Monday, December 18, 2006

The Keyholders of Afghanistan

The story begins with the Silk Road, a portion of which ran through the northern section of today’s Afghanistan. It carried and dispersed culture, commerce and religion and was traveled by the likes of Alexander the Great and Marco Polo.

In 1978 archeologists discovered a treasure trove of ancient artifacts in northern Afghanistan dating back to the 1st century C.E. Over 20,000 objects, collectively referred to as the Bactrian gold, were uncovered displaying a remarkable co-mingling of cultures that the Silk Road brought to the region.

In 1979, a year after the discovery, the Soviet Army invaded Afghanistan and the Bactrian gold was in danger. It was kept at the Afghanistan National Museum, but suddenly disappeared in the 1980’s. There were fears that it had been stolen or sold or melted down to buy arms. As decades of turmoil blanketed the country, the whereabouts of the Bactrian gold remained a mystery, known only to the “keyholders”.

A group of Afghan men known as the keyholders, cultural heroes, have risked theirs lives for the past 25 years to protect the monumental national treasure from the dangers of the Soviets, the Taliban, civil war, arms dealers and Islamic fighters. Their story is finally being told.

The mysterious keyholders, still anonymous to this day for fear of their safety, hid the Bactrian gold in the central Afghanistan Bank, not in the ordinary vaults but in the presidency vaults, a place reserved for gold bullion and national treasures.

When the Taliban took Kabul in 1996 Taliban commanders demanded of one of the Bank’s governors, a keyholder, to open the presidency vaults. The keyholder agreed only after a gun was put to his head and a guard was pistol-whipped. When the Taliban were shown the vault with the gold bars and were reassured of the existence of the bullion, they exited the vault. The keyholder was told to lock the vault, which he did, but unbeknownst to the Taliban the keyholder deliberately twisted the key backwards in the lock, breaking off and lodging a small piece of the key within the lock.

In November 2001 the Taliban made their next and last attempt to open the presidency vaults. They had no trouble getting past the first two doors but the third door, the one with the broken key piece in the lock, stubbornly refused to open. Under a barrage of bombs being released by American warplanes overhead, they spent three hours trying to open the final door, using a locksmith, crowbars and hammers. Eventually they gave up and fled the city.

In August 2006 a keyholder revealed his secret to government ministers and the third vault door was opened at last, thanks to a talented and dedicated locksmith.

A portion of Afghanistan’s priceless heritage, so bravely guarded by the keyholders, is now finally safe and on display for the world.

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