THE GUARDIANSHIP OF THE GOLD – The Heroic Tale of the Hiranya-Hoard of Tillya Tepe


Earlier this week, I posted a fine piece of jewelry, likely Scythian in origin, and featuring two dragons being clasped about the forelegs by a male figure garbed as an Indo-European #GangSteppe figure. It came from the so-called “Bactrian Gold” discovered at a set of tombs in northern Afghanistan by a team of Soviet archaeologists in 1978.

And while the gold is, itself, eminently beauteous to look upon, what I actually found myself almost as amazed by was the story of how it had come once again to the attention of the modern world in the years shortly after the deposing of the Taliban regime, in 2003.

What had happened to it over the course of those long twenty four years?

Almost immediately after its discovery, the problems seemed to accrue. It had been uncovered in Autumn, and with Winter fast approaching, the decision was made to rapidly excavate all that could be salvaged from six of the burials, and cover over the rest of the site to be returned to in the Spring. There is thus occasional mention made in the literature of a *seventh* burial amidst the one male and five females that are commonly known about – but, of course, the march of History rarely diverts Her rough course in deferment to those frantically attempting to re-piece together the (distant) Past. And so, the combination of the Soviet intervention in ’79, and what is suspected to be some tomb-robbing by other parties unknown, meant that by the time there was some opportunity to return to the fabled Hill of Gold [‘Tillya Tepe’], there was precious little left to be recovered.

Still, the artefacts that *had* been found by the Soviet team – all twenty thousand or so of them – represented an absolutely magnificent find. And once they’d been subject to initial analysis, they were duly deposited with teh Afghan National Museum just south of Kabul, where they would remain for much of the next decade – until in 1989, aware that the Soviet Withdrawal (they reportedly left Kabul the very next day) meant that the course of the War had likely turned against them, Afghanistan’s last Communist to serve as President, Mohammed Najibullah, authorized a somewhat desperate plan for the Treasure’s longer-term preservation.

The hoard was duly moved from the Afghan National Museum to a custom vault of the Central Bank, housed within the Presidential Palace; unlockable only with five keys, which were duly entrusted to five custodians whose identities were to remain a closely guarded secret – for both their own protection, and for that of the Treasure.

There, it would lie in awaiting of the calming down of conditions [relatively speaking – for Afghanistan, at any rate] which would allow for it to once again re-emerge into the light. A curious thing, in some ways – the Treasure had lain underground, buried away from the eyes and grasping hands of men for the best part of two millenia before all too briefly being brought back out into the visible realms of the living, only to be plunged back into darkness and safe-keeping once more for much of two decades.


Yet it was to be an ‘unquiet rest’; as in 1996, following the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, the Central Bank vaults were a priority target. The Vaults’ custodian, a man by the name of Ameruddin Askarzai, who was also one of the keepers of the five keys, was dragged in and ordered to unlock the stores of gold. With a pistol placed against his head, Askarzai did exactly that – opening up the vault containing the former Afghan Central Bank’s reserves of gold bars.

He deliberately sought to obscurate the location of the “Bactrian Gold”, in the vault immediately above this – correctly presuming that the immediately obvious, and extraordinarily valuable in monetary terms store of *modern* gold, would divert his captors from seriously probing the rest of the complex in search of the *ancient*, and by some measures *far more precious* hoard of gold whose secret he had been entrusted with.

Along the way, and as a means of additional safeguarding, Askarzai appears to have deliberately broken off the head of his of the five keys in the vault’s lock mechanism; and provided such evasive answers to the Taliban about whether there might be *more* valuable treasures about, that they then proceeded to imprison him forthwith for the next three months, replete with off-and-on torture just in case it helped his memory.

It is indeed fortunate that Mr Askarzai, along with the other four key-holders, were so tight-lipped. As while the Taliban would almost certainly have derived quite some monetary benefit from selling off various portions of the Hoard on the black market for antiquities (a thriving pursuit for the funding of insurgencies that regrettably continues even today in various conflict-zones, and which *directly* contributed to the Afghan National Museum being looted so severely and repeatedly over the course of the 1990s), they *also* had, as is well known, quite the religious puritan streak – to the point that even despite having previously declared the Bamiyan Buddhas as off-limits to their rapacious iconoclasm due to their potential use as a source of tourism revenue, toward the end of Taliban rule, these too were brought low through high-explosive.

One can only imagine what they might have sought to do to the more overtly *religious* looking treasures contained within the Hoard had they managed to gain access while still in dominion.


Five years later, as US-led Coalition forces (more particularly, the Afghani Northern Alliance) advanced upon the capital, the Taliban attempted to swiftly dispose of the contents of the Central Bank’s vaults in order to make off with them into the night and thusly continue to fund their war-effort.

The more easily fungible reservoirs of cash and gold having been already emptied, they spent several hours upon their last night in Kabul endeavouring to get their way into the by-now discovered vault containing the “Bactrian Gold”. In this, they were unsuccessful – partially, it would seem, due to the key which Mr Askarzai had broken off in his part of the lock, a half a decade before.

It would take another almost two years before the Vault’s doors would swing open; in mid-2003, the government of Hamid Karzai having become aware of both the vault and its treasure, and ordering that it be breached in order to restore this hugely important and Hiranya-beautiful heritage to the Afghan people.

However, before this could be done, the five key-holders emerged out of hiding – and, in the presence of the original Soviet archaeologist who had presided over the Hoard’s *first* unearthing a quarter century beforehand, Viktor Sarianidi, who had been invited back in order to authenticate that the contents were present, complete, and unadulterated (they thankfully were! – a fact affirmed, in part, when it turned out that one seemingly hastily-repaired break which *looked* like it might have been signs of tampering … was actually the very same which Sarianidi had himself made all those years ago during their initial examination), the Golden Treasure of Tillya Tepe was brought back out into the light.

Now, often in the course of archaeology or other delvings into the past, and especially as applies matters Indo-European and in this particular part of the world, we encounter pretty sad stories.

One such instance that I intend to expand upon in the not-too-distant future is the tale of the Kalasha & Nuristanis, who not much more than a year after the first Western anthropologist/linguist to visit them, in the mid-late 1890s …. found themselves under sustained assault and forcible conversion from what we might perhaps term the Taliban’s ideological ancestors, to the point that so much of their (oral) religious tradition now lies unrecoverable, and deliberately forgotten by those who forsook it at the point of the sword.

But this is, it would appear, not one of those sorts of narratives. Not entirely, anyway – the contents of that seventh burial do weigh somewhat upon its overarching gleam.

The other thing we often tend to encounter in stories such as these, is the insistent comparison to what is perhaps the world’s most famous, and least field-work rigorous archaeologist, Indiana Jones.

In this such circumstance, I do actually feel such a linkage is at least semi-justified. Even if only because “IT BELONGS IN A MUSEUM” *does* appear to have been the underlying ethos of those five key-bearers, amidst the many other Afghans and others who sought to *protect* their national heritage, and our civilizational wonderment, from the rapacious repugnance of those who would have done it harm – those whose only regard for the contents of the Hoard would have been as mere monetary harvest, or ideological threat to be iconoclastically defiled, defaced, and thence destroyed.

We often put quite a bit of emphasis, both here at Arya Akasha, as well as out there more generally, upon the Past and upon the artefacts that come down to us from same.

It is only more rarely that we stop to consider the pathways, the means and the mechanisms of transmission that’re responsible for us being able to examine these relics, and derive their inestimable contributions to our knowledge, our pictures of the past, in consequence of their preservation.

And, of course, the *safeguardings* of their passage – the custodians, the archaeologists, linguists, mythographers, soldiers, and others – who have made all of the above possible; whether in guardianship in the dark, or illumination for academic and/or broader audiences through the light.


The Tale of Tillya Tepe’s “Bactrian Gold”, shows us *exactly why* these men, whomsoever they may be, oft deserve almost as much of a place within the pantheon of heroes as many of the much-better known sages and soldiery of antiquity through whose contributions and chronicling we know so much that would otherwise be beyond our ken forever.

Hail to the Guardians.

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