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Exiled Antiquities Returned to Kabul


25 November 2006




LONDON, (CAIS) -- The Kābul Museum in Exile, in Switzerland, is closing, and its collection will be sent back to Kabul as Unesco has determined that the situation in the Afghan capital is now safe enough. Items donated for safekeeping are therefore being packed, for their return.

The museum in exile is in the village of Bubendorf, 20 kilometres outside Basel. It was established by Swiss scholar Paul Bucherer-Dietschi in 1999, to house artefacts from war-torn Afghanistan.

But politics quickly intervened, and initial plans to temporarily evacuate the Kabul Museum’s collection were never implemented, because of problems in Afghanistan and a lack of support from UNESCO.

In March 2001, in an act of extreme cultural vandalism, the British-US backed Taliban blew up the two giant Bamiyan Buddhas and ransacked the Kabul Museum, destroying or severely damaging most of the artefacts.

Although the museum in exile in Switzerland never received the contents of the Kabul Museum, it was given objects by well-wishers from outside Afghanistan. The Bubendorf collection eventually numbered 1,300 items, 85% of which are ethnographic. There are 200 archaeological objects, including two Bagrām ivories. There are also finds from post-Achaemenid Āi Khānūm. All this material is to be handed over shortly to Omara Khan Massoudi, director of the Kabul Museum. Its building was severely damaged during the recent civil wars, but was reconstructed two years ago.


Among the artefacts were gold and silver vessels from Mir Zaka II hoard, a gold censer in the shape of a high beaker on a round base from which thin trails imitating wisps of incense twist upwards. Another piece among them was a squat silver bowl with an out-turned rim, with the impressed image of a seahorse or Hippocampus, its curled tail terminating in a crescent-shaped curve, on the inside of the base. Among the sculptures many depict Zoroastrian priests, figurines, gold plaques, rings, and intaglios from the post-Achaemenid period. The jewelery in the hoard, in particular pendants, earrings, and bracelets, amounted to several kilograms in weight! The most sensational numismatic in the collection is a coin of Nasten, a hitherto unknown Iranian ruler in India. On the obverse, within a bead-and-reel border, the coin carries a bust of the diademed king to right wearing a helmet with a long, flowing crest and a mantle. The reverse shows the king on a prancing horse riding to the right, and wears a helmet with a long, flowing crest.

The very concept of the museum in exile, or safe haven, is a controversial one. There are those who believe that the idea should be adopted when there is a strong threat to a museum in a war-torn country. Others see the dangers of this approach, and believe collections should be safe-guarded in situ.

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