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Jun 2011 Journal

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Art Notes (review)

If there is a poignancy to Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World, which opened at the British Museum (until 17 July) just two months before Osama bin Laden was killed by US forces, it is its war zone status. Most recently, America invaded its cavernous territory in quest of the fugitive mass murderer of 9/11, who honed his Al-Qaeda strategy in the embers of the last Soviet invasion in 1979.

If Afghanistan has become the world’s cigarette butt, the home-grown iconoclasm of its Taliban has also destroyed many of its ancient artefacts. Yet these upheavals tell a mysterious tale of buried treasure – intricate ivory inlay carvings, brilliant gold nomadic crowns, sensuous figurines, Roman-Egyptian glass-enamelled vessels. Poised on the silk route which brought the fusion of many cultures to Afghanistan, its awesome history and geography concealed for centuries the provenance of its art.

In four sites, the exhibition displays some 200 distinctive objects belonging to the National Museum of Afghanistan, found between 1937 and 1978 and hidden by Afghan officials during the Soviet invasion. In 1966 Afghan farmers found and divided between them richly decorated gold and silver vessels dating back to 2200 BC near a hill known as Tepe Fullol, the first site, suggesting a wealthy Bronze Age civilisation and representing the earliest gold objects found there.

Greek-Hellenism took root in the 3rd Century BC, but archaeologists spent years searching for it until, in 1964, Afghan King Zahir Shah noticed a Greek capital sticking out of the ground. A model of this stupendous, low-rise city of Ai Khanum, the second site, with its Corinthian capitals, made of sun-dried bricks on a stepped base, was founded by one of Alexander the Great’s generals but inhabited by locals. In 200 BC the Greek historian Polybius warned against the invasion of ‘vast hordes of nomads … bound to drag the country down into barbarism’. His prophecy came true with its subsequent destruction by Chinese-Central Asian nomads and its final looting, even after excavation in 1965, by antiquity seekers.

The third site, the ancient city of Begram in the shadow of the Hindu Kush mountains, represents a creative fusion from China to the Mediterranean. In the late 1930s, French archaeologists discovered two sealed storerooms in the city’s palace containing Roman glass, Indian ivory furniture and Chinese lacquerware.

But the fourth site at Tillya Tepe reveals an elite nomadic cemetery discovered by Russian archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi in 1978, just before the Soviet invasion. Dazzling gold objects including amulets, dress ornaments, bracelets and bangles and a tinkling, foldable, filigree gold crown, which might have been worn by a nomad queen on a camel, accompanied the dead to the afterlife.

One of the tragedies of this broken country is the vandalism of its own people. In May 2001 the Taliban destroyed the 6th-Century rock-cut Buddha sculptures in Bamiyan which once towered 55 metres above the valley floor. Today, African and Japanese archaeologists are excavating this UNESCO project. More collaborative initiatives are underway exploring and restoring the region’s history.

Gloria Tessler

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