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The Hidden Treasures of Afghanistan in Bonn

In Bonn, a unique exhibition has opened its gates. Until October 3, artifacts from the Afghan National Museum in Kabul are on display. Preserving them during the civil war has not been an easy task.

A rare collection of Afghan artifacts

A rare collection of Afghan artifacts

"These are the heroes who have saved the culture of Afghanistan," says Afghan politician Omar Sultan. A dozen bearded men and a woman in a red headscarf look shyly at the audience. They are not used to so much praise.

What they have preserved during the 30-year-long war in Afghanistan is nothing less than one of the most valuable archaeological finds in history.

When the Soviet troops were preparing for their withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1988, the staff of the National Museum in Kabul, saw to it that the art treasures could be saved from the expected civil war by hiding the unique artifacts, including Bactrian golden bowls from the Bronze Age, intricate tiles and Hellenic style capitals dating from the time of Alexander the Great.

A visitor looking at the Afghan collection at a museum in Bonn

A visitor looking at the Afghan collection at a museum in Bonn

Hiding the works of art

It was the then Communist Afghan President, Najibullah, who took the initiative. The safest place at that time was right in the center of the embattled capital, says Omar Khan Massoudi, the director of the National Museum in Kabul. Some of the employees managed to put about 20 thousand pieces into the safe of the Afghan Central Bank.

Despite all the efforts of Massoudi, the museum was looted several times in 1992-93.

"They were uneducated people who did not know what they were doing to Afghanistan," he says now - almost apologetically. Also, in May 1993 a fire damaged the museum.

In the following years, most of the exhibits that remained in the museum building were sold in the markets of Afghanistan and also in other countries.

The Taliban's blow

The Taliban almost dealt the museum the final blow. When they destroyed the Buddha statues of Bamiyan, they at the same time also destroyed the remaining collection of the Afghan National Museum. Only the collection that Massoudi and his staff had hidden could survive this destruction.

"We kept it a secret. We never gave information. The museum people, the archaeology institute of Afghanistan, they said, we have no information, they are looted, where they were stored up to 2003."

A part of the Afghan artifacts has been shown in the West over the last three years

A part of the Afghan artifacts has been shown in the West over the last three years

Future of artifacts

Since 2003, reconstruction work is under way at the museum. The treasures have been restored and catalogued for the first time in English in order to make them accessible to the whole world. Since 2007, at least a part of them have been shown in Western countries.

The museum director is not so worried about the fact that the war in Afghanistan is not over yet. With the help of the international community, he is confident that the Afghans will be able to protect the collection in future, too. Deputy Minister of Culture Omar Sultan agrees:

"If we kept it secret for 30 years and nobody knew where it was, so we can do it," he says. "I guarantee that. That what you see is not even a third or fourth of what we have in Afghanistan right now. And they are in a safe place."

Omar Sultan's dream is to present these unique artifacts one day in his own country. In a large, modern museum.

Author: Cem Sey / du
Editor: Thomas Baerthlein

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