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Aghanistan's pre-Islamic art

A folding gold crown discovered northern Afghanistan in 1978. The crown, dating from the first century A.D., was collapsible for easy transport by ancient nomads.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: The Bush Administration announced some good news out of Afghanistan today. The White House said opium and poppy production there has fallen almost 30 percent. The plant and the drug have long been the largest parts of the Afghan economy. And the U.S. and its allies have been trying to change that for years.

Many Afghans, of course, have other things on their minds. Five years ago, the government made a surprise announcement: many of its precious antiquities, some dating back to 2200 B.C., were intact -- that is, not destroyed or stolen. No mean feat, considering the country has endured a Soviet invasion, warlords, Taliban rule and now the U.S.-led war on terror.

Today, some of those artifacts go on display in San Francisco. But Gregory Warner reports the collection is only a fraction of the treasures still underground in Afghanistan and unprotected.


Gregory Warner: About 15 years ago, a young Afghan named Reza Hossaini saw a movie -- Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.

For American audiences it was just a fun flick. For Reza, the movie was an epiphany. His own ancient heritage was being stolen - dug up and sold on the black market. So Reza got inspired to teach himself all about ancient Afghan archeology.

Reza Hossaini: Unfortunately the people of Afghanistan now forgot their story. They don't know. They don't know themselves now.

Reza is 26. He's returned to Afghanistan, where we met, by accident - near a mosque that he admired. I didn't even have my usual recording kit with me, so I used the microphone on my camera.

Reza: 1, 2, 3, 4. You can see?

He showed me the mosque, from the early years of the Islamic invasion -- mosque with Buddhist designs.

Reza: You can see that? A flower? It's a lotus flower. It's a Buddhist symbol.

Today Reza carries around a camera and he documents what he loves before it disappears. Without a car, or even a bicycle, he'll walk, sometimes through minefields, to look in on historical sites.

Most of the sites he won't show me, for fear if a foreigner goes there then people will know how valuable it is. It's an old lesson in Afghanistan. If you want to save something, hide it.

Omara Masoudi: I remember many journalists ask about this."

18 years ago, a young museum director named Omara Masoudi risked his life to conceal thousands of Bronze Age objects in a secret chamber under the presidential palace. While warlords battled in the streets, he told everyone he'd lost the goods.

Masoudi: Yeah. Our answer was always, 'We don't have any information!'

Now the treasures that Masoudi helped save are on a U.S. tour. National Geographic paid a million dollars for the loan of the artifacts. The Afghan government will spend most of that money renovating the Kabul museum to keep them safe.

Sayed Jawad is Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States. He admits an equivalent treasure from Egypt might have commanded more.

Sayed Jawad: Keep in mind that the name of the Egypt is right away associated with tourism. What is the name of Afghanistan associated with today? So it's a different objective that we are bringing these items. We want to make people see the true Afghanistan.

The risk is that once we see it, we'll want to get some of it for our living rooms. And as long as Afghanistan's artifacts remain unprotected, that collector's desire might just raise the market price.

In Afghanistan, I'm Gregory Warner, for Marketplace.

About the author

Gregory Warner is a senior reporter covering the economics and business of healthcare for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

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