Sunday, June 5, 2011

Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World - history and culture, not war

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Afghanistan - Crossroads of the Ancient World
extended till 17th July
Book your tickets now
British Museum
Great Russell Street
London WC1B 3DG
Nearest Tube station: Russell Square
Mention Afghanistan and war comes to mind. But it hasn't always been this way. The landlocked land bounded by three large powers of the ancient world - Persia, India and Central Asia, had always been a land of trade, history and culture.

Afghanistan - Crossroads of the Ancient World, currently running at British Museum, attempts to revive the former grandeur brought forth by centuries of commerce between the east and west. The smallish exhibition held on the floor above British Museum's Reading Room displays archeological finds in northern Afghanistan in four main sections obtained from a variety of somewhat unconventional sources.

The treasures at Tepe Fullol (as early as 2200 BC) were unearthed by some Afghan farmers in 1966 who promptly proceeded to hack the gold and silver goblets with axes to share their spoils. Fortunately, some whole pieces survived unscathed when archeologists arrived at the scene.


The remains of the Greek city at the extreme at Alexander The Great's conquest was spotted by none other then the Afghan King Zahir Shah. Named by the locals as Ai Khanum or Moon Lady after an Uzbek princess, the city took the shape of a typical Greek city with a full size gynasium, an extravagant palace by the standards of the period with unique antefix decorating its facades and a seemingly impregnable wall. The city fell to ruins when it was sacked the second time round in 130 BC by nomads of Yuezhi. The final straw came when looters destroyed the site in 1980.

The wealth of another ancient city Begram, was discovered by the French in 1937. Artifacts that include Roman glass, Indian ivory furniture and Chinese lacquerware were found in its royal treasury. Check out the three sensual Indian ivory figurines that were part of a furniture (1st century AD) prominently displayed in this section.

My personal favourite is the "foldable crown", which were discovered in 1978 at Tillya Tepe just before Soviets' invasion of Afghanistan, which put further archeological activities to a stop. This crown found at Tomb VI could very well belong to the rulers of the nomadic Kushan tribe. The 1st century item held together with a few simple but clever pin and hole contraptions was found together with over 20,000 pieces of jewellery. The most impressive display of all must be that from Tomb IV of a 6ft tall man and all his trappings of wealth and power.

If you can recall, the destruction of the 6th century Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Talibans in 2001 was played aired on TV. The 55m stone statues carved deep into the a cliff was dynamited in a matter of seconds, centuries of history and culture vanished in an instant. Ironically, this exhibition was only possible because of the courageous acts of some Afghan officials who hid the artifacts and kept mum about them all this while. Set aside an hour for this exhibition (without audio guide).

Afghanistan - Crossroads of the Ancient World
extended till 17th July
British Museum
Great Russell Street
London WC1B 3DG
Tel: +44 (0)20 7323 8181

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