“After Akcha,” wrote Robert Byron, in his legendary travel book, The Road to Oxiana (1937) “the colour of the landscape changed from lead to aluminium, pallid and deathly, as if the sun had been sucking away at its gaiety for thousands and thousands of years; for this was now the plain of Balkh, and Balkh they say is the oldest city in the world.”
Balkh, and the surrounding countryside, is where it all begins in the exhibition Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul, at the Art Gallery of NSW. This collection of artefacts dating as far back as the third millenium B.C. has been miraculously preserved during three decades of conflict that saw much of this ancient land reduced to rubble. Now the treasures of Afghanistan are touring the world in anticipation of the day when they may be rehoused in a new building in Kabul.
Today the very name ‘Afghanistan’ has taken on tragic overtones in the public imagination. It conjures up thoughts of Taliban extremism, civil war, terrorism, and Australian soldiers involved in a long drawn-out peacekeeping campaign. The Melbourne Museum invoked these negative connotations when explaining the show’s relatively poor attendances.
It’s disappointing that Melbourne audiences didn’t take the opportunity to see these rare, ancient pieces from a country that will be inaccessible to tourists for many years to come. Whatever the state of modern-day Afghanistan, it remains one of the birthplaces of civilisation – the original meeting place of east and west.
There is no point in attempting a conventional review of such a show. Archaeologists are still arguing about much of the material on display, trying to decode the tangle of cultural influences that characterise objects from this part of the world. The earliest settlements are said to date from 7,000 B.C., but knowledge of this period is sketchy. The first items in this show are from 2200-1900 B.C. – golden bowls found by farmers in 1966 at a site called Tepe Fullol. The bowls are in fragments because the farmers smashed them with an axe, trying to divide their loot.
This kind of destruction has been the norm throughout history, with priceless artefacts being routinely melted down, and historic buildings used as a source of building supplies. Invading armies laid waste to whatever they didn’t take as plunder. The pitiful remnants of the ancient world that we see in museums provide only the vague suggestions of the achievements of these lost civilisations.
It’s more disturbing that in 2001 the Taliban, who were rulers of Afghanistan at that time, decided that all images must be destroyed, unleashing a wave of iconoclasm that culminated in the dynamiting of the monumental Buddhas of Bamiyan. During this time the most precious items from the Kabul Museum were hidden in a bank vault where they managed to survive the onslaught. It wasn’t until August 2003 that the vault was opened and the pieces in this exhibition brought to light.
The show, which has been put together by a team of international experts, is being touted as a demonstration of the resilience of Afghan culture and national spirit. It’s a lesson in the absolute centrality of art in creating a sense of identity. When the politics, commerce and personalities of any era have been long forgotten, we form an understanding of a society on the basis of artworks and items of material culture that have escaped the ravages of time.
The picture that emerges from this exhibition reveals a region that saw the rise and fall of many different powers, each adding something to these densely layered communities. The loosely defined “Oxanian” civilization of the Bronze Age seems to have been relatively prosperous. The stand-out piece from this period is a gilded silver plate featuring Cybele, the Greek Goddess of Nature (cat. 23). Already there are many distinctively eastern elements in the composition, foreshadowing the hybrid works so typical of this area.
The land in those days was fertile, and the trade that would become part of the Silk Route was already very active. Zoroastrianism, thought to be the world’s first monotheistic religion, was born here in the 6th century B.C., and still exists today. Freddie Mercury, AKA. Farrokh Bulsara, was a Zoroastrian.
The second phase of the exhibition looks at the centuries of Greek occupation. Alexander the Great arrived in 330 B.C., fresh from his victory over the Persians and established a series of fortified camps that would become busy colonial strongholds. Balkh would be renamed “Bactria”, the capital of a Greco-Bactrian Kingdom and part of an extensive trade route.
The items from this period are drawn from an excavation begun in 1937 in the city of Begram. Experts are still arguing whether the pieces in the ‘Begram Hoard’ represent a royal treasury or a wealthy merchant’s stockroom. The diverse group of objects includes Greek plasters, elaborately carved ivories with Indian and Buddhist motifs, and Egyptian vessels made from Porphyry.
The Graeco-Bactrian Kingdom retained its Hellenistic roots in art and language, but evolved into a different kind of society. The democratic ideal gave way to a more hierarchical structure typical of colonial governments.
The Kingdom survived until 130 B.C. when it was overrun by Nomadic tribesmen, the Yuezhi. From the end of the Greek occupation, Balkh/Bactria, the so-called “mother of cities”, would be ruled by Indo-Scythians, Parthians, Indo-Parthians, Kushans, Indo-Sassanids, Kidarites, Hephthalites, Sassanids, and finally the Arabs. If I’ve missed anyone, blame Wikipedia. Over the centuries the previously fertile lands became arid, and the population declined steeply.
As is so often the case in history the conquering nomads would adopt habits and conventions of the people they supplanted, incorporating Greek culture into their own way of life. The last and most startling part of this show looks at the artefacts found in six tombs excavated in 1978 by Russian archaeologist, Viktor Sarianidi. The finds at Tillya Tepe, the “Hill of Gold”, became world famous, with the Bactrian discoveries being compared, in importance, to the tomb of Tutankhamun.
The tombs revealed the extent of trade and cultural cross-fertilisation in an era that was commonly perceived as the ‘dark ages’, after the fall of the Greeks. Objects from China, from Greece, from Egypt, and of local manufacture, were all discovered with the bodies of a man and five women. The dig was cut short by the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, which saw the artefacts hastily crated up and sent to Kabul.
A pair of gold and turquoise clasps (cat. 216) portrays Dionysus, the Greek God of Wine, and his wife, Ariadne, riding a mysterious beast that is part-lion, part-dragon. The figure of Silenus, Dionysus’s traditional companion, reaches up from the ground to clink goblets. Although the theme may be Greek, the monstrous beast and the details of clothing are of eastern inspiration.
A small golden brooch dubbed the Kushan Aphrodite (cat. 141), seems to be Indian in style, but two butterfly wings hint at the Greek story of Psyche, who offended Venus with her beauty. The Greek associations are reinforced by a small figure of Eros, who fell in love with Psyche and married her.
Another “Aphrodite” brooch (cat. 217) is more clearly Hellenistic in style, but this Goddess has a dot in the middle of her forehead, in Indian fashion. In these and other pieces contrary influences have been blended unselfconsciously by local craftsmen who had no reservations about combining the features of eastern and western deities.
Exhibitions such as this always generate melancholy feelings about the mighty deeds of the past that have now been swept aside. The British could not get enough of this feeling during the Victorian era, being obsessed with the Greeks, the Romans, and the ruins of Nineveh and Babylon. They enjoyed a masochistic frisson from imagining their own mighty empire going the same way. We don’t have the same depths of historical imagination in latter-day Australia but we should remember that no civilisation is immortal. Finding himself in Balkh, in May 1934, Robert Byron mused on the “unearthly beauty” of an ancient shrine, and a desultory program of building works being undertaken. “The plan of the new city,” he wrote, “is as ambitious as Canberra.”
Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul
Art Gallery of NSW, until 15 June
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 26 April, 2014