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Afghanistan's Treasures: Something Worth Fighting For

The conflicts that dominate the world and impinge on American lives seem eternal. The president speaks of a war that will extend beyond our lifetimes. Our country tightens security as if expecting regular and devastating attacks.

But starting Sunday at the National Gallery of Art, you can see a heartening and dazzling alternative. "Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul," is not merely a collection of gold jewelry, painted glassware and royal booty from two thousand years ago, but rather, a startling story of courage, commitment, and cultural blending of the sort that seems impossible in the war-torn countries around the cradle of civilization.

Yesterday's preview of the National Gallery show, which runs through Sept. 7, featured a talk by its curator, National Geographic Society archaeologist Fredrik Hiebert, who told the dramatic story of how a handful of Afghan museum officials managed to hide the treasures of antiquity in underground vaults through both the Soviet communist period and the brutal reign of the Taliban.

Even as the Taliban reduced the National Museum in Kabul to a shell with no roof, no windows and no objects of art, these brave employees managed to squirrel away the most important holdings in a bank vault beneath the presidential palace. When Hiebert showed up in Kabul a few years ago, the Afghans agreed to open up the treasures if National Geographic and other American groups would pay for a scientific inventory of the long-sealed boxes.

Back home in Washington, Hiebert lobbied hard and won money from the National Endowment for the Humanities and his own employer. The boxes were cut open with circular saws; inside were plastic bags filled with treasures that will change your views about Afghanistan and its neighbors.

Here's a bejeweled Russian-style dagger sheath, made in Afghanistan two thousand years ago. Here's a locally made gold and turquoise piece with a Chinese dragon and other design elements from the Far East. Here's an exquisitely detailed Aphrodite, one of a number of pieces featuring Greek and Roman gods. There are classical Indian symbols and Persian designs, influences from the Balkans and throughout Europe.

This is the original multi-culturalism, and it is not the divided and divisive sensibility that so permeates American schools these days, but rather a reminder that along the ancient Silk Road, civilizations that sometimes clashed came together in the interest of commerce and in the common human search for meaning and beauty.

The curators say there's not much known about the nomads in whose graves much of the burial gold displayed in this show was found. We know that in nomadic society, you did try to take it with you, and an opulent display of wealth in the grave was an effort to communicate just how important and successful you were in life. But the casual mixing of artistic and social cultures in the objects that have been found in these burial places and in the temples and royal palaces of current-day Afghanistan demonstrates that in exactly the piece of the world that we today associate with intolerance and extreme tribalism, there was an embrace of faraway cultures almost inconceivable two millennia later.

"Afghanistan is a mosaic of Western and Eastern cultures, the roundabout of the Silk Road and the crossroads of civilizations and invasions," Afghanistan's ambassador to Washington, Said Jawad, said at the Gallery.

Walk through the rooms of this show and you'll see lacquered bowls from China, one of the earliest known representations of the Buddha, Indian goddesses, ivory furniture decorations from India, Roman glassware, and Greek bronzes. There's ingenuity in a bronze aquarium from the first century, a novelty item that was likely used to amuse guests at a party: You fill a basin with water, place this bronze cover over the water, and tiny metal fish appear to bob up and down, thanks to little weights wired to the fish from below the surface of the art piece.

It would be naive to expect such worldliness to return to that part of the world in any large way anytime soon. But what was once can be again; history at least offers that possibility. The Taliban dynamited the Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001, but they couldn't destroy these spectacular pieces of evidence of another way of living in that part of the world.

Check it out--along with a lecture Sunday at 2 p.m. by Hiebert, the curator, at the Gallery's East Building Auditorium.

By Marc Fisher |  May 21, 2008; 8:17 AM ET
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