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Another Afghanistan

April 2013

  • Patrick Greene

Revealing Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul

Prepare to be surprised. Everyone has an image of Afghanistan, shaped by the nightly television news, of a bleak land beset by conflict in which the prevailing colour is a dusty brown. Thirty years of war have had a devastating impact on people, towns, villages and cultural heritage.

The destruction of the enormous Buddhas at Bamiyan was a very public demonstration by the Taliban of their iconoclasm but it did not stop there. The National Museum in Kabul was ransacked and anything with a human image was smashed or defaced – that is, if it had not already been looted in the chaos of civil war. How could thousands of objects of gold and precious stones survive? The archaeological world assumed that they had not. The Bactrian Hoard, for example, had been glimpsed in the months before the Soviet invasion but had disappeared from view. It comprised thousands of pieces of gold that had once adorned men and women of high status amongst the nomads of northern Afghanistan. Now, amazingly, it is on display in Melbourne Museum.

We were privileged to have as a guest at the opening of Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul, the director of the National Museum, Mr Omara Khan Massoudi. He had led the team of museum employees, now known as the key holders, who quickly wrapped each object in paper and sealed them in a number of metal crates before hiding them in the basement of the Presidential Palace. They stayed hidden for over 20 years until the overthrow of the Taliban. We were also joined at the exhibition opening by Dr Fredrik Hiebert, the archaeologist and National Geographic Society Fellow who witnessed the opening of the crates in 2003 and then spent months with Afghan colleagues cataloguing over 20,000 artefacts. It was an act of great bravery for the museum staff to hide the collection and then keep it an absolute secret. 

Melbourne Museum was faced with the challenge of designing an exhibition that would do full justice to the heroic story of the hidden treasures and also to show such wonderful objects in the best possible manner. The result is an exhibition that looks completely different to our other successes (A Day in Pompeii, Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs and The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia). Our own designers worked with Design Office and together they came up with the concept of displaying the finds from the four archaeological sites in four zones marked by lightweight fabric structures. Each zone opens off a central area which symbolises the Silk Road that crossed ancient Afghanistan taking precious goods from the East to the West and vice-versa. 

Visitors enter the Silk Road zone after experiencing a 10-minute video presentation that sets the scene. They can then look (and marvel) at the intricate design, expert craftsmanship and sheer beauty of Roman glassware, Indian ivories, Bactrian gold jewellery and Greek bronze statuettes. A highlight is the mighty capital that once topped a column in a public building in Ai Khanum, a city established by one of Alexander the Great’s generals – far from Macedonia and Greece but with all the attributes of a classical city including a theatre, planned street system, gymnasium, etc.

Visitors to the exhibition are experiencing an Afghanistan quite different to the one in the news – a country with a rich cultural history represented by exquisite objects that were traded along the Silk Road over a period of more than 2000 years.  Our colleagues from the National Museum in Kabul see cultural history as a valuable foundation for building pride and confidence as Afghanistan begins the challenging task of rebuilding.  However, the road to peace is likely to be a long one and few people in Melbourne are likely to visit the country in the near future.  The exhibition is therefore not to be missed.


Dr. J. Patrick Greene is CEO, Museum Victoria.

Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures shows
until July 28 at Melbourne Museum.



1. Enamelled glass beaker imported from northern Egypt.
2. One of a pair of gold hair pendants from Tillya tepe
3. Unbaked clay sculptural head from the main temple
4. A collapsible nomadic crown

Photos by: Thierry Ollivier




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