Hidden treasures from the Afghanistan National Museum

The Afghanistan National Museum was built in 1919. Its collection was one of the most important in Central Asia with Neanderthal remains, Buddhist stucco sculptures, ancient Hindu marble statuary and one of the world's most significant collections of Greek and Roman coins. However, in the wars and chaos of recent years, most of the Afghan National Museum's riches were looted and destroyed. But the most valuable items survived, thanks to the ingenuity and bravery of five men – among them the museum director Omar Khan Massoudi.

The loss of three quarters of the collection 

The Museum is located a few kilometres south of the capital, Kabul and quickly found itself on the frontline of the mujaheddin’s fight for Kabul. Between 1992 and 1994 the museum was used as a mujaheddin base.

Afghanistan National Museum

During this period the museum was looted, often to order. Care was taken to select the most valuable pieces for resale on the illicit antique market. In a May 1993 attack, rockets struck the upper levels of the building, setting them alight and causing the roof to collapse. Artefacts, photographs and even the records and inventories of the collection were all destroyed.

Najibullah Popal deputy chief of Kabul Museum over the destroyed treasures in 1993

In 1995 workers entered the building to survey the damage and install steel doors and a temporary roof. They found that the coin collection had been completely rifled, the Nuristani sculptures hacked into pieces for firewood and terracotta pottery smashed. 

When the Rabbani government regained control of the area, soldiers posted to guard the site continued ad hoc looting of their own. On capturing Kabul in 1996, the Taliban vowed to protect what remained, but it was a short-lived promise. In March 2001, as the giant Buddhas at Bamiyan were being levelled, soldiers entered the museum with hammers and smashed what statues and other image-bearing exhibits they could find. The Minister for Culture led the destruction. 

Protecting the treasures

Mr Massoudi and a small team of fellow museum officials worked hard to protect the collection as best they could. In 1988, they moved the finest and most significant historical objects from the collection to Central Bank vaults in the grounds of the Presidential Palace. Among the hidden treasures were Bronze Age gold pieces, hundreds of ancient coins and the famous Bactrian hoard – a collection of some 20,000 gold, silver and ivory ornaments from burial plots at Tillya Tepe in northern Afghanistan. Despite being subjected to various threats by the Taliban - often at gunpoint – Mr Massoudi and the key holders who knew of the secret location of the Bactrian hoard gave nothing away, safeguarding these incredible treasures.

In one such instance, soon after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, a Taliban commander pointed a gun at the head of one of the bank's governors, a key holder, and demanded that he open the bank's vaults. The governor agreed but managed to convince the commander the vault contained only ceramics. When closing the vault, he deliberately turned the key against the lock until it broke off, shutting the vault off for good.

Piecing the museum back together

For the past ten years or so, the Museum has been slowly being pieced together. In 2003, the Bactrian hoard, the coins and Bronze age gold were retrieved from the vault. As President Hamid Karzai explained at the time: ‘It was like something out of a movie. We had to go down three elevators under the palace and along a tunnel set with booby traps, then through a door with seven or eight codes all held by different people.’ 

Hidden Treasures from the Afghanistan National Museum

It took months for a team, which included the National Geographic Society’s Fredrik Hiebert, to inventory the collection, but ultimately every item was accounted for. ‘Every box we opened was like a Christmas package,’ Hiebert said. 

However, the rediscovery of the treasure posed new problems of safety and security. In 2006 the Afghan parliament made the extraordinary decision to send the treasures abroad, first for conservation, then to be toured. With the assistance of the French military, the objects were brought to the Musée Guimet in Paris. There, staff began conservation of 324 of the objects. This collection would form the core of Afghanistan: hidden treasures from the National Museum, Kabul, which has been exhibited throughout the world. 

National Museum staff have been working with an international team of archaeologists to restore the artefacts destroyed by the Taliban. They have been painstakingly reassembling hundreds statues including the famed statue of King Kanishka and the Greco-Bactrian Buddha statues, which are some of the earliest representations of Buddha in human form.

Some 857 stolen objects have been intercepted and returned to the museum from abroad with a further 11,000 artefacts seized at Afghanistan’s own borders. This summer, Afghanistan’s first electronic museum database will be completed, allowing the country to document its collections. We are delighted to learn that funds are being raised for a new home for the National Museum, including proper humidity control, lighting, fire protection and security. 

The National Museum, so long a symbol of conflict and destruction is today a symbol of resilience and new beginnings. We wish the museum the very best in its endeavours and leave the last words to its courageous Director, Omar Khan Massoudi.

'Having hope is essential for life. We witnessed very difficult moments at the Museum. We saw its destruction. But we did not lose hope.’ 

Omar Khan Massoudi, Museum Director of Afghanistan National Museum and the crown from the Tillya Tepe, Tomb 

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