The war in Afghanistan started in the middle of the excavation of six Kushan graves in Tillya Tepe. Through the war, the world wondered about the Bactiran golden hoard’ excavated at Tillya Tepe thought to be as valuable as the treasure of Tutankhamen. We still don’t know.
In the National Geographic of March 1990, Viktor Ivanovich Sarianidi wrote that he had discovered an an cient city in Tillya Tepe (mound of gold) in 1978. He dated it to 2500 BC, making it contemporary with Mohenjodaro. He saw traces of subsequent settlements and noted its Hellenisation in 400 BC. He was excavating layers related to 100 AD when he discovered six royal graves. These were of Kushan princes and princesses decked out in Greek-style ornamented regalia. His team collected over 20,000 gold objects, catalogued them, and transported them to Kabul where the famous Kabul Museum became their repository.
Tillya Tepe is in the Jozjan province (old name Balkh), north of the Hindu Kush and south of Amu Darya forming the frontier with the former Soviet Union. This is the region known to ancient history as Bactria, the land of the Greek people whom the Persians employed as their soldiers.
As the Soviet archaeological team dug through the graveyard, modern-day warriors appeared and started plundering the site. This was Uzbek territory, the bailiwick of warlord Abdul Rashid Dostam and his dreaded militia. Sarianidi writes that the two remaining graves were opened by the warriors and their contents sold in the international market “before we had a chance to make plaster copies of the pieces, before they could be studied or displayed, war and confusion closed on Afghanistan.” Continues Sariandi, “Today the priceless golden hoard of Tillya Tepe is in Kabul, but its condition is unknown, and scholars have no access. My efforts to have the trove fully safeguarded have so far met with disappointment.” As the war progressed, Sarianidi and his mission became the subject of a persistent rumour that the Russians had carted the treasure off to Moscow.
Where is it now?
Kushans were a nomadic tribe from western China who had been pushed out to the southern expanse of Siberia by the Huns. There they had joined up with the Scythians and come down in 130 BC to Central Asia to occupy the Bactrian Greek city of Tillya Tepe, and learnt to live as city people. Here, the Kushan kings were Hellenised and they ruled in the land of Gandhara. Kanishka was their ” greatest” king who reigned over an empire that stretched from the Aral Sea all the way upto Bengal from his seat in Peshawar.
The Bactrian hoard contains evidence of Silk Route commerce. It has the biggest Greek coins yet found; it has Roman coins (which have not been found in Pakistan); and enough Chinese artefacts to prove that it sat on the crossroads of a flourishing trading network between three civilisations.
Museums all over the world wondered about the fate of the Bactrian treasure throughout the Afghan war. The Kabul Museum, where it was supposed to be lying, was one of the world’s richest store-houses of archaeological objects. During the war, scholars kept visiting Kabul in the hope of finding out the fate of the Bactrian treasure. Theft and looting were regularly reported from the museum, but it was not until the civil war of the mujahideen that threat to the security of the museum became real.
In 1993, the museum fell in the area which had come under the control of Hezb-e-Wahdat led by Ustad Abdul Ali Mazari. That year it was bombed and was gutted beyond repair. The world’s most precious treasures thus became vulnerable to wholesale plundering. In 1994, Nancy Hatch Dupree, a scholar on Afghanistan, gave a lecture in Islamabad in which she disclosed that in November 1993, the UN representative Sotirios Mousouris had succeeded in persuading Mazari to let UN experts examine the museum. This inspection revealed that almost all the boxes containing the exhibits had been disturbed and that theft was considerable, including disappearance of miniatures contained in 20,000 rare books.
Dupree gave the audience the first information about the Bactrian treasure since Sarianidi’s report in the National Geographic. Writing in a Pakistani paper, she said: “During the 1980s an oft-repeated rumour started that the Soviets had carted off the museum’s treasures to an unknown destination, or more particularly, to the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad. This was false. The origin of the rumour was in the fact that in April 1979 the contents of the museum had been moved for safekeeping to the residence of Sardar Mohammad Nairn Khan (brother of Sardar Daud) in Shahr-e-Nau. The move was described in a letter from Garla Grissman who was working at that time in the museum and had helped with the arrangement.
“But rumours that the gold had been stolen, either by the Soviets or by the government itself, persisted. About six months before the fall of President Najibullah, in April 1992, the Kabul government made an attempt to quell these rumours. The Tillya Tepe hoard was put on display in Kotli Baghcha to which the diplomatic corps was invited. Following this special showing, the gold was packed in seven boxes and placed in a vault of the Central Bank within the Arg compound.”
Do we know whether the treasure is still there? Did it survive the fall of the communist government? Who got to it first from among the mujahideen? And what is its fate now under the Taliban? A cash-strapped regime in Kabul would be compelled to sell it for crucial funds. As it is, religious leaders attach no importance to ‘pagan’ objects relating to pre-Islamic times. During the war against the Soviets, and during the current civil war, Afghan archaeological heritage has been heard to be sold in Pakistan, in Chitral, Peshawar and Islamabad, where Pakistan’s own museum pieces are regularly sold clandestinely. Like the old Silk Route finds, has this treasure too been taken out to the West? This is what scholars like Dupree want to know. Unless the present regime in Kabul arranges another exhibition, the doubts expressed by Sarianidi in 1990 will persist.
(Adapted from an earlier article in The Friday Times, Lahore.)