With so much bad news coming out of Afghanistan these days—a resurgent Taliban, spreading violence, and a booming opium trade—it might be easy to overlook another tragedy taking place: Across the war-shattered nation, scavengers, looters, and thieves are pillaging antiquities from more than 1,500 ancient sites around the country and smuggling them abroad. "It's like a sickness that kills us slowly," said Omara Khan Masoudi, director of the National Museum of Afghanistan. "Every day, we lose a bit more of our cultural heritage."
But now Afghanistan is finally getting something back. The British government, with the help of the National Geographic Society and the British Red Cross, has returned 3.4 tons of stolen antiquities that were confiscated over the past six years at London's Heathrow Airport. On February 17, a Red Cross freighter plane touched down at the Kabul Airport, carrying the looted treasure back to its homeland. The artifacts are now at the National Museum. Returning the enormous shipment took more than a year to organize, and involved the cooperation of participants from around the globe.
The Heathrow collection includes more than 1,500 objects spanning thousands of years of Afghan culture: a 3,000-year-old carved stone head from the Iron Age and hand-cast axe heads, cut rock crystal goblets, and delicate animal carvings from the Bactrian era, another thousand years earlier. The oldest artifacts in the collection include a marble figure of an animal showing similarities to artifacts dating to the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods, dating as far back as 8,000 years.
The collection also contains gilded bronze pieces, coins, and ornately inscribed slabs dating from Afghanistan's early Islamic period (8th-9th centuries A.D.) and treasures from the Medieval Islamic period (10th-14th centuries A.D.) that serve to replace the decimated collection at the National Museum, which was hit by a rocket in 1993 during the civil war, then repeatedly looted. Lost and Found Through a quarter-century of violence, Masoudi and his staff somehow managed to save about 90 percent of the National Museum's masterpieces, an incredible feat. But the museum still lost about 70,000 objects, most of them from the reserve inventory kept in storage.
Two 12th century metal trays in the Heathrow hoard are nearly identical to ones that were previously on display. Plus there are a number of magnificent metal objects from the Ghaznavid era, including a bronze brazier in the form of a peacock.
Museum director Masoudi, who has spearheaded efforts to locate Afghan antiquities scattered around the globe, first heard about the objects piling up at Heathrow from British diplomats posted to Kabul. He contacted U.S. archaeologist and National Geographic Fellow Fredrik Hiebert, an expert on ancient Central Asian cultures, who arranged with officials in the U.K. to come to London and examine the artifacts.
It was not the first time Hiebert and Masoudi had worked together. Hiebert spent periods from 2004 to 2006 in Kabul cataloguing a priceless collection of 22,000 gold Alexandrian-era objects known as the Bactrian Hoard. For many years, experts believed this collection, discovered in 1978 by Soviet archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi, had been stolen during Afghanistan's decade-long civil war or even melted down by the Taliban regime. The Bactrian gold was "rediscovered" in 2003, hidden in a locked vault beneath Kabul's Presidential Palace. Hiebert, Sarianidi, and Masoudi were all on hand for the stunning moment when Afghan officials pried six boxes open and found the entire collection intact.
Hiebert said he felt similar amazement the first time he saw the antiquities amassed at Heathrow.
"When I did an initial look, my eyes popped out and I said, 'They all look like they are from Afghanistan.' It was like seeing old friends again."
Heritage Under Attack
Helped by Carla Grissmann, an American expert on Afghan cultural heritage who has been working with the National Museum since 1973, and a British Museum curatorial team, Hiebert compared the objects in the Heathrow hoard to tens of thousands of missing items from the museum's collection.
"None of the Heathrow objects came from the museum," Hiebert said. "They are from recently illegally excavated sites exported without permit."
Most of the Heathrow collection will end up in the museum's reserve collection and replace the many objects stolen during the civil war, Hiebert said. Only about 10 percent of the recovered items are museum-display quality, in part because antiquities excavated illegally get robbed of their identity. Without the original excavation context—which provides critical information allowing scholars to piece together a full picture of ancient cultures—ancient objects lose most of their significance, said Hiebert.
But that didn't lessen the significance for anyone involved in getting the Heathrow collection back home.
"Traditionally our work has focused on protecting human beings and ensuring their health and well-being," said Michael Meyer of the British Red Cross. "However, there has been increasing recognition of the deleterious effect on civilian populations when their cultural sites and property are destroyed."
Afghanistan has a cultural heritage that is among the world's richest. Crisscrossed by the Silk Road, the mountainous nation was a melting pot of ancient cultures and religions, a repository for precious objects from China, India, Egypt, Rome, and Greece. The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, however, launched almost three decades of vicious fighting, turning the country from an archeologist's paradise into a nightmare.
Rocket attacks ravaged ancient sites and museums. Precious objects were stolen. Ai Khanoum, the 4th century B.C. settlement in northern Afghanistan and one of the primary cities of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom, was almost completely looted. In 2001, the Taliban blew up the giant 6th-century A.D. sandstone Buddhas in Bamiyan.
Today, the tragedy continues. Poor villagers lacking other sources of income use shovels and wheelbarrows to cart off precious objects from historic spots around the country, while criminal gangs smuggle the loot to Pakistan and onwards.
The Kabul government remains too cash-strapped, and too caught up fighting the Taliban-led insurgency, to do anything about it. (Afghanistan's own Ministry of Culture was the target of a suicide bomb attack last October.) And despite efforts to raise awareness among Pakistani customs and law enforcement officials, the situation is no better across the border.
Conflict zones like Iraq and Colombia are generally vulnerable to treasure hunters, but the extent of the pillaging in Afghanistan puts the country in a class of its own.
Airport of Antiquities
The vast majority of the thousands of artifacts confiscated every year at Heathrow, the world's busiest airport, come from Afghanistan, according to Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs Department (HMRC). And the Paris-based International Council of Museums (ICOM) believes that's just a fraction of the total quantity smuggled out of the country annually.
"The extent of the problem is very, very serious," said Jennifer Thévenot, who heads the fight against illicit traffic at ICOM.
Working with Masoudi, ICOM maintains a "Red List" of Afghan antiquities at risk that is distributed to museums, auction houses, border crossings, and customs points where there is known to be heavy illegal traffic.
Heathrow Airport is one such heavy traffic gateway, because many ancient Afghan objects trafficked through Pakistan get smuggled out on flights to the U.K.
Using the Red List as reference, HMRC agents started performing random searches on passengers arriving from Pakistan in 2002, finding thousands of ancient objects tucked into suitcases or hidden in false compartments. In many cases, antiquities are declared by arriving passengers, who falsely describe them or assign a low value on the declaration forms in order to hide the true nature of the goods.
Once they seize objects, HMRC agents work closely with experts from the British Museum and the U.K. Department for Culture, Media and Sport to determine their true identity and, if possible, to arrange their repatriation.
Hiebert calls repatriations like this one a critical part of Afghanistan's psychological healing.
"If we can use this transfer to put some Bronze Age and Islamic Age materials back on display," he said, "that will help repair the horrible looting that went on for 25 years."
Masoudi, who has previously welcomed back stolen artifacts from Switzerland, Denmark, and Norway, is calling on other nations to round up and return Afghan antiquities.
"Every time I see a piece return home, it is a meaningful moment, not just for me, but for all the museum staff," he said. "I feel like a parent recovering a lost child. I am very emotional when it arrives."