Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World – Surviving Treasures from the National Museum of Afghanistan. At the British Museum, London from 3 March to 3 July 2011. See www.VisitMuseums.com for further details. By Larissa Woolf, VisitMuseums.com Arts Editorial Contributor
The British museum in London is hosting an unforgettable and unparalleled collection of priceless art and artefacts from Afghanistan. The exhibition, called “Crossroads of the Ancient World” which runs until the 3rd July 2011 reveals how a country that has been eclipsed by 30 years of chaos nonetheless holds a vast collection of art treasures that dates as far back as 4000 BC. Such a collection has only survived because of the heroic actions of the Afghan people themselves, who hid many of the precious artefacts during the war. Dynamic influences of Greek art and a huge mix of trends ranging from India, Rome, China and Persia combine together to create a cultural history that is teeming with priceless statues, objects of art and artefacts.
Beginning with an important sculpture of Ai Khanum, which dates back to 145 BC, and is a beautiful limestone sculpture of a young man we see how Afghanistan was conquered by the Greeks even though it was a full year’s march away. The exhibition is loosely divided into four sites presenting each archaeological excavation and the treasures that were found. In Al Khanum, an unearthed Greek frontier city, we see the strong effects of Hellenism on the local culture. Video footage gives a compelling picture of the temple and life recreated in Greek times.
The treasures found in concealed storerooms in Begram by French archaeologists are multifold. Goods from China, India, the Roman Empire and the Kushan royal family have been unearthed there. One such find were the intact ivory figures of sensuous women embodying the Indian river Goddess, Ganga, dating back to 1st century AD. The enigmatic women are depicted in detailed Indian dress and stand on mythical creatures called Makara: an imaginary animal made up of a fish, crocodile and elephant. Numerous artefacts were unearthed including extraordinary glass vessel crafted in the shape of fish which, we are told, resemble no other fish in the Roman world but are made of ancient Egyptian roman glass. Porphyry, alabaster, rock crystal, ivory, gold and lapis lazuli are but a few of the materials that have been discovered; many in perfect condition. In the six tombs from a nomad cemetery there are an array of 20,000 items of gold ranging from intricate daggers and headpieces to coins and jewellery.
One of the highlights of the show is a magnificent folding gold crown excavated from the Tillya Tepe site and is from 1st century AD. A crown that can be dismantled and packed flat it was ideal for a nomadic people and perhaps belonged to a wealthy ruler of a Kushan province. In fact walking through the exhibition to a backdrop of huge, majestic mountain ranges on the walls which, combined with the sound of Afghan music, really gives one the sense of being in a frontier land, vibrant and rich, steeped in living history.
The British Museum in London has worked closely with the National museum of Afghanistan in Kabul and has created an awe inspiring, stunning and interesting show – it is not to be missed. Afghanistan – Crossroads of the Ancient World – Surviving Treasures from the National Museum of Afghanistan, British Museum, London from 3 March to 3 July 2011, see www.visitmuseums.com for further details.