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Afghan Treasures

Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World

an exhibition at the British Museum, London,
March 3–July 3, 2011
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Fredrik Hiebert and Pierre Cambon
London: British Museum Press, 303 pp., $25.00 (paper)
National Museum of Afghanistan
‘Ceremonial Plate with a Representation of Cybele’; gilded silver plate from the Greco-Bactrian city of Aï Khanum, third century BC

During the 1920s, when King Amanullah of Afghanistan tried to unite his disparate subjects, his inspiration was the European nation-state. According to this model, nationhood meant not only conscription, a civil code, and education for girls, but also a collective self-awareness deriving from the past, and this last element was all the more important in a country whose borders were new, and whose territory had often been split among different empires. Afghanistan was not the only Muslim country that was nostalgically reconceived between the wars. New regimes in Iran, Turkey, and British-occupied Iraq also drew on a real or imagined past.

Afghanistan had escaped the institutionalized sacking of the nineteenth century, when European explorers took away Middle Eastern antiquities by the shipload for their museums, but surveys left no doubt that the country was rich in archaeological remains. In 1922, Amanullah gave France an exclusive right to excavate in Afghanistan. The French were less despised than the Russians and the British, who had used the country as a pawn in their “Great Game” for regional dominance, and French archaeologists had made impressive finds in neighboring Iran. Other countries’ archaeologists were allowed to excavate after World War II.

Amanullah’s reforms offended his conservative subjects and he was overthrown in 1929, but his archaeological policies endured. In 1931, a national collection was installed in a museum in Darulaman, a new suburb of Kabul. The excavations gathered pace, the museum filled, and the country’s past came into focus.

Half a millennium before Christ, the territory we know as Afghanistan, a landlocked zone of mountains and deserts between India, Iran, and Central Asia, was part of the Persian Achaemenid Empire. Bactria, covering much of the north of modern Afghanistan, was a loyal satrapy, and Arachosia, with its capital at Kandahar, was a gateway to the Great King’s Indian possessions. After the destruction of the Persian Empire by Alexander the Great in the 320s BC, Bactria was invigorated by Hellenism, and a Greco-Bactrian state came into being, covering all of modern Afghanistan and much of northern India. Thus, four centuries after Alexander’s conquest, Plutarch could write that the Hellenized elite of the East still read Homer and recited the tragedies of Sophocles. Delphic oracles were imported from Greece; bread was dipped in olive oil; and Corinthian columns were silhouetted against the Central Asian sky.

Eventually, the Greco-Bactrian state was supplanted by nomads from the north: the Kushans, who promoted Buddhism under Indian influence but also absorbed aspects of Hellenism, and set up a sophisticated mercantile empire. Around the turn of the Christian era, Kushan sculpture from Gandhara, the region that straddles Afghanistan’s modern border with Pakistan, was a blend of Greek and Roman forms with Buddhist subject matter. No longer was the Buddha depicted symbolically, as he had been in his Indian homeland—for instance, as a footprint. The standard Gandharan image of the standing Buddha is thought to have been inspired by statues of the Roman emperors.

An evocative stucco relief from a Kushan monastery complex at Hadda, east of Kabul, depicting two Buddhist monks striking different poses as they stare in veneration at the Buddha, their drapery falling in classical folds, shows how far the art of human representation had advanced in the region of which Afghanistan was a part. The Achaemenids’ idea of architectural adornment had been to place ranks of identical soldiers in relief on staircase walls: bloodless, immobile, and refined. The Buddhist monks of Hadda, on the other hand, exude curiosity and individualism. They reflect a conception of art as the representation of reality, centered on man. Later still, the colossal sixth-century Buddhas at Bamiyan—one 180 feet tall, the other 120 feet tall—would add the principle of monumentality.

The well-traveled exhibition that is currently at the British Museum in London describes Afghanistan as a “crossroads,” but ancient Afghanistan was more like a frenetic roundabout, with traffic from Iran, India, China, and the Mediterranean entering the whirl, blurring, and becoming one.

Afghanistan rarely produced new ideas. More often, it mixed existing ones. Alexander adopted Persian ceremonial and took a Central Asian wife; the Kushans used the Greek alphabet to write an Iranian language. In the supposedly “Greek” civilization of Hellenic Bactria, the palaces and temples were Achaemenid in conception, and mud-bricks, produced locally, were the standard building material. Little in the culture of Afghanistan was solely Indian, Iranian, or Hellenistic, and much was cosmopolitan, eclectic, and impure.

Beginning with the Arab incursions of the seventh century, Afghanistan was gradually penetrated by Islam, until, by the end of the tenth, its inhabitants had overwhelmingly adopted the new faith. Islam was held to be God’s final revelation, a code of beliefs that could not be improved, and for which the whole of history had been a preparation. It had views on almost every aspect of life, banned the depiction of human and animal forms, and was sustained by the self-confidence of an immense community of believers. But in the vast area covered by Islam, this universalism was soon diluted; great and distinctive cultures—such as that of the Ghaznavids, who ruled and embellished Afghanistan in the eleventh century—arose to glorify it. Alongside the official Islamic orthodoxies, parallel versions also thrived, influenced by mysticism and pre-Islamic beliefs. Heterodox interpretations of Islam had many adherents, and in some remote parts of the country the mullahs’ hold was weak.

Archaeologically speaking, the period between the granting of the French monopoly in 1922 and the Russian invasion of 1980 was a golden age for Afghanistan. Hadda and Bamiyan yielded many secrets. A walled-up hoard of treasures was discovered in a Kushan-era city at Begram, north of Kabul. In 1964, on the Tajik border, the French began excavating Aï Khanum, a Greek royal city complete with temple, palace, and gymnasium, while further west, at Tillya Tepe, in the late 1970s the Russian archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi dug up six graves, containing one man and five women, each crammed with gold ornaments and ceremonial weapons. Sarianidi suggested that this was the family cemetery of the rulers of a Kushan princedom. Herodotus had written that Central Asian wives were expected to follow their dead husbands to the grave. With the publication of Sarianidi’s illustrated book The Golden Hoard of Bactria (1985), these pieces became famous.

By that time, the golden age had ended and the Soviet occupiers were battling a major insurgency. The invasion prevented Sarianidi from exposing a seventh grave at Tillya Tepe, which, he reported, “disappeared with the rains.” The fighting interrupted archaeology in Afghanistan, but not the sale of looted treasures. The digging continued—unofficially, now—at scores of sites across the country; looters smashed through layers of archaeological evidence in order to find the ornaments and sculptures that Western dealers valued most. The result, in the words of Roland Besenval, the former head of France’s archaeological mission in Afghanistan, was a “scientific massacre…in this way, you watch the history of whole regions disappear.” Across the Pakistani border, Peshawar, the headquarters of many Mujahideen groups, was also a clearinghouse for looted items that anti-Communist commanders sold in order to finance the war effort.

Destructive though they were, the years of jihad were not as catastrophic as the civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal of 1989. The Mujahideen groups took three years to defeat the government that the Russians had installed. Then they turned on one another, destroying Kabul and leaving 25,000 dead there alone. Between 1992 and 1995, the Kabul Museum in Darulaman, the main repository of the country’s history, was shelled, set on fire, used as a defensive position, and looted repeatedly. Massive schist sculptures were wrenched off their hooks during the nighttime curfew and carved pieces chopped up for firewood. A collection of 35,000 coins vanished. Understandably, some of the museum staff preferred to join the exodus of Afghans abroad. The salaries of those who remained—$6 per month for the museum director; $2 for a guard—were not often paid. One staff member was reduced to selling potatoes. Another drove a horse and cart.

Jolyon Leslie, a South African aid worker who was part of a group that tried to save the country’s cultural objects, recalls going with Afghan colleagues to Darulaman to prevent looting. “We put up sandbags to try to protect the windows,” he said. “Then, at night, the militiamen would come and take down the sandbags, and continue to loot. We went to the militia leader and he promised to stop the looting. But he never did.” Leslie found items that had been stolen from the museum in a local bazaar. “Between piles of potatoes and onions stood small Buddhas.” He and his colleagues bought some of these looted antiquities and handed them over to the museum staff.

In 1996, the Taliban took over Kabul, seeming, at least, to offer an end to the chaos. Four years later, Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, outlawed unauthorized excavation and artifact smuggling. The Taliban showed at first no obvious animus against historic works of art representing the human form, and Taliban officials visiting the National Museum did not appear to be hostile to the display of artifacts. Then, for reasons no one can quite fathom, Mullah Omar’s position hardened. In the spring of 2001, citing Islam’s prohibition of idolatry, the Taliban smashed important sculptures in the National Museum, and dynamited two of the Bamiyan colossi to smithereens.

Between 1993 and the defeat of the Taliban, the Kabul Museum lost perhaps half its inventory, and there were rumors that some famous treasures that were not in public view, including the Bactrian hoard found by Sarianidi, had been melted down. It later turned out that a small number of officials had saved the Bactrian gold and other valuable objects from Aï Khanum, Begram, Hadda, and Bamiyan. They had been secretly transferred to the Central Bank and the Culture Ministry, and their whereabouts were only divulged after the Taliban were driven out of power at the end of 2001.

Earlier that year, in response to the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, French and Spanish curators had decided to mount a show that would celebrate Afghan culture, drawing on Afghan holdings outside the country. This exhibition opened in Barcelona a few days before the attacks of September 11. By the time it had been transferred to the Musée Guimet in Paris the following spring, there was a new regime in Afghanistan.

President Hamid Karzai opened the French version of the exhibition with French President Jacques Chirac. As Jean-François Jarrige, the head of the Musée Guimet, recalls, Chirac said to Karzai, “It would be good if there was a second exhibition, here, in Europe, of the rediscovered treasures of Afghanistan.”

This is the remarkable exhibition that is now at the British Museum. It made its debut at the Guimet in 2006, before touring elsewhere in Europe, the United States, and Canada. It features finds from Aï Khanum, Begram, and Tillya Tepe, and some older gold grave objects from Tepe Fullol, in northeastern Afghanistan. It has aroused interest and admiration wherever it has traveled—the British Museum galleries were packed on the two occasions I visited—but not solely because of the quality of the objects.

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