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Afghanistan's Heritage Preserved
Emily Gertz, 24 Jun 04

Sometimes Worldchanging comes in the guise of small acts of bravery, like breaking a key off in a lock.

Today's New York Times recounts a conspiracy of silence and small acts that added up to the preservation of the Bactrian gold, 20,600 pieces of barely-studied gold jewelry, funeral ornaments and other objects found in 2,000-year-old burial mounds in northern Afghanistan in the late nineteen-seventies.

While most of the world thought the Bactrian gold was lost during Afghanistan's past two decades of turmoil--taken by the Soviets when they pulled out of the county in 1989, or melted down by the Taliban after taking control of Kabul seven years later--it was secretly locked away in Central Bank vaults below the Arg, a Kabul palace compound.

Only a few people knew the Bactrian gold was there, and they've kept it quiet for nearly 15 years, despite living in a war zone.

...the Taliban seized control of Kabul in 1996, creating fears. Armed men ordered a Central Bank employee to open the vault in the Arg and brought a gold merchant from southern Afghanistan to inspect the bullion. But they knew nothing of the Bactrian gold lying just yards away, said one bank employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Then as they left at that time and the bank official locked the massive safe door, he snapped off the key in the lock, which successfully frustrated further attempts by the Taliban or anyone else to enter the vault.

Yet tensions grew as more militant elements gained influence within the Taliban and began a systematic destruction of all non-Islamic art, smashing what was on display at the museum and blowing up the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan in the spring of 2001...The culture minister, Mr. Raheen, is torn between concern for the safety of the collection and the need to generate world interest for Afghanistan's cultural heritage, much of which is still being looted in illegal digs all over the country. He said he hoped to exhibit the collection around the world to raise much-needed funds for his impoverished ministry and eventually to build a new museum in Kabul to house it.

A lot gets lost in war--maybe a few historical bits are the least of it. Still, it's hopeful that these artifacts of Afghanistan's--and humanity's--cultural heritage may someday be available for us all to see and study.

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