The sign in front of the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul is unequivocal: "A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive."
Now, Americans will get to see how Afghan heroes kept their culture alive, along with the glittering artifacts they risked everything to save.
Talk about shock and awe: "Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures From the National Museum, Kabul" is an art-and-artifacts exhibit aimed at reminding viewers that Afghanistan is not just a faraway land where U.S. troops are now fighting and dying.
The exhibit opens Sunday at the National Gallery of Art, the first in a four-city tour of the USA co-organized by the gallery and the National Geographic Society.
On display will be nearly 230 objects, some thousands of years old, from Afghanistan's long and rich, multicultural history at the center of the network of trade routes known as the Silk Road. Greeks, Romans, Persians, Indians, Chinese, Siberians — these cultures all influenced this Central Asian region at some time, and all left something behind: Corinthian capitals, bronze sculpture, carved ivory reliefs, gold bowls, clay pottery and painted glassware as colorful as the day they were made 1,900 years ago.
The most eye-popping objects of all: beautiful gold jewelry and other adornments from the famed Bactrian Hoard, a cache of some 20,000 gold objects uncovered by archaeologists 30 years ago but long feared lost in the conflict and chaos that engulfed Afghanistan soon after it was discovered.
"This is the story of a country, a people and a marvelous civilization," says Terry Garcia, a National Geographic vice president. "It's a story of courage by those who risked their lives to save the cultural legacy of a country."
As compelling as the exhibit itself is the story of how it came to be. It turned out the national treasures of Afghanistan, including the Bactrian Hoard, had not been lost in the wars with communists, the Soviets, the Taliban and terrorists. Instead, on the eve of the 1979 Soviet invasion, as Kabul was bombed and the museum set on fire and looted, the treasures were hidden away by culture officials and museum curators in sealed boxes in a bank vault under the presidential palace.
Fewer than two dozen men knew the secret and kept it for decades, despite threats, even torture. "Afghan heroes kept them hidden and kept them safe with their code of silence," says Fredrik Hiebert, exhibit curator and a National Geographic archaeologist of Asia.
Then, in 2003, after new Afghan President Hamid Karzai began "snooping around in the palace," Hiebert says, the basement vault was discovered; inside, along with gold bullion, were sealed boxes from the National Museum. Could it be the treasure? It was. Hiebert was among those called in to inventory the contents.
Originally, when the exhibit toured Paris, Turin and Amsterdam last year, it was called the lost treasures of Afghanistan, says Afghan Ambassador Said Jawad. "We changed it to hidden treasures, because they were never truly lost," he says, except to the Soviets, the Taliban and the looters.
"To the Afghan patriots who risked their lives to hide these artifacts, they were never lost," Jawad says. "They demonstrated tremendous courage, dedication and heroism in preserving Afghanistan's and humanity's cultural heritage."
The exhibit will be at the National Gallery through Sept. 7; it will travel to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco (Oct. 24-Jan. 25, 2009), the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston (Feb. 22-May 17, 2009), and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (June 23-Sept. 20, 2009).