‘A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive’
What do you do on rainy weekends? Salem and Gernot – the founders of Conflictfood – love to visit Museums. But what are people doing in Kabul? Are there any museums left after years of warfare? Yes indeed – there is one in particular whose history might be more exciting than any thriller you have ever read! Join the Conflictfood team on a walk taround the National Museum in Kabul.
The treasures of Kabul’s National Museum
At the centre of old Kabul, barely 100 meters away from the destroyed presidential palace, the National Museum of Afghanistan is located. It is almost 100 years old. Our car is the only vehicle on the parking spot in front of the house – apart from five to six students from the high school close by, we will be the only guests of the day.
In the late 70s the National Museum of Afghanistan housed more than 100,000 objects. However, decades of civil war and conflict have exacted a terrible toll on its collection. During Soviet occupation of Afghanistan the Museum was commandeered by the military and many of its treasures were hastily removed. Worse was to come. During years of civil war a rocket attack destroyed the Museum’s roof and storage rooms, allowing thousands of artifacts to be lost and looted. By the mid 90s only 4000 objects could be located. Then came the Taliban’s disastrous 2001 edict mandating the destruction of ‘idolatrous’ works – another 2500 were lost.
A golden age for Afghanistan
In 1978 Kabul was a city of roughly half a million citizens, a bustling hub of Central Asia. Dr. Omara Khan Masoudi, Director of the National Museum of Afghanistan, began working there that year. It was him who wrote the words now immortalised at the Museum’s entrance. In the two decades prior, the Kabul Airport became operational, the country’s first rock music festival was held in 1975, and an organisation named the ‘Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan’ was founded.
A golden age for archaeology
In 1966 a new rush to explore the region was provoked by the accidental discovery of golden bowls bearing Mesopotamian designs. This chance find proved the importance of Afghanistan in ancient trade routes. In 1978 Russian archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi uncovered one of the world’s great archaeological finds. On the slopes of Tillya Tepe in northern Afghanistan, he unearthed the Bactrian Hoard: more than 20,000 items of gold and precious metal including the folding crown of a nomadic princess, gold buckles, brooches, and thousands of jewelled objects that illustrated the country’s immense cultural wealth.
The end of the golden age
Yet that same year brought disaster for the Afghan people. In the early hours of April 28, 1978, troops from the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan began a coup that resulted in the death of President Mohammad Daoud Khan and most of his family. It would become known as the ‘Saur Revolution’, but it was far from a people’s uprising. In December 1979, Soviet troops entered the country to support the communist government and fight the mujahideen, sparking a decade of guerrilla warfare.
A safe and a secret
At short notice, the Museum’s collection was ordered to be removed. Priceless artefacts, including Hellenistic stone and bronze statues, gold bowls, fragile Roman glassware, early Islamic carvings, Buddhist ivory sculptures, and vast numbers of ancient coins were packed into temporary housings. The works of art were removed hastily and handled without care, and without regard for the scientific and technical standards.
The collection was transferred to the home of minister Sardar Mohammad Naim Khan. In October 1980 the communist government handed back the building and reinstated the Museum.
As the ten years of war drew to a close and Soviet troops prepared to leave, the Museum was confronted by an ever-worsening security situation. The staff faced a terrible dilemma: risk packing up and transporting the objects again, or take a chance on the stability of the government. Ultimately, museum staff, in consultation with the Ministry of Information and Culture, decided to move the collection’s most valuable objects from Darulaman to the city centre for protection. The most prized objects were moved in secret to safes in the basement of the Kabul bank. In the years since the treasures were hidden, much has passed into legend.
The long war years made the lives of Kabul’s population a living hell. Marks of civilisation, state provisions and private assets were plundered or left in ashes. Thousands of Afghan families had to leave the country. It also ushered in a disastrous era for the National Museum. Again, the Museum served as a military base. It changed hands between various mujahideen factions several times. Each time soldiers were pushed out, the opportunistic ones would steal whatever they could take with them.
Nobody fully knows what happened to these stolen items. Some were likely sold on the black market, others melted down. Such looting began taking place at sites all across the country. In an attack in May 1993, rockets struck the upper levels of the building, setting them alight and causing the roof to collapse.
The Taliban rose to power in 1996. Surprisingly, they instituted a program to protect the collection. The doors to the Museum were locked for two years. In May 1999, a small core of museum workers picked up the inventory that was begun in 1996, which then listed less than 4000 objects – just 4% of the original collection. In 2001, the Taliban tasked a special group with destroying idolatrous images. This brutality resulted in the loss of a further 2500 works from the Museum and culminated in the demolition – using dynamite, rocket launchers, tanks and antiaircraft guns – of two enormous sixth-century Buddhas carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamiyan valley. These barbaric acts, which filled the heart of every decent Afghan with anger, represented an irreplaceable loss. Neither the coming generations of Afghans nor human history will forget this era of tyranny and destruction.
Luckily, the key treasures of the Museum lay safely hidden underground. In 2000 a secret ministry commission confirmed that the treasures were still hidden.
A new journey begins
On September 11, 2001 two hijacked airliners slammed into the World Trade Centre in Manhattan. The Taliban’s subsequent refusal to surrender Osama bin Laden and other key members of Al-Qaeda led to the US-led invasion in October 2001. The fall of the regime made it safer for some residents to return to Kabul and the city’s population soon numbered more than five million. Though the security situation remained fragile, international aid allowed the rebuilding of the Museum and its collection.
Yet the public had no news of the Museum’s remaining treasures. In 2003 the Ministry of Information and Culture decided to inventory the hidden treasures and a delegation ventured into the vaults. As President Hamid Karzai explained at the time: ‘It was like something out of a movie. We had to go down three elevators under the palace and along a tunnel set with booby traps, then through a door with seven or eight codes all held by different people.’
They found the treasure intact! 324 artefacts that represent the remaining inner core of Afghan heart and soul were found in the boxes. That was all that remained – out of the 100.000 pieces of gold, silver and gems of the original collection of the museum, only 0,3% could be safed here at the national Museum in Kabul.
At the entrance of the Museum the following words are engraved into the stone facade: ‘a nation stays alive when its culture stays alive’.
Those 324 artworks of Kabul’s Museum not only enrich rainy weekends – their incredible stories should be told any day of the week!