Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 20, 2009

Hidden Afghanistan

“A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive.”

In large bold letters, this is the only sentence on the front of a media kit I recently received from one of Amsterdam’s most intriguing, and to some extent courageous, museums — De Nieuwe Kerk.

Beginning in two weeks, the museum will be presenting what it describes as “a completely different view of Afghanistan.” While, quite understandably, the world waits and watches the ongoing turmoil in Afghanistan with a sense of despair, De Nieuwe Kerk instead boldly proclaims that “… there is more to Afghanistan than war and destruction.”

The media information goes on to point out that because Afghanistan was strategically located on the trade routes between East and West, it was the “crossroads of civilization in central Asia.” The hope of course is that it will be again one day.

The exhibition at De Nieuwe Kerk will present 250 archaeological objects that were “rediscovered” in 2004 in the vaults of the Central Bank in Kabul. The use of the word “rediscovered” is somewhat enigmatic, but the material goes on to explain that in another sense this exhibition is the story of the National Museum of Kabul itself. In a point blank statement, the promotional material states quite clearly, “As well as causing two million deaths, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 destroyed the economy and the cultural infrastructure.”

When the situation in Afghanistan started to deteriorate even more in 1988, the National Museum, under Director Omar Khan Massoudi (who risked his life to take the steps he did), decided to send some of the most important collections “underground” and they were transferred to the central vaults in the presidential palace. Only a few people knew about these secret arrangements.

During the terrible civil war that followed the fall of the Communists in Afghanistan and the rise of the Taliban, the latter decided that all such artistic images should be destroyed, and this eventually included 2500 works of art in the National Museum. However, it wasn’t until the fall of the Taliban that the world learned that the treasures in the palace vaults had been saved.

Watching wars (from afar) such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq can be very disheartening, but we need to remember that other war zones (Vietnam for example) have eventually re-emerged and actually become important travel destinations.

Perhaps one day, world travellers will once again be able to visit the treasures of Afghanistan — in Afghanistan. In the meantime, this exhibition will support the cause of freedom in Afghanistan in a very special way. I plan to visit the museum on my next trip to Amsterdam (March 2008), but if anyone else gets there before then and would like to send some comments, please do so.

For more information on De Nieuwe Kerk click here


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