Widely dubbed “the graveyard of empires”, it is tempting to write off Afghanistan as little more than a land of extremists, opium and military quagmires. For over a generation it has heaved under successive invasions and civil wars, ravaged from within and without. Precious little hope remains that the US withdrawal or the efforts of the staggeringly corrupt government under President Karzai will induce a fresh burst of peace.
Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul attempts to redress this nihilistic vision of the nation’s future by reaching into its distant past. The gorgeous artefacts of gold, ivory and lapis lazuli on display in the Art Gallery of NSW, years into their tour of the world, are arrayed as a testament to the rich cultural heritage of a swathe of land that has long attracted the intrigues of empires. The geography that seemed to damn Afghanistan in the 20th Century – wedged between Iran, the Indian subcontinent, the central Asian steppes and China – once brought prosperity.
The collection, drawn from the excavations of four ancient cities and towns, stresses that before it was best known as a graveyard, Afghanistan was the “crossroad of civilisations”. This was a land at the eastern fringe of Alexander the Great’s conquests, and the western fringe of successive Indian Empires; the legendary Silk Road wound through its mountains and plains, ferrying wealth between Rome and China. Indeed, the Kingdom of Bactria, which once reigned from Kabul to the Caspian, had the distinction of hosting the earliest event to be recorded in both Chinese and European chronicles – its own demise at the hands of Scythian and Yuezhi nomads in 126 BCE.
Sitting between Empires and the tribes of the steppes had its perils, then as now, but it also catalysed a startling multicultural fusion. Many of the exhibition’s delights lie in moments of discord: Indian goddesses carved in ivory but clad in clingy Greek gowns, an aquarium toy for dinner guests emblazoned with the head of Medusa, or the jewellery of nomadic chiefs gilded with imagery from as far afield as Siberia. One woman interred at the Tillya Tepe necropolis, the prized ‘hill of gold’ discovered in 1978, attempted to carry with her to the afterlife a mirror from China, a comb from India, seals featuring the Greek goddess Athena and gold minted in Roman Gaul.
As art alone, the objects are stunning. The golden ornaments from Tillya Tepe are the prize find: intricately crafted belts, buckles, broaches and blades, set beside a collapsible crown composed of a series of diadems and decorations cut in the shape of trees and flowers. Love hearts that would not look astray in a contemporary jeweller’s Valentine’s Day display abound, carved from turquoise. In the relics from the city of Begram, goddesses and supplicants alike are cast in splintering ivory; dancing, singing and chortling. These scenes and luxury goods suggest people who were proud, vain, violent, devoted and passionate. They are all too familiar.
Just as the artefacts tell tales millennia old, they are also bound up in Afghanistan’s new narrative. Indeed, we are fortunate they exist at all. In the 1970s the National Museum of Kabul housed more than 100,000 objects – but in the turmoil of the ensuing decades of Soviet Invasion, civil war and Taliban ascendency, all but a few thousand were lost. Intermittently relics appear on the black market or eBay – many more were destroyed entirely under the Taliban’s edict for the eradication of ‘idolatrous’ art (the policy that also saw the dynamiting of the legendary Buddhas of Bamiyan).
These pieces survived through the dedication of museum staff, who dispersed them throughout Kabul during the war and finally hid them within the vault of the National Bank, holding one another to a code of silence and guarding the keys with their lives. Only in 2003, with the Taliban in retreat, was the existence of the treasures acknowledged and the vaults opened. At the time the release and authentication of the works was trumpeted as a national triumph – but as Afghanistan has struggled to emerge from the mire of civil strife and outright chaos, they were deemed safer touring abroad. 2014 marks their 9th straight year away from home.
The exhibition is pointedly not named for the vanished pre-Islamic states it truly showcases – Bactria, the Kushan Empire, the Indo-Greek Kingdom or the Yuezhi and Scythian tribes. Rather, it is branded ‘Afghanistan’, emblematic of a wider push towards a united vision of the nation. The Museum of Kabul’s Director, Dr Omara Khan Masoudi, has engraved at its entrance the mantra “a nation stays alive when its culture stays alive.” But it is difficult to argue that the culture represented by this assembly of artefacts is in any way shared by modern Afghans. Despite the exhibition’s lionising promotional push to the world, the treasures’ very presence on Australian soil indicates Afghanistan’s dire state. Implicitly, it confirms that these treasures are not safe amongst the very community they profess to embody and inspire.
It is questionable how significantly relics bearing the marks of Greece and India speak to Afghanistan today. Many within the state’s borders still reject any suggestions of a valuable heritage that predates the adoption of Islam in the 7th Century – a stronger unifier than Alexander or nomadic princesses. After all, the notion of Afghanistan itself as a state with a single rule and culture is only centuries old, itself defined significantly by resistance against foreign interlopers, from the Persians and British to the Soviets. These artefacts could be conversely read as reflecting yet another, earlier wave of imperialist incursions, as if the fragments of a NATO military base were excavated centuries from now.
Yet it is reductive, if not impossible, to search for or attempt to isolate culture from its influences, from the ebb and flow of peoples and ideas. There can be no history of Afghanistan without Iran, India, Greece or the multitudes that traded and fought across the Silk Road. At the ancient crossroads, the traffic birthed culture. The treasures of Kabul deserve to be seen and marvelled at, if only to venerate their craftsmanship and testify to the state’s remarkable, rich history. Wandering the world in exile whilst their homeland once again plays the graveyard, it is harder to find within them a promise for the future. Nonetheless, hope persists. It is embodied by the risks and sacrifices of the museum staff that rescued all they could in their unerring belief in a shared past that was worth saving. The miracle of ancient Afghanistan, after all, was the synthesis of civilisations. Perhaps a similar reconciliation is not yet out of reach.
Afghanistan; Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul
Art Gallery of NSW, 7 March – 15 June 2014