Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul

June 23–September 20, 2009

Aï Khanum

Around 328 B.C. Bactria, a province of the Achaemenid Empire, was conquered by Alexander the Great and the region became the easternmost outpost of Hellenistic civilization in Asia. Here, in 300 B.C., Seleucus I, one of the Alexander's successors, founded Aï Khanum, a Greek colony that flourished under the local Greco-Bactrian rulers as a center where Hellenism and eastern traditions intermingled to create a distinctive art form.

Aï Khanum was invaded and pillaged in 145 B.C. by nomadic peoples of the northeastern steppes, but its artistic legacy endured for centuries, influencing the arts of Central and South Asia until the Islamic conquest.

A chance find in 1961 resulted in the discovery of the ancient city. During a hunting expedition in the region, the late Afghan king Zahir Shah was shown a Corinthian capital and recognized its antiquity. Exploration of the area led to the excavation of Aï Khanum by French archaeologists from 1964 to 1978, who brought to light the best-preserved Hellenistic city of Asia, at the gateway to the nomadic world.

Aï Khanum was modeled on a Greek urban plan and was filled with the public buildings of a Greek city, such as a gymnasium for education and sports, a theatre, a fountain, and a library with Greek texts. Other structures derive from ancient Near Eastern traditions, such as the royal palace and the temples. The same melding of eastern and Hellenistic elements is found in the artistic production of the local workshops.