Looters stole tens of thousands of artifacts from the National Museum of Afghanistan during the country’s civil war in the 1990s, and then thousands more were destroyed by the Taliban when they took power.
Now the museum is slowly coming back to life, helped by millions of dollars in U.S. and other foreign aid. Every day 300 to 400 visitors a day come to see the collections of sculptures, jewelry, coins and other artifacts dating from the Stone Age through the 20th century.
A new exhibit, “The 1,000 cities of Bactria,” focuses on a northern region of Afghanistan that accumulated great wealth, thanks to its location along the Silk Road and several other important trade routes from China and India.
But the exhibit won’t include any of the legendary “Bactrian gold,” a collection of tens of thousands of gold and silver coins, crowns and jewelry more than 2,000 years old - because the museum lacks the security measures to keep it safe. Instead the collection travels the world, already displayed at the British Museum in London, the National Gallery of Art in Washington and other institutions. It is now at the Melbourne Museum in Australia.
“There were a lot of problems, but year by year we’re trying to solve these,” director Omra Khan Masoudi said on a tour of the museum on Friday. “Now it’s starting to look like a museum.”
The two-floor museum is across the street from Kabul’s famous Darul Aman Palace, which still lies in ruins from fierce fighting in the area in the early 1990s during the civil war. The museum was also badly damaged in the fighting, and in the chaos some 70 percent of its collection - about 70,000 pieces - was lost to looting.
With the help of foreign governments, some 9,000 of those artifacts have been recovered so far from the U.S., Britain, Germany and elsewhere.
Despite the losses, the collection is still impressive.
At the front door, a second century limestone statue of a Kushan Empire prince greets visitors - missing its head from devastation wrought under the Taliban in 2001 when they embarked on a campaign to destroy pre-Islamic art.
Five wooden sculptures from Nuristan dating to the 18th century, each about two meters (five to six feet) tall, loom over the end of the museum’s great hall, and a special exhibit on Buddhism in Afghanistan contains some of the first examples of sculptures depicting Buddha.
“I believe the National Museum of Afghanistan can be one of the richest museums in the region, or in the world,” Masoudi said.
Some $3 million from the Afghan government and another $5 million from the U.S. Embassy, as well as donations from Italy, Japan and the Netherlands, have helped bring the museum to the state it is in today.
Another $3 million project funded by the U.S. State Department involves experts from the University of Chicago helping to catalog and document all of the museum’s inventory, after some 90 percent of object records were lost during the years of turmoil.
But restoration can only go so far. Frequent power cuts, issues with heating and lighting and - above all else - insufficient security mean the museum needs a new building, Masoudi said.
Plans are already drawn up, and the museum is planning on embarking next year on a capital campaign to raise the $30 million needed for the construction.
That’s why the Bactrian gold, which had been hidden and thought lost until resurfacing in 2003, is currently more valuable abroad than at home, because it raises interest in the museum.
“This exhibits shows the other face of Afghanistan,” Masoudi said. “It is an ancient civilization with its own unique art - it opens a window for us to the other nations.”