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December 15, 2006
The Legend Of The Bactrian Gold

Do you enjoy Indiana Jones films, Humphrey Bogart mysteries, and patriotic fervor? No, I'm not writing another film review -- I'm talking about a real-life story that has more drama than any showing at the local cinema. It's the story of the legendary Bactrian gold, and how we owe its existence today to the bravery of seven men, including one very unlikely hero:

It was a mystery of legendary proportions. When a 2,000-year-old treasure trove went missing from Afghanistan's National Museum in the 1980s, the rumors abounded: Did the Soviets take it? Was it looted and sold on the black market? Were 22,000 pieces of gold, jewel-encrusted crowns and magnificent daggers melted down and traded for weapons?

As it turns out, none of these plausible scenarios ever happened. Instead, a mysterious group of Afghans had stowed the so-called Bactrian gold underground and guarded its secret for over two decades of war and chaos. This month, some of the artifacts are on display at the Guimet Museum in Paris.

The group, the so-called "key holders," held the keys to the underground vault where the treasure was kept underneath the presidential palace grounds. They are believed to have hidden the treasure sometime after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. They diligently kept their secret throughout the civil war of the 1990s and the period of Taliban rule all the way up through the 2001 American-led invasion.

Der Spiegel lays out the story in broad strokes, but fortunately I saw a History Channel special on the Bactrian discovery. The treasures of the Bactrian period had long eluded archeologists, and some had assumed them to be nothing more than legend, or the victim of graverobbers over the centuries. However, a Russian archeologist named Viktor Sarianidi finally discovered a trove of golden treasure at a burial site in eastern Afghanistan. The discovery made news around the world, but world events conspired to keep Sarianidi from fully exploring his find and properly cataloguing his treasure.

The Soviets invaded Afghanistan in the following year, touching off a decade-long resistance. Partisan bands formed and the area of Sarianidi's discovery became treacherous. Increasingly, the war encroached on the area, and Sarianidi feared not only for his life but for the priceless treasures he kept discovering. If the rebels got their hands on the gold, they could melt it down and get millions for weapons and other necessities. After sticking it out as long as he could, he finally ended work at the site and took the treasures to Kabul and the Soviet-propped government.

The government first had the treasure displayed in an Afghan museum, but by the end of the 1980s and the Soviet withdrawal, the situation got too dangerous to leave them in the open. Mohammed Najibullah, the Soviet puppet in charge of Afghanistan, had the Bactrian gold locked in the most secure place in the country -- the Central Bank. The facility had a hidden vault, deep below the surface, with seven locks and seven keys. Najibullah distributed the keys to trusted officials, all of whom pledged their lives to guard the secret of the Bactrian gold, even while the Najibullah government teetered on the edge of collapse.

A while afterwards in 1996, Kabul fell to the Taliban. Soon they found out about the Bactrian gold and the other treasures hidden in the Central Bank and attempted to open the safe. When they could not break it, they captured Najibullah and tried to torture the solution out of him. Everyone knew that the pre-Mohammed artwork would never survive exposure to the Taliban, who had already destroyed much of the art and treasure still left in Afghanistan's museums; they would have melted it all down for the value of the gold. According to the History Channel special, the Taliban killed Najibullah because even under torture he would not reveal the names of those who held the keys to the safe. They strung him and his brother up outside the presidential palace and mutilated their bodies, but they never found the keys to the treasure.

After the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the retreat of the Taliban from Kabul, the keyholders sought out Hamid Karzai and told him of the treasure. In disbelief, the men opened the safe and discovered not just the Bactrian gold, but also a number of other treasures, as well as the gold bars from the Afghan treasury. Najibullah, a puppet who had run the secret police in Afghanistan for his Soviet masters, proved himself an Afghan patriot in the end, at least in this small measure.

It's an amazing story, and if it appears again on the History Channel, be sure to catch it.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at December 15, 2006 4:47 AM

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