Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World

Martin Bayly appreciates a timely celebration of Afghan art that allows the country's rich history to speak for itself

March 10, 2011

Credit: Thierry Ollivier/Musee Guimet
Riches from the earth: locally mined precious materials appear in many decorative objects

During a trip across Afghanistan in 1960, the great British historian Arnold J. Toynbee reflected that "Afghanistan has been deluged with history and been devastated by it". It is fair to say, in the current epoch, that we have heard more of the latter than the former. Much of our view of Afghanistan is filtered through the lens of military affairs and, in the British case, events in Helmand province.

A new exhibition at the British Museum goes some way to redressing this balance in favour of the "deluge" of history. In turn, it raises challenging questions about how we have come to view the country today.

Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World weaves together the stories of four archaeological sites located within modern-day Afghan territory; each provides a snapshot of the country's ancient history as a meeting place for civilisation.

What do we learn? First, the pre-modern area that would later represent Afghanistan was not the domain of constant war and conquest that it would later be known for, but rather the domain of a variety of greater and lesser dynasties and empires. In addition, before becoming the imperial frontier region of the 19th and 20th centuries, Afghanistan was for millennia at the crossroads of empires and host to passing trends and peoples.

At the first site covered by the exhibition, Tepe Fullol, we see stunning Bronze Age goblets made of gold, sifted from the mighty Oxus River (known today as the Amu Darya), inscribed with representations of bulls familiar in ancient Mesopotamia, more than 2,000km away. The exhibits from this site link the area with what has become known as the "Oxus cultural complex", a region that stretched further back in time, and across a wider expanse, than previously thought.

This "Oxus civilisation" had an impact on the cultures of the Indus and Mesopotamia as far back as 2200BC. The lapis lazuli and tin mines of Tepe Fullol had made early inhabitants rich through trade, and the burial grounds found here also give evidence of the early influence of the Zoroastrian religion.

That said, conquest was certainly still part of the story. The riches of Afghanistan soon attracted neighbouring empires, as well as those from further afield. Cyrus the Great, ruler of the Persian Achaemenid Empire, conquered the area in around 519BC, followed by Alexander the Great in 334BC. However, with conquest came reinvention and cultural synthesis. In the ancient Greek city of Ai Khanum, we see the spread of Hellenism and its merging with local styles of the northern Bactrian plain, creating a unique Greco-Bactrian culture.

In Begram, the summer capital of the Kushan kings who had earlier ejected the Greeks from Bactria, we see how as a commercial hub the city incorporated influences from India, China, Persia and the Roman Empire. The statuettes found here of Ganga, the Indian river goddess, mirror those found in the preserved remains of Pompeii. Glass vessels from Roman Egypt that made their way through Indian ports, and bronze statuettes, further betray this city's past as an intercontinental trading route.

Trade is an ongoing theme. At the burial sites of Tillya Tepe, an Uzbek name translating to "hill of gold", we see the stunning portable riches of the nomadic peoples of Central Asia, who collectively provide a vessel for soaking up cultural influences that span continents. These treasures include the prize exhibit - an exquisite gold crown worn by a Central Asian nomadic queen. It is made of several sections, allowing easy storage.

We also see a golden scabbard with Indian-inspired swastika inlays, a seal from Turkey, and a belt that invokes more cultural synthesis, combining imagery of the Greek god Dionysus and the Bactrian goddess Nana.

While it is fashionable in some quarters to describe Afghanistan as the "graveyard of empires", this exhibition shows that Afghanistan's cultural history was not exclusively founded on the trapping, destruction and ending of empires, but on their development, exchange and reinvention.

It would be absurd to use these remarkable exhibits to draw specific lessons for today's Afghanistan. Too much time has gone by. Afghanistan did not begin to coalesce as a coherent political community until the Durrani Empire formed in 1747. Even then, most scholars agree that it was not until the rule of the "Iron Amir", Abdur Rahman Khan, from 1880 to 1901 that Afghanistan resembled even the beginnings of a state. Its borders were not finalised until 1893 and to this day the infamous Durand line in the south is still not recognised by the government of Afghanistan.

What happened during this period, which saw the making of modern Afghanistan, is surely where the "graveyard of empires" narrative comes from: three British invasions and wars between 1838 and 1919; an economic Cold War rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union from 1947 to 1979; and then between 1979 and 1989, a militarised Cold War rivalry with the Afghan people caught in the middle. The survival of the exhibits throughout the civil war that followed this period is owed only to the forethought of the staff at the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul, who hid their most prized items in unmarked safes, eventually recovered in 2003.

The "thirty years of chaos" referred to in the introduction to the exhibit therefore doesn't quite cover the chaos that has engulfed this country periodically since the 19th century, often at the initiation of outside powers. With each of these interventions came imported ideas of governance. In this light, the current intervention, and the parlance of "state-building" and "counter-insurgency" that comes with it, is simply the latest wave of repeated outside incursions.

How suitable are these imported ideas? While Afghanistan's political geography is now unrecognisable from its pre-modern form, its physical geography retains some enduring characteristics. The country remains at the confluence of differing societies and cultures. The Hindu Kush still provides a formidable division, physically and symbolically, making communication and transport a challenge. The result is a nation built on a complex mix of ethnic, linguistic and tribal groups. As this exhibition shows, this has a historical lineage.

When the Bonn Agreement of 2001 set out the path for Afghanistan's renewal, a key measure was the equal representation and rights of all of Afghanistan's ethnic groups. The hope was to prevent the fragmentation of the country into rival sections. But as Afghanistan expert Barnett Rubin has said, "the developed country does not, as Marx thought, show the backward country its future; the fragmenting countries show the integrating ones the dark side of their common present".

There is nothing unusual about so-called multinational states. Afghanistan is a challenging example of such a state, complicated by an ongoing conflict that is linked to its recent history. Letting Afghanistan speak for itself, rather than deploying our own influences and narratives, is imperative to developing the understanding necessary to meet this challenge. In this sense, Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World is a timely event.

In the absence of informed debate about Afghanistan, it is hard to see how its future can be a brighter one. Without this debate, the temptation is to highlight what makes Afghanistan "other" rather than what makes it "unique" and therefore to be celebrated. This exhibition gives a glimpse into the power of this celebration, yet the chances of its progression remain frustratingly remote.

Encouragingly, the exhibition shows how international support is promoting new archaeological work. Less encouraging is that all of these sites are in the north. Meanwhile, the security situation in the south continues to show mixed signs of progress. The lack of a voice from the south is a depressing reflection on the present situation. It is precisely this part of the country that would benefit most from a growth in scholarly understanding, and precisely this area in which it is least likely to happen at present. Adding to the worry is that in the past 12 months the insurgency has shown signs of spreading to the north, threatening a greater number of Afghan livelihoods and also the continuation of this important work.

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