Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul

  • by Michael Wood, BAR Contributor
  • Sunday November 2, 2008
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Pendant showing the Dragon Master.
Pendant showing the Dragon Master.

There must be a special place in the firmament reserved for the small band of brave curators from the National Museum, Kabul. Through stealth and with devotion, they hid away objects which represented 4,000 years of Afghanistan's cultural achievement from the Taliban thugs (and other warmongers) who sought to eradicate any traces of the country's rich and storied history. Risking torture and imprisonment, they kept a covenant; they never divulged the secret location of these precious objects, believed to have been looted or destroyed during 25 years of conflict, and thereby saved the cultural heritage of their country. Now a portion of it is here for our appreciation, and what a legacy it is. The 228 pieces dating from 2200 BCE to second century CE survived a war-ravaged nation - the museum itself was bombed - religious extremists, pillaging hordes and time itself. Together, they comprise Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul, on view through January 25, 2009 at the Asian Art Museum.

Once again, the Asian has been selective, forsaking quantity for quality so that visitors feel capacious and the show, despite the opulence of many priceless objects, never feels overwhelming or crowded. Unlike the State Museums of Berlin exhibition that recently opened at the Legion, it has an underlying cohesion, largely due to the curators and the fabulous cache available to them. The exhibition is, in a word, breathtaking. It will leave you wanting more.

Organized by historical period and, in some cases, region, the exhibition begins with the Bronze Age and three, 4,000-year-old golden bowls. Discovered by farmers in a field in 1966, they are sculpted, engraved with designs, and dazzling. Two are fragmented, most likely in preparation for being melted down for cash.

Crossroads cache

One tends to think of Afghanistan as a shattered, poverty-ridden pile of rubble, but it was once an extremely rich country with an unparalleled wealth of native gold, which attracted marauders of every stripe from Persia, China, India, Siberia, Mesopotamia, Rome and India. On the Silk Road, the legendary trade route, Afghanistan was literally at the crossroads of civilization. Invaders tried to dominate the nomads, and though they inevitably failed, they left behind an imprint on the culture that seeped into the artworks, creating multicultural hybrids.

Alexander the Great, for example, built eight cities there. Only one, Ai Khanum, a former Greek colony, was excavated, after an Afghan king stumbled upon a column from a city that reportedly stretched two to five miles. A digital rendering gives some sense of its immensity, and several embossed gold ingots offer a hint of what they left behind.

In a gallery devoted to the Silk Road are ornate fish flasks decorated with blue fins made out of glass that's in mint condition, and glassware, beyond fragile, depicting detailed battle scenes. A bronze aquarium with a portrait of Medusa, the Greek goddess whose gaze could turn men to stone, served as an entertainment. It would be filled with water, and the moveable fins and tails of the bronze fish appeared to swim. In addition to pure alabaster pitchers and implements are three ivory statuettes of voluptuous women, a stunning trio thought to be the legs of a table.

The best is saved for last: 100 gold ornaments, a fraction of the 20,000 pieces from the "Bactrian Hoard." Discovered by accident in 1979 at Tillya Tepe, the site of six intact nomad tombs, and hidden inside an archaeological site, the splendid treasures escaped detection and looting for centuries. Given the consistency of the workmanship, it's believed that the gold was designed by a single craftsman for a family of relatives.

Gold jewelry, some of it heavy and chunky, is so astonishing it's sure to inspire lust and desire even among committed anti-materialists. There's a braided gold belt linked with heads of panthers, an assortment of daggers, bracelets, some with antelopes, a Syrian motif, or featuring sculpted cupids atop dolphins; lions and other exotic animals animate stories from Greek mythology such as that of Dionysus, the god of wine, and his consort, Ariadne. Sizable, elaborate hair ornaments and necklaces are embedded with turquoise, garnet and pearls. One display case features a tiered gold necklace, found in a tomb that contained the remains of a young woman no more than 20 years of age. My personal favorite is the pair of gold shoe soles, proof positive that gold was in plentiful supply. However, the piece de resistance is a collapsible gold crown, perfect for a nomadic princess always on the move. Forming the points of the crown are five gleaming trees with tiny hanging disks that represent flowers.

One imagines the nomads roaming the country, tanned, weather-beaten, dressed in flowing robes and head scarves, flaunting the brilliant gold adornments that were sewn into their clothing. The Ancients equated gold with eternity; it turned out they were right.

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Michael Wood is a contributor and Editorial Assistant for EDGE Publications.