Looted in the 90s. Recovered in 2004. Now Afghan treasures restored to glory

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It was a moment that went a long way to putting Afghanistan and its cultural heritage back on the map. In a small space in a once bombed-out building on the southern edge of Kabul, Afghan dignitaries and western diplomats squeezed past each other to see into the display cases: bronze age digging implements, pieces of carved marble and elaborate metal goods spanning Afghanistan's rich history.

It was only a two-room exhibit and much of the rest of Afghanistan's National Museum remained empty. But the opening of the room marked a first step towards the restoration of a museum which, before the destruction wreaked during the country's civil war, once boasted one of the greatest collections of ancient artefacts anywhere in the world.

For the antiquities, the exhibit marks the end of a tortuous odyssey: looted during the anarchy of the 1990s, hundreds of pieces were spirited overseas only to be impounded by British customs officials at Heathrow airport over an 11-day period in July 2004. But even after experts at the British Museum identified them as "highly important ancient material" they could not be returned: the museum was in no fit state to house any major collection.

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