Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World

Wednesday’s torrential rain may have been disappointing for June, but it was perfect “museum weather”. I decided to while away the wet afternoon at the British Museum’s acclaimed Afghanistan exhibition. I believe it is important to choose one’s exhibition companions carefully, and I think I made the right choice in going with a friend who is studying at SOAS. He dutifully regaled me with additional historical and cultural details as we worked our way around the impressive displays.

Today, the word “Afghanistan” evokes images of destruction and human suffering. This exhibition reveals the war torn country’s resplendent history. A film shown at the entrance tells the inspiring story of how Afghan citizens realised that their national treasures were in danger and arranged to hide them. The gallery charts its past from 2200 BC up until the first century AD.  The title, “Crossroads of the Ancient World”, refers to Afghanistan’s connection with so many ancient civilisations, and its location on what would become the Silk Road.

The exhibition builds up a picture of a country which has been routinely invaded throughout its history. Many of its traditions were adopted from other cultures. A fine example of this was a classical looking angel who was depicted with a typically Indian beauty mark, which one historian said emulated the Afghan blend of the east with the west.

We saw Grecian architecture and statues depicting figures from Greek mythology. Dionysus, the Greek god of the harvest, featured prominently, as did images of vines. These reflected Afghanistan’s early identity as a wine growing region. It would appear from the earliest findings that this was a land of grapes and gold, the latter of which was found near the river.

Another natural resource which was native toAfghanistanwas the beautiful lapis lazuli, which was sourced near the River Oxus. This potently coloured blue stone was used in many of the earliest examples of Afghan finery. It seems clear that they were proud of this tradition. The stone was commonly carved into exquisite designs and featured in jewellery and tableware.

Later influences from Egypt and Rome brought the glassware tradition. We particularly liked a series of glass fish which seemed to be unique to Afghanistan as archaeologists have not found similar examples elsewhere. I was particularly struck by a vase made of dark blue glass which had been compounded so tightly that it appeared black. It is thought that this was done intentionally to give it the appearance of volcanic glass, which I presume was fashionable at the time.

The Indian influence became clear in the first century AD, when Afghanistan became part of the famous Silk Road. We were amazed by the level of precision that went into creating comparatively unseen items of furniture like table legs and the backs of seats. The figures of voluptuous women were carved into ivory. Some were said to represent the Indian river goddess, Ganga, showing again how foreign religion and mythology infiltrated Afghan culture. These are likely to have been luxury items built for export, as they spoke of conspicuous wealth.

The importance of such opulence was apparent in the last section of the exhibition, which showed how people were buried. Funeral customs can give an incredible insight into what was valued in a society. The examples we saw showed how stunning gold pieces and semi-precious stones were arranged around the person’s body. It is thought that these were the graves of an affluent family of nomads, since the style of the jewellery was influenced by Greece, Iran and other ancient Central Asian traditions.

This was a truly remarkable exhibition. It illuminated a culture of which I had been hitherto shamefully ignorant. Given Afghanistan’s prominence in contemporary politics, the British Museum has identified a subject which is simultaneously unexpected and highly relevant.

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