Saving Relics, Afghans Defy the Taliban

KABUL, Afghanistan — Every piece of antiquity that is restored to the halls of the bombed, pillaged and now rebuilt National Museum of Afghanistan sends a message of defiance and resilience.

These are messages to the Taliban, who in 2001 smashed every museum artifact that they could find that bore a human or animal likeness. But these are messages for others as well: to the warlords who looted the museum, some of whom are still in positions of power in Afghanistan; to corrupt custodians of the past who stood by while some 70,000 objects walked out the door.

Just a few years ago, the National Museum here was defined by how much it had lost — some 70 percent of its collection destroyed or stolen, including precious objects dating back to the Stone and Bronze Ages, through Zoroastrianism and Buddhism to early Islam, and documenting some of the world’s most mysterious ancient cultures.

Now, it might better be defined by how much it has regained.

Three hundred of the most important of the 2,500 objects the Taliban had smashed have been painstakingly reassembled in recent years, and many of the others are arrayed in boxes and trays, awaiting their turn for restoration.

The looted objects have also been returning, as word has gotten around to customs agents worldwide about how to identify Afghan artifacts. In recent years, Interpol and Unesco have teamed up with governments around the world to interdict and return at least 857 objects — some of them priceless, like 4,000-year-old Bactrian princess figurines that had disappeared from the National Museum. Another 11,000 objects have been returned after being seized by the border authorities at Afghanistan’s own frontiers.

A recent security upgrade at the museum financed by the United States government was just completed, at least some hedge against the kind of pillaging that has plagued the institution over the past three and a half decades.

And a team of archaeologists from the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute are halfway through a three-year-long grant from the American government to register every object in the museum’s collections, creating a digital record. Intended to guard against future theft, the project will also help with restorations, and serve as a resource for scholars worldwide.

“If you don’t know what you have, you can’t protect it,” said Michael T. Fisher, the American archaeologist heading the Chicago team. “When you do, the whole story opens up, and it’s incredible what you can see. A lot of the collection is world class.”

Presiding over this institution is Omara Khan Masoudi, who does not have a degree in archaeology, but has even more impeccable credentials: He is one of the key keepers. These are the men who kept the keys to the vaults where some of the museum’s greatest treasures were hidden, including the Bactrian Hoard, a collection of exquisite gold and silver artifacts dating back more than 2,000 years.

Through guile and deception, Mr. Masoudi and his fellow key keepers kept many such valuables — the ones most easily melted down — safe during the country’s wrenching civil war and the following stretch of Islamist rule.

They hid some of the best statues in rooms at the Ministry of Culture, or in obscure corners of the storerooms scattered around the museum, preserving many before the Taliban’s rampage in March 2001. In those few weeks of fury, Islamist fighters raced to destroy images of people or animals, which they considered sacrilegious, including the giant ancient Buddha statues of Bamian Province.

Afterward, people like Abdullah Hakimzada, a restorer who has spent the past 33 years working at the museum, were on hand to sweep up the fragments of the objects that the Taliban smashed — sorting many of them hurriedly into sacks and boxes that later would help the reassembly work.

“If we had enough time and resources at our disposal, we could restore everything,” he said.

Mr. Hakimzada was also one of the key keepers, to three safes inside the presidential palace that the Taliban never found.

After years of damage by the Taliban and the warlords, many of whom looted the museum’s collections on demand for wealthy collectors, the museum was a mess when it reopened in 2004. Its storerooms were stuffed with boxes and bags of fragments, and even intact objects had deteriorated during the years the museum’s roof was largely missing.

Since then, a series of archaeological teams, mainly French, have helped put it back together again. Restorers like Mr. Hakimzada were sent abroad to study techniques at museums in Europe and America.

When Mr. Fisher’s team went to work registering and digitizing the collection in 2012, it was like doing archaeology on the museum itself. “Sometimes we feel like we’re excavating the present, going through the museum and seeing what has happened,” he said.

Along the way there have been striking discoveries, many not on display for lack of exhibition space and resources. A new home for the museum is planned, but it is still in the fund-raising stage.

A clay tablet with lines of cuneiform writing, originally unearthed in an ancient trash dump in Kandahar, long thought lost, was found in a basement storeroom by the Chicago team. It is evidence that the sixth-century B.C. Persian civilization of Cyrus the Great had reached that far east.

Returned were some of the Begram ivories, stunningly intricate, carved decorations believed to have been stolen from the museum. Some resurfaced in the museum’s own collections, others were confiscated by border police.

Some of the most satisfying successes, though, were restorations of objects smashed by the Taliban. Often the archaeologists did not know even what object the pieces belonged to.

“It’s like taking 50 jigsaw puzzles all mixed up, the tough ones, that you don’t know you have all the pieces to, with no picture to work from, and putting it together,” Mr. Fisher said.

From such efforts, they reassembled objects like the cross-legged, second- or third-century A.D. Bodhisatva Siddhartha, which now has pride of place at the top of the museum’s staircase. Larger than life-size, it had been reduced by the Taliban to a pile of shards.

Mr. Hakimzada’s favorite restoration, though, was the statue of King Kanishka, from the Kushan empire that ruled much of South Asia from its Afghan base in the first through fourth centuries A.D.

“During that time, Afghanistan was at peace, and society was very tolerant and religiously inclusive,” he said.

A series of restored statues from the centuries after Alexander the Great’s invasion look like perfectly muscled Greek gods — except they are Greco-Bactrian Buddhas, among the earliest representations of the Buddha in human form. They are compelling evidence that ancient Afghanistan was not just a crossroads for the cultures of its powerful neighbors — China, India, Persia — but also contributed greatly in its own right. Two of them have deep gouges from hammer blows, and missing faces, but remain exquisite.

“Archaeological artifacts are our national identity,” said the museum’s archival head, Mohammad Yahyeh Muhibzada. “It’s our national responsibility to protect them so future generations will know who we are and who we were.”

While the emphasis is on the ancient, there are more modern artifacts as well — including several rusting steam locomotives in the gardens. “We have them to remind people that at the end of the 19th century, Afghanistan had railroads, while at the end of the 20th, it did not,” Mr. Masoudi said.

Hardly a day goes by that the Chicago archaeologists do not discover some intriguing new object in the storerooms — like a clay lid, with an inscription from the extinct Kharoshti language, found in December.

“There are so many things that are very, very, very beautiful,” said Mr. Masoudi, the museum director. “First we need a new building.”

The crown jewels of the museum’s collections are the Bactrian Hoard, recovered from ancient burial mounds in northern Afghanistan in 1978 by Russian archaeologists.

They have been on tour since 2007, seen in France, the Netherlands, Britain, North America and Australia, and have provided the museum with an important source of revenue, $3.5 million so far.

But as the war against the Taliban has stretched on, some here see another good reason to keep them on tour.

“I personally hope they never return,” Mr. Hakimzada said. “At least where they are now, we know they are safe.”