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Ancient Treasure and a Modern Budget Battle in Afghanistan

As the Afghan government and parliament battle over a budget, some aired concerns that Afghanistan’s greatest treasure trove would be looted. 

Ancient Treasure and a Modern Budget Battle in Afghanistan

A gold and turquoise crown from tomb six at Tillya Tepe, dating to 25-50 CE.

Credit: Flickr / H Sinica

Amid Afghanistan’s budget setting struggles, Acting Minister of Information and Culture Mohammad Tahir Zuhair on Thursday urged politicians to avoid politicizing Afghanistan’s historical treasures. 

Earlier in the week, the speaker of the Wolesi Jirga, the lower chamber of Afghanistan’s parliament, Mir Rahman Rahmani, warned that the famed Bactrian gold treasure was not safe from corruption. “The Bactrian gold treasure — or Afghanistan’s support for the national currency — must be sent to a reliable country for safekeeping because Afghanistan’s Central Bank lacks credibility,” he said. Rahmani highlighted rampant corruption in Afghanistan, arguing that the gold was in danger of being plundered.

A recent report from the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) highlighted that despite efforts to stop cash smuggling, huge amounts continue to pass through Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai International Airport unaccounted for. Almost a decade after installing cash counting machines to track cash leaving the country, SIGAR found they had not been connected to the internet and were not regularly used by customs officials. And it’s not just cash that flows through the airport undetected. Screening for non-VIP passengers had improved, SIGAR found, but VIPs are not subject to the same level of scrutiny — while their bags are scanned, no signs in the VIP terminal announce cash export limits, there are no cash counting machines, and there are no declaration forms provided. VVIPs, or very very important persons, aren’t screened at all. 

Rahmani’s concern isn’t entirely unjustified, but Zuhair said the famed collection is “safe and sound.”

“Please don’t exploit the culture for your political purposes and do not use culture as a pressure tool,” he responded to Rahmani, according to TOLO News.

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On January 16, the Afghan parliament rejected the second draft of a proposed budget submitted by the government. The wrangling has dragged on, with MPs offered a list of 19 issues they have with the current budget draft, including allocations to a presidential discretionary fund and the removal of various provincial projects from the budget. One reported redline item is an equalization of government employee salaries. 

The political fighting features the executive branch criticizing the parliament, with Deputy Finance Minister Abdul Habib telling Anadolu Agency earlier in January that “The law clearly defines that the parliament can only approve or reject the budget, not dictate its contents.”

Meanwhile, Rahmani this week accused President Ashraf Ghani of taking the budget “hostage” after rumors arose that parliament’s rejection of the budget was rooted in oil contracts in which Rahmani has a stake. Rahmani rejected the accusation and said parliament would not yield to pressure and approve the “oppressive draft budget.”

This budget impasse takes place against the backdrop of consistent insecurity, reportedly stalled peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha, and a new U.S administration vowing to review its predecessor’s deal with the Taliban while trying to maintain some degree of continuity by retaining Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad.

But what’s this about treasure?

A year before the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, a Soviet-Afghan archaeological team led by the Greek-Russian archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi, began digging at a site in northern Afghanistan. The site, named Tillya Tepe or “Golden Hill,” in northern Afghanistan’s Jowzjan province yielded a trove of treasures: more than 20,600 items — ornaments, coins, jewelry, and more — were found across six burial mounds that dated to the 1st century BCE-1st century CE.

Sarianidi, who had been born in Tashkent in 1929, was an expert in the Bronze Age civilizations of Bactria, an ancient region that stretched across parts of modern Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. In the 4th century BC Alexander the Great occupied Bactria and it would see a sequence of kingdoms and conquerors to come in the ensuing centuries. 

Sarianidi suspected the area, as a National Geographic feature noted in 2016, would be prime for an archaeological dig. It had “been conquered and reconquered by so many peoples [that it] was likely to be rich in artifacts from their many cultures.”

The trove of treasures Sarianidi unearthed were a remarkable testament to the region’s deep and broad history: coins with Roman emperor Tiberius etched on them, another with Buddhist imagery, and yet another depicting the Yuezhi ruler Sapadbizes; bronze Chinese mirrors, decorated Indian ivory plates, rings with Greek text, and more. 

The hoard was first placed in Kabul’s National Museum; then the Soviet Union invaded, spinning Afghanistan into a cycle of war and instability it has yet to fully emerge from since. The museum would be attacked, ransacked, and plundered multiple times over the years. By the mid-1990s, an estimated 70 percent of the museum’s displayed artifacts had been stolen. Most assumed the Tillya Tepe treasure had been looted, too.

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But in 1988, according National Geographic, ahead of the Soviet Union’s full withdrawal but in anticipation of chaos to come, the Soviet-backed communist president of Afghanistan, Mohammad Najibullah, “felt that the National Museum of Afghanistan was no longer safe for the Bactrian gold.” It was moved, secretly, to a Central Bank vault at the Presidential Palace in 1989. Another account, published in 2011 by the BBC, highlighted the role of Omar Khan Massoudi, the director of the National Museum in keeping the treasure hidden. 

“Mr Massoudi was one of five men who had keys to the vault. All five keys were needed to open it – and each of the men risked their lives not to hand them over to the militants,” the BBC wrote. “The holders of the keys kept their locations secret – if a key holder died, it was agreed, the key would be passed on to the keeper’s eldest child.”

Through civil war and the devastation of Kabul, the secret was kept; when the Taliban took control of the country in 1996, the secret was kept. In 2001, the Taliban dramatically dynamited the famous Buddhas of Bamiyan, putting on display the movement’s disdain for Afghanistan’s pre-Islamic heritage. 

It was only in 2003, after the overthrow of the Taliban, that the Afghan government revealed that the treasures of Tillya Tepe had survived. In the years since, portions of the treasure trove have been sent abroad and put on display in a traveling exhibit that first debuted in Paris in 2006 and most recently appeared in Hong Kong in early 2020.

According to a TOLO News article in December 2020, the collection has been displayed in 13 countries in the past 13 years, bringing in more than 350 million Afghanis (more than $4.5 million) to the country’s contemporary treasury. Acting Minister of Information and Culture Zuhair this week, amid his statements directed at parliament, said that the collection would be sent abroad for display once an agreement to do so was reached.