Jill Krementz Photo Journal - Afghan Treasures

At the entrance to the Exhibition: a view of Balkh, the major city of ancient Bactria, at the foot of the central highlands in northern Afghanistan. Balkh is said to have been home to the legendary prophet Zoroaster, residing here centuries before the arrival of Alexander the Great.
Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul
June 23rd-September 20th, 2009
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Kabul Museum, established in 1922, was filled with tens of thousands of ancient artifacts from all over Afghanistan. Throughout the years of civil war, the museum was continually bombed and looted. Many of the prized pieces, representing some of the most complex civilizations of Asia were stolen or destroyed.

Things got worse. In 2001, Taliban soldiers came in and smashed the remaining sculpture and artifacts.

Or so it was believed. It turned out that 20 brave Afghan museum workers had secretly hidden a significant number of the masterpieces and, by so doing, had saved their culture’s heritage. This incredible secret was not revealed until 2003 following the fall of the Taliban and the installation of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

And thus it is that the greatest treasures of Afghanistan’s National Museum have not only been preserved but that 200 of these wondrous archeological treasures are now on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum.

One can only hope that there will be a time when this collection can be returned to its mother country for all Afghans to see.
This exhibition, "Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul," presents the rich cultural heritage of one of the world's great nations. Strategically located in the heart of Central Asia,
ancient Afghanistan was a dynamic and thriving economic power in Silk Road culture, leading up to the first century A.D.
Stele Depicting a Youth. Limestone, Aï Khanum, Necropolis, before 145 B.C. This finely carved sculpture has repeatedly suffered. In 1971 it was discovered in 29 fragments among masonry blocking the entrance to an ancient mausoleum. Carefully reassembled, the fragments revealed a portrait of a youth with an upward gaze and long wavy hair. The work was put on display at the National Museum, Kabul, where it was again destroyed, in 2001, this time by the Taliban. The sculpture was restored a second time, but the head had been smashed beyond repair. Portrait, Probably of the Gymnasiarch Strato. Limestone, Aï Khanum, Gymnasium, first half of the 2nd century B.C. This portrait was inserted into the high pedestal with which it was found. In type, it derives from the Hermaic pillar, which bore a bust of Hermes, the protector god of the Gymnasium. The pedestal's Greek inscription indicates that the Gymnasium was rebuilt in honor of Strato by his two sons.
Inscribed Fragment of a Stele and Its Base. Limestone, Aï Khanum, funerary monument of Kineas, beginning of the 3rd century B.C. Inscribed at left: "These wise sayings of the illustrious men of old have been consecrated at the Sacred Pytho (Delphi). There Klearchos transcribed them carefully, coming here to display them so that they shine in such a distant place, in the sacred precinct of Kineas."
Hemispherical Sundial, Limestone. This type of sundial was widely used in ancient times, nearly identical examples have been found as far away as Pompeii. Reconstructed from fragments, this example is in the shape of a throne supported by lion's legs, with the seat of the throne formed by the dial face. The inscribed lines are calibrated for Aï Khanum's northern latitude, indicating that this dial was designed for use there.
Three painted glass vessels, Begram. Chemical analysis of the glass has shown they were imports from Roman Egypt or Syria. They represent a rare and elite form of ancient glassware known from only a handful of fragments found at various sites throughout the Roman Empire dating from the first to the third century A.D.
Fish-Shaped Flask, 1st-2nd century A.D.
Amphora, Alabaster, 1st-2nd century A.D. Bust of a Youth, 1st-2nd century A.D.
Jug in the Shape of a Kinnari, 1st-2nd century A.D. Kinnaris appear in Indian mythology and function as celestial musicians and singers, which accords well with the open mouth. This ceramic jug was covered with a blue-green coloring.
Each of these three women is standing on a makara, a hybrid mythical creature composed of body parts of an elephant, crocodile and fish. Ivory, Begram, 1st century A.D.
Plaque with a Fantastic Creature, Ivory; and two Plaques with a Narrative Scene, Possibly a Buddhist Birth Story. All 1st-2nd century A.D.
National Museum of Afghanistan, Kabul, 2002. Photo: P. Cambon. The National Museum of Afghanistan is the custodian of archeological finds from more than 1,500 sites in the country. Today, the museum is being renovated after decades of war during which it was bombed, looted, and then desecrated by the Taliban. It is hoped that the objects in this exhibition will one day be on permanent display in the refurbished National Museum.
Leg from a Piece of Furniture in the Shape of an Elephant, Ivory, 1st-2nd century A.D. Tomb I. The graves at Tillya Tepe were numbered by the Russian archeologist Viktor Sarianidi in the order in which he discovered them. The first tomb contained the skeleton of a 20- to 30-year-old woman buried in clothing lavishly decorated with appliqués of exquisite manufacture and varied shapes. The appliqués were made of gold, often inlaid with turquoise and other semi-precious stones. Rich hair decoration, pendants, an earring, a brooch, and a chain necklace were also found on the body.
Contents of Tomb III.
Belt with Medallions Depicitng a Figure (Dionysos?) Riding a Feline. Gold, Tillya Tepe, Tomb IV, 1st century A.D.
Sheath for Three Knives, bronze, gold, turquoise, Tillya Tepe, Tomb IV, 1st century A.D.
Fredrik T. Hiebert stands in front of gold crown which collapses into five pieces. Discovered in Tomb VI in Tillye Tepe, 1st Century A.D. "I'm the crazy archeologist who put this show together. I first went to Afghanistan in 2003, then in 2005 and again in 2006. I lived there for about a year. And I shall go back. When we discovered the buried treasures, they never told me how many boxes. In the end, there were about 150 crates and 95% of the masterpieces had been preserved. But that's still only one third of the museum's artifacts. Two thirds of them were destroyed."
Contents from the gift shop, including Kites made by Ustad Noor Agha, a slender 53-year-old man who lives in the oldest section of Kabul. He inherited the kite making skill from his father and says that kite flying came to Afghanistan some 900 years ago from India and China. Ustad Noor Agha's local fame attracted the producers of "The Kite Runner." He was hired as one of the trainers and also to make hundreds of kites used in the film.
Saltbag for Nomadic people; $525. Camel headpiece with a bell; $1,250. One of a kind.
Michael Hladky, who assembled the textiles on sale in the gift shop.
An embroidered headpiece to cover a braid. Child's vest: $475.
Browsing the gift shop: Lita Semerad (left), Administrator of Metropolitan's Costume Institute. She is wearing a Calder-inspired necklace by Bruce Campbell.
Clips from a film which is narrated by Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner.
Time Line of the National Museum of Afghanistan.
1992-1995: National Museum of Afghanistan, Kabul, is looted and destroyed during years of civil war.
Nadia Ragabaly, Soha Khalil, and Rania Alfy, three archeologists from Egypt. They are in training at the Metropolitan Museum, working in the Ancient Near-East department--specializing in mythology. They are employees of the Egyptian Museum of Antiquity. In 2010, a new museum, very modern, will open in their homeland called The Grand Egyptian Museum.
Anne Kirkup, program officer of cultural programs at Asia Society with art historian and writer, Caron Smith. George and Eleanor Bunin-Munroe.
Text and photographs © by Jill Krementz: all rights reserved.