Raider of the lost art: Afghan saves nat’l treasures

Ghio Ong, Helen Flores (The Philippine Star) - September 1, 2014 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - “A nation stays alive only when it can keep its history and culture alive.”

Ramon Magsaysay awardee Omara Khan Masoudi takes these words to heart.

The 66-year-old retired teacher risked his life to save Afghanistan’s priceless historical and cultural treasures, including the world-famous Bactrian Gold, during the country’s bloody civil war.

He led a group of museum workers in transferring many of the most precious objects to secret vaults underneath Kabul’s streets as violence escalated in the mid-1990s. The museum was bombed and looted.

“The decades-old war introduced a very bad face of Afghanistan. People from other countries think Afghanistan is the land of terrorism, killing, bombing and fighting. I think this is not the real face of Afghanistan,” Masoudi told The STAR.

“Afghanistan is not just a country synonymous with war. The other face of Afghanistan is a beautiful one,” he added.

Masoudi successfully negotiated the return of Afghan cultural treasures that had been moved or smuggled to other countries. He also organized expositions in foreign countries to raise funds and promote international appreciation and support for Afghan cultural preservation.

Taliban rule in the 1990s ruined Afghanistan’s cultural heritage. Masoudi estimated 70 percent of the museum’s artifacts were stolen.

But the Bactrian treasure (some 20,000 ancient gold ornaments) remained safe, protected by a small number of people who knew its secret location. Looters were always looking for it to sell on the black market, Masoudi recounted.

Masoudi was appointed director of the National Museum of Afghanistan in 2001. He has been working at the Kabul museum for 36 years.

The museum was reopened to the public in 2004. “Up to 25,000 visitors come to the museum yearly,” he said.

“In the three decades of war we were able to survive some unique important pieces and many countries showed interest to have these pieces exhibited in their museums,” Masoudi said.

He said the exhibition allows the international community to learn about their history. More than one and a half million people have visited this exhibition.

The precious items have been displayed at international events in France, Italy, Holland, America, Canada, Germany, Sweden and Britain, among others.

“In my opinion these exhibitions played a key role not only in introducing our ancient civilization but in changing the perception of other citizens about our country,” he said.

He said the global exhibition also allows Afghans living in other countries as refugees, who may have lost sight of their own identity, to realize that Afghanistan is a country with a rich history.

Masoudi has sought funding from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and some foreign countries to rebuild the museum.

The new building, he said, will have modern equipment to resolve problems of space and light. It will also be equipped with security signals, humidity control system, a heating system as well as good lightning, storages and display cabinets.

Masoudi’s team likewise partnered with the Chicago University in establishing a database of all artifacts.

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