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)
bellaigue_1-060911.jpg
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 …

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