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Chatelaine's Antiques & Appraisals Magazine > Art > Fine Art > Art Gallery > The Art Gallery of New South Wales > Afghanistan: hidden treasures from the National Museum, Kabul


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Afghanistan: hidden treasures from the National Museum, Kabul

Afghanistan: hidden treasures from the National Museum, Kabul

Bactrian Hoard

Gold clasps with turquoise and mother-of-pearl inlayIn 1978 Russian archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi unearthed tombs of ancient nomads that had been sealed for two thousand years at Tillya Tepe in northern Afghanistan . Inside the tombs they discovered the remains of six Bactrian Central Asian nomads, and buried with them was an extraordinary treasure trove: about 22,000 individual pieces of gold - the Bactrian Hoard.

Gold clasps with turquoise and mother-of-pearl inlay Photograph Musée Guimet/Thierry Ollivier

Soon after the discovery of the treasure, Afghanistan descended into war, and the Bactrian Hoard disappeared into legend. The Soviet war in Afghanistan lasted nine years from December 1979 to February 1989, and was effectively a violent civil war.

In 1988, as the security situation in the capital Kabul worsened, government and National Museum officials worried the Kabul museum, home to thousands of historical artifacts and works of art, would be destroyed or looted. They made a secret plan to transfer many of the objects to secure and secret hiding places. By 1989, the caches of priceless historical objects were in the vaults inside the presidential palace.

Gold necklace - Photograph Musée Guimet/Thierry Ollivier

Twenty-five years later, in 2003, after the Taliban had been thrown from power by a U.S. military campaign and Afghanistan's first open elections had installed Hamid Karzai as president, Afghanistan announced to the world that the priceless artifacts had been located in the Ministry of Information and the Central Bank treasury vault at the presidential palace in Kabul.

The Bactrian Hoard had been rescued, along with other masterpieces of the National Museum, Kabul, and protected in the intervening years of turmoil by a group of selfless Afghan heroes who have come to be known as “the key holders” who had kept their secret covenant through civil war and Taliban rule at enormous personal risk.

The objects remained hidden despite nearly constant conflict and political upheaval in Kabul. But a campaign by the Taliban in 2001 to "destroy all images" resulted in the loss of thousands of irreplaceable artifacts throughout the country, including many of the items hidden in the Ministry of Information. But the palace treasures survived.

Among the hidden treasures were Bronze Age gold pieces, hundreds of ancient coins, and the famous "Bactrian hoard," a collection of some 22,000 gold, silver, and ivory objects from the burial tombs at Tillya Tepe in northern Afghanistan.

"Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures From the National Museum, Kabul" offers a look at a selection of the contents of the Afghanistan Central Bank vault. This is a collection of some of the most remarkable archaeological finds in all of Central Asia, pieces that are not only artistically splendid but also reveal a diverse and thriving ancient culture. Aside from Fullol, the Bronze Age site, the collections relate to one of the most dynamic periods in Afghanistan's history, from the third century B.C. to the first century A.D., which covers the beginning of Silk Road trade.

Gilded silver ceremonial plate Photograph Musée Guimet/Thierry Ollivier

The exhibition includes four separate collections. One is from the ancient city of Fullol and includes a Bronze Age set of gold bowls that hint of the native wealth of Afghanistan. Another contains artifacts from Aï Khanum, a Greek city in northern Afghanistan. A third features untouched treasures from what is thought to be a merchant's storeroom in Begram, sealed up 2,000 years ago. And the fourth is the Bactrian gold, a collection of the precious items discovered in the graves of six nomads in Tillya Tepe.

A remarkable exhibition of stunning artefacts revealing Afghanistan’s rich culture.

Afghanistan was at the heart of the Silk Road, the trading route travelled by Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Marco Polo, linking ancient Iran, Central Asia, India and China, and the more distant cultures of Greece and Rome.

Visiting Australia for the first time, this exhibition – with more than 230 priceless treasures, some thousands of years old – offers a rare opportunity to discover the surprising, untold story of the long and extraordinarily rich culture that is Afghanistan.

For years these artefacts were thought lost or destroyed as war and instability shook the country. In 2003 they were uncovered from vaults in the central bank of the presidential palace, where they had been placed in secrecy by a few courageous staff from the National Museum, Kabul.

Discover stories of bravery that protected these precious artefacts of gold, bronze and stone sculptures, ivories, painted glassware and other ancient works of art.

Crown, Tillya Tepe, Tomb VI, second quarter of the 1st century CE, gold imitation turquoise, 45 × 13 cm, National Museum of Afghanistan. Photo: Thierry Ollivier

Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul is at the Queensland Museum, Southbank, from 5 September 2013
Opens at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2014

The Art of New South Wales is highly honoured to participate in the Australian tour of these remarkable treasures from Afghanistan as part of our commitment to the arts of broader Asia. We look forward to presenting the exhibition in the context of an art museum at the same time as a special display of works by the Afghani-Australian artist Khadim Ali and a number of official Australian war artists who have travelled to Afghanistan in recent years.



Afghanistan Exhibition at The British Museum

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