After the goldrush

Afghanistan's greatest ancient treasure, long thought destroyed or stolen, has been found in a vault deep beneath the streets of Kabul. But those who risked their lives to protect it now fear the priceless hoard could be lost forever
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The Independent Online

The rediscovery of Afghanistan's greatest historical treasure has been hailed as miraculous. But experts fear that the 2,000-year-old Bactrian Treasure - thousands of pieces of finely wrought gold and jewellery, unearthed from the tombs of ancient kings in northern Afghanistan in 1978 - is again under threat from the criminals and corrupt collectors who have long sought it.

The rediscovery of Afghanistan's greatest historical treasure has been hailed as miraculous. But experts fear that the 2,000-year-old Bactrian Treasure - thousands of pieces of finely wrought gold and jewellery, unearthed from the tombs of ancient kings in northern Afghanistan in 1978 - is again under threat from the criminals and corrupt collectors who have long sought it.

The treasure was hidden after the Russians withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, its location known only to a few trusted custodians. In April, it was unveiled again at a bizarre secret gathering. President Hamid Karzai joined diplomats, government ministers and archaeologists crowded into a bank vault deep under Kabul's Presidential Palace.

Even those who had known the treasure's location weren't sure exactly what would be in the sealed metal boxes they were about to open. It was feared that much of the collection had been lost in the chaos of war. It had been melted down by the Taliban, some said, or sold by the Mujahideen to foreign collectors, or spirited to Moscow by the departing Red Army.

The last time the pieces were seen in public was in 1991, when President Najibullah ordered that they be exhibited. He was later to be dragged from his United Nations safe house by the Taliban and tortured and hanged from a lamppost in the centre of Kabul.

The solemn occasion in April in the vaults of the country's Central Bank under the Arg - once the royal compound, now the president's palace - rapidly turned absurd. A blowtorch being used to cut open the metal boxes showered the guests with sparks, sending them running for cover.

Nancy Hatch Dupree, 77, an American academic and champion of Afghanistan's heritage, was one of the very few people who had known the hoard's hiding place. She kept her silence for years, telling journalists and academics she didn't know what had happened to the gold, privately fearing that it would be tracked down by looters or foreign collectors or, later, by al-Qa'ida iconoclasts after Osama bin Laden became powerful.

Then, last year, President Karzai announced that the treasure was safe, contradicting an initial announcement that the Taliban had melted it down. He said the boxes had been located, but not yet opened.

"It was a real circus, with all the people, and then the blowtorches," Dupree says. "Then out came the gold pieces, shiny as the day they were made 2,000 years ago. It was a deeply emotional experience for everyone in that room. I had never lost faith that we would get the treasure back."

In total, they found about 20,600 gold pieces - plates, brooches, hairpins, pendants, an ornamental tree of gold and pearls, even gold sandals. Two millennia ago, the pieces had been carefully interred with the bodies of wealthy rulers from a forgotten culture halfway between the Western and Eastern worlds.

A few weeks later, experts confirmed that every piece that had been dug from the tombs had survived - thanks to luck, and to a story that can now be told of honourable deception by bank workers and museum staff who risked their lives to protect their nation's heritage.

Early in 1991, just weeks after the great Buddhas of Bamiyan had been blown up by the Taliban, one of the bank staff had deliberately broken a key in the lock of a vault when he feared that Taliban searchers were getting too nosy about the nondescript boxes gathering dust in a corner. This was the period when ancient treasures in the city's museum were destroyed by Taliban wrecking squads who wanted to eradicate all traces of the country's pre-Islamic past.

Now, the next controversial chapter of the Bactrian gold's story is about to begin. A difficult choice looms - one that some believe could again imperil the treasure. Afghan ministers, desperate to earn prestige and money for the country, want to send the collection abroad. Exhibiting it would be a coup for any museum, and a publicity triumph for a nation better known for narcotics and unrest.

Major museums in America, France and Austria have asked to put the hoard on display. Officials in Afghanistan believe the money raised could pay for the restoration of Kabul's museum. But some experts believe that, with corruption and crime rampant in Afghanistan, it would be dangerous to move the treasure out of the vault.

Pressure is also building to exhibit the gold in Kabul. Such an exhibition would be symbolically important for a government trying to persuade the world that normality is returning. Yet there is real fear that exposing the collection could put it at risk from robbers. Crooked foreign collectors are known to have placed orders with looters for pieces stolen from Kabul's museums.

Dupree, who in 1977 published the definitive historical guidebook to Afghanistan, is adamant that the treasure must stay where it is. "I believe it shouldn't go to any museum abroad, and it certainly shouldn't be put on display in the Kabul Museum again. The place is on its knees, it is not secure," she says. "For now the treasure should stay in that bank vault, where it has been safe for all these years."

Her position pits her against the Minister of Information and Culture and the other government officials. Dupree says: "They think they will make pots of money and be able to pay for a new museum. But the insurance costs are incredibly high. And, for all that it is a wonderful treasure, this is not Tutankhamun we're talking about. We will not have crowds stretching through the streets to see it and paying a lot to get in.

"I'm against it. But there are a lot of high functionaries in the government hoping it will exhibit abroad. The stakes are high here. We mustn't forget that the underground stolen-art mafia is just as dangerous as the drugs mafia."

The French archaeologist Roland Besenval also thinks the treasure should stay put. "It is safe in the bank vault. Perhaps a decision could be made on exhibiting it in the future."

Diplomats in the region agree that the antiquities smugglers are a serious threat to Afghanistan's battered heritage. They are stripping much of the nation's remaining heritage from the ground in illegal excavations. Somewhere in Japan, Europe or America, there may well be a fabulously wealthy client who dreams of possessing the Bactrian gold.

Rumours about the fate of the fabulous collection started soon after the Red Army's withdrawal. At first, it was said that the Russians had taken it with them. Stung by propaganda that he had shipped his nation's heritage to Moscow, President Najibullah displayed it to diplomats and reporters in the Arg's Summer Pavilion before sealing it in a vault.

Then chaos engulfed the country, his regime collapsed and factions fought over the city. Kabul's museum was badly damaged by fire in 1993. Much of value in the capital was looted, including some of the National Museum of Afghanistan's treasures, often stolen to order by dealers just across the border in Peshawar, Pakistan. Reports at the time spoke of ancient coins littering the museum's floors, buddhas broken down into transportable pieces and vaults blown open with dynamite.

Dupree confronted the guerrilla leader Ahmed Shah Massoud about claims that he had sold the treasure while he was defence minister. "They lie!" he had said, incensed. The treasure has been an important national symbol since its discovery, and has been treated as a propaganda tool.

By 1996, the Taliban had secured power and imposed a harsh peace. For the director of Kabul's museum, Omara Masoudi, the most difficult period of his secret custodianship was about to begin.

Dupree believes Masoudi is a true hero of Afghanistan. "We hear so much about Afghans looting their heritage and selling it off; well, here was a courageous man who protected his country's treasures," she says. "What he and his museum staff, and some bank staff, did was really dangerous."

In 1998, Masoudi discreetly checked that the treasure was still in its hiding place in the bank vault. He was with some Taliban officials, but he didn't tell them what was inside the nondescript boxes, and they didn't ask. Then, in 2001, the Taliban abruptly took a more severely fundamentalist turn. Masoudi has no doubt that the orders to destroy Afghanistan's heritage came from outside the fundamentalist movement at a time when al-Qa'ida had virtually taken the country over after a fierce power-struggle between moderates and extremists inside the Taliban.

"Men came to the museum with their faces covered to smash up the pre-Islamic exhibits," Masoudi says. "They didn't speak. We think they were foreign, probably al-Qa'ida. For sure this was dictated from outside, possibly by Bin Laden himself." Before this, the Taliban had always tried to protect these things - but suddenly they changed in 2001. "Luckily, the men weren't very educated. We told them a lot of things had been looted. If they asked us about something, we would try to shrug it off."

Masoudi says he was never threatened, and he believes the staff kept quiet because it was their duty. In all, he thinks about 50 people, Afghans and foreigners, knew the treasure's location. Nobody talked, although there would have been a big reward from the Taliban. "Sometimes archaeologists have to keep secrets. It is part of our job," he says. If they had not, the Bactrian gold would perhaps have found its way on to the gold markets of the Gulf as gold bars to finance international terrorism.

Masoudi feared another bout of looting as the Northern Alliance waged war on the Taliban before the US invasion in late 2001, but the treasure remained undetected. And, as political turmoil is never far away in Afghanistan, it was judged unsafe to reveal the Bactrian gold until April this year.

Dupree refuses to move her archive of precious documents from Peshawar in Pakistan just yet. "There will come a point where it will all be put in a building in Kabul," she says. "But only when I have the gut feeling that the city is stable again. Until then, it stays where it is safe."

The Arg compound in Kabul may have more surprises to spring. Other pieces from the museum were moved there for safe keeping; famous Afghan treasures, now being inventoried, such as glassware from Bagram and the Kunduz Hoard, a collection of Greek coins. There may yet be more furtive meetings in Kabul bank vaults.