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‘Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World’

‘Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World’
‘Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World’ highlighted the surviving treasures from the National Museum of Afghanistan and important archaeological discoveries from ancient times. The artifacts were on loan from the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul, currently undergoing reconstruction.

Afghanistan’s geographical position ensured that it enjoyed close relations with its neighbours in Central Asia, Iran, ancient India and China, as well as more distant cultures stretching as far as the Mediterranean. The four sites presented at this exhibition are among the most exciting and rare archaeological discoveries from Central Asia.

Over 200 stunning objects belonging to the National Museum of Afghanistan, accompanied by selected items from the British Museum were on display. The artifacts ranged from classical sculptures, polychrome ivory inlays originally attached to imported Indian furniture, enamelled Roman glass and polished stone tableware brought from Egypt, to delicate inlaid gold personal ornaments worn by the nomadic elite. Together, they depicted the trading and cultural connections of Afghanistan and how it benefitted from being on an important crossroads of the ancient world.

All of these objects were found between 1937 and 1978 and were feared to have been lost following the Soviet invasion in 1979 and the civil war which followed, when the National Museum was rocketed and figural displays were later destroyed by the Taliban. Their survival is due to a handful of Afghan officials who deliberately concealed them and they are now exhibited here in a travelling exhibition designed to highlight to the international community the importance of the cultural heritage of Afghanistan and trading connections of these past civilisations.

The earliest objects in the exhibition are part of a treasure found at the site of Tepe Fullol which dates to 2000 BC, representing the earliest gold objects found in Afghanistan and how already it was connected by trade with urban civilisations in ancient Iran and Iraq. The later finds come from three additional sites, all in northern Afghanistan, and dating between the 3rd century BC and 1st century AD. These are Ai Khanum, a Hellenistic Greek city on the Oxus River and on the modern border with Tajikistan; Begram, a city of the local Kushan dynasty whose rule extended from Afghanistan into India; and Tillya Tepe (“Hill of Gold”), the find spot of an elite nomadic cemetery. These incredible objects spent a few years travelling the world till their arrival in London.

Intricately carved ivories sit next to beautiful painted glass beakers and fabulous glass fish, statues that are actually furniture legs, pottery and rock crystal bowls. Afghanistan’s position at the centre of trading routes means there are Greek, Roman and Indian influences in these 2,000-year-old objects.

Omara Khan Massoudi is the director of the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul. Like the French citizens during World War II who hid works of art in the countryside to prevent them from falling into Nazi hands, Massoudi and a few trusted tahilwidars — key holders — secretly packed away Afghanistan’s ancient treasures when they saw their country descend into chaos.

First came the Soviet invasion in 1979, followed about ten years later by a furious civil war that reduced much of Kabul to ruins. As Afghan warlords battled for control of the city, fighters pillaged the national museum, selling the choicest artifacts on the black market and using museum records to kindle campfires. In 1994, the building was shelled, destroying its roof and top floor. The final assault came in 2001, when Taliban zealots came to smash works of art they deemed idolatrous. When they finished, more than 2,000 artifacts lay in smithereens.

Throughout those dark years, Massoudi and a handful of other museum officials kept quiet about the hoard of museum artifacts — among them the crown jewels of Afghanistan, the famed Bactrian gold — they had hidden in vaults under the presidential palace in 1988. Researchers the world over despaired of ever seeing the objects again, thinking they had been sold piecemeal into the illicit antiquities trade or destroyed by the Taliban.

 The Hidden Treasure

In 1988, Afghanistan was ten years into a violent civil war. As the security situation in the capital worsened, government and National Museum officials worried the Kabul museum, home to thousands of historical artifacts and works of art, would be destroyed or looted. They made a plan to transfer many of the objects to secret hiding places.

By 1989, the transfer was complete, and caches of priceless historical objects were secured in the Ministry of Information and the Central Bank treasury vault at the presidential palace. Among the hidden treasures were Bronze Age gold pieces, hundreds of ancient coins, and the famous “Bactrian hoard”, a collection of some 20,000 gold, silver, and ivory objects from burial plots at Tillya Tepe in northern Afghanistan. Workers involved in the transfer swore secrecy and designated “key holders” for the vaults. They kept their covenant through the civil war and Taliban rule at enormous personal risk.

The objects remained hidden despite nearly constant conflict and political upheaval in Kabul. But a campaign by the Taliban in 2001 to “destroy all images” resulted in the loss of thousands of irreplaceable artifacts throughout the country, including many of the items hidden in the Ministry of Information. But the palace treasures survived.

In 2003, after the Taliban had been thrown from power, a report from the Central Bank in Kabul revealed that the museum trunks deposited at the palace vault in 1989 were intact. A team of local and international experts assembled in Kabul to see the vault opened and verify the authenticity of its contents.

When the first safe was finally cracked, the team saw piles of small plastic bags with old labels, each one containing beads and jewellery. Russian archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi, whose team had discovered the Tillya Tepe objects in 1979, smiled when he spotted an artifact with a small wire repair that he’d made with his own hands.

In June of 2004, an announcement was made to the world that the Bactrian hoard and other hidden treasures of Afghanistan were found, and an international effort was mounted to preserve these collections and put them on exhibition for the world to see.

The Afghanistan Exhibition, which ran from 3 March – 3 July 2011 was supported by Bank of America Merrill Lynch. The next exciting exhibition at the British Museum in early 2012 is ‘Hajj: The Heart of Islam’ — watch this space!

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