KABUL, Afghanistan – More than 1,400 artifacts — protected from looters and the Taliban since 1999 at a museum-in-exile in Switzerland — were returned to the National Museum of Afghanistan on Saturday.
The collection, which includes a piece from a foundation stone that was "touched by Alexander the Great" and several items thousands of years old, was assembled in Switzerland by Afghans who wanted to save their cultural heritage after decades of war.
The oldest artifact dates back 3,500 years, and the collection spans "countless" empires to which Afghanistan once belonged, said Paul Bucherer, director of the Afghanistan Museum in the northwestern Swiss town of Bubendorf. The Swiss museum, which received about 50,000 visitors since opening in 2000, is now closed.
A shipping container holding the collection arrived Friday in Kabul and was opened at the National Museum on Saturday.
"I feel released from this duty to hand over all these 1,423 objects back," Bucherer said.
Bucherer and Afghan officials ceremoniously unlocked the container outside the museum entrance, and one of the crates inside was carried up to a second-floor display case. There, Bucherer delicately pulled out artifacts that looked like they belonged in a collection worthy of New York or London — only these items were saved from looters and the international art market.
The first of the returned items to be placed in the museum included a small Buddha statue from Bamiyan, where two ancient, enormous Buddha statues were destroyed by the Taliban six years ago.
Another piece was a phallus-shaped stone that was once part of a foundation stone of a city in northern Afghanistan, Ai-Khanum, founded by Alexander the Great 2,300 years ago. A carved owl on one end of the stone represented the Greek city of Athens, Bucherer said.
"This piece is the link between Europe and Afghanistan. This piece was found in Ai-Khanum and it is, as I was told, part of the foundation stone of Ai-Khanum," he said. "We know for sure it was touched by Alexander the Great."
The National Museum of Afghanistan, founded in 1930, was looted and deliberately vandalized under the Taliban.
After restoration and reconstruction, the museum reopened to the public in October 2004.
Afghan officials sent a request to UNESCO last summer asking that the objects be returned. International and Afghan authorities deemed Kabul safe enough for them to come back.
"I hope these items may contribute to the identity of Afghanistan," Bucherer said. "To find peace in Afghanistan ... the only way is via culture — via traditional Afghan culture, which played an enormous role in Afghanistan in the old days."