So torn in our day has been Afghanistan with horrors that we have been unaware of the complexity and importance of its remote past. For the historically minded, there is perhaps only the awareness of the military disasters of the 19th century, when British forces invaded the country from Northern India and were defeated with terrible losses, immortalised in the great Victorian military artist, Lady Butler’s painting “Remnants of an Army”. This depicts what was thought to be the only survivor, a doctor exhausted on his dying horse. (Though a handful of others eventually made it, most of the many thousands of troops and followers were butchered.) A lesson perhaps for today.
Enough, enough! This exhibition at the British Museum takes us much further back to two millennia before Christ. One of the first things seen is a crumpled delicate golden bowl, (Image 1) the design on it, bulls, the clue as to its origin in that era: Mesopotamia, around the time it is thought Abraham lived there. Trade seems to have flourished from then eastwards to what is now Afghanistan. Egypt especially, both in Pharaonic times and later, under Roman rule, exporting objects which reflected Classical taste.
The route was across the sea, then up the Indus and overland. For Afghanistan was at the heart of the Silk Road, also linking the great trading routes of ancient Iran, Central Asia, India and China (Chinese mirrors and lacquer bowls, together with Hellenistic objects, were found in some of the excavated sites from whence this selection of treasures come). The Achaemenid Persians were here, their empire then conquered by Alexander the Great (he took a local wife).
At what is now called Bagram, 60 km north of Kabul, and the main base for the coalition troops and the US Air Force’s principal airfield, French archaeologists in the 1930s and 40s, and later, found two great strong rooms. What they discovered was divided between the Afghan National Museum and the Musée Guimet in Paris. Superb Greek-style marble vases, one of the moulds for casting in plaster the mythical beings of the ancient world, joined by delicate glass decanters in the shape of fish, suspended so that they swim over the cases of these attractive objects, are to be seen, as well as other Egyptian glass (Image 2).
They are joined by carved ivory and bone inlays imported from India at the time, thought to be around the first century AD: ostrich eggs turned into wine pourers, a whole array of metal and stone objets d’art, as well as bone and ivory carved inlays for furniture imported from India, a synthesis of decorative high-living by an elite.[[IMAGE 3]]
The last section of the exhibition is however the most spectacular in its great display of gold objects. These were discovered by Afghan and Soviet archaeologists in the 1970s, at what was at first thought to be only a Bronze Age site at what is called, in Uzbek, Tillya Tepe “Gold Mound”. And so it proved — my eyes were immediately drawn to a quivering gold crown, hung delicately with scores of thin glinting discs which shimmered from the footfalls in the room (Image 4). But these were not Bronze Age, far from it.
They came from graves on top of that site dating from around 2,000 years ago. The crown, for a woman, was actually made to be easily portable — it folds!
For these were the graves of the rich leaders of a nomadic tribe, and their grand symbols of wealth and power, many of which were attached to their best clothes, in which they were buried, reflect the eclectic taste we have previously noted.
Altogether, 21,618 gold, silver and ivory items were yielded to the archaeologists. Five men and one woman were in separate graves. From those of the men came weapons enriched heavily with gold, or solid with the metal — the most impressive, a thick ceremonial belt.
The Taliban seized power in 1992. With their extreme Islamist views they set about destroying any human images they could find. The best-known example is their dynamiting the two huge statues of the Buddha, one 55 metres high, carved in a cliff. But fellow Muslims, the curators of the National Museum, were quick to anticipate their iconoclastic visits, by for example, covering figures on pictures with easily removed paint, or, as with many of the objects here, hiding them away or sending them to Paris for safe-keeping. Though much of the national collection was thus destroyed wilfully or looted, these treasures, thanks to those devoted museum curators, were saved.
AFGHANISTAN CROSSROADS OF THE ANCIENT WORLD is at The British Museum until 3 July. Admission: £10 (but a wide range of concessions, e.g., under 16s, FREE!).
To book tickets, call 020 7323 8181 or access www.britishmuseum.org
All images © Thierry Ollivier/Musée Guimet