PARIS – The mystery baffled archaeologists for more than two decades. What happened to 22,000 pieces of gold — jewel-encrusted crowns, daggers and baubles from an ancient burial mound — that had apparently vanished from Afghanistan in the 1980s?
With the country mired in wars and general chaos, rumors swirled. Had the 2,000-year-old gold treasure trove been spirited away from the Afghan National Museum to Russia, or sold on the black market, or melted down? Many assumed it was gone forever, yet another cultural loss for a country that had become accustomed to such ruin.
This tale, though, had a happy ending.
The Bactrian gold, as it is known, went on display this month at Paris' Guimet Museum. The treasure, and a host of other masterpieces, had been saved by a mysterious group of Afghans who patiently kept them hidden away underground, at great personal risk.
The group was known as the "key holders," because they held the keys to the basement vault on the grounds of the presidential palace where the gold and other museum treasures were hidden during troubled times, archaeologists and curators said.
"Over the last 20 to 25 years, during food shortages and money crises, this handful of people ... could have sold these collections instead of going hungry, but they never once sacrificed their own cultural heritage," said Fredrik Hiebert, an archaeologist with the National Geographic Society.
The major threat came from the hard-line Taliban regime, which in 2001, destroyed much of the country's pre-Islamic art in the belief that it was idolatrous or offensive to Islam. The rampage culminated with the dynamiting of two giant Buddhas carved into the side of a cliff.
Yet there were other dangers, too. The key holders are believed to have hidden the treasures sometime after the 1979 Soviet invasion, keeping quiet throughout the civil war of the 1990s and the period of Taliban rule that preceded the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
The Taliban is believed to have tortured a security guard who refused to give up secrets, said Christian Manhart, a specialist on Afghanistan with United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The regime also purportedly tried to crack the lock with a diamond-tipped drill-bit, he said.
Yet stories about the treasure must be taken with caution.
"The Afghans are adept at the art of secrets, and they really know how to create a mystery," Manhart said. "Every time you ask, you hear a different story."
The identity of the key holders is still not public knowledge, and it is not even clear how many there were. Manhart believes there may have been only one key holder, though legend says otherwise.
The mystery of the treasures' whereabouts began unraveling in 2003, when President Hamid Karzai announced that a few boxes from the National Museum had been found in a vault, along with hidden bank reserves of gold bars. Hiebert, the National Geographic Society archaeologist, was asked to inventory the pieces. He was in for a huge surprise.
The key holders had not only saved the Bactrian gold, but many of the National Museum's most valuable treasures as well, protecting them from the rocket-fire, looting and Taliban rampages that destroyed 70 percent of art in Afghanistan.
"We found glass, bronze, wonderful ivory," Hiebert said. "The boxes were not very well labeled, and every time we opened one nobody knew what was going to come out of it. There were gasps and sighs, and it was very emotional."
Visitors to the Guimet Museum's exhibit can see 220 Afghan treasures, including many pieces of Bactrian gold, which were discovered in 1978 by Soviet archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi at a first-century burial ground. There are countless bracelets and rings encrusted with turquoise, garnets and lapis lazuli. There is a dagger topped with fearsome beasts, a chain-link belt and even gold shoe soles.
The exhibit showcases Afghanistan's rich history and its place as a crossroads on the Silk Road, where it infused artistic influences from Greek to Chinese to Indian and Middle Eastern. It is expected to go on tour, and Hiebert said officials were in talks to bring it to the United States. Security is still not tight enough to take it to Kabul's museum.
The goal is to present another picture of Afghanistan than the one usually seen on the news — war and violence, said Vincent Lefevre, a Guimet curator.
Getting ready for the exhibit, Lefevre helped Afghan museum officials pack the art to send it to Paris. They were happy to give the world a gift from Afghanistan and it was emotional, too, Lefevre said: "It was like parents watching their children leave home."
The exhibition runs until April 30, 2007.