Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World
At the heart of the Silk Road, the former Iranian province, today known as Afghanistan linked the great trading routes from China to distant cultures of Greece and Rome. The country’s unique location resulted in a legacy of extraordinarily rare objects, which reveal its rich and diverse history.
By Martin Gayford
LONDON, (CAIS) — Late in April 2004, there was a tense gathering in a bank vault beneath the Presidential Palace at Kabul. This was the moment when it would finally be discovered whether the greatest archaeological treasures of ancient Afghanistan had survived over two decades of anarchy, civil war, looting and deliberate iconoclastic destruction. Present, in addition to a scrum of diplomats, press and officials were the director of the Kabul Museum, the Minister of Culture and the Russian archaeologist who had found many of the most remarkable of these objects.
With difficulty the first heavy safe was opened, and within were seen piles of plastic bags with old labels attached. The first was unwrapped. The Russian archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi, then in his seventies, examined several items. Then he smiled. On one piece he recognised a repair he himself had made a quarter of a century before. Rumours had circulated, suggesting that these things had been stolen, sold on the black market, the gold melted down. Here was absolute proof they were intact.
Indeed, astonishingly, and against all odds, these marvellously beautiful and evocative works of art were still in excellent condition. Some of the most spectacular will go on show next week at the British Museum in Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World.
While the exhibition was being installed, I met an archaeological team from Kabul who had come to London. These were the staff of the Kabul Museum and Afghan cultural institutions who had protected these precious things under the most appalling of conditions. They were seated in a circle in a corner of the galleries, where I was introduced to them one by one.
I asked Abdul Wasi Ferozi – associate chief researcher at the Institute of Archaeology in Kabul and the spokesman of the group because his English was the best (although, before answering, he would consult the others) – how the treasures had escaped destruction. It was, he said, a long story, beginning in 1978 when, simultaneously, some of the most spectacular archaeological finds were made, and the Afghan Civil War began.
In that year, a Soviet-Afghan archaeological expedition under the direction of Sarianidi was excavating in the far north of the country at a Bronze Age site known as Tillya Tepe, or “Golden Hill”. There, they did indeed find remains from the second millennium BC, but also unexpectedly stumbled on something far more exciting: six graves that had been dug into the site around 1,500 years later in the first century CE by a nomadic steppe people. This turned out to be, in the words of Dr St John Simpson, the British Museum curator, “one of the most important collections from the ancient world”.
There is still controversy about exactly which tribe the five men and one woman buried in those graves were from. Possibly, they were Sakas – or a subgroup of the peoples known to the ancient Greeks as Scythians, an Iranic people who roamed over huge swaths of Central Asia in antiquity. But they were unquestionably rich, whoever they were. In all, 21,618 gold, silver and ivory objects were discovered at Tillya Tepe.
As Dr St John Simpson puts it: “To me, what these objects speak of is the world of the steppe. These are nomads who are migrating possibly on a seasonal basis. The finds from Tillya Tepe open up the wealth of these nomads. These are all personal possessions, made to be worn on the saddle. This whole idea of personal ornaments stitched onto cloth is a steppe tradition, so too is the lavish use of turquoise.”
The motifs of these adornments are amazingly eclectic. Some represent Greek gods and imagery, a reminder that Macedonians came with Alexander II after the invasion of Achaemenid Iran in 330 BCE, left in this area that survived for a century. Other pieces borrow from the Parthian civilisation of Iran (248 BCE-224 CE) as Afghanistan was part of their dynastic Empire.
On April 27 1978, the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) took power in a coup d’état known as the Saur Revolution. There followed, as Ferozi sadly noted: “14 years of fighting and struggling to remove the regime”. Risings took place against the communist government, the situation quickly deteriorated, and in December 1979 the Soviet army invaded. It was a calamitous time for archaeology. The museum at Hadda, near Jalalabad, for example, was plundered and burned in 1981.
In 1988, it was decided to transfer some of the finest works from the National Museum in Kabul to the safe-keeping of the then President, Mohammed Najibullah. As Ferozi explained, it was thought that “some of the most important artefacts should be transferred from the storage room at the National Museum to a secret, secure place. So they brought it inside the old King’s Palace, the Arg, now the Presidential Palace. The secret place was a vault that belonged to the Central Bank.
“Nobody was allowed to say anything about the existence of these treasures. Only the staff of the museum, the nine ministers of Najibullah’s regime, the executives of the bank and the Archaeological Institute knew about it. We were all there when they were hidden.” He gestured to the surrounding group, who nodded vigorously.
It was as well that the treasures were concealed in this way, because a hurricane of destruction was soon to break over Kabul and its National Museum. In 1992 the government of Najibullah fell and an Islamic State of Afghanistan declared. But in practice, chaos reigned. Kabul was a battlefield, bombarded from outside and divided between different militia groups. The museum, which was founded in the Twenties by the King, lay nine kilometres outside the centre of the city, in the Darulaman district. On March 12 1994, it was hit by rocket fire and almost totally destroyed. About 70 per cent of its collections disappeared through looting or destruction.
In September 1996 the Taliban, who had been shelling the city, took over. Najibullah, who unwisely decided not to leave, was allegedly castrated, dragged around the streets and hanged. In the years that followed, many of the staff of the museum were dispersed and tried to find odd jobs to survive. One senior official sold potatoes in the market, another operated a horse and carriage. At this time SPACH (the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage) found objects from the museum’s collection on sale in the souk, among them six fragments of ivories and two plaster medallions from the superb hoard discovered at Begram by French archaeologists in the Thirties.
These were sent to the Musée Guimet in Paris for safe keeping, and will be on show at the British Museum, along with other wonderful objects from Begram that have also escaped destruction. What had been discovered there was a collection of items from around the ancient world: glass and stoneware from Roman Egypt, magnificent ivory carvings, including swaying, sensuous half-naked dancers, in style of southern India. It is not clear whether they represent a royal treasury or the stock of a merchant – an Afghan art dealer from 2,000 years ago.
These, like the Tillya Tepe finds, justify the title of the exhibition: Crossroads of the Ancient World. Afghanistan, on the Silk Road, was where currents from Europe, China, India and Central Asia met and mingled. That is why it is so rich and important archaeologically.
In 2000, conditions briefly seemed to be improving. Mullah Omar, the de facto head of state, issued an edict protecting the Afghan cultural heritage, prohibiting illegal excavation and smuggling. Then abruptly, he went into reverse. In 2001, the Taliban decided to destroy all images. The giant sculptures of Buddha at Bamiyan, the larger of which was 55 metres tall, were dynamited. In Kabul, the storerooms of the museum were ransacked and 2,500 objects smashed. A special task force was given this job. As Fredrik Hiebert of the National Geographic Society, an archaeologist who had worked with Sarianidi, notes: “Museum staff valiantly swept up the debris and repacked as much as possible.” A damaged statue of a youth from the Greek city of Aï Khanum, which had been carefully reassembled by French conservators, was smashed once more. Now it’s been restored yet again, and – even more battered than it was before – it’s in the exhibition.
Ferozi recalls: “When the Taliban and other militias came, they tried to find out what had happened to the artefacts from Tillya Tepe, they asked questions but nobody gave any information to them. We kept quiet, we said we don’t know.” Again, everybody nods.
The real heroes of this story, as Hiebert has said: “are the men who risked their lives while bombs were falling to rescue their national treasures”. The result of their efforts was that, while a great deal was lost, many of the most precious objects – treasures not only of Afghanistan but of world culture – were not. They are safe, at least for now. But, ominously, the war that began in 1978 is still far from over.
Now, at the first exhibition of its kind to be seen in the UK in 40 years. (last year 2011, no idea where treasures are currently)