One man moved more than 20,000 precious ancient ornaments from a museum to a safe place from the Taliban. With a ragtag group of a few individuals, he hid his country’s historical artifacts in Greatness of Spirit.secret vaults underneath the streets of Kabul. He stayed on in Kabul and supported his family by selling onions and potatoes on the sidewalk, while keeping an eye on the museum. You won’t be wrong to guess that it’s the plot of another Hollywood blockbuster but it happens to be the true to life story of 2014 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Omara Khan Masoudi. And that is what you call Greatness of Spirit.
The shifting sands of dunes could spell danger. They can cover one’s tracks as quickly as one makes them, says a geologist in a book about landscapes. A geologic study team could find their jeep buried if they leave it unattended for a few hours to do field work.
Such is the case, he says, particularly in the western part of his native Afghanistan, a landlocked country where the expression “shifting sands” is an apt analogy for the constantly changing political landscape and, consequently, an unstable, turbulent life. A succession of invasions, wars, military coups and civil strife has battered this nation, up until the last two decades. For citizens caught in conflict, survival is nothing short of miraculous. For some, it is heroic.
Omar Khan Masoudi put his life on the line to save, not lives but an entire nation’s soul. The director of the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul went through great lengths to safeguard the country’s archeological heritage during the tumultuous years of the Soviet occupation, Afghan civil war, and the Taliban regime.
Of the 100,000 precious objects and artifacts housed in the museum, 70 percent had been looted, lost, or destroyed. That 30 percent of these treasures survived and can now be viewed again is a gift Afghans and the whole world owe Masoudi and three trusted colleagues.
Amid the fighting and the turmoil, they secretly packed the priceless pieces and spirited them to safety, changing their hiding places, whenever necessary. Their mission was fraught with danger, reminiscent of an Arabian Nights tale.
Only in 2003, two years after the fall of the Taliban regime, were they able to bring out the artifacts and embark on yet another daunting mission, to rebuild the museum.
In 2004 the museum was reopened to the public and has since been drawing up to 25,000 visitors yearly. Much remains to be done, but Masoudi perseveres in what has become his lifework, taking to heart the words encrypted on a stone slab in front of the museum: “A nation stays alive only when it keeps its history and culture alive.”
Survival is a lesson citizens in conflict areas like Afghanistan learn early; for them it is a day-to-day challenge. Significant dates in Masoudi’s life coincide with historic developments, if not national upheavals, illustrating the harsh realities of life in shifting sands.
He was born in 1948, when Afghanistan was on the cusp of modernization following years of traditional isolation. From the late 1920s various reforms were introduced only to be abandoned as leaders rose and fell or deemed the changes too radical — such as the greater political freedom the prime minister in 1946 granted then reversed.
In 1973, the year Masoudi graduated from Kabul University, a former prime minister seized power in a nonviolent coup amid corruption charges against the royal family. Mohammad Sauddar Daoud Khan abolished the monarchy, abrogated the 1946 constitution and declared Afghanistan a republic with himself as its first president and prime minister.
With a bachelor of arts in history and geography, Masoudi easily found a teaching job. Five years later, in 1978, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) staged a bloody military coup, overthrowing the government of Daoud and assassinating him and his family. The country’s name again changed, this time to Democratic Republic of Afghanistan.
The PDPA replaced traditional and religious laws with secular Marxist-Leninist ones, and tortured, murdered, and imprisoned tens of thousands of members of the elite, religious, and the intelligentsia. It invited the Soviet Union to assist in modernizing its economic infrastructure, and entered into an agreement with it stating that the communist country would provide military support in Afghanistan if needed. Power then changed hands between two PDPA factions, and in support of the pro-socialist victors, the Red Army invaded Afghanistan. The Soviet occupation lasted 10 years.
The developments made it difficult for Masoudi to continue teaching; students became politicized and strayed from the classroom. Masoudi resigned and found work in the Ministry of Information. He left again after four months when a position became available at the National Museum. After a brief training he was accepted, and has stayed on to this day. He intimates that as the days went by his interest in his work deepened.
Afghanistan, he says, has an ancient civilization, with ancient sites in every part of the country. Located on the ancient Silk Road, it is inhabited by a population of diverse cultures, including Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Zoroastrians. These peoples brought with them the rich diversity reflected in the paintings, sculptures, textiles, coins and everyday objects that are displayed in the 93-year-old National Museum and provincial museums, he says.
“We can learn something from the past by looking at the artifacts – you can see peoples of different…backgrounds could live in peace,” he said in an interview last year with Asia Foundation. “We have to transfer these positive things to the present.”
The worsening situation in 1988, when Soviet occupation gave way to civil war, served as a warning signal to him and the museum staff. They had to act to safeguard the artifacts.
“We had to transfer the unique pieces to the center of the city and store them in different places,” he said, “so that if something happened in one area, there would be a second, third, or fourth area that would be safe.”
A year later they moved the pieces around; three or four years later, power shifted to the Mujahideen and civil war broke out. Fighting erupted in the streets, especially in the western part of Kabul, where the museum is located. In 1994 the museum building was bombarded, its roof and top floor destroyed; warlords looted its collections.
In 2001 further damage and desecration was inflicted by the fundamentalist Taliban regime, which ordered the destruction of all non-Islamic statues and tombs as well as works of art deemed “idolatrous.” About 2,500 objects were smashed, according to a National Geographic report.
Fortunately, there was much more that the Taliban missed, thanks to Masoudi and his group. This included the Bactrian Hoard, a collection of extremely rich jewelry, mostly in gold and silver, dating back more than 2,000 years. It was discovered in 1978 by a team led by Russian archeologist Viktor Sarianidi, who had come to the Bactria region (now northern Afghanistan) looking for Bronze Age pottery. The hoard consisted of 20,600 gold crowns, necklaces set with gems, medallions, coins, all found in six burial mounds believed to be of a royal nomad family.
The archeological team turned over the gold hoard to the National Museum in Kabul, just before the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Masoudi, by then the museum director, was one of the keepers of the keys to the vaults, or tawilhidar. Another was Abdullah Hakimzada, a restorer, who held the keys to three safes inside the presidential palace. He was around when the Taliban went on a rampage, and he managed to sweep fragments of the smashed objects, sort them out hurriedly and store them in sacks and boxes.
Rod Norland wrote in The New York Times: “Through guile and deception, Mr. Masoudi and his fellow key keepers kept many such valuables – the ones most easily melted down—safe during the country’s wrenching civil war and the following Islamist rule. They hid some of the best statues in rooms at the Ministry of Culture, or in obscure corners of storerooms scattered around the museum, preserving many before the Taliban’s rampage in March 2001.”
When the looted objects started to surface on the black market – sold by warlords and the Taliban to wealthy collectors – many, including journalists, asked what might have happened to the Bactrian Hoard. Rumors circulated that the gold had been melted down by rival factions; that the Taliban gave it to Osama bin Laden as a gift; that the Soviets shipped it to Moscow; and, that Sarianidi stole it.
“Of course, we knew, but we could not reveal the information…it could be dangerous,” Masoudi said in the Asian Foundation interview. “Those who knew the truth also kept silent,” he added. “During the middle of the civil war, while it wasn’t safe to visit what was left of the museum, we wondered if the other pieces were still safe. The President granted our request to check the humidity levels in the storage areas…We saw all the signatures and boxes in good condition…In 1998 we went again…and everything was still OK…But we still kept it secret,” he continued.
In 2003, as life returned to normalcy following the defeat of the Taliban, President Hamid Karzai learned about the secret vaults in the presidential palace and authorized their opening. The treasure boxes were found, and he asked the international community for assistance in conducting an inventory of the artifacts.
The National Geographic Society and the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities funded an inventory project. The team was led by National Geographic Fellow Fredrik Heibert and composed of 18 Afghans, including Masoudi, and U.S. scholar Carla Grissman.
“Every last piece of the Bactrian gold was there, trussed in the same tissue paper in which the museum staff had wrapped it,” according to the National Geographic report. Five months later, researchers found in the same underground vault a set of footlockers containing priceless 2,000-year-old ivory carvings and glassware, which had been excavated in the 1930s from another site and given up for lost. Masoudi and his staff had kept them, too, and they were well-preserved.
“If we had not hidden them, the treasures of Afghanistan would have been lost,” Masoudi said. “Every box we opened was like a Christmas package,” remarked Heibert.
The museum reopened in September 2004, even though it was still a mess. The remaining pieces needed urgent cleaning. The storerooms were stuffed with sacks and boxes of fragments, and intact objects had deteriorated. Over the last 10 years, Masoudi has been overseeing the rehabilitation of the museum, repairing broken objects, restoring historical monuments, putting collections back together.
Of the 2,500 objects that the Taliban destroyed, 300 of the most important, so far, have been painstakingly reassembled, with others awaiting restoration. Hakimzada, who had swept the fragments left by the Taliban raid, was among the restorers. He and other restorers had been sent to Europe and America to study techniques at museums there.
Masoudi also negotiated the return of artifacts smuggled to foreign countries, and organized exhibitions around the world to raise funds for the museum, promote international appreciation of Afghan culture and seek support for its preservation. The “Hidden Treasures” exhibition opened in 2008 and has travelled across Europe and North America and Australia. It has raised some $3.5 million, so far.
The unstable situation in Afghanistan, Masoudi laments, “makes people think it is the land of explosions, the Taliban and fighting.” The exhibition “introduced the other face of Afghanistan,” he says, adding, “it’s possible to change other people’s minds” through it.
Meanwhile, more looted objects continue to be recovered, as customs agents worldwide have been trained to identify Afghan artifacts. According to Norland’s report, Interpol and the UNESCO are coordinating with governments around the world to interdict and return at least 857 objects, including the priceless 4,000-year-old Bactrian princess figurines that had disappeared from the National Museum. “Another 11,000 objects have been returned after being seized by border authorities at Afghanistan’s own frontiers,” he wrote.
“There are so many things that are beautiful,” Masoudi says, “but we need a new building to preserve the artifacts properly – we must have humidity control, proper lighting, fire protection, and security.” He has also proposed the development and improvement of museums in the provinces because people cannot afford to travel to the capital to learn about their culture. With provincial museums, every citizen, especially the youth, can learn about their past, their art, their culture.
“I think that culture is an essential component of human development. It represents a source of identity, innovation and creativity for individuals and amongst communities,” Masoudi said in his response upon accepting the 2014 Ramon Magsaysay Award.
His citation singled out his “courage, labor, and leadership in protecting Afghan cultural heritage, rebuilding an institution vital to Afghanistan’s future, and reminding his countrymen and peoples everywhere that in recognizing humanity’s shared patrimony, we can be inspired to stand together in peace.”
Masoudi said that it was not he who was being honored but the work he and his colleagues have done.
“I and my team at the National Museum of Afghanistan have helped protect the extraordinary collection of the museum over many years,” he said in his speech. “We are also making efforts to safeguard this Afghan history for future generations…to raise public awareness throughout Afghanistan about the value of its cultural history, and about the responsibilities for protection and preservation that the next generation will inherit.”
For Masoudi, all this is part of their responsibility as museum staff. He often reminds his staff that they accepted the important job of safekeeping the nation’s property and humanity. “We have to do it event if sometimes it seems impossible,” he is quoted in a newspaper article as saying.
Whenever he is asked about their daring mission, he often remarks, “we are not heroes, we (only) did our job.”