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“That we’ve broken their statues
That we’ve driven them out of their temples
Doesn’t mean at all that the gods are dead”

From Ionic, by CP Cavafy

Rescuing Afghanistan's culture

Lost, discovered and rescued - Corinna Lotz explores the story of Afghanistan's treasures.

Occasionally museums stage events which have a special resonance with the Zeitgeist. The British Museum’s display of treasures from Afghanistan is that kind of show.  These scarcely-seen artefacts, crafted at varying intervals between 4,000 and 1,600 years ago, tell us something not only about the remote past of this troubled country – but also about today’s world.

Medallion depicting Eros and Psyche

Medallion depicting Eros and Psyche
(Begram, Room 13)
, 1st-2nd centuries AD
plaster, 16.5 cm (6 1/2)
National Museum of Afghanistan
©Thierry Ollivier / Musée Guimet

The vessels, jewellery, sculpture, glassware and medallions made from ivory, bronzes, gold, silver and gems and clay are so diverse in style and function that it takes considerable effort to grasp that they come from a single country. While this may not be surprising in the light of such an immense historical time-frame it is also a reminder that today’s political boundaries are relatively recent, and that forms of globalised culture arose some 4,000 years ago.

The story of how these artefacts were first discovered, lost again, rescued and re-discovered enhances their significance and makes them doubly precious. They have become wanderers, doomed to a nomadic existence, seeking asylum here and there.

Since their rescue, several times over, most recently before and after the Taliban seizure of Kabul in 1996, they have been studied by archaeologists and put on display in the West, but not, so far, in their homeland.  The exhibition now in London has been on the road for over five years, since first being shown in Paris. British Museum director Neil MacGregor hopes that they will be repatriated “when the Afghan national museum opens in Kabul”.

Afghanistan was indeed, “the crossroads of the ancient world”. The discovery of the four ancient sites from which the artefacts in this show originate is a result of the advance of 20th century archaeology. It is part of growing evidence about the nature of Bronze Age (3,300-1,200 BCE) and Silk Road civilisations. 

The oldest, a small group of gold and silver bowls decorated with geometric patterns and images of bulls, were excavated from Tepe Fullol, just north of Kabul. They were discovered in 1966 by a group of local farmers, who cut them into parts in order to share them. Excavations before and after that time by Afghan, French and Italian archaeologists revealed evidence of a cultural region dating back to 2800 or 2500 BCE, transcending modern political borders.

That Bronze Age civilisation included a large part of Afghanistan and today’s central Asian republics Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, parts of eastern Iran, and Balochistan stretching to the western side of the Indus Valley. Archaeologists have called it the Oxus Cultural Complex, after the Oxus river (now called Amu Darya) which runs east-west across northern Afghanistan.

The discovery by noted Soviet archaeologist Viktor Sariandi, of a cylinder seal in Turkmenistan – far away from the Indus valley (in today’s Pakistan) – proved that in the Bronze Age 4,000 years ago, there was a culturally unified civilisation existing on either side of the giant Hindu Kush mountain range.

In the 1960s remains of Alexander the Great’s conquest of 'Greek Bactria' were found. The 'Afghan' part of Alexander’s spectacular conquering journey through Asia took place around 300 BCE. Historians knew about it but had but no clear evidence.  Alexander named many of the colonies around the Oxus River after himself. Ai Khanum was founded by one of his generals, but is known by its local name, Moon Lady, referring, it is said, to an Uzbek princess.

The Greek-Bactrian rulers adopted Hellenic art and culture and it is from this epoch that some of the most poignant artefacts in this exhibition originate.  One astonishing discovery at Ai Khanum was a library inside the treasury. The papyrus and parchments had disintegrated, but as French archaeologist Paul Bernard explains in the exhibition catalogue:

“...the ink of the letters had been imprinted by pressure on the fine dust produced by the decomposition of the mud-brick walls. It was therefore possible to read, on clods of earth, some pages of a lost philosophical treatise by Aristotle…. And next to them, some fragments of a text in verse!”

Also from Ai Khanum is a broken male torso in high relief dating from 145 BCE. Originally excavated in 1971 it was painstakingly pieced together from various fragments. But in 2001, it was smashed again by the Taliban fanatics who dynamited the famous Bamiyan Buddhas in the same year.

The beauty of this young male body, its swaying contraposto hips and legs, speaks of the sculptor’s immersion in the traditions of late Greek classicism, combined with a cascading hair style, thought by the curators to have been fashionable amongst Bactrian youths. Found in a temple in Al Khanum and from the same period, is a male or female head made of unfired clay, which shares the soft, expressive modelling.

Corinthian capital (Ai Khanum),
before 145 BCE limestone,
National Museum of Afghanistan
© Thierry Ollivier / Musee Guimet

The Ai Khanum citadel was sacked by nomads around 145-130 BCE, but not before it became a developed Hellenistic city which fused Greek and eastern architecture, art, philosophy and science. Over the last thirty years military operations by Afghan, Taliban and NATO forces have made further on-site research of the Ai Khanum palace and its surroundings impossible. Extensive damage has been caused by systematic looting.

Begram (or Bagram) may be better known today as the strategic base for US military activities, but in the 1930s, it had a completely different claim to fame. Just before the second world war, French archaeologists unearthed two sealed storerooms. An astonishing variety of Roman glass, Indian ivory furniture and Chinese lacquer ware lay inside.

Like the inhabitants of Ai Khanum, those who hid away these imported goods, clearly had a taste for sensuous human bodies and all kinds of luxuries from richly ornamented couches to colourful glass and painted goblets. The sculptural skills found at Begram seem to have a connection with the post-Alexandrian style seen at Ai Khanum. Twenty ivory inlays show curvy women lounging, playing music or astride horses as well as mythical winged beasts with griffin heads known as “leogryphs”.

Afghan goblet
Goblet depicting figures harvesting
dates (Begram, Room 10), C1st-2nd CE
glass and paint,
National Museum of Afghanistan
© Thierry Ollivier / Musee Guimet

The ivories were stolen during the looting of the National Museum in Kabul between 1992-1994. Their reappearance here is thanks to an anonymous London dealer who purchased them and will donate them to the National Museum “when it reopens”, Neil MacGregor said at the opening.

Sariandi’s greatest claim to archaeological fame came in 1978 when he unearthed another major site, at Tillya Tepe (‘Hill of Gold’ in Uzbek), well to the west, near the border with Turkmenistan. He uncovered six graves – of five women and one man – decorated with more than 20,000 artefacts, many made of gold, which must rank amongst the most amazing of the last century. Sariandi writes: “Look well upon these treasures – their beauty, craftsmanship and originality defies the ages. Here we have an original art style from the heart of the Silk Road.”

From the structure of the tombs it is thought that those interred were nomadic people. The rich decorations and nature of the armour indicates that they were mounted warlords. Their style is a kind of symbiosis of cultures – including Roman, Parthian, central Asian, Chinese, Russian and Indian influences.

Afghan crown
Crown (Tillya Tepe, Tomb VI), C1st BCE - C1st CE
gold and imitation turquoise, National Museum of
Afghanistan, © Thierry Ollivier / Musee Guimet

The most spectacular gold ornaments were found within the necropolis, including gold and gemstone necklaces and a gold crown. The six-pointed headpiece is collapsible, with removable parts mounted on a circular band. In the sumptuously lit purple-walled galleries at the British Museum, despite the glass case, the individual fine leaves tremble and shimmer, as they would have done on their original wearer’s head.

But there was only time to excavate six out of the seven tombs and consign the crates of excavated treasures to curators in Kabul before, in December 1979 Soviet troops invaded and occupied the country for a decade. After Soviet withdrawal under Gorbachev, the brutality of military occupation turned into the nightmare of civil war between the Islamic state government, local rulers and the Taliban religious movement.  Kabul fell to the Taliban fighters under Mullah Omar in 1996 and the national museum was closed and many of the contents destroyed.

Museum staff worked heroically to rescue, record and hide what survived. Now, presented in just six small galleries in the Museum’s Great Court are many of the country’s greatest treasures.  They are the fascinating evidence of a rich and varied trading culture in this part of the world, which began around 2,200 BCE.

Through these 200 artefacts, the very distant past of humanity speaks to us, and all thanks to the courage and care of local curators at the National Museum of Afghanistan.

Their survival, against all the odds, is testament not only to their courage but also the international co-operation between archaeologists and colleagues from France, Italy and the former Soviet Union. Of course, creating a home and paying for curators and upkeep for Afghanistan’s cultural heritage would be mere loose change compared to the more than $100 billion a year cost of funding US military operations. But while the war against the occupiers – and the hostility of the Taliban to culture continues – this is impossible. It is a cruel truth that at the present time these artefacts are safer being shown in museums around the world than if they were repatriated.

There is now talk amongst the US 'war experts' of extending the US, UK and NATO occupation until 2014. Meanwhile revelations of corruption in the US-sponsored Karzai government are yet another sign of the black hole of the US-UK military adventure.  Vain fantasies of 'nation building' are falling apart as tensions build up within the NATO armed forces themselves.  But in recent days Afghans have taken to the streets demanding an end to occupation, inspired no doubt by events in north Africa and the middle east. A new era beckons after all.

7 March 2011

Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World is at the British Museum extended until 17 July. Admission charge £10/£8. Half price for pensioners on Mondays. Accompanying catalogue by Fredrik Hiebert and Pierre Cambon. £25 paperback.

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