MFAH displays Afghani artifacts
For Museum of Fine Arts Houston director Peter Marzio, the most impressive aspect of Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul isn’t the intricate craftsmanship or historical significance, but simply the fact that the artifacts still exist.
‘A lot of these objects are metals that can be melted down, like bits of gold,’ Marzio said. ‘It’s a miracle that these objects have remained intact.’
Marzio refers to 228 artifacts, many of them finely detailed and made of gold, that were originally discovered in 1978 as part of a larger find of over 20,000 objects. Discovered in the tombs of a nomadic tribe over 2,000 years old, these artifacts will be displayed, starting March 1, at the MFAH as part of a four-city U.S. tour.
Despite being admitted into the Kabul Museum shortly after their discovery, the artifacts disappeared from public view in 1988 in the midst of war and political upheaval.’
But in August 2003, Afghan President Hamid Karzai shocked the archaeological community when he announced that the objects were not stolen or destroyed as had long been assumed; rather, he had located them in the presidential palace’s underground vault.
As Karzai and several archaeologists unearthed the artifacts, they also uncovered the story of several Afghans who presumably risked their safety by hiding the objects.
Among these men was National Museum of Kabul director Omara Khan Masoudi, who secretly moved many of the artifacts along with other Mesopotamian, Roman and Greek treasures to the vault in order to ensure their safety.
Masoudi said because of the political uncertainty it was a necessary decision.
‘In 1988, with the Soviet Union forces occupied Pakistan, we knew that political change would come to our country and it would be a help if the museum helped preserve the artifacts,’ Masoudi said. ‘We discussed this and decided to transfer a part of the museum’s pieces to be safeguarded in the city.’
Masoudi’s decision proved to be wise. In 1994, Kabul Museum, which was being used as a military base in Afghanistan’s civil war, was struck by a rocket and burst into flames. Word spread that most of the artifacts in the museum had been lost, which distressed exhibition curator and National Geographic archaeology fellow Fredrik Hiebert.
‘There was literally no reason to think that any of the artifacts from the National Museum were preserved,’ said Hiebert, who performed an inventory of the artifacts when they were rediscovered. ‘We thought everything was gone.’
Protected inside the presidential vault, the artifacts sat undisturbed for decades, even during the tumultuous rule of the Taliban, iconoclasts who Marzio described as ‘destroyers of culture.’
In 2001, the Taliban famously destroyed two enormous carvings of Buddha that had stood for over 1,500 years because they were declared to be false idols and against the tenets of Islam.’
Even as the Taliban inquired about the lost artifacts, Masoudi and others denied having any knowledge. Masoudi said that was his duty as museum director.
‘All museums want to preserve history. Unfortunately, they didn’t accept this idea,’ Masoudi said.
Afghanistan was the former center of the Silk Road, a trade network that connected India, China, Persia, the Middle East and the West, leading to a diversity of culture reflected in its art. Coming in the forms of daggers, necklaces and crowns, many objects in the exhibit show Greek, Roman or Chinese characteristics and carry depictions of everything from Aphrodite to Asian-inspired dragons.
But Hiebert says the exhibit is only possible because of Masoudi and his colleagues’ efforts.’ ‘
‘These are an amazing group of people who saved their (own) and the world’s cultural heritage,’ Hiebert said. ‘These (people) are my heroes.’