- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 24, 2008

War and neglect have taken an enormous toll on the cultural heritage of Afghanistan. Through nearly three decades of violence, starting with the Soviet invasion in 1979, the country’s most important museums and archaeological sites have been looted and destroyed.

The National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul has been particularly hard-hit. In 1994, it was struck by a rocket and burst into flames. Much of its remaining collection, about 2,000 works of art, was smashed to smithereens by Taliban fighters who considered the pieces to be idolatrous. The destruction led experts to assume the museum’s most priceless artifacts had been lost forever.

Darkness lifted after American forces toppled the Taliban regime and Afghanistan returned to safeguarding its assets. In 2003, the director of the National Museum, Omara Khan Massoudi, astonished the world when he revealed a well-kept secret: Masterpieces from the museum had been packed up in 1988 and hidden underneath the presidential palace.

The vaults were opened the following year to reveal that every artifact had survived intact.

Now the treasures have arrived at the National Gallery of Art, where a remarkable exhibition, opening tomorrow, testifies to their precious beauty. From golden shoe soles to terra-cotta roof ornaments, these 228 archaeological finds pay homage to the cultural patrimony of Afghanistan and the Afghan heroes who risked their lives to save it.

The show was organized by the National Gallery and the National Geographic Society, which helped inventory the artifacts after they were removed from their hiding place. It follows a popular European tour of the antiquities from December 2006 through last month.

In showing the treasures, the Afghans hope the view of their country as a place of isolation and intolerance will be modified as visitors come to understand the openness and creativity of its past.

Looking at the wide range of designs and materials represented in the exhibit, it’s easy to see why Afghanistan once was considered a cosmopolitan center. Corinthian capitals and naturalistic sculptures look like they were carved in ancient Greece, while ornate ivory plaques bear the imprint of India. A golden goddess statuette combines influences from Greek and Hindu traditions, while a pair of clasps for a ceremonial robe draw upon Chinese motifs.

This eclecticism stemmed from Afghanistan’s strategic location along the Silk Road of long-distance trade. A hub of commerce between the Mediterranean Sea and Asia, its northernmost region became a melting pot of ideas as foreign goods were exchanged and local artists tapped imported styles to create their own hybrid imagery.

The diversity of this creative outpouring is represented in the exhibit through four archeological excavations, with the objects grouped according to those sites. Dramatic photo-murals depicting the landscapes around some of the sites provide a touch of Indiana Jones-style romance to introduce the show.

The oldest artifacts, some dating to 2200 B.C., come from Tepe Fullol, a village in northern Afghanistan once occupied by a Bronze Age civilization. In 1966, farmers discovered a burial cache containing several gold bowls, including the fragments in the show. Hunting scenes on the vessels borrow imagery of bulls from distant Mesopotamia, indicating that Afghanistan was part of a trade route even at this early date.

The exhibit then fast-forwards to Alexander the Great, who established a Greek colony in the northwestern part of Afghanistan known as Bactria. Within this region, an ancient city called Ai Khanum (Lady Moon) was excavated in the 1960s and ‘70s by French archaeologists who found evidence of a temple, a palace, a gymnasium and other structures, as shown in a short film.

The exhibit design cleverly hints at this classical architecture with pilasters framing niches for ancient statuary and sundials, and a simulated roof eave for displaying leaf-shaped antefixes.

One of the oldest and most intriguing artifacts found at Ai Khanum is a round temple plaque typifying the region’s hybrid art. It depicts Greek deities in a chariot based on designs from ancient Syria or Persia.

Afghanistan’s cultural devastation is also represented in this section. A finely carved stone relief, reassembled from fragments, portrays a youth but without a face. After being displayed in the National Museum, it was desecrated by the Taliban and restored a second time, but the head had been destroyed beyond repair.

In an upstairs gallery, the exhibit shifts to Begram, another ancient city uncovered by the French. Scholars speculate it might have been home to a royal treasury or a distribution center, given the discovery in the 1930s of two undisturbed storerooms filled with luxury goods.

Those on display include fish-shaped glass flasks and Egyptian goblets, plaster medallions of Grecian figures and Indian-style ivory carvings of voluptuous women. Among the more unusual designs is a so-called aquarium filled with tiny metal fish that seem to swim when the basin is filled with water.

Concluding the show are glittering ornaments unearthed from six tombs in Tillya Tepe (Hill of Gold) in Bactria. Soon after being discovered by a Russian archaeologist in the late 1970s, the Bactrian Hoard, as the trove came to be called, became the most internationally well-known of the once hidden Afghan treasures.

These lavish funerary goods — dagger hilts, jewelry and tiny decorations used to adorn clothing — are made of gold and often set with turquoise and semiprecious stones native to the area. They were made by nomads from the Central Asian steppes who overran the region about 145 B.C.

Drawing upon their itinerant experiences, these artisans specialized in fantastic decorations of figures and animals real and imagined. In some of their scenes, dragons pull Chinese-inspired chariots, Greek gods ride panthers, and a Siberian bear feasts on grapes.

A shimmering golden crown, made in six pieces for easy dismantling, perfectly suits the nomadic lifestyle. Its take-apart design creates a fitting symbol for this exhibition of long-hidden relics, which will eventually return to the National Museum once its 1922 building is renovated and secured.

WHAT: “Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures From the National Museum, Kabul”

WHERE: National Gallery of Art, East Building, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest

WHEN: Tomorrow through Sept. 7; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday

ADMISSION: Free

PHONE: 202/737-4215

WEB SITE: www.nga.gov

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