Bactria to me is Alexander country, the lands of Central Asia where he spent two years of his life in 228 and 227 BC. The exceptional exhibition “Afghanistan, hidden treasures from the National Museum, Kabul” covering this period is travelling around the world. It centers on four excavation sites covering a period of roughly 2,500 years, i.e. from two thousand BC to the third century AD.
[Map from National Geographic showing Alexander's Route]
I knew that over the years French and Russian archeologists have been working in the area, entrusting their treasures to the National Museum in Kabul. That is till 1979 when the troops of the USSR invaded Afghanistan. Archeological diggings by Frenchman Paul Bernard at Ai Khanoum for instance had to be interrupted abruptly and when he returned to the site recently, it was thoroughly plundered and destroyed. Most damage was however done a few years later when the Taliban considered it their duty to obliterate every single image of people wherever they found it: on frescoes, mosaics, paintings, reliefs or statues. We all have witnessed what happened to the giant Buddha statues in Bamyan but not too many people are aware that the Museum of Kabul was one heap of rubble after the Taliban had thoroughly ravaged it – a frightening experience! A precious heritage that survived for centuries is being totally destroyed with just one single blow!
Bactria, to use the old name, is located in Central Asia right on the crossroads of old caravan routes, later the Silk Road, the meeting point of all trade routes between east and west. It is not surprising that Alexander the Great put so much time and effort in the conquest of this area for it not only meant a way to secure his back while heading for India, but also an economic asset precisely because of the geographic location of Bactria. Maybe his marriage with Roxana, the daughter of the local chief, was after all a high political move rather than real or impulsive love as some are suggesting? Who knows?
The first objects I am confronted with as I enter the exhibition, are three statues from the Musée Guimet in Paris, dating from Buddhist times but showing a definite Hellenistic influence. You can’t miss them, the way they are presented in full floodlights against a black background, they immediately give your a taste of what to expect. There is this marvelous high relief of a Genius with Flowers from the 4th-5th century AD found in the Buddhist monastery of Hadda in remote northern Afghanistan, yet still magnificently Hellenistic.
At a right angle, in fact right in front of me, stands a showcase filled with one hundred Buddhist heads, sorted by size, i.e. the smaller ones on the lower steps and the bigger ones at the top. This is a fascinating group for all the heads are different and as I take a closer look at each and every one of them either at eye level or from the side, I see how they stare back at me or just ignore me looking away in an absent glance. I take my time to inspect and admire each face, some more Hellenistic than others, with a more elongated or rounder face, longer ears, closed eyelids or just peeping at us visitors. All in all, an amazing group!
From here, the way leads into the movie theater where this French documentary is shown about their exploration and excavations in the magnificent Afghan landscape. It is well documented with clear maps and a captivating view behind the scene – absolutely worth watching.
The oldest finds (2,000 BC) come from Tepe Fullol. There is only a handful gold bowls and beakers made of thin beaten gold that somehow remind me of old Mycene and the death mask of Agamemnon. Archeologists disagree about the origins of this form of art and the link to other cultures remains obscure. To complicate things, most of the treasure have disappeared, first because the gold was split up between the local tribal chiefs of Northern Afghanistan when it was discovered, and secondly because the entire collection at the Museum of Kabul fell apart. These pieces are exhibited a little out of the way. That is rather unfortunate for they deserve better after being hidden for four thousand years, don’t they?
The section about Ai Khanoum is the most important one, at least in my eyes for it is in fact the very reason of my visit as this city was built in the wake of Alexander the Great’s conquest of the area in 328-327 BC. I am very much impressed by the very idea of discovering this Hellenistic city at the banks of the Amu Daria River (modern Oxus River), complete with Gymnasium, Citadel, Theater and temples. It is not as obvious is it would seem! The Greeks even built a Palace here, much unlike anything else for they never had a king to build a palace for. This one is based on the Persian model but decorated in Greek style with monumental Corinthian capitals on top of the columns and flat roofs with the so-called antefix decorations at the edge. A capital and several antefixes are on display here together with objects like a water jet in the shape of a theatrical mask; a couple of sun dials (which I didn’t expect to find here at all); a Hellenistic Hermes pillar of high quality from the Gymnasium; a face of either a man or a woman; bronze decorative elements; etc.
Eye catcher is the Disk of Cybele from the 3rd century BC made of gilded silver picturing the goddess Cybele on a chariot in Greek style mixed with several eastern influences featuring the fire altar and Helios.
What really excites me is the stone pedestal bearing the Delphic precepts. This wisdom comes from 5th century Delphi and teaches us something in the line of “As a child, learn good manners. As a young man, learn to control your passions. In middle age, be just. In old age, give good advice. When you die, do so without regret.” Can you imagine the impact of this old text, this old wisdom that travelled all the way from Greece to resurface unexpectedly 2,500 years later at the very edge of the desert steppes! That leaves me utterly speechless for a while!
Next comes the collection from Begram, a small town north of Kabul, where in the years before WWII two sealed chambers were uncovered still containing their treasures of ivory furniture from India, plaster medallions and most strikingly an extensive collection of glasswork of clearly Hellenistic origin. Here too each archeologist seem to have his own theory whether these chambers were set up as storage area (since all the ivory was put together, and so was all the bronze and all the glass), or as religious offerings, or maybe this simply is a hidden treasure.
In any case, the glass-work alone is absolutely fabulous and unique in shape and color and decoration. There are for instance these three goblets (they look more like vases to me, so tall). The countless pieces have been glued back together but just by looking at the colors of these fishing and hunting scenes, you would swear they were painted only yesterday – so vivid and lively! Now try to imagine the impact of such a find, for these drinking beakers were produced in Alexandria in the first century AD and travelled all the way from Egypt to Kabul.
In another showcase, all the ivory artifacts have been brought together.
These objects from the first century AD originally all come from India but again are drenched in a Hellenistic sauce. Unique are the ivory River Goddesses of approximately 45 cm high, clearly from Buddhist background, among the exquisite openwork ivory panels showing Indian ladies in exotic gardens with fountains and temple-like buildings, a few monster figures, etc. Strange is the odd shaped earthenware jar with blue-green glaze representing a bird-woman for I cannot tie this style or shape to anything I have seen before.
The bronze artifacts somehow don’t add anything new. I only remember the cute figurine of Amor carrying a lamp and the young rider who seems to refer to Alexander the Great because of the way he is sitting on his horse that is lost from underneath him.
I stop to admire the row of plaster medallions, each about 15 cm in diameter, also dating from the first century AD. They look like oversized molds for the production of coins but were used to create the bottom motives for silver plates and goblets as the silver was poured and hammered around these molds. There are a few striking designs, like the Winged Amor or the high relief of a youth. Just imagine these portraits staring back at you from the bottom of your silver goblet filled with water or wine. I certainly would love to give this a try, wouldn’t you?
Finally, there is the gold treasure from Tillya Tepe, a tomb hill just outside the Greek Bactrian city of Emshi-Tepe in the oasis of Sherberghan. The content of these six tombs was barely rescued when the Soviet-Union entered Afghanistan in 1979 and it was safely transferred to the Museum in Kabul. There was a seventh tomb in that hill at the Turkmenistan border but Viktor Sarianidi, the Russian archeologist who had led these excavations together with his Afghan colleagues ran out of time, and when he recently returned the tomb had been thoroughly plundered. Such a shame! Luckily for us, Sarianidi managed to travel to the Museum of Kabul in the 1980’s in order to take pictures of all 20,000 excavated objects and he published an impressive book. So at least we know exactly what was found at Tillya Tepe.
What followed were uncertain times for the art world and we owe it to a handful of brave Afghans that this treasure was rescued, safely locked away in the vaults of the Presidential Palace. They managed to keep the place a secret. The Museum itself has suffered a great deal from the civil wars as it was repeatedly plundered and artifacts were stolen, and in 1994 it was hit by a rocket setting it on fire. How dreadful! The worst however was still to come when in 2001 the Taliban decided not only to destroy the huge Buddha statues at Bamyan but also to annihilate the 2,500 statues and reliefs of the Museum. We had to wait till 2004 when the government of Afghanistan decided that the situation was safe enough to bring the gold treasures out in the open again, but as the Museum in Kabul cannot shelter this precious collection yet, they contacted the Musée Guimet in Paris. Together they agreed to send these rich finds on a travelling tour. After Paris and Turin (Italy), the collection can presently be seen in Amsterdam, moved on to the united States and is now touring Australia.
The tombs are beautifully presented in high rectangular boxes covered with a glass plate showing the contours of the deceased with underneath each piece of jewelry in its original place. They unearthed one warrior and five women, the man lying at the top of the hill between the two most beautifully dressed women, the other three women being found in the hillside which should have looked like a kurgan according to the nomads’ rituals.
This part of the exhibition clearly states that Northern Afghanistan was the melting pot of different cultures where the influence of China and Greece are interwoven with the lifestyle of the steppe people. Each tomb is an exploration by itself, where all kinds of artifacts of different origins keep each other company in breathtaking harmony.
Of course they all have gold bracelets and anklets inlaid or not with semi-precious stones, but I notice how some women hold a Chinese mirror, from the Han-dynasty apparently; gold pins with on top a gold flower with open petals and vibrant pistils; hairpins as I know them from Japanese geishas but executed in thin flaky gold and tiny pearls; a ring engraved with an Athena figure and Greek inscription, and rings inlaid with precious stones; ornaments for the neck of the robe laid out as a necklace made of gold, turquoise, garnet, carnelian and pyrite; gold earrings preferably inlaid with turquoise; pendants like those of the Dragon Master with turquoise, garnet, lapis-lazuli, carnelian and pearls in a rare symbiosis of Greek, Indian and Chinese elements; a set of gold clasps showing Amor riding a dolphin with turquoise and mother of pearl; even gold foot soles!
The warrior, supposedly a prince, carries an iron dagger with gold covered handle depicting animals and inlaid with turquoise. His belt made of braided goldthread-strings connecting nine gold medallions showing a warrior riding a lion is an exceptional masterpiece. His head rested on a phial, a plate used for offerings, made of pure gold and measuring nothing less than 23 cm in diameter!
The list seems endless for beside the most striking objects, the collection contains numerous coins, pendants and various decoration items. As the most recent coin found in these tombs is that of Emperor Tiberius (who ruled from 14 to 37 AD), they could be dated with certainty to the first century AD. What we see here is a true amalgamation of art from the steppes (I would personally call this Scythian art), Greek, Indian and Chinese art.
I am terribly excited when I finally catch up with the Aphrodite of Bactria, a five centimeters high gold appliqué inlaid with turquoise. I know the piece from pictures and references but here she is. I go down on my knees to have a closer look and for an instant she is mine alone. The piece de resistance however seems to be the gold crown with gold spangles and flowers. This is in fact a travel crown that can be taken apart as it consists of five separate pieces mounted around a tiny stem holding flattened branches that fit into the band of the crown itself. The spangles are gently shaking as people walk by, so imagine this crown out in the open steppe where the wind can play freely with every tiny detail! A true gem!
It is still unclear to which nomad tribes the tombs of Tillya Tepe belong and how far this melting pot of civilizations reached out. It is generally admitted that these steppe people came from northwestern China or from Parthia (now part of Iran and Turkmenistan), but who knows? Further investigations will tell us some day. For the time being we have to accept that this territory is huge for we have jade from China, garnets from India, turquoise from eastern Iran and lapis lazuli from the mines of Badakhsan (today’s Afghanistan), all found together in this area. And yet we have not mentioned the traders and artists who were on a constant move between China, India and the Roman Empire to produce these beautiful artifacts. It’s a small world – or is it not so small after all?
Anyway, I am convinced that this wide exchange of art and knowledge would not have been possible without Alexander the Great conquering these territories and organizing his Empire as he did.
[Pictures from The Australian by Ollivier Thierry]