Rare Afghan gold collection to be displayed in UK

By Quentin Sommerville
BBC News, Kabul

Image caption, This golden belt is one of the highlights of the hoard

The Afghan government and the UK have signed an agreement allowing a priceless gold collection to go on display at the British Museum.

The "Lost Treasures of Afghanistan" or Bactrian gold will be revealed to the British public next year.

The gold jewellery, glassware and funeral ornaments were hidden by Kabul museum staff during the civil war and were only rediscovered in 2003.

They have been touring the world since 2006 and are currently in Bonn.

After lying buried for 2,000 years the Bactrian gold hoard was discovered in northern Afghanistan by a Soviet archaeologist in 1978.

But the turmoil in Afghanistan meant that about 20,000 pieces of treasure soon disappeared from view again.

It was an astonishing find, beautifully carved scabbards, fine golden jewellery and coins that had belonged to nomads and travellers.

The collection includes a delicate gold crown, which collapses, for ease of travel. A heavy belt of woven gold, with two solid buckles, leaves little doubt that the wearer was an aristocrat.

Image caption, Initially it was thought that the artefacts had been stolen

It is a reminder of Afghanistan's pivotal place on the ancient silk route.

Hellenic, Roman, Persian and Chinese influences are plain to see. The British Museum will call the exhibition Afghanistan, Crossroads of the World.

And there is more to it than just gold. Roman and Egyptian glassware, some of it still complete, remains colourful and bright.

Surviving the centuries was remarkable enough but making it through the last 30 years is nothing short of a miracle.

When in control of Afghanistan the Taliban destroyed the stone Buddhas of Bamiyan and it is likely they would have done the same to the busty Aphrodite found in the Bactrian hoard.

So museum staff hid the artefacts. Initially it was thought they had been stolen, but they were rediscovered hidden among old currency in a bank vault in 2003.

Since then the treasures have resumed their nomadic journey. The exhibition has already toured the world, drawing crowds in Canada, the United States, France and Germany.

Sir William Patey, British Ambassador to Afghanistan, welcomed the agreement to bring the exhibition to the United Kingdom.

Image caption, The fact that the artefacts have not been destroyed is miraculous

"The fact that these artefacts were saved and preserved by brave and dedicated Afghans, who are now generously sharing them with the rest of the world, shows another, more positive, side of Afghanistan and shows that the country is far from being a lost cause," he said.

The hoard generates much needed income for the Afghan National museum. It was nearly destroyed during the civil war, losing its roof and windows. Construction is nearing completion, and exhibitions are being held there again.

But the Bactrian gold has kept travelling for another reason - its security in Afghanistan could not be guaranteed.

But according to Omar Sultan, Afghanistan's deputy minister for culture, it may not be long before Afghanistan's lost treasures return home.

"We sent these artefacts around the world to try and raise awareness of Afghanistan," he said.

"We want people to know we are not just a country of war, but a country of peace, that we have a rich cultural heritage."

He said the Afghan treasures will be London for four months from 3 March 2011, then at least part of the hoard may come home.

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