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Afghan treasures overcome odds for Paris show December 6, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Arts, Culture.

Two years ago, a rich and ancient trove of some of Afghanistan’s most treasured archaeological artifacts was rediscovered after lying hidden and feared lost through years of war and instability.

Illustrating about 2,000 years of Afghan history, the items were believed stolen or destroyed as the turbulent country emerged from civil strife and the 2001 fall of the hardline Taliban regime.

Now, a collection of 220 of the objects, which include major ivory, bronze, and glassware pieces, will go on display, many rarely or never exhibited before, at a Paris Asian arts museum from Wednesday.

Although they survived, many items needed expert restoring from the ravages of time, in what is also a remarkable tale of the trials and tribulations of organizing the exhibition at the Guimet Museum.

“Persistence won the day,” Jean-Francois Jarrige, museum president and chief curator said of “Afghanistan, Rediscovered Treasures, Collections from the National Museum of Kabul.”

The will of two heads of state, a parliamentary vote, and the aid of French army aircraft all played a crucial role. It began in 2002 when the French and Afghan presidents opened another, earlier exhibition on Afghanistan in Paris, in a bid to highlight the country’s rich cultural heritage following the Taliban’s destruction of the ancient giant Bamiyan Buddhas. At the time, the survival of the Kabul museum treasures was still just a rumor.

But the idea that one day the items should be displayed at the Guimet Museum was already discussed in principle by Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his French counterpart Jacques Chirac, the exhibition’s organizers said.

In 2004, many major works from the National Museum of Kabul did indeed miraculously resurface, hidden away secretly since the late 1980s in the central bank vaults within the presidential palace.

And a year later, the Afghan ambassador to France informed the Paris museum that Karzai had not forgotten his discussion with the French president – plans for the exhibition got underway in earnest. However, more hurdles were still to come.

In May this year, the Afghan parliament voted against the items going on international tour for fear that they could be lost, stolen, damaged, or copied. But deputies relented several months later and agreed.

The next problem was insurance cover. Initial premiums came to $1.3 million (just under €1 million), until the French contingent of the NATO International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan stepped in. Its offer of military planes eased the concerns of insurance companies. Since August 2005 “not a day has passed that we haven’t worked on this exhibition,” Jarrige said.

Museums all over the world have sought to show the collection, but France and Afghanistan have had strong archaeological ties since the first French archaeologists excavated in the country in 1922.

“Technically, [it was] a question of restoration,” Pierre Cambon, chief curator said, on why Paris was the collection’s first port-of-call.

Restorers have raced to painstakingly return some of the treasures’ former glory, such as golden vases from central Fullol dating from the Bactrian civilization of the Bronze Age from about 2200 BC. All items were restored and cleaned in France by French and Afghan specialists.

“It’s rare to find people who can do it, the ivories from Bagram can only be done in Kabul or Paris, it’s as simple as that … Knowing how to restore glass is not very easy,” Cambon said, adding that security and space had also been issues.

The relics, which were excavated from four major archaeological sites, highlight the many influences that different cultures had on Afghanistan, including Iranian, Indian, and Chinese.

Indian ivories, Hellenistic bronzes, and Greco-Roman glass found at Bagram, about 60 kilometers [37 miles] north of Kabul, show its position at the crossroads of Indian, Chinese, and Greek civilizations.

But the highlight is perhaps the exquisite jewelry and burial decorations in gold and precious stones, such as pendants, belt, rings, or a crown, discovered in first-Century princely tombs in 1978 near the northern Afghan border at Tillia-Tepe.

The exhibition, which runs until April 30, 2007, is at the Musee des Arts Asiatiques Guimet, 6, place d’Iena, 75016, Paris, open everyday except Tuesdays, from 10:00 am until 6:00 pm. Admission costs €7.

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