Page last updated at 21:47 GMT, Wednesday, 6 December 2006

Afghan golden treasure on display

By Lawrence Pollard
BBC News, Paris

This golden belt is one of the highlights of the exhibition

There is one darkened corridor in the Musee Guimet which will take your breath away, as it winks at you with a glittering light.

This exhibition is not only about gold - there is also fabulous Indian-looking ivory and Egyptian glass.

But the gold cannot help stealing the show.

This is the treasure of Tilya Tepe, the Hill of Gold, from near the Oxus river in northern Afghanistan - and it has quite a story to tell.


Called the Bactrian Gold, after the area at the crossroads of the trade routes between China, India and the Mediterranean, it was unearthed in 1978 by a Russian team.

Necklace on display in the exhibition - Afghanistan, rediscovered treasures

They had found the graves of nomadic aristocrats who died about the time of the birth of Christ. More than 20,000 individual gold items - from tiny beads and hearts sewn onto costume, to the shimmering golden crown of a queen. Even golden sandals.

That was 1978. Soon after, more waves of invasion and conflict led Afghanistan to chaos and civil war. As far as the outside world knew, the treasure just disappeared. Had it been taken to Moscow, or smuggled, or melted down?

The national museum in Kabul was first looted by mujahadeen, then vandalised by the Taleban.

As the chaos intensified in the late 1990s, tribal factions and then the Taleban attacked a vault in the grounds of the presidential palace in Kabul, trying to find the treasure they suspected was inside, but the inner doors stood firm.

Just a handful of people knew what was there - and finally, in 2004, the gold was uncovered, hidden in modest crates under piles of old currency.

Much of the jewellery in the Bactrian treasure is displayed on slender poles - as you walk in front they gently shake and shine

And then the clamour began from international museums to take it on tour. Americans, Dutch, Austrians, Koreans - all were overtaken by French President Jacques Chirac, whose direct dealing with Afghan President Hamid Karzai won the prize for France.

And so it is now at the Musee Guimet, in Paris.

France has a long history of archaeological work in Afghanistan, and the show is a diplomatic coup. But more importantly, it is a treat.

Changing perceptions

Much of the jewellery in the Bactrian treasure is displayed on slender poles. As you walk in front, they gently shake and shine, and the crown, hung with dozens of tiny golden flakes, shivers like wheat in a breeze.

Restorer works on a fluvial goddess statue
Many exhibits were painstakingly restored

It is hoped the spectacle could go some way to altering perceptions of Afghanistan in the outside world - that it's not just about camels and Kalashnikovs, it's about a fabulous mix of cultures and has a genuinely significant heritage.

For me, that worked completely.

And the real pleasure is that you do not need an expert's eye to spot the influences. There are column capitals from Ai-Khanoum - a Greek city in northern Afghanistan - which anyone can tell look as if they are from a Greek temple.

There are ivory tablets and sculptures of wide-hipped and large-breasted dancing girls, which you know look Indian. A coin bears the Buddhist wheel, one buckle bears Roman dolphins, another a Chinese-looking devil... and on it goes.

Among all the glitter and the simple thrill of seeing such beautiful objects, there are also some sobering thoughts. One is that for nearly a quarter of a century, Afghanistan's culture has been systematically looted by illegal digging.

Ai-Khanoum has been stripped. If there is other stuff as gorgeous as the Bactrian gold, it may already have been stolen and smuggled.


When it returns from its brief tour (which looks like taking in Holland, Germany and the US), Afghanistan's golden treasure cannot be shown to the Afghans for security reasons. They have never seen it, and they will not now.

What is desperately needed is money to pay for education, protection of sites and security to stop smuggling - money which could be raised by the tour of the treasures.

Normally, a show of this magnitude would warrant a payment by the receiving museum of hundreds of thousands, even into $1m-dollar territory.

The Guimet, which helped organise the show, is giving one euro ($1.30) per each ticket sold. If the show's a success, they can expect to sell 50-100,000 tickets - which is a lot less than a million.

Even if it is not enough, its something. So, for many reasons - if you can - go to Paris.

Pay your extra euro.

Goggle at the Dazzle, and thank your lucky stars you've had the privilege of seeing what the Afghans themselves cannot see.

Spoils of war
26 Jun 06 |  Magazine
Artist to recreate Afghan Buddhas
09 Aug 05 |  Arts & Culture
Afghan gold stash found intact
29 Aug 03 |  Middle East
UN helps rebuild Afghan culture
16 Jun 03 |  South Asia
Afghans repair broken heritage
18 Feb 03 |  South Asia
Afghan relics sold for food
03 Nov 01 |  South Asia

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