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Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul

June 23–September 20, 2009

Begram and Begram Ivories

The ancient city of Begram was partially excavated in the 1930s and 1940s by French archaeologists who uncovered a building with several rooms. Two of them—Rooms 10 and 13—had been sealed off in antiquity and contained a remarkable cache of works of art. Many had originated in distant parts of the world: glassware, bronzes, and porphyry from Roman Egypt; first-century lacquer bowls from China; and ivory furniture ornaments, made in India or locally carved.

The hoard dates to the rule of the Kushan dynasty (1st–3rd century A.D.), a royal line descended from nomads who first conquered the northern parts of Afghanistan before taking the territory south of the Hindu Kush and extending their empire to the Ganges valley in India. The Kushans are thought to be a branch of a people known in Chinese writings as the Yuezhi who were pushed out of their ancestral lands on China's northwestern frontier by another nomadic group, the Xiongnu in Chinese sources. One branch of the Yuezhi, the Guishuang, fled to Afghanistan where they encountered the Greek language and eventually changed their name to Kushan, the term by which they are known today.

Ever since its discovery, scholars have puzzled over the nature of the settlement at Begram. Some believed it to be a city founded by Alexander the Great or his successors in the fourth century B.C. (Alexandria ad Caucasum), which later became the summer capital of the Kushan dynasty. According to this view, the works of art constitute a treasure hoarded or assembled over time by Kushan rulers for their personal use. More recent studies have regarded Begram not as a royal city but as an important trading center on the northwestern edge of the Kushan Empire. In this view, the finds represent a splendid repository of trade goods, sealed off to protect valuable commodities awaiting further distribution along the Silk Road.

Begram Ivories

Highly prized in the ancient world, ivory—the tusks or teeth of animals such as the elephant or hippopotamus—was an elite material used to make luxury objects and to embellish furniture for royal palaces from the Mediterranean to Mesopotamia and Iran. In Hellenized Central Asia as well, ivory was used to carve exceptional pieces for the local aristocracy, such as a large hoard of ceremonial vessels from the Parthian court of Nysa, in modern Turkmenistan. The exquisite ivory furniture elements discovered at Begram provide another instance of the masterful use of this fragile material, easily damaged by changes in temperature and climate, and very rarely found intact in excavations.

Most of the Begram ivories depict voluptuous women relaxing, playing musical instruments, or hugging children in semi-enclosed spaces suggested by gateways, doors, and fences. The doors are often shown ajar, as if to invite the viewer to enter the private world within. Such imagery has suggested that the objects they once decorated were intended for the use of women rather than for a more general population. The lush figures of the women shown in the sculptures and plaques found at Begram parallel those found in contemporaneous Indian works, as does the clothing and jewelry. This led many scholars in the past to suggest that the ivories found at Begram may have been produced further south, in India, and traded to northern Afghanistan. Historical records in fact indicate that guilds of ivory carvers existed in India. However, it is also possible that the Begram ivories were produced by itinerant craftsmen or, as has been recently proposed, by local artists trained in a range of South Asian traditions.