18 Jun 2009

By Barbara Hoffman
June 18, 2009

Those Corinthian columns might have come from Greece; that drain spout shaped like a grinning fat man, from Rome; those voluptuous ivory carvings, from India.

Instead, all these — and the turquoise-encrusted daggers, glorious enameled goblets and Midas-worthy mounds of gold — are from Afghanistan.

Centuries before the Soviets, the Taliban and vicious civil strife reduced it to rubble, this land was a stop along the Silk Road, its rich caches of copper, gold and more spawning a mash-up of civilizations and cultures.

So we learn at “Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures From the National Museum, Kabul,” an exhibit opening Tuesday at the Met.

Organized in part by the National Geographic Society, the show is on a multi-museum tour, inspired by an embattled nation’s gratitude — and its need to show that here, under the ashes, is a culture worth preserving.

“Seven years ago, when the Taliban were roaming the streets, it was hard to imagine we’d have the opportunity to display this,” says Tayeb Jawad, Afghanistan’s ambassador to the US.

This, he says, is what his nation used to be — a dynamic center of trade, its “brilliant past covered by the ashes of war and neglect.”

That past — these riches — were hidden by Kabul museum workers who put their lives on the line by concealing them in a vault within the presidential palace.

There they lay — the crown jewels of Afghanistan, wrapped in tissue paper — for 25 years.

According to Jawad, any of them could have been sold to buy a comfortable life in the West. Instead, they’re here, at least for now — the fruit of four archaeological digs.

One of those sites was Ai Khanum, a bit of Hellenistic heaven founded by Alexander the Great. On display are bits of stately columns, fountains and other architectural details, including a lovely bit of male torso whose head, we’re told, was smashed beyond repair by the Taliban. (The rest of the body was reconstructed.)

A digital reconstruction of the city unfolds wordlessly on a nearby flat screen; elsewhere, a 13-minute film narrated by “Kite Runner” author Khaled Hosseini details this and the other excavations.

More highlights include enameled goblets painted with male and female figures, and ivory carvings of three shapely young women.

Extracted from Begram, a site along the Silk Road, they mercifully escaped the hammers of religious fanatics.

The most jaw-dropping discovery is in the final room — the glittery contents of six nomadic tombs from Tillya Tepe (“golden hill”).

These were people who definitely believed you could take it with you.

Buried with these migratory men and their consorts are piece upon piece of gold — belts, clasps, earrings, swords, medallions, tiny teardrop-shaped embellishments, even a collapsible crown worn by some peripatetic princess. (Don’t bother looking for a replica in the Met’s gift shop — though it’s rife with knotted Afghan rugs.)

In a sense, this exhibit is nomadic, too. These once-hidden treasures will roam the world’s museums until their homeland is stable enough to display them.

“Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures From the National Museum, Kabul” opens Tuesday and runs through Sept. 20 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street; metmuseum.org.

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