Closer Readings Commentary

Beauty, Culture, and History Hidden in Afghanistan

In May 2008, “Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabulopened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, the first stop in a two-year tour of the United States. The nearly 230 artifacts in this exhibit were thought to be lost forever, casualties of the years of warfare, looting, and destruction that followed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and the rise of the Taliban in 1996. Instead, most of them had been secretly hidden in crates in the Central Bank within the presidential palace in Kabul.

The initial discovery and excavation of these treasures by an intrepid band of archeologists, their heroic safeguarding by Afghan museum guards and bank officials during the years of turbulence and war, and their recent rediscovery and cataloguing in 2004, are part of the exciting modern-day story that this exhibit tells.

Afghanistan, situated in the heart of central Asia, was for centuries one of the major crossroads for trade between China, India, and the Mediterranean world. The cultural riches of northern Afghanistan, known in antiquity as Bactria, reflect contacts with Greece, Iran, Mesopotamia, India, China, and the northern steppes. Bactrian artists absorbed the artistic traditions of these diverse lands and developed their own distinct styles.

The works on view span Afghan history from 2200 BCE to 200 CE, and come from four archeological sites: the Bronze Age site of Tepe Fullol; the Greco-Bactrian city of Aї Khanu, founded by followers of Alexander the Great who conquered the region in the fourth century BCE; the trading settlement of Begram, which flourished in the first and second centuries CE; and the roughly contemporary necropolis of Tillya Tepe or "Mound of Gold," where a nomadic chieftain and members of his household were buried with thousands of gold objects and ornaments, popularly known as the “Bactrian Hoard.”

The exhibit, supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, is organized by the National Geographic Society and the National Gallery of Art. After its Washington, DC, run, it traveled to museums in San Francisco, Houston and New York.

The National Gallery web feature includes a “timeline of treasures,” a downloadable exhibition brochure, an educational guide for ages 8-12, and an audio of the remarks by the curator Frank Heibert at the press preview. The National Geographic Society Web features include an interactive map of Afghanistan with video segments on each of the four archeological sites.

EDSITEment has a number of related lesson plans on the ancient Greeks and on the cultures of the Silk Road with interactive maps for all ages that can be used in conjunction with a trip to the exhibit, a screening of the National Geographic video, or with two websites.

Ancient Greeks and their Colonies

Cultures of the Silk Road

Related Interactive Quizzes and Timelines

Featured Websites


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