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.


National Museum of Afghanistan

‘Woman Standing on a Makara’; ivory sculpture from Begram, the point of passage to India on the Silk Road, first century AD

“Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World” presents some of the most important finds in Afghan archaeology, many of which came close to being scattered or destroyed. The excellent exhibition catalog tells the story of their escape in some detail. The exhibition proceeds chronologically, starting around 2000 BC with fragments of Bronze Age funerary bowls from Tepe Fullol. (The farmers who stumbled upon them hacked them into pieces so they could share the spoils.) The precise relevance of these objects to what archaeologists have called the Oxus civilization, which covered parts of Central Asia and the Indo-Iranian border regions between 2200 and 1800 BC, is not clear, but the Mesopotamian bulls chased onto their sides are evidence for trading links with the distant Middle East. Two hundred kilometers from Tepe Fullol was the mine that supplied lapis lazuli to the Mesopotamian city of Ur.

The section of the exhibition that is devoted to Aï Khanum is perhaps the most satisfying, for it provides a coherent account of life in Greco-Bactria. The objects range from a Corinthian column capital to a sundial whose hour lines appear to have been configured to two distant centers of astronomy in Egypt and India. An inept bronze of Heracles, rustic and ill-proportioned, points to a cottage industry turning out imitation Greek statuary, while four rough gold ingots remind us that melting down art is as old as art itself.

One of the most charming pieces from the northern site at Aï Khanum is a gilded silver plate showing Cybele, the goddess of nature, crowned with her polos, or divine head covering, and drawn by lions through her realm. So far, so Greek. But the barefoot priest holding a parasol over her head and the high-stepped altar she approaches are typically Asian (see illustration on page 54).

Later in the show, there is a glut of gold from the tombs at Tillya Tepe, including the prince’s meter-long gold belt of braided chains and nine medallions, each showing Dionysus on a panther. An astonishing gold crown from one of his wives’ tombs is composed of a collapsible diadem and five tree-like attachments. By accident or design, it has been mounted in such a way that it shudders at an approaching footfall, its coin-sized roundels trembling in the light.

The iconography of these pieces is exuberantly mixed. A winged Aphrodite wears an Indian forehead mark denoting her married status. A knife sheath incorporates a Chinese dragon, Indian swastikas, and Achaemenid-style inlay. “Nowhere in antiquity,” Sarianidi writes, “have so many different objects from so many different cultures…been found together in situ.”

The section of the exhibition devoted to Begram is something of a mystery. Particularly beautiful are the furniture plaques such as one showing a nude woman smiling at a parrot that is perched on her shoulder and playing with the beads of her necklace. The two rooms that the French uncovered in 1937 and 1939 contained objects of an unlikely variety: precious and mundane, decorative and functional. They include erotic Indian-style statuettes and furniture plaques, Roman utensils and mosaic glass, Egyptian porphyry, and Chinese lacquer ware. Was this hoard walled up in anticipation of an invasion? Was it a royal collection or a stock of commercial objects that might have traveled the trade routes? The archaeologists who found the rooms died during World War II, leaving incomplete archives. The mysteries of Begram may never be solved.

“Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World” will be on view in London until July. Then the exhibition will be dispatched to its next destination, probably in the Far East. No doubt, there will be additional venues, and in this way the treasures of Afghanistan will carry on around the world, making some money for the Kabul Museum. No one knows when Afghanistan itself will be able to display these objects safely. In his introduction to the catalog, Afghanistan’s deputy minister of culture claims that “life in Afghanistan has more or less returned to normal.” Most visitors to the British Museum know that this is absurd.

The exhibition gives prominence to a stele of a Greco-Bactrian youth from Aï Khanum, which was found in pieces in 1971 and painstakingly reconstructed. It was smashed by the Taliban and partly reconstructed yet again—his face is gone forever. Still, notwithstanding the Taliban’s odious and brutal iconoclasm, the years between 1996 and 2001, when the Taliban were in power, were more conducive to the preservation of Afghanistan’s culture—at least in Afghanistan itself—than the years that have followed them. The exhibition does not make this point clearly enough.

After the fall of the Taliban, the antiquity dealers who had been scared away returned to the country. In the words of Roland Besenval, looting became a “national sport.” Aï Khanum, whose pockmarked, ravaged surface is shown in the exhibition catalog, was utterly ransacked. Many other sites were also torn up and their riches sold abroad. Provincial and national politicians were involved in the trade. During the last few years, the flow of treasures to the antique dealers of the West has slowed. Afghanistan has less to offer because so many of its riches have gone.

Excavations began again after 2001, but they are beset by the same problems of corruption and insecurity that have affected the country’s reconstruction as a whole. In the northwest, Roland Besenval and a Franco-Afghan team are exploring a Greco-Bactrian city at Balkh, employing former looters because they know the site better than anyone else. Begram has been saved from further pillage by the proximity of a huge US base; it is a prime candidate for further excavation. Impressive finds have been made at Buddhist Mes Ainak, east of Kabul, where Afghan and French archaeologists are engaged on a rescue mission before the site is absorbed by a huge copper mine. Mes Ainak is protected by many guards but most other sites are unguarded and full of holes—their treasures stolen, the historical setting destroyed.

A few Afghan leaders since King Amanullah have appreciated that the country’s material culture can help promote common identity and purpose. In 1961, a subsequent king, Zahir Shah, alerted the French to the presence of a carved stone at Aï Khanum after his hunting party passed by it. Later still, Ahmad Shah Massoud, a relatively enlightened Mujahideen commander, banned looting in the Persian-speaking area under his control. But Massoud was assassinated in 2001, and some rival commanders—men who used the trade to fill their war chests—now occupy high positions under Hamid Karzai.

Attitudes among ordinary Afghans toward archaeologists have not changed much since Sarianidi started excavating Tillya Tepe more than thirty years ago. In the exhibition catalog, he recalls the words of a farmer whose cotton fields lay next to an excavation:

“My wife has chased me from the house,” he told us. “She yelled at me, ‘All my life you’ve kept me in poverty, with gold lying under your feet every day!'”

It would be surprising if the disappearance of ancient artifacts and the obliteration of history were of much concern to ordinary Afghans of today, caught up as they are in a grim and seemingly endless war. What is striking is that this should be the case a decade into an occupation that was supposed, through Western money and ingenuity, to complete the modernization project that King Amanullah started all those years ago.