Afghanistan Rediscovered in Paris

This is a piece I wrote for Minerva Magazine, in this month's copy. Click on the label 'Afghanistan' to see images of items in the show, which I will continue to post.


by Dorothy King

Long thought to be lost, melted down for its gold value, or sold on the black market - a tragic loss to our cultural heritage destroyed by the Taliban - unlike the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the collection of Afghan gold from the National Museum of Kabul has survived decades of war. A surprising amount of the museum’s portable artefacts were rescued thanks to anonymous wise men who hid part of the collection in a secret vault, and even more thankfully to Omara Khan Masoodi, the Director, who arranged for another part of the collection to be temporarily stored in Switzerland despite objections from UNESCO. Thanks to this intervention, 220 Afghan antiquities, including 100 prime examples from a Bactrian gold hoard, are currently on exhibition at the Musée Guimet in Paris until 30 April. In the absence of any catalogue this is a unique opportunity to see this extraordinary treasure.

French archaeologists have long had a special connection with Afghanistan, and some of their excavations are highlighted as part of the exhibition. Amanullah Khan, first modern king of Afghanistan, was suspicious of the British, and so invited the French to excavate in his country in 1919. As well as the gold - the star of the show - capitals and architectural elements from Aï-Khanoum show how architecturally sophisticated were the Hellenistic cities of Bactria. Other items on show date back to the Bronze Age, illustrating the history of pre-Buddhist Afghanistan. Recent ideology has emphasised the pre-Islamic history of the country to counter a Taliban resurgence in the area, and the cultural treasures on show do this beautifully. One can only hope that the exhibition will move to Kabul for appreciation at home too.

‘Afghanistan, Rediscovered Treasures’ focuses on four main archaeological sites. Fullol is the oldest and gold vases found at this Bronze Age site are used to illustrate Bactrian sophistication c. 2000 BC. The gold was mined locally, but the decoration of the objects show that already at this early date the first recorded Afghans were reaching out to their neighbours and beginning to establish the trade links that would one day become the Silk Road. The site was a chance discovery made by a farmer, but five gold and seven silver vases - funerary goods - were rescued by curators, who also found a skeleton. Although we tend to be preoccupied by the Afghan treasures that were saved from the Taliban, the vases provide a neat statistical illustration of how the treasure fared overall. Only one of the silver vases and three of the gold vases are still part of the Kabul Museum collection; another silver vase has been identified with an antiquities dealer in London and negotiations for its return continue. The surviving vases owned by the Afghans are in the exhibition and show the cultural background to the region which later produced the Oxus Treasure.

Aï-Khanoum was founded at the end of the 4th century BC by Greeks who had come to conquer the area with Alexander the Great: rather than retracing their steps, they chose to settle in the area and founded a city. The polis was established along Hellenistic principles, and its public
buildings were prime examples of Hellenistic architecture: Greek temples, a stone theatre, a palace, and a gymnasium. It was probably the ancient Alexandria on the Oxus described by the geographer Ptolemy, which flourished under the Seleucids until around 250 BC, when the region declared independence. Eucratides made the city his capital and renamed it Eucratideia in the early 2nd century BC, but 50 years on it had already been abandoned.

Aï-Khanoum was excavated by the French in the 1960s and 70s, but badly looted in subsequent decades; locals dug trenches through the site looking for more of the fabled Bactrian gold, and when they failed to find it dragged away the carefully hewn architectural blocks to re-use as building material. Once one of the best-preserved Hellenistic cities in the world - an eastern Greek Pompeii - little more of Aï-Khanoum survives than the exquisitely carved architectural elements in the exhibition. The gold illustrates its riches and it seems fitting that the Cybele plaque is in the exhibition, an image of this Eastern goddess from the easternmost outpost of the Graeco-Roman world (Fig 1).

The highlight of the exhibition must be the 21,618 pieces of 1st-century BC Bactrian gold from the hoard found by Viktor Sarianidi at Tillia Tepe in northern Afghanistan in 1978. At the time the country was occupied by Soviet troops, then closed to the world by the Taliban, so few archaeologists got to see these rare treasures before they were spirited off to a vault. They come from a part of the world we still know too little about due to decades of war and instability, but reveal both how affluent and sophisticated this region was, straddling the trade routes between East and West, and taking cultural influences from both. The six princely tombs from Tillia Tepe illustrate the funerary wealth of the period and its extensive trading links: a bronze mirror was made in China, the ivories came from India, and much of the jewellery is Graeco-Roman in design if not in origin (Figs 4-13).

Five women and one man were each interred in their own sepulchres around a monumental temple-like structure. The sheer mass of their wealth in the necropolis must reflect the identity of a ruling family. The temple originated in the second millennium BC and was repeatedly
rebuilt, marking it as an important point of religious focus in the area. The items in the burials show extensive trade links once again, but the deceased are more mysterious: the current suggestion is that they were actually nomads.

The Begram ivories are the smallscale equivalent of Gandharan sculpture, with curvaceous ‘goddesses’ in chitons, and bodhisattvas that look like Heracles (Figs 14, 15, 19). The earliest images of the Buddha come from Afghan coins, and the now-famous Indian images did not follow until a few centuries later. These Kushan ivories, believed to have come from a royal palace, along with the art of neighbouring Gandhara, are the link between Greek and Roman art and the Buddhist and Hindu art which seemingly emerged out of nowhere - Dionysus is clearly the inspiration for Buddha representations.

Begram was excavated by the French in the 1930s and its finds divided between Kabul and Paris. The history of the city itself is a fascinating illustration of the basic chronology of the region. Although we are uncertain when it was founded, it was destroyed by the Persian Empire’s founder, Cyrus the Great, then rebuilt by his successor Darius, who consolidated the empire. The city was reconstructed by Alexander the Great, who turned the Alexandria of the Caucasus into one of his eastern fortresses.

The Kushans once more re-named it Kapiça when they in turn made it their capital betwen the 1st and 3rd centuries AD. The Kushans enjoyed strong links with Iran, and were Zoroastrian before embracing Buddhism. Like their predecessors they were great traders and seem to have
established trading posts in northwestern China. As well as the ivories (Figs 14, 15, 19), the Guimet exhibition includes a selection of bronzes and glass imported from the West as well as Chinese lacquer work (Figs 16, 18). These luxury items were found in two sealed rooms in the palace, which must have formed part of the royal treasure stores. One important item, however, is not in the exhibition due to its condition: a glass representation of the Pharos of Alexandria. The lighthouse was built in 258 BC and so the object reveals that the Hellenistic Afghans continued to maintain contacts with their western brethren long after the death of Alexander.

Many of the objects were restored in the West before going on show in Paris, and the exhibition will continue to tour, probably going to America in 2008. The aim of ‘Afghanistan, Rediscovered Treasures’ is to raise funds to rebuild Kabul Museum and to raise awareness of the fascinating history of that great country. In time, when Kabul Museum is secure the objects will return there and the Afghans will also be able once more to appreciate their own ancient culture.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I do not moderate comments, but I remove spam, overt self-promotion ("read [link] my much better post on this") and what I consider hate speech (racism, homophobia etc).

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.