Afghanistan's 'Hidden' Art
Treasures on Exhibit in Amsterdam
Source: Voice of
America (VOA News)
By Lauren Comiteau
19 February 2008
The Taliban's destruction of the giant Buddhas of
Bamiyan in March 2001 was the most dramatic expression
of their mission to obliterate all "idolatrous" images
from Afghanistan's pre-Islamic past. Along with the
Buddhas, the Taliban destroyed 2,500 other cultural
gems from Kabul's National Museum of Afghanistan. But
thanks to the heroic efforts of the museum's curators,
not all was destroyed. A traveling exhibit that
recently opened in Amsterdam has brought some of what
has survived under one roof. Lauren Comiteau visited
the exhibit at Amsterdam's Nieuwe Kerk - or New Church
- and files this report.
As one enters the Hidden Afghanistan exhibit, a
banner headline reads: "A Nation Stays Alive When Its
Culture Stays Alive." A glimpse of that culture - and
how it survived invasion, civil war, and even the
Taliban - is what this exhibit is all about.
"I believe this exhibit is going to go and show the
world that Afghanistan is not what they hear in the
West, that it's Taliban and war and this and that,"
says Omar Sultan, Afghanistan's Deputy Minister of
Information and Culture. "But that we have a cultural
heritage that is not only belong to Afghanistan but it
belongs to the world."
That's because the world so often came to
Marlies Kleiterp, the Nieuwe Kerk's head of
exhibitions, explains that because Afghanistan was
located on the trade routes between East and West, it
has historically served as a crossroads of
"Because of that, local traditions mixed up with
those from east and west that were brought in, and
from north and south. I think the thing people
recognize best was influence of the Greeks. Alexander
the great in the 4th century B.C. conquered large part
of Asia and ended up in this river. And also
Afghanistan was part of his empire during that time,"
Chinese pilgrims passed through this territory on
their way to India. Afghanistan's location on the Silk
Road brought Buddhism, which also flourished there.
The rich legacy of art and culture were also
influenced by the great civilizations of China, Egypt,
Mesopotamia, Persia, the Indian subcontinent and Rome.
Khalid Siddiqi fled Afghanistan during the war and
now studies in Amsterdam. He says the exhibit shows
the "beautiful side of integration."
"What we see today here in Amsterdam, Berlin, New
York - all these great cities; all these different
cultures - coming together is pretty much the same as
Afghanistan 2,000 years ago," he says. "All different
cultures coming together and leaving their traces
But Afghanistan's geography has also had its
downside, witnessed in the years of strife that left
the country's cultural heritage on the verge of
The Soviets invaded in 1979, and during the war
that followed, many priceless works of art were
What remains from the National Museum's collection
has survived civil war, a rocket attack, fire, a
collapsed roof, snow, and the Taliban. That anything
is left at all is in large part due to the efforts of
Museum Director Omar Khan Massoudi and his staff. In
1988, they secretly moved the highlights of the
collection to a vault in the Central Bank at the
"They put them in crates and put them in a special
safe in the Presidential Palace and locked the safe
with in fact seven keys," Marlies Kleiterp explains.
"And the seven keys were given to seven different
persons. And the idea was that nobody could come back
and open the safe without any of the other keys. And
in the end, they gathered together. Unfortunately, not
all the keys were there, not all the keys survived,
and so they had to use mechanical techniques to open
the safe. But they did, they succeeded."
Massoudi risked his life to preserve his country's
cultural heritage. He was one of the seven men who had
keys to the vault. He came to the exhibit's Amsterdam
opening, talking modestly of his role in saving his
"During the civil war these people knew about the
transfer of these pieces and never gave any
information to anybody," he said. "Luckily, they keep
it secret. "
It wasn't until 2003, more than a year after the
overthrow of the Taliban, that the Afghan government
confirmed the existence of the treasures and
restoration work began.
The original collection numbered more than 100,000
pieces. Fewer than one-quarter survived.
"One of the best pieces is this crown.
Extraordinary," says Kleiterp. "You can see Indian,
For now, this traveling exhibit is the only way for
Afghans to see the museum's collection. Afghanistan is
still deemed too unstable for the art to go home, and
the museum itself remains badly damaged. The exhibit's
catalogue, though, has been translated into the Afghan
languages, Dari and Pashto, and will be distributed to
every school in the country. And, Deputy Minister
Sultan says if his country's art can survive the
Taliban, he has no doubts about its future.
"And if they could have saved it at that time, I
promise you we can save it for as long as we are
alive," he says.