Spotlight on the National Museum of Afghanistan

Once the home of one of the most important collections in Central Asia, the National Museum of Afghanistan was particularly hard-hit by the effects of years of civil conflict. Today, however, the National Museum is one again assuming a proudly central role in the preservation of Afghanistan’s rich cultural and archaeological heritage. Read on to learn more about this fascinating institution.

History of the National Museum

National Museum in Kabul

Image by Ninara | Flickr

The original National Museum of Afghanistan was founded in 1919 in Kabul’s Bagh-i-Bala palace. The collection at that time consisted of a variety of objects—including weapons, manuscripts, miniatures, and art pieces—which had belonged to the nation’s former royal families. After a temporary move to the king’s palace in Kabul’s city center some years later, the National Museum was established in its present home, a former municipal building, in 1931.

These early years also brought about a dramatic enrichment of the National Museum’s collection. In 1922, the Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan (DAFA) was created at the request of the Afghan government to spearhead archaeological research and excavations at historic sites throughout Afghanistan. Finds and artefacts unearthed by this delegation, as well as by other delegations in the years that followed, were gradually added to the National Museum’s collection until it comprised an estimated 100,000 pieces covering a historical period of many millennia.

Despite being looted and damaged by fighting during the many years of conflict, the National Museum of Afghanistan saved many thousands of artefacts by concealing them in secret hiding places. Today, those collections are being restored and once again made available to the public. In recent years, the National Museum has also been undergoing a major expansion, and has been working with international partners to coordinate the return of looted artefacts to their home country.

Collections and exhibitions

The National Museum of Afghanistan’s collections and exhibitions cover a broad range of historical, cultural, and artistic periods and styles. Some of the National Museum’s recent exhibitions include:

The Bamiyan-Borobudur photo exhibition

Exploring the cultural links and shared heritage of Afghanistan and Indonesia, the Bamiyan-Borobudur photo exhibition examines the two UNESCO World Heritage sites of the Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan and the Borobudur Temple compound in Indonesia, both of which are widely recognized as masterpieces of the Buddhist faith. These sites play an important role in the Buddhist legacy of the two countries; a central aim of the exhibition is not only to introduce museum visitors to these two unique sites, but also to foster important cross-cultural dialogue between Afghanistan and Indonesia. The establishment of the exhibition at the National Museum was carried out in close cooperation with Indonesia’s embassy in Kabul.

Aynak Copper exhibition

Located in an area about 40 kilometers south of Kabul, close to the historic “silk route” to India, the Mes Aynak copper mine is one of the most important sites ever to be discovered in Afghanistan, with archaeological deposits stretching over thousands of hectares. Excavations began in 1963, and so far, three key areas have been excavated: Gol Hamid, which revealed the Pa Buddhist temple; Kafiriat Tepe, the site of a second monastic complex; and the Baba Wali mountain, where copper ore is located. The architecture and artefacts that have so far been revealed date back as far as the second century AD, and span the period between that time and the emergence of Islam in the eighth century AD. Coins, ceramics, unbaked clay sculptures, stone reliefs, and wall paintings have all been part of this rich find.

Bactria (Thousand Cities) exhibition

Present-day northern Afghanistan was once home to the region of Bactria, famed among classical historians for its “thousand cities,” its wealth, and its natural beauty. Excavations carried out in this region have yielded an incredible glimpse of life over many thousands of years. Archaeological sites from the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom (around the time of Alexander the Great), and the Kushan and later periods have all been established in this region.

The National Museum on tour

One of the main objectives of the National Museum of Afghanistan has been introducing not only Afghans, but also the wider world to the country’s impressive cultural heritage. With that aim in mind, an international tour called “Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul” took place between 2008 and 2011. Visiting some of the biggest museums in the world—including the British Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York—the “Hidden Treasures” exhibition showed the world some of Afghanistan’s most important artefacts, including a Bronze Age set of gold bowls from the ancient city of Fullol, objects from the Greek city of Ai Khanum in what is now northern Afghanistan, and examples of Bactrian gold discovered in the graves of Tillya Tepe, a huge earthen barrow that was created as the burial site for a first-century prince.

Restoring Afghanistan’s Heritage, One Artifact at a Time

Of the news coming out of Afghanistan in recent years, the rediscovery of national treasures once thought to be destroyed is some of the most exciting. During decades of war, and even in the aftermath, looters and pillagers stole antiquities and treasures from ancient sites, museums, and other places of note. These rarities have either been destroyed, smuggled out of the country, or sold to black market dealers.

Thankfully, the diligent work of archaeologists, historians, and police to recover key pieces of Afghanistan’s history has restored a sense of national pride and awareness to the Afghan people.

Afghanistan’s Heritage


Image by Ninara | Flickr

As a key point in the famed Silk Road, Afghanistan has a long, rich heritage of cultural and historical significance. Along the international roadway, ancient cultures and religions crisscrossed the Middle East, leaving artifacts and traditions behind. Influences from Greece, Rome, Egypt, India, and China can be seen in the artifacts found within the nation, providing a tangible history that demonstrates both the importance and the longevity of Afghanistan’s culture.

The Bactrian Hoard

More than 20,000 artifacts from the ancient nation of Bactria, once located along the Silk Road, were thought lost during the years of war and turmoil following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. In late 2003, however, Afghan officials discovered the entire collection hidden in boxes below the Presidential Palace in Kabul. The restoration of these pieces to the Afghan people was one of the first glimmers of hope for the eventual rebuilding of the nation.

The Heathrow Collection

Over the years, priceless artifacts from the oft-looted National Museum of Afghanistan have been slowly accumulating at Heathrow Airport, evidence of the booming black market for antiquities. Fortunately, airport and museum officials have worked together to return the items to the National Museum, recovering 3.4 tons of antiquities over six years. Arranging the delivery took nearly a year and required the cooperation of dozens of people around the world. Officials catalogued more than 1,500 pieces, some dating back 8,000 years.

The Recovery

Much of the museum’s extensive collection was hidden from looters during the years of war, but nearly 70,000 pieces were stolen from the reserve inventory. The museum director, Omara Khan Masoudi, began a recovery mission that spanned the globe and at many times resembled an adventure story brought to life.

British diplomats flying in to Kabul notified Masoudi of the pile-up of confiscated artifacts at Heathrow. Using museum catalogs, he compared the recovered pieces to the lists of stolen items and discovered that none of them were a match. After much research, it was discovered that the Heathrow collection was comprised of pieces that had been illegally excavated and were being exported without permits. Due to the illegal excavation, most of the recovered pieces lost their identity markers, making them unverifiable for museum display.

Continued Recovery

The recovery effort and multi-national network of cooperation persists even today. Artifacts continue to be recovered at Heathrow Airport, a heavily used gateway for objects being smuggled out of the Middle East. Working with antiquities experts from Afghanistan, custom officials at the airport have compiled a “Red List” detailing thousands of artifacts that have been lost or stolen during the decades of war. Officials perform random searches of passengers, finding artifacts tucked into hidden compartments or checked into carryon luggage. They also find objects on customs forms incorrectly declared or valued in an effort to downplay their importance.

Continued Looting

Even as the nation rebuilds, individuals continue to pillage ancient sites and smuggle artifacts out of the country. Due to the nation’s economic instability, villagers are forced to loot and resell these objects as a source of income. Archaeologists and historians, working in conjunction with law enforcement officials, are establishing protocols to quell the tide of artifacts leaving the country, but they have been unsuccessful thus far.

More Than Artifacts

While the recovery of artifacts and historical objects is important to the cultural history of Afghanistan, it is important on another level that may not be immediately obvious. To people that have been traumatized by war, fighting, and oppressive rule, the re-emergence of pieces of their history restores a sense of identity and pride. An entire generation of Afghans can learn about the country’s rich heritage, which had been feared forever lost. Combined efforts of government officials, non-governmental organizations, and determined citizens are helping to rebuild Afghanistan, preparing for a future beyond the years of war.

GERES Creates Energy-Efficient Solutions for Afghanistan

geres logoActively involved in the reconstruction of Afghanistan since 2002, the French non-governmental organization GERES (Group for the Environment, Renewable Energy, and Solidarity) aims to protect natural resources and minimize the impact of climate change by providing sustainable energy solutions that diminish fuel poverty and improve living conditions for people in Afghanistan. GERES was founded in 1976 in response to the first oil crisis, and since that time, its teams have worked in over 30 countries on projects related to energy use, agricultural production, and sustainability.

Headquartered in Aubagne, France, GERES maintains permanent offices in nine other countries and operates across Europe, West Africa, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia. Its staff of more than 200 team members consists of professionals qualified in over 30 diverse fields. Along with managing or assisting with the implementation of development projects, GERES teams conduct skills training, applied research, and technical consulting for public and private entities. In 2014, GERES supported nearly 3.9 million people through 58 projects in 19 countries.

Integrated Approach to Societal and Environmental Change

GERES recognizes that poverty elimination, energy production and consumption, and environmental sustainability are inextricably linked, and accordingly focuses all of its efforts on five interconnected themes:

  • – energy saving and efficiency
  • – clean energy production
  • – climate change awareness and coping strategies
  • economic development
  • – local policy and land management advocacy

Working in these fields, GERES pursues large-scale environmental, economic, and social changes that can be sustained over the long term. To do so, its teams adapt their fieldwork and the technologies they design for compatibility with the specific socio-cultural contexts in the different areas where they work. Most of the organization’s initiatives begin with an initial assessment of the local situation and rollout of a pilot project. If the project is evaluated favorably, it is brought to scale and reproduced in other locations.

Wherever GERES operates, it works in solidarity and collaboration with members of the local community and often partners with other stakeholders, whether government agencies or private businesses. It encourages local people to become involved in the development of their communities and prepares them to assume control of continuing projects. Besides disseminating knowledge and best practices, GERES transfers ownership of the innovative technologies it deploys to the communities whose use them.

Improving Energy Access and Living Conditions in Afghanistan

solar panelsThe GERES team in Afghanistan comprises 46 local and 2 expatriate staff members who work out of a permanent office in Kabul and two field offices in the provinces of Bamyan and Kapisa. Drawing on well over a decade of experience in Afghanistan, GERES addresses a number of challenges related to energy efficiency and accessibility, economic opportunity, and harsh environmental conditions. Energy poverty in particular poses a significant threat to the well-being of Afghan families, as sporadic electricity supply is an ongoing problem, and energy costs can make up a large portion of an urban household’s annual expenditures.

Building Energy-Efficient Public Buildings

With 40% of its land at an elevation of 2,000 meters (about 6,500 feet) or more, much of Afghanistan is characterized by mountainous terrain and long, frigid winters. GERES concentrated its initial work in Afghanistan on introducing heat-conserving building design features in these high-elevation areas of the country. Here, winter temperatures inside inadequately heated and insulated buildings can drop as low as 5° C (41° F).

From 2003 to 2005, GERES erected 8 buildings for pilot testing of its energy efficiency methods. The success of these trials led to a building improvement program through which GERES and its partners completed the restoration or upgrade of 240 public buildings by 2009. Utilizing such techniques as passive solar heating, the baseline winter temperatures in these renovated buildings rose to 15°C (59° F).

Passive Solar Energy for Afghan Homes

GERES also worked to improve Afghan homes through a program that facilitated the construction of solar verandas built with affordable, locally sourced materials. Situated on the south end of a home, the wood-frame verandas use passive solar energy to absorb heat and elevate indoor temperatures to 20° C (68° F) and above. Upon the project’s culmination in 2012, GERES had outfitted 700 houses with solar verandas, allowing the more than 6,000 people living in these homes to cut by half their reliance upon expensive, carbon dioxide-emitting fuels.

A subsequent project brought these passive solar housing methods to the urban setting of Kabul, in an effort to curtail natural resource depletion and reduce living expenses for households with limited resources. GERES trained local artisans to install the solariums, and they enhanced approximately 3,000 homes with these energy-efficient additions.

Providing Farmers with Bioclimatic Crop Storage Solutions

Afghan agricultural producers in the isolated highlands must also contend with cold winters, during which they lose many of their plants to frost. A shortage of dependable fuel sources and lack of effective storage facilities leave many farmers unable to access outside markets or preserve their crops. They have little option but to sell their produce for the lower prices they fetch at harvest time.

To improve food preservation capabilities in the region, GERES operates an ongoing program to equip local farmers with bioclimatic crop storerooms. Employing natural climate-control features, GERES-designed storerooms enable producers to preserve crops like potatoes and apples through the winter without the use of mechanical equipment. This has a significant positive impact on the livelihoods of farming families, because safely stored crops can be sold for higher prices during the winter, when demand is highest.