I walked up the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Sunday morning around 11. It was hot and humid. The sky hinted of rain. I was there with my brother, a commercial real estate broker who lives in Manhattan, and my mom and her boyfriend, Charley, who had come to the city for a weekend visit. We had just finished breakfast across the street at Café Sabarsky: soft boiled eggs and brioche toast, cappuccinos and orange juice.
As we approached the museum I noticed a large sign hanging down its front: AFGHANISTAN, it read.
It announced an exhibition that I had heard nothing about. Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul. I was surprised, and pleased. I had planned an hour or two of wandering among the Monets and Rodins, maybe the Egyptian mummies or the collection of arms and full sets of armor. But this seemed fitting.
We entered the dark chain of rooms constituting the show and were immediately greeted with a large map of the country. “There it is,” said Charley, pointing toward the middle of the map. Gardez.
We walked slowly through the displays beyond, which held the collection of art that had been found in boxes in the presidential bank vault in Kabul in 2003. The works had been bravely rescued and hidden by National Museum workers fourteen years before, as civil war raged around them. “A country can stay alive when its culture and history stay alive,” said one man in the accompanying documentary.
The show had little to do with the Afghanistan of today. There were no images of American soldiers, no camouflage or newspaper headlines. There were small pieces of ancient buildings, softly lit, delicate carved rock. There was a statue of a man, standing proud despite the years of wear and war that have left cavernous marks across his face. Pictures of the Afghan landscape filled the walls: Rolling dunes and craggy mountains, men with camels and turbans, lots of sand.
In the final room of the exhibition there were cases of gold jewelry that had been found buried with women from the 1st-century nomadic population of Tillya Tepe. There were thick gold ankle bracelets and delicate baubles meant to dangle from the hair. Earrings and necklaces, sparkling and symmetrical.
The beauty of the work there surprised me. Despite hearing Matt’s tales of the gems he’s found at the bazaar, I have had a hard time imagining anything pretty in that war torn country. I have a hard time imagining a history there that is anything but violent and lonely.
But there was a crown perched behind a plate of glass right before the exit. It was made of thin gold leaves, delicate and layered, a shimmering honey-hued tower. It was so beautiful I couldn’t help but reach out my fingers towards its case. I wanted to feel it. I wanted to make sure it was real.