Afghanistan's Secret Heritage: Legendary Treasures Unearthed

An ancient treasure is buried in an underground vault. A group called the "key holders" guards its secret. The treasure trove includes the legendary Bactrian gold. What sounds like an Indiana Jones movie is a true story: A decades-old Afghan mystery has been unearthed, and is now on display in a Paris museum.

It was a mystery of legendary proportions. When a 2,000-year-old treasure trove went missing from Afghanistan's National Museum in the 1980s, the rumors abounded: Did the Soviets take it? Was it looted and sold on the black market? Were 22,000 pieces of gold, jewel-encrusted crowns and magnificent daggers melted down and traded for weapons?

As it turns out, none of these plausible scenarios ever happened. Instead, a mysterious group of Afghans had stowed the so-called Bactrian gold underground and guarded its secret for over two decades of war and chaos. This month, some of the artifacts are on display at the Guimet Museum in Paris.

The group, the so-called "key holders," held the keys to the underground vault where the treasure was kept underneath the presidential palace grounds. They are believed to have hidden the treasure sometime after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. They diligently kept their secret throughout the civil war of the 1990s and the period of Taliban rule all the way up through the 2001 American-led invasion.

"Over the last 20 to 25 years, during food shortages and money crises, this handful of people ... could have sold these collections instead of going hungry, but they never once sacrificed their own cultural heritage," Fredrik Hiebert, an archaeologist with the National Geographic Society, told the Associated Press.

The greatest threat is believed to have come from the Taliban regime, which destroyed much of the country's pre-Islamic art in the belief that it offended the Islamic faith. The most widely publicized incident was the 2001 destruction of two giant statues of Buddha carved into the side of a cliff. Some legends report that members of the Taliban tortured a security guard who refused to give up the secret of the gold, and tried to crack the lock with a diamond-tipped drill bit.

Afghanistan's great cultural heritage

The mystery of the Bactrian gold that had captured the minds of many Afghans began to unravel several years after the fall of the Taliban. In 2003, President Hamid Karzai announced that some boxes from the Afghan National Museum had been found in a vault, along with hidden bank reserves of gold bars. Hiebert was then asked to create an inventory of the artifacts. His findings stunned the nation.

The key holders had not only preserved the Bactrian gold, but also many of the National Museum's most valuable treasures -- each a testimony to the great cultural heritage of Afghanistan.

"We found glass, bronze, wonderful ivory," Hiebert said. "The boxes were not very well labeled, and every time we opened one nobody knew what was going to come out of it. There were gasps and sighs, and it was very emotional."

The exhibition at the Guimet Museum in Paris is currently showcasing 220 of these Afghan treasures, including many pieces of Bactrian gold, that were first discovered in 1978 by Soviet archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi at a 1st century A.D. burial site. The exhibition depicts an Afghanistan at the crossroads of the ancient Silk Road, absorbing influences from Greek, Chinese, Indian and Middle Eastern travelers and merchants. This ancient national image is quite different from the pictures of war and violence the world has grown accustomed to in the news today.

The show will run until April 30, and there are also plans for a tour. Although Hiebert said museum curators are in talks to bring it to the United States, security in Afghanistan is still not tight enough to bring it to the museum in Kabul.

To this day, the identity of the key holders to whom the museum owes this priceless collection is unknown. Christian Manhart, an Afghanistan specialist at UNESCO, believes there may have been only one key holder, though legend says otherwise.

"The Afghans are adept at the art of secrets, and they really know how to create a mystery," he says. "Every time you ask, you hear a different story."

amb/Spiegel/AP

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