National Treasures

by James S. Robbins

Preserving Afghanistan's history.

In my library I have a guide to the Kabul museum dating from the 1970s, before the socialist revolution and subsequent Soviet invasion. The guide is richly illustrated with pictures of Afghan art and artifacts dating back thousands of years. The exhibits show a mix of influences, Central Asian, Indian, Chinese, Greek, and Roman among others. Afghanistan has long been a crossroads of cultures. I have an affinity for the Silk Road style, or rather the mix of styles that fall under that category. Some pieces show the fine artisanship and sophisticated methods of distant societies, others are more crude but reflect a nonetheless capable local craft. I kept this book around as a reminder of the fragility of societies, and the transitory nature of physical beauty. These works of art had been preserved for centuries, but the 20th century, as was its wont, put an end to them. They disappeared around the time the Red Army arrived, presumably looted in the chaos of those times, or in the years following the withdrawal when the country was wracked with factional fighting, By then the museum was reduced to a windowless, roofless shell, but there were worse times coming.

The Taliban were much more ruthless and ideologically driven than any who had come before them, and more systematic in their assault on Afghan antiquities. The destruction of the colossal statues of the Buddha at Bamiyan made international news, but this was just the most dramatic manifestation of a general iconoclasm being pursued by the Taliban. Starting on February 26, 2001, at the direction of a fatwa issued by Mullah Omar, government agents began systematically destroying every statue in the country on the grounds that they were offensive to Islam. Omar’s then-guest Osama bin Laden issued a public statement in support of the move. The Taliban were nothing if not sincere in their utopian ideology. UNESCO representatives and western art dealers descended on Afghanistan pleading in the name of culture and history to desist and give or sell the offending statues to them for, respectively, safekeeping or resale. The Taliban responded to international protests by noting that the west was more interested in saving stone simulacra than giving aid money to help real people. The destruction continued, and by the end of March, the Bamiyan Buddhas were shattered and pieces of the broken statues were for sale in Pakistan.

One is reminded of the library at Alexandria being burned, first by the Romans, later by Caliph Umar, allegedly calling its 700,000 volumes sufficient kindling to heat the city’s baths for six months. Or the obliteration of artwork and literature in the 8th century under Emperor Leo III, similar destruction in Cordoba in the 10th century, or Baghdad in the 12th. Wholesale annihilation of art and literature is usually an attempt to snuff out ideas or images, sometimes just looting, or pointless vandalism. But in all cases it is shameful. So I looked with some regret at the Kabul museum guide and the loss it represented. The national museum was reopened by President Karzai in September 2004, but the cases were mostly empty. Photos replaced the pieces that used to be on display.

Yet, recently something remarkable happened. The Afghan artifacts reappeared. In fact the process of cataloguing the treasures had been under way for several months, with backing from the National Geographic Society and the National Endowment for the Humanities. One cache, the Bactrian Gold, had over 20,000 objects. This trove was found hidden in six large safes in the Presidential Palace in August 2003 but not opened until last spring. Over 100 additional boxes of artifacts followed, brought in from unnamed hiding places, showing signs of wear but with the treasures in a remarkable state of preservation. From these battered boxes came figurines, coins, pendants clasps, engraved ivories, glass goblets, bronze busts; pieces from Egypt, Rome, China, India and all points between. Imagine a 2000-year-old Kushan plaster demirelief wall ornament depicting a Greek poet–it is astonishing that it has survived the last three decades, not to mention the previous 197.

The story of the survival of the artifacts begins with the Afghan tradition of the talwildar, the key-holder, a person who assumes responsibility to safeguard valuables. The key-holder would secure precious items in a box and seal it with a piece of paper, which he and witnesses would sign. Afterwards only the key-holder could break the seal, and he was responsible for the contents. Museum employees regularly assumed this role; in the years before the Soviet invasion the museum’s valuables would be locked up nightly following the time-honored practice. In 1979, the museum’s curators, knowing that their society was about to enter a dark age, and understanding the implications of that moment, carefully wrapped the artifacts in their care and sealed them in metal boxes. They signed the slips of paper, as they always had, and then scattered the treasures, hiding them in walls, beneath floors, burying them, placing them in barns or attics. Many of the original key-holders and witnesses subsequently died or disappeared, but their relatives assumed the responsibility. Any box of these art treasures would have brought a fortune if smuggled out to the west; yet through war, poverty, chaos and oppression the key-holders and their successors discharged their duties to their country and their honor, waiting for a time when they felt it was safe enough for the boxes to reemerge. And this year, with Afghanistan free of Taliban rule, with the country being reconstructed and on the road to democracy and stability, the key-holders brought forth their priceless consignments to be opened. The seals were broken, the artifacts unwrapped, and Afghan history reborn.

Those who are reflexively pessimistic about the chances for civil society being reestablished in Afghanistan should ponder the implications of this story. The people who preserved these artifacts represent the best elements of Afghan society, and were motivated by the finest instincts–not only the preservation of the past for the benefit of future generations, but upholding their personal responsibility and venerating the honor which they had been given. Under the circumstances they had to live through, it is astonishing. One wonders how American society would fare given the same test. It is noteworthy that the custodians of this artwork have now deemed it safe enough to return to the Afghan people. It shows their trust in the international community and the Coalition in particular that Afghanistan will not be allowed to slip back into anarchy. We cannot betray that trust. We have become the key-holders.

James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council and an NRO contributor.