happy ending.

This is a story about a country most of us have written off as ruined, one so ravaged by three decades of occupation, bombing and civil war that none of us would consider for a moment visiting as a tourist nor, most likely, contemplate the possibility of a rich cultural heritage and precious artefacts.

Afghanistan – once a vital trading hub on the legendary Silk Road, a land Venetian explorer Marco Polo wrote of as rich with gold and gems – now stars on the television news as a scene of destruction. But it is also the subject of an extensive exhibition at the Melbourne Museum, one featuring golden artefacts so priceless the Australian government is paying the insurance bill and its value is a well-kept secret.

It is a superbly presented exhibition, curated by a man with his own astonishing story to tell about the rediscovery of these treasures: archaeologist Fredrik Hiebert, a National Geographic Fellow. The collection is showcased in an innovative display created in Melbourne.

We have had feedback from people saying, ‘I am a refugee from Afghanistan, my children were born here, thank you for the opportunity for my children to see something of the culture of my country which they have never visited’
Patrick Greene, Melbourne Museum chief executive

After an eight-minute introductory National Geographic film telling the amazing story of the treasures, visitors are funnelled into an area setting the scene: not only is there an illustrated timeline and a map showing the network of routes linking cities, trading posts and watering holes that comprised the Silk Road, there are spectacular National Geographic photographs of Afghanistan as you have never seen it.

“We wanted to represent the Silk Road by that first space that you go into and then have these large images of Afghanistan which are unlike most people’s imaginings of Afghanistan because what they see is on the nightly news and that is rubble, dust, destruction,” says the museum’s chief executive Patrick Greene. “You don’t get any sense that it is a strikingly beautiful country so we thought it was important to set that scene very early on.”

The 230 artefacts on display in “Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul” were taken from four archaeological sites along the Silk Road in northern Afghanistan and were once on display in Kabul. But during the war the museum – closed in 1989 after more than 10 years of fighting – was hit by rockets, its roof destroyed and parts of it burned. Many of its treasures were damaged or looted and sold on the black market.

But not all. What was not known then, nor later when, in 2001, the Taliban dynamited the giant 1,600-year-old Buddha statues at Bamiyan, was that a small group of brave museum staff had already hidden thousands of important artefacts in the Central Bank treasury vaults at the Presidential Palace. The men who did this, known as the key holders, were sworn to secrecy and risked their lives to keep the treasures safe for almost two decades.

In 2003, the Taliban overthrown, a team of international experts assembled in Kabul. Among them was Viktor Sariandi, a Russian archaeologist who had found a priceless treasure – 22,000 gold objects and ornaments dating back to 100BC, in a burial site at a place called Tillya Tepe (Hill of Gold). So significant was his find the KGB was sent to guard it and by the time it was abandoned because of the impending US invasion he had found more gold objects than in the tomb of Egypt’s King Tutankhamun.

Some years later, while Hiebert was researching his doctorate on the Silk Road, he met Sariandi and heard the story of Tillya Tepe. He wrote about it for National Geographic and, in 2003, persuaded the magazine to send him to Kabul again to investigate further.

He told a journalist that he visited the National Museum and asked the director, Omara Khan Massoudi, whether the treasures were preserved and was told “maybe”, but the keys were lost. “It was like The Wizard of Oz,” Hiebert said.

As he was leaving, Massoudi said, “wait, don’t go away”. If Hiebert promised to inventory the items from Tillya Tepe – all 22,000 of them – the crates containing them could be found, the director said. Hiebert persuaded National Geographic to fund the project.

And so it happened that Sariandi and Hiebert were among the group of local and international dignitaries gathered in Kabul to see the steel vaults cut open. It was an emotional moment captured on the footage which opens the exhibition.

“We could see the sense of reclaiming their place and history in the world,” says Hiebert in the film.

For Greene, bringing this exhibition to Melbourne is about more than just displaying the treasures. He hopes that visitors will come from Asia to see it and says many will be struck by just how contemporary the jewellery looks.

But it is also about allowing Australia’s Afghan population to reconnect with their cultural heritage and to share it with their children. The museum has had special openings for them and the response has been heartwarming.

“We have had feedback from people saying, ‘I am a refugee from Afghanistan, my children were born here, thank you for the opportunity for my children to see something of the culture of my country which they have never visited’,” he says.

Staging the exhibition drew strong federal government support because of “the opportunity for people in Australia to see a different side of Afghanistan but also in terms of public diplomacy between this country and Afghanistan with Australia’s participation in the war and reconstruction efforts there”, Greene says.

For most exhibition-goers this diplomacy will be neither here nor there – what will stand out is just how very special these artefacts are.

Highlights include the Tillya Tepe display, with the jewels on the actual remains they were found on. In a glass case there is a reconstruction of one of the burials, the shape of the woman outlined by the gold ornaments on her garments. A golden crown, seen on a skull in an accompanying video of Sariandi’s excavations, has tiny golden birds in the intricate branches of golden trees. These represent the Tree of Life in Begram, a northern city partly excavated in the 1930s by French archaeologists. A building was found there in which a doorway was bricked up. Behind it was an array of trade objects dating back to AD1, hidden for almost 1,700 years. They include delicate painted glass, plaster and bronze works, stone and ceramic vases and pictures, ivory furniture decorations and handblown glass vessels, some in the shape of a fish – some of the earliest blown glass.

The exhibition concludes with a photograph of the rebuilt National Museum of Afghanistan. It is hoped that when the show has finished touring Australia a permanent display will be set up there. Outside the museum is a banner which reads: “A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive”.

Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul, at Melbourne Museum until July 28.