Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
& CULTURAL NEWS OF IRANIAN WORLD©
Protects Storied Bactrian Treasure
13 June 2006
Cybele Plaque, among the Bactrian treasure on display at the presidential
palace in Kabul
(CAIS) -- By
than two decades of war and conflict in former Iranian province, today known as
Afghanistan had a catastrophic effect on the region's rich and unique cultural
and historical heritage. But some ancient works of art survived unscathed. They
include the famed Bactrian gold collection. The cache lay dormant under the Hill
of Gold, or Tillya-tepe, for 2,000 years until Soviet archeologists exposed it
shortly before the 1979 Soviet invasion. Decades later, it was rediscovered and
unveiled in 2003 to ease fears that it had been plundered during wartime. This
news-article examines the storied Bactrian gold -- and why Afghans and the rest
of the world must wait to see it.
parliament -- eager to protect what remains of the country's heritage -- in May
rejected a proposal to send the Bactrian gold on a world tour.
The priceless collection has been displayed only rarely, and very few people
have ever seen it.
But the director of Kabul's national museum, Omara Khan Massoudi, is among the
"They are very delicate pieces," Massoudi says. "Gold pieces
constitute most of the treasure, and they doubtlessly have great value in
shedding light on the history of land and its elegant arts. We are proud that we
still have the collection with us."
Found at a 2,000-year-old burial site, Massoudi says the collection contains
thousands of pieces of gold jewelry, figurines, funeral ornaments, and personal
The hoard was discovered in 1978 and 1979 by a group of Afghan and Soviet
archeologists led by a Greek-Russian archaeologist named Victor Sariyannidis.
"The Bactrian treasure was found in Jowzjan Province in six graves that
belong to the first century BCE and the first decade of the Common Era
calendar," Massoudi says. "It totaled 21,618 pieces. It was delivered
to the National Museum the same year, in 1979."
Out Of Sight, Not Mind
About a year later, some of the pieces were displayed briefly in an exhibition
at the museum in Kabul. But with the arrival of Soviet troops and other threats,
the treasure was hidden away in the museum.
In 1988, the gold pieces were transferred to a highly secure vault within the
central bank at the compound of the Afghan presidential palace. The treasure was
viewed only once in the next few years -- when President Mohammad Najibullah
wanted foreign diplomats to see that the Soviets had not absconded with (eds:
"During the rule of Dr. Najibullah, we had a one-day exhibition of these
works in the Arg Palace," Massoudi says.
Years of civil war followed, during which a significant portion of Afghanistan's
historical heritage was looted or destroyed.
Loyal bankers thwarted efforts by various sides in the ensuing years to even see
the Bactrian gold. But such secrecy also spawned speculation that the treasure
had been lost, stolen, or perhaps worse: melted down.
Finally, after the central bank's vaults were opened in 2003, the country was
assured that the treasure was safe.
An internationally aided inventory followed, and the 22,000 pieces were
photographed and catalogued in Dari and English.
In 2004, several items were displayed to selected guests -- including President
Hamid Karzai, cabinet ministers, foreign diplomats, and some media.
National Museum Director Massoudi says security concerns, inadequate facilities
to house the treasure, and a lack of expertise conspire against the Afghan
public, which will have to wait to see the Bactrian gold:
"It is very difficult for me to predict [when the Bactrian gold might be
displayed publicly]," Massoudi says. "As you know, Kabul's National
Museum was severely damaged during the civil war -- [about 70 percent of] its
items were looted. Following the fall of the Taliban, with the Culture Ministry
and the help of international organizations -- especially UNESCO -- we have done
our best to restore the museum. But we are still facing many problems."
Protected For Posterity
The world will also have to wait to see the ancient Iranian treasure. The
parliament in May rejected a proposal to exhibit the collection in a tour of
European and U.S. museums.
Parliamentarian Shukria Barekzai tells that too many risks are involved to allow
this iconic treasure to travel.
"Lack of strong insurance from a reliable company was one issue. There were
also concerns that these objects could be destroyed or damaged," Barekzai
says. "Their packing was also of concern -- and [there were fears] that
they could be replaced with replicas. All of these led to the decision [not to
tour it]. We don't want to lose what is left of our historical heritage. We have
lost enough of our archeological heritage. We have to do our best to preserve
what is left."
is the Light on the Path to Future"
British Institute of Persian Studies