Skip to comments.Bactrian gold - A treasure hunt - The case of Afghanistan 's missing cache
Posted on 12/18/2003 4:27:49 PM PST by swarthyguy
THE mound lies just beyond the oasis town of Sheberghan in northern Afghanistan, on the plain that slips south to the Hindu Kush and north to the banks of the Amu Darya, or Oxus. This was once Bactria, where the Hellenic world briefly touched and intertwined with the worlds of the Indus and the Siberian steppe. Greeks prospered here for a century or so after the death of Alexander the Great, in 323BC, and then were driven off. The mound is anonymous now, barely noticeable from the road. It stands three metres (ten feet) high, 100 metres in diameter, lopped square like a Celtic barrow, the whole of it overgrown with pale weeds. Locals named it Tillya Tepe, or Hill of Gold, long before the Soviet archaeologists came and revealed its treasures.
That was in the winter of 1978-79, just before Afghanistan descended into 23 years of war, leaving 1.7m dead. In the last days before the beginning of that nightmare, a Soviet archaeological team led by a Greek-Russian, Victor Sariyannidis, unearthed 21,000 pieces of gold in six burial chambers within Tillya Tepe. The hoard had belonged to the rich Kushan nomads buried there around the time of Christ. It had lain undisturbed for two millennia.
They were ecstatic at first, but, as the months passed and still they were picking the gold from the freezing clay, they became increasingly frightened. The value of their discovery was such that the Afghan army had to be called in to guard the site. KGB men from Moscow began to take an interest. Political officers arrived too, keen to use the dig as an advertisement for fraternal relations between the Soviet Union and the new communist regime in Kabul.
The burial chambers were simple, and their flimsy ceilings soon collapsed. But the treasure was extraordinary, partly Siberian Altai, partly Greek. In one chamber a horse skull was found; in another, in the mouth of a young woman, was a silver coin, the toll due to Charon for her passage across the Styx into the underworld.
Coruscating Kushans Much of the treasure adorned what was left of the decomposed bodies. Indeed, every bone seemed to have had the Midas touch: anything in contact had been turned to gold. The Kushan nomads had a weakness for all that was flash or gaudy. They had no higher ambition than to dazzle from afar as they dashed across the steppe. Semi-spherical gold plaquettes stitched to the burial robes and kilts were taken by the bucketload from vertebrae and femurs. The cloth itself had largely decayedexcept for the weft, which had been of gold thread, indestructible even to the burrowing rodents that had tried to tug it away. The sandals too were of gold.
The other treasures in the mound were no less glittering. A model tree fashioned of gold and hung with fruit of pearls. A salver grooved in tangerine segments and inscribed in Greek. A griffin cut into milk-white chalcedony. Pendants of agate, garnet, turquoise and cornelian. Sharpened boar tusks set in gold. A representation of Aphrodite according to Bactrian tastes: stern and plump with small, thrust-out breasts. A man riding a dolphin upon a belt buckle. A gold crown that could be taken apart and packed in a saddlebag. A Chinese mirror. Dragons with wings of turquoise mauling leopards down the length of a gold scabbard. Coins from Rome, Parthia and India. Bits and bridles in Siberian style and studded with gems, the better to show off the flight of the horses that wore them.
All of this Bactrian gold, as it has come to be called, was painstakingly photographed and inventoried by the Soviet team and signed over to Afghanistan's National Museum in Kabul in 1979. It was last seen in 1989 when President Muhammad Najibullah showed it to foreign diplomats to prove it had not been taken by the retreating Russians. Then it vanished. Najibullah claimed to have set it in the national vaults, but no one could verify that. Afghanistan collapsed into civil war.
By this time, shady foreigners trading arms for emeralds and opium had got wind of the Bactrian gold. Some went after it, but without success. Pessimists thought the treasure had been melted down, or perhaps smuggled out of Kabul by the mujahideenIslamic fightersor hidden by disaffected communists.
When the Talibanself-styled Muslim studentstook Kabul in 1996, their first port of call was Najibullah's hiding-place. There the former communist leader was beaten senseless and castrated, before being dragged behind a pick-up around the old royal palace and then hanged. Whatever he knew of the gold died with him.
The next place the Taliban went was the central bank. Da Afghanistan Bank, as it is known, was built in 1931. Despite everythinga bomb exploded outside it in 2002, killing dozensthe bank still has traces of 1930s style. About a dozen senior Taliban came swinging through the revolving door with its inlaid brass and up the broad stairs to the walnut-panelled offices of the governor, says one of the bank's vault-keepers. This mancall him Mr Mustafa for safety's sakewas asked to show the intruders the vaults, not the one for everyday use under the main building but the one used for national treasure in the grounds of the nearby presidency.
Bank officials were reluctant to let the Taliban enter. A certain protocol had to be followed, they protested. A gun was held to Mr Mustafa's head, and another guard was pistol-whipped. We opened the vault only when we saw they were serious about killing us, explains another official.
The rape of the lock Mr Mustafa opened the vault's door at gunpoint. The raiders were worried that the retreating forces loyal to Najibullah had taken the country's gold reserves with them. They entered and took measure of the gold bars. They were all there. The raiders relaxed. Mr Mustafa was charged with locking the door behind them on the way out. Something happened to me just then, he said. I thought to myself that this gold doesn't belong to these men. It belongs to all the people of Afghanistan. So I put the key in and turned it backwards. There was a snap. A fragment of the key remained in the lock. Mr Mustafa left it there. It was never discovered by the Taliban. Lucky for Mr Mustafa: he was to be jailed for three months and 17 days by the Taliban for another misdemeanour. Discovery would have meant execution.
When the Taliban briefly reopened the National Museum, in May 2001, there was almost nothing left to show. The zealots' campaign of smashing statues depicting living forms had recently resulted in the destruction of two enormous Buddhas dating back to between the second and fifth centuries, in the province of Bamiyan. The vandalism in Kabul had been just as grave. The museum had been shelled and plundered by all sides during the civil war. Its collection of 30,000 or so coins was gone. So too were the precious Bagram ivories depicting swirling naked courtesans, dug up by a French team in 1937.
But where was the Bactrian gold? Certainly not in the museum. Had it been sold? None of it had appeared on the open market. That could mean it was safeor that it had been melted down without trace. Mr Sariyannidis had last seen it in 1982. He could not believe it lost. It is simply not possible that artefacts of such value can just disappear in front of the eyes of the world, he said. In Afghanistan it was indeed possible.
The Taliban made no further attempt to get into the presidency vault until November 12th 2001, the eve of the liberation of Kabul. Then a crew of the most senior commanders still in the city descended on the central bank. They opened the everyday vault easily enough, stealing dollar bills worth $5.2m, and Pakistani rupees and local currency worth another $800,000. Then they moved on to the presidency vault, opening two sets of doors before reaching a third door behind which the bullion was stored. Colleagues on the streets were already being lynched. Overhead, American planes were dropping bombs. The forces of the Northern Alliance, the foot-soldiers for the Americans, were on the Shomali plain above Kabul, preparing to enter the city the next day.
Yet the Taliban commanders worked the bullion door for three hours. Keys were tried in vain. A locksmith was brought, but was unable to see the shard of broken metal from Mr Mustafa's key that jammed the lock. Crowbars and hammers were useless. Dynamite was considered and dismissed: it might have brought down the roof. Eventually the raiders fled, carrying only the $6m from the central bank.
Kabul was rid of the Taliban. Life settled down. Mr Mustafa shaved off his beard. Still nothing was heard of the Bactrian gold. No one came forward. Officials who may have known something remained silent. I will not speak about this, said the director of the National Museum coolly. Too dangerous, agreed jittery members of the new government.
A turn-up for the book Then, in early August, a senior banker started to talk in confidence. Some months before, he said, he had been charged with clearing out the upper level of the presidency vault to make way for quantities of newly printed notes of the local currency. His men shifted crates of worthless Soviet-era coinage from one cage to reveal ten tin trunks set back in the corner. These were the kind of cheap trunks you use for clothes. They were padlocked. We examined the seals. It was the Bactrian gold.
The secret held for a while. Then, on August 28th, the bullion door was at last opened, for the first time since Mr Mustafa had turned the key backwards in 1996. A painstaking local locksmith had succeeded in picking the lock. Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, was present for the opening, along with the central bank's governor, the finance minister and the justice minister. A television camera was allowed in. Mr Karzai was filmed holding a gold bar. Everything is safe, he said. In all there was $90m in gold bars and coins and another $20m in cash, mostly sterling.
The Bactrian gold was also safe, said ministers. They claimed to have seen it. That was untrue. The trunks remained unopened, since the keeper of the treasure had died, and a successor had yet to be appointed. But the gold was indeed safe.
The Taliban commanders had passed it by. They could easily have forced the cage and stolen it had they known where it was, but the trunks had been hidden by crates of old coins. Afghanistan had been turned bloodily upside down, but the gold was exactly where it had been left in 1989. The beads of chalcedony, the ibex and the dragons, the gold crownall were there, wrapped in cloth. Three inventories had been kept, it turned out, one with the culture ministry, one with the keeper of the treasure and one locked inside the trunks.
A story with a happy ending, then, and a rare symbol of hope for Afghanistan. Some bank officials now fret about a possible raid on the presidency vault. It would take some doing. The bullion doormade in West Germany to the highest standardsseems pretty secure. The grounds of the presidency are anyway now criss-crossed with laser tripwires and patrolled by heavily armed American mercenaries. Even so, by some accounts, the ten tin trunks of Kushan ostentation are being moved on, just to be safe
Griffin from Bactrian Treasure
Thanks for the ping. The article is interesting.
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Beautiful objects. It’s a real miracle the Taliban didn’t get the stuff.
They’ll be back and wont miss it a second time.