NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SPECIAL EXPLORES RICH TREASURES OF AFGHANISTAN’S PAST AND THE PEOPLE FIGHTING TO RECOVER THEM
WASHINGTON (Feb. 21, 2005)–Over the last three decades, war and terrorism have devastated much of Afghanistan’s rich cultural past. Two giant Buddha statues were blown up by the Taliban, gold and priceless archaeological artifacts disappeared, art works were destroyed, historic films were burned. But many courageous Afghan people were determined to save their heritage. A new National Geographic Special, “Lost Treasures of Afghanistan,” highlights the efforts of heroic Afghans who have refused to allow their culture to be destroyed. It tells the story of priceless treasures that have re-emerged, of people who risked death to defy extremists threatening to obliterate Afghanistan’s past, and of others with deep roots in the country who can finally come home now that the conflict has subsided. The program premieres Wednesday, March 30, at 9 p.m. ET/PT, on PBS (check local listings).
In the Bamian Valley, Afghan archaeologist Zemaryalai Tarzi is searching for a treasure of monumental importance for Afghanistan. A three-mile-long cliff soaring 400 feet above the valley floor once housed two of the world’s largest statues of Buddha, statues blown up by the Taliban government in March 2001. What the Taliban did not know was that buried near the rubble of the destroyed Buddhas may be a third giant Buddha that ancient texts claim is 1,000 feet long — some six to seven times larger than the two detonated by the Taliban. Called the Sleeping Buddha of Bamian, it would be the largest ever created, measuring as long as the Eiffel Tower.
“Since the destruction of the Bamian Buddha by the Taliban, the people of Bamian and Afghanistan have been searching for a way to avenge what the Taliban did. If I find it, I will offer up the 1,000-foot Buddha as a response to the Taliban by the people of Bamian and Afghanistan,” Tarzi says.
Following directions provided by a seventh-century Buddhist monk, Xuanzang, who claimed to have seen the reclining Buddha in a monastery about a mile from Bamian’s ancient royal city, Tarzi is confident he will find the immense statue. He has already located a building he believes is the monastery and has extracted several exquisite Buddhist sculptures, raising hopes that he’s found Xuanzang’s monastery. Does the giant Buddha lie within?
Tarzi’s daughter Nadia supports his work by heading the Association for the Protection of Afghan Archaeology Inc., which is dedicated to preserving Afghan antiquities.
In Kabul, Russian archaeologist Victor Sarianidi is seeking to prove the existence of one of the ancient world’s greatest treasures of gold — the Bactrian Hoard, a collection of some 20,000 gold burial objects, forged in the first century A.D. Sarianidi first saw the Bactrian gold 25 years earlier while leading a Soviet-Afghan excavation in northern Afghanistan. One day he found the ground strewn with gold. He and his team uncovered six graves, filled with a king’s ransom of solid-gold plates, jewelry and ornaments. Sarianidi estimated the occupants had died around the time of Christ and were probably Bactrian nomad royalty who had grown rich by preying on Silk Road caravans and sacking cities left behind by Alexander the Great.
The priceless treasure was taken to the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul, but disappeared as the country dissolved into chaos. It was feared it had been destroyed, looted, perhaps even melted down or given as a tribute to Osama bin Laden.
Several safes have recently been found at the presidential palace, and Sarianidi, the world’s leading Bactrian gold expert, has been invited back to Kabul to verify if the safes contain the missing treasures. Alongside him is archaeologist and National Geographic Fellow Fredrik Hiebert, who will lead a scientific inventory of the objects if they are there.
In another assault on Afghan culture, the Taliban, citing Koranic law, declared war on any art that depicted living things. They smashed hundreds of artifacts at the National Museum and slashed paintings at the presidential palace. The country’s entire film archive — some 50 years of history on film — began going up in smoke. But for many Afghan artists and art lovers, the destruction of their country’s cultural treasures was a call to arms. They began fighting back.
Mohammed Yousef Asefi is both a medical doctor and a prominent Afghan painter. The Taliban’s reign of terror hit home when some of the artwork destroyed was his own. With paintings at the National Gallery threatened, Asefi devised a daring plan that could have gotten him killed. Under the guise of restoring oil paintings damaged during the wars, Asefi painted over offending parts with watercolors, making the unacceptable elements disappear.
Another bold plot to preserve Afghan culture was hatched at the national film archives. Preserving historic films became a matter of urgency as many of the country’s treasures now exist only as images on celluloid. The plan involved hiding the films by concealing the room that housed them.
“The Taliban told us that even if a small piece of film was found, we will hang you and shoot you,” an archive worker says.
“Even if we lost our heads, it would have been an honor and a privilege. But we didn’t allow our heritage to be destroyed. Why? A country which has no culture has no history,” adds another.
Thanks to courageous Afghans and others who love the country, cultural treasures are being rediscovered across Afghanistan. For the first time in decades, rescued treasures are in full view, offering hope to the Afghan people for a better tomorrow.
“A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive,” says Omara Khan Masoudi, director of the Kabul Museum. “Our people should know what happened, they should know about their culture, about their history.”
“Lost Treasures of Afghanistan” is produced and directed by James Barrat. Michael Rosenfeld is executive producer.
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