Bactrian Gold

The Hellenistic age was Greece's period of greatest triumph. During this time, Greek culture, power, and control extended over the known world. Greek culture had already reached its zenith in the previous classical age. In the Hellenistic age, the Greeks actively exported their culture leaving lasting imprints on the civilizations that eventually grew out of these lands: the Romans, the Jewish Diaspora, Islam and Christianity.

Alexander the Great’s conquests, and those of his father Philip of Macedon, laid the framework for this “Hellenization” of the known world. After his father united the Greek city-states, Alexander began his conquest of Asia Minor. After quickly defeating Persia and Egypt, Alexander pushed on all the way to Pakistan and India. He conquered Bactria, where the Hellenic world briefly touched and intertwined with the worlds of the Indus and the Siberian steppe. The terrain and the population were both harsh enemies, and the people were not easily pacified. Alexander married a Bactrian princess, Roxane, gained a large Bactrian army, and left behind some 13,000 Greeks to inhabit and control the region.

Alexander’s further attempts to expand his kingdom met with opposition from his troops and he returned to his kingdom in 324 BC and died the next year. Alexander’s empire was then divided amongst his generals, who fell into conflict with one another.

Asia Minor fell under Greek influence for centuries during this Hellenistic period. Conflict between the dynasties of Alexander’s former generals was constant but the standard of living rose enormously. Each of the new empires embarked on public service works and patronage of the arts, philosophy, science, and literature. Bactria itself became a mosaic of Persian, Chinese, Greek and Indian cultures and provided a link and trade route between the East and the West. Greeks prospered in Bactria for roughly a century after Alexander’s death until Bactria was conquered by nomads from the Chinese and Siberian steppes.

In the winter of 1978-79, a joint Soviet-Afghan archeological dig turned up 20,600 pieces of gold jewelry, funeral ornamentation and other artifacts. This has become known as the Bactrian gold. The treasure comes from a site known to local Afghans as Tela Tapa, or “Mound of Gold”, on a dusty plain in northern Afghanistan that runs from the northern foothills of the Hindu Kush mountains down to the ancient Oxus river, now known as the Amu. The burial mound, not far from the modern town of Shiberghan, was probably a family cemetery belonging to rulers of one of the Kushan princedoms of the first century AD.

The Bactrian Gold is a rich variety of coins and other objects from before and after Alexander the Great’s death. Among the finds: a Chinese mirror; coins from Parthia, Rome and India; pieces of Greco-Bactrian art and nomadic-flavored pieces showing the influence of both Greece and Bactria were also found.

This treasure trove, however, was feared lost. During the years of civil war and then Taliban rule, the gold’s location was kept secret by a handful of museum workers and bank employees, and had been stored three floors down in the Central Bank vaults inside the Arg, the presidential palace.

When the Taliban seized control of Kabul in 1996, they initially examined the vault in the Arg, but failed to discover the gold. Those who knew of the gold’s whereabouts, however, began to worry as the Taliban began a systematic destruction of non-Islamic art. The war on Terror may have come just in time to save the gold.

Recently, Afghan and foreign museum experts broke open the six safes inside the vault for the first time in more than 20 years and began compiling a computerized inventory of the gold for the Kabul Museum. The National Geographic Society provided state-of-the-art equipment to catalog and photograph every item. Every single one of the 20,600 gold pieces, some as small as a fingernail, were found as they were left by the Soviet and Afghan archaeologists and museum workers who packed them in 1979.

The treasure also includes thousands of small slivers of applique ornaments that decorated the funeral garments of the five women and one man found in the tombs, along with gold headdresses and richly worked pendants, dagger and sword hilts and scabbards carved with jewel-encrusted beasts. There are also belts, buckles, signet rings, an ornamental tree of gold and pearls, and even gold sandals.

After cataloging and once again storing away the gold, the Minister of Information and Culture for Afghanistan, Makhdum Raheen, said he had hoped to exhibit the gold around the world to raise funds for a new museum to house it, and to help his struggling ministry. 228 pieces were sent to locations in Europe and are being displayed in various U.S. museums. The tour is scheduled to continue into 2009. Information about the artifacts can be found on the National Geographic society's U.S. tour site.