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Afghanistan’s Hidden Treasures at the Met

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Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul opened at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art last week. Archaeologist and National Geographic Fellow Fred Hiebert helped inventory the collection (and thousands more items) after the treasures—thought to have been lost forever—were rediscovered. And he curated the magnificent traveling exhibition.

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I asked Fred if I could come up to see the exhibition and catch his talk about it Friday night. He offered me tickets and a guided tour!

The treasures reveal the extraordinary wealth, vibrancy, and creativity of people who lived in what is today Afghanistan during the height of Silk Road trade. They tell us stories about the distant past. Their continued existence, despite all odds, tells another story about Afghanistan’s more recent past, and is a testament to the determination of a handful of Afghan’s to preserve their country’s legacy—at the risk of even their own lives.

As a focal point for Silk Road trade, goods and ideas from as far away as Rome, Greece, and Egypt to the west, India and China to the east passed through what is today Afghanistan.

I ask Fred at the outset of our tour if he has a few favorite pieces in the exhibition. “I do,” he says, “and they change every day! These are my favorite today….”

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He steers me to a case containing fragments of three golden bowls, looking modest compared to most of the pieces on display throughout the gallery. Why these? “These pieces,” says Fred, “this is native gold, more than 4,000 years old, the native wealth of Afghanistan. One looks Mesopotamian. One has motifs from the Indus Valley. When these were made, Afghanistan was already at the center of trade.”

When farmers found the bowls in 1966, says Fred, they didn’t know the cultural history recorded in them, but they knew the gold’s worth. They cut the bowls into equal-sized pieces so they could share the wealth. Some of the fragments were recovered, and the design of the bowls is still preserved.

Fred leads me to another case, containing several pressed gold ingots. “Alexander the Great came all the way here to Afghanistan,” he tells me. “He founded eight cities here.”

One of the Alexandrian cities, A