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October 09, 2009

Good News From Afghanistan

By Sara Tucker

The National Museum in Kabul, which has lost 70 percent of its 100,000-piece collection through plundering, celebrated a historic turnaround this week when it unveiled stolen artifacts repatriated by British authorities. The returned artifacts were confiscated at Heathrow Airport during random searches over a period of six years.

The moment was huge for a country devastated by war and robbed of so much of its cultural heritage. "The 3.5 ton trove of [returned] artifacts was described as priceless by the museum director and includes stone tools dating back 10,000 years," reported the Telegraph. "Among the greatest treasures are a bronze peacock-shaped brazier dating from the 12th century and a 100-year-old carved, wooden pen box filled with Persian poems and curses. . . .At least half the returned collection is dated back to before Afghanistan's Islamic period which began in the seventh century."

Besides the value of the returned objects, there is the significance of the opening itself: "For more than a decade, the museum here in the Afghan capital has been a symbol of the country's grievous suffering," observed LA Times staff writer Henry Chu in 2007. "Once a repository of one of the world's most valuable collections of Central Asian artifacts, it turned into a building full of broken hopes and dreams, its shell shattered by civil war, its guts ripped out by the radically religious Taliban." At the time Chu's article was published, the museum had begun to welcome home cultural treasures held in safekeeping by other countries, but it was still "struggling to get back on its feet," and "virtually all of those objects remain squirreled away in boxes, awaiting proper treatment and someplace to put them on show."

Tuesday's opening didn't escape criticism ("premature and naïve," huffed a HuffPo reader), but the overriding sentiment was positive and easily summarized in two words: "It's time."

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