Previously seen in Europe (musée Guimet, Paris) and the United States (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), the exhibition puts the development of Afghan history into perspective, from the Bronze Age to the Kushan Empire. Although the artefacts displayed have different geographical and historic origins, they also document a region that has been influenced by many cultures: Greece, Iran, Mesopotamia, India, China, and the Eurasian steppes. Bactrian craftsmen absorbed the artistic traditions of these diverse lands and developed their own distinctive style.
Thus the works on view span Afghan history from 2200 B.C. to the second century A.D. and come from four archaeological sites: the Bronze Age site of Tepe Fullol; the Greco-Bactrian city of Aï Khanum, founded by the successors of Alexander the Great, who conquered the region in the fourth century B.C.; the major trading settlement of Begram, which flourished at the heart of the Silk Road in the first and second centuries A.D.; and the roughly contemporary necropolis of Tillya Tepe, where a nomadic chieftain and members of his household were buried with thousands of stunning gold objects and ornaments, many inlaid with turquoise and other semiprecious stones.
These four archaeological sites play a key role. The oldest, Tepe Fullol, dates from the Bactrian Bronze Age (around 2000 BC). In the exhibition it is followed by a larger section dealing with Ai Khanum, a city that was founded by Greeks in the wake of Alexander the Great’s campaign of conquest and that bears witness to Hellenism on the edge of the steppes (4th to 2nd centuries BC). The famous gold treasure of Tillya-tepe is renowned: jewellery and other art objects from six graves from the 1st century AD which were excavated in 1979 by a Soviet-Afghan team led by the Russian archaeologist Sarianidi. They form a splendid mix of the art of the steppes, Graeco-Roman iconography, Indian objects and Chinese mirrors. Finally, in Begram, also from the 1st century AD, in 1937 and 1939 two sealed chambers were revealed containing elaborate Indian furniture in ivory, glass, vases and plaster emblemata of Hellenist origin.
The exhibition also tells the story of the National Museum of Kabul. Opened in 1922, it once contained about 100,000 objects which were examined, made accessible and seen by thousands of students and visitors. As well as causing two million deaths, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 destroyed the economy and the cultural infrastructure. In 1988, when the situation was deteriorating yet further, the National Museum decided to arrange for the most important collections to ‘go underground’. The treasures in this exhibition were transferred to Central Bank vaults in the presidential palace. Only a few people knew. In the subsequent years they went to great lengths to ensure that no one else discovered the hiding place.
The low point for the National Museum came early in 2001, when the Taliban regime decided that all images should be destroyed. A specially organised group devastated not only the celebrated buddhas of Bamiyan (55 and 38 metres high), but also 2500 works of art in the National Museum’s collection. It was not until 2003, after the overthrow of the Taliban regime, that the Afghan government confirmed that the treasures in the palace vault were safe.
Melbourne Museum Website
Please click here for a Culturekiosque interview with Jean-François Jarrige, President of the National Asian Art Museum in Paris where this exhibition was first seen.