In the depths of Asia where sandy dunes on the left bank of Amu Darya lie below the foothills of Hindu Kush in Northern Afghanistan, stretches the extensive Baktriysky valley. In ancient times, it was famous for the fertility of the lands and remains the grain belt of Afghanistan.
World science had no concrete knowledge which could shed light on the most ancient period of legendary Bactria until, in 1969, a Soviet-Afghan archaeological expedition was created. The first site chosen was the ancient capital, Emshi-tep, which is near the modern city, Shibargan. In the first year, large-scale excavations of separate archaeological monuments were conducted and areas of the Baktriysky plain were examined. Around Shibargan are a group of small hills of which one of them is called Tillya-Tepa, meaning “The Gold Hill.” No gold was found on the surface but as archaeologists excavated the site, fragments of hand-made articles painted with a striking, colourful design were unearthed. Bactrian monuments were unknown at the time of the trial excavation.
In the Fall of 1978, the chief of the archaeological expedition, V.I. Sarianidi, established that Tillya-Tepa was not an ordinary settlement but was a temple with a multi-column hall surrounded by a great brick wall with defensive towers on a high platform.
More than one hundred workers were working on the excavation when, under the shovel of one of them, gold sparkled. Seven burial sites were eventually revealed before the archaeological season came to an end because of the seasonal rains. The contrast between the richness of what appeared to be the funeral gifts, and the simplicity of the graves surprised those involved. The graves were simple, rectangular holes only about one meter from the surface with a wooden floor and mats covered with earth. It could have been built in one or two hours which gave the impression that the burials were carried out in secret or perhaps, at night.
Thousands of gold plaques, buttons, suspension brackets and beads on clothes were found along with decayed fabric which was embroidered with gold threads and hundreds of pearls forming difficult vegetable and fruit ornaments, most often in the form of a grapevine. In each burial site, about three thousand gold items were found. Archaeologists concluded that the graves were those of royalty. There were gold crowns inlaid with pearls and turquoise on the heads of which one was especially stunning: five trees were cut from a sheet of gold with birds sitting on the branches. The heads of the dead were resting upon gold and silver vessels with the headdresses pinned up with head pins of gold with bronze cores and decorated with pearls.
Scientists had now discovered many historical and cultural facts about this time when Buddhism began to spread in a previously Hindustan region. The first transcontinental route from China through the lands of the Kushansky Kingdom were opened linking the Silk Road with the Roman Mediterranean. At this time, routes were opened between Egypt and India, and Central Asia and the Northern Black Sea Coast. The Kushansky Empire now appears to have been an important cultural, political and trade route at the beginning of the First Century. The historical and commercial value of Sarianidi’s find cannot be calculated.
Journalists from many countries would call the excavation of these burial sites the discovery of the century. Here also the final drama of the Bactrian epic begins. Across Kabul, rumours began to be spread that the Soviet archaeologists had taken away the national wealth of Afghanistan and that antique shops were filled with the gold products which were allegedly sold by employees of expedition. But the truth was that all items were placed in sealed boxes in secured storage in the State Bank of Afghanistan. The vigorous and strong-willed deputy minister of culture, K. Nurzay, used all his power and influence to simplify the formalities to facilitate the Soviet scientists’ procedure of transferring the find into storage. They had just over one week to catalogue and photograph all items which had to be measured and weighed in millimetres and milligrams. Mistakes were inevitably made due to the time constraints. Each box was sealed and signed by five officials so when the boxes were opened again, all five officials had to be present. During the process, it appeared that a sack of gold plaques had been lost. The inventory confirmed the loss and the scientists made a decision to open one of the boxes to check, but all five officials had to be present. This proved to be no small task and even though they were all staff members of the museum, they were rarely at work at the same time. Eventually, however, they gathered, opened the box and found what they had thought was lost. It was a happy end to two days and two nights of worry!
The bulk of the find was then stored in the store rooms of the museum. Soviet scientists suggested that the rest of the gold be handed over to the State Bank, but the Ministry of Culture of Afghanistan refused. Flights back to Moscow were delayed two days. The Afghans secured the places of excavation, the expedition finally left and within a month, the situation in the country sharply deteriorated. The items from the seventh burial site disappeared without a trace.
The discovery of the gold of Bactria became known in the early 1980s when an article appeared in a Western newspaper claiming that an American who had been in Peshawar, apparently proved that, “Sarianidi’s expedition took all the treasures away for themselves.”
In 1981, Professor Higuchi from Kyoto University, visited Kabul and illegally photographed the entire collection which was then published in Ars Buddika magazine, No. 137. It also granted publication rights to other authors. On May 16, 1989, in the French newspaper, Mond, there was an article, “Trophies from Tillya-Tepa- The Soviet Army misappropriates one of the most precious national treasures of Afghanistan.” Even though the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow issued a statement categorically denying the action, other European newspapers picked up the story and ran with it: among them the Italian paper, Stampa, the West German, Tsayt, and the Swiss, Veltkhota.
The head of the expedition, Victor Sarianidi, had suggested that the gold be temporarily exported from Afghanistan with the permission and the assistance of an Afghan party because of the volatile situation in the country but no-one could guarantee its safety. He appealed to the president of Afghanistan, Najibullah, for support, arguing that this collection is not the property of any one country: it belongs to the whole world. He wrote to the CEO of UNESCO, Mr. Mayor:
As the head of the archaeological excavation of the imperial necropolis, Tillya-Tepa, I consider it my professional duty to make you the following offer: Under the auspices of UNESCO and with the permission of the interim government, DRA, to urgently transport the collection of Bactrian Gold to a neutral country, with the obligatory subsequent return to Afghanistan when the country becomes more stable. This will ensure that the collection is kept safe and allow the possibility of it being exhibited worldwide.
Mr. Mayor replied that UNESCO was not a political organisation and in order to carry out this request, an alternative solution must be found.
The treasures of Tillya-tepa were never shown to the general public and the French archaeologists working in Kabul in 1993 were the last to see the gold of Bactria. At best, we can surmise that the most ancient, unique pieces are now in private collections in the Western world, and at worst-the collection was plundered by troops with no care for precious, historical artefacts
Allow me to ask through your newspaper, Sovershenno Sekretno, the domestic and worldwide community the question which must be delayed no further.
As you already know, in 1978, a joint Soviet-Afghan archaeological expedition of Academy of Sciences of the USSR opened the imperial necropolis of ancient Afghanistan.
More than 20 years have passed since the discovery of the gold of Bactria, but the full catalogue of the jewellery with a detailed description of each item in Russian, has not been issued. Unfortunately, now it is unknown where the treasures are stored. But photos which can serve as scientific evidence for researchers and a reminder of the loss suffered by science, remains.
I address all who are interested in the destiny of a major discovery. We will combine our efforts to publish the catalogue of the Baktrian treasures!
I am deeply convinced that this catalogue will become a scientific sensation lighting up the history of the ancient East, not only regarding gold, but also the historical, cultural and political life at this time.
Professor of Institute of Archaeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences,
Doctor of Historical Sciences,