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Smugglers fly out but without treasures

August 26, 2013
Rare gold coins bearing the image of Kushan kings Hovishka (left) and Vasudeva (right).
Rare gold coins bearing the image of Kushan kings Hovishka (left) and Vasudeva (right).

ISLAMABAD: Security personnel at the Islamabad airport busted a third attempt in almost as many months to smuggle out rare artifacts of the country on the Independence Day, Dawn has learned.

Customs sources said Bangkok-bound passengers Subhan Allah and Zahir Allah set off the metal detector alarm while passing through the screening machine. Their body check yielded the airport security staff two envelopes containing ancient gold coins.

Since the two ‘smugglers’ from Peshawar could not be detained legally, they were allowed to board their Flight TG 350 – but without their treasure.

Customs officials called in a senior official of the Department of Archaeology and Museums (DOAM) to assess the catch. After examining the 20 coins under his magnifying glass, the official declared they were more than 1,700 years old.

“On the first look, these coins seemed to belong to the Kushan period. Four of them looked extremely rare as they came from the earliest Kushan ‘King of Kings’ reign that flourished in northern Pakistan in the fifth century AD,” the DOAM official was quoted as saying.

Director General DOAM, Dr Fazaldad Kakar, confirmed to Dawn the assessment and that his department had found gold coins before in the Taxila region straddling over Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Punjab provinces. The last such discovery was made in 2005, during excavations at Badalpur Buddhist site in Taxila.

Dr Kakar said 16 coins in the lot seized at the Islamabad airport on August 14 were similar to those found by DOAM and on display in museums for visitors to admire. The other four were of special interest to him and his team.

“These you don’t find very often. The four coins are of very good quality gold,” said the director general The coins were in such good condition that, to his delight, he could immediately figure out the images of the deities and kings on them.

They were images of Lord Shiva, Kushan kings with Brahmic scriptures, possibly dating 4th or 5th century AD.

One bore the half-length figure of Kushan emperor Hovishka, holding a scepter in his right hand, and what appeared flames over his left shoulder. Inscribed on the edges of the coin were the words ‘Shao Nano Shao’, which a senior archaeologist translated to mean ‘King of Kings’.

Similarly, rare was a coin with the impression of Vasudeva, the last of the Great Kushan Kings. “One side of the coin features a Hindu deity, possibly Lord Shiva, holding a trident in one hand and the figure of a bull in the background,” said the official.

A piece of puzzle in the catch at the airport is a 1.5-inch gold pendant. The artifact features a Grecian impression, possibly Alexander the Great.

“It’s too early to authenticate this particular piece. The side profile and the wavy hair are similar to what we have found before. This could be the impression of Alexander,” said Dr Fazaldad Kakar.

Senior Customs official at the Islamabad Airport, Ghulam Ali Malik, explained that whenever a catch is made of the August 14 kind, a case is registered under the Customs laws and the Antiquities Act after the verification of the confiscated artifacts.

“We know that smugglers often carry to Thailand antiquities, such as these coins, the export of which is banned. They conceal them in decoration pieces but the bolder ones try to carry the treasures on their persons. We are not permitted to allow the carrier board the aircraft with items which appear important historical riches,” he said.

After finishing with the legal procedures, the customs will hand over their latest catch of coins to the Department of Archaeology and Museums. Last year the Customs handed DOAM around 1,200 ancient artifacts confiscated over the previous few years.