Exhibitions/ Afghanistan

Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul

June 23–September 20, 2009

Exhibition Overview

Ancient Afghanistan—at the crossroads of major trade routes and the focus of invasions by great powers and nomadic migrations—was home to some of the most complex, rich, and original civilizations on the continent of Asia. This exhibition celebrates the unique role of Afghanistan as a center for both the reception of diverse cultural elements and the creation of original styles of art that combine multiple stylistic materials—such as the Hellenized examples from the second-century B.C. city of Aï Khanum, the array of trade goods found in the first-century city of Begram, and the astonishing nomadic gold found in the hoard at Tillya Tepe, which also dates to the first century. It also commemorates the heroic rescue of the heritage of one of the world's great civilizations, whose precious treasures were thought to have been destroyed. Among the highlights of the exhibition are gold vessels from the Tepe Fullol hoard; superb works and architectural elements from Aï Khanum; Indian-style sculptural masterpieces in ivory, plaster medallions, and Roman glass from Begram; and extraordinary turquoise-encrusted gold jewelry and ornaments from the tombs at Tillya Tepe.

Ancient Afghanistan—standing at the crossroads of major trade routes—was home to some of the most complex civilizations of Asia, where multiple artistic influences were intermingled. This exhibition celebrates this rich heritage and commemorates the heroic rescue of the most precious of Afghanistan's archaeological treasures. Among the highlights are spectacular objects unearthed from four sites: gold vessels from the Bronze Age hoard at Tepe Fullol; architectural elements and sculptures from the Hellenistic city of Aï Khanum; extraordinary Indian-style ivories, Roman glass, and other goods traded along the Silk Road, from the first- through second-century site at Begram, and spectacular turquoise-inlaid gold jewelry and luxury objects from the first-century nomadic tombs at Tillya Tepe.

This exhibition highlights the amazing rediscovery of Silk Road treasures from Central Asia, thought to have been lost during decades of warfare and turmoil in Afghanistan. These masterpieces of the Kabul Museum collection remained hidden for twenty-five years, thanks to the heroism of the Kabul Museum's staff, who had secretly crated them and placed them in a secure bank vault. It was only in 2004 that the crates were opened to reveal that these works had survived intact.

The spectacular arts displayed in these galleries also celebrate the pivotal role played by ancient northern Afghanistan—Bactria in western sources—as a strategic crossroads for trade and cultural exchange between East and West. Its culture reflects contacts with 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.

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.

The exhibition is made possible in part by Raymond and Beverly Sackler and the National Endowment for the Arts.

The exhibition is organized by the National Geographic Society and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, in association with The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

It is supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

Afghanistan's natural resources—gold, copper, tin, lapis lazuli, garnet, and carnelian—drew settlers who brought farming to the fertile foothills of the Hindu Kush mountains more than six thousand years ago. By the early part of the Bronze Age (ca. 2200 B.C.), an urban culture had developed in northern Afghanistan with its own distinctive style of architecture. Bronze Age towns featured massive fortified buildings with towers constructed of unbaked bricks. This architectural tradition continued for centuries.

As this Bronze Age culture had no known writing, its original name is lost, but archaeologists call it the Oxus civilization, after the Oxus River (modern Amu Darya) that flows through the region. In 1966 farmers near the northern Afghan village of Fullol accidentally discovered a burial cache that contained the first evidence of the Oxus civilization in Afghanistan. The grave contained several bowls, including three on view in the exhibition, which are made of gold that probably came from the Oxus riverbed. Their designs include animal imagery—a boar and bearded bulls (the latter derived from distant Mesopotamia)—indicating that at this early date Afghanistan was already part of an extensive network of trade and cultural exchanges.

The grave goods from Tepe Fullol attest to the existence of elites whose wealth was the result of a very active role in the trade of precious materials, particularly lapis lazuli, that were mined in the nearby mountains of Badakhshan and exported to the major cities of Mesopotamia and further west to Syria and Egypt.

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.

The Silk Road is a metaphor for long-distance trade across Asia that first developed from around 300 B.C. to roughly 200 A.D. It was not, in fact, a "road," but rather a collection of land and sea routes linking cities, trading posts, caravan watering places, and hostels between the eastern Mediterranean and China. Afghanistan was centrally located along the major routes.

The distances to be covered were so great—and the rigors of travel so daunting—that only goods small in size and high in value could be transported the entire distance. Products were seldom carried from one end of the Silk Road to the other by the same merchants. Most products, however, were traded from hand to hand, from trading town to trading town. Goods were added to the caravans as they went through markets—silk and lacquer from China, ivory, rubies, and garnets from India, horses from Siberia and Mongolia, and carpets from Persia and the steppes, the vast grassland north of the Silk Road. Trade goods brought to China included precious metals, coins, glass, and semiprecious stones.

See the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History to learn more about trade routes between the Romans and the empires of Asia.

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.

The Eurasian steppes, a wide expanse of grassland extending from the Black Sea to China, was home to varied populations of nomads, who appeared on the historical stage at the beginning of the first millennium B.C. Although the different confederations of nomads have varying names in historical writings, their cultures were strikingly uniform: a mobile way of life, based on migratory herding and horseback riding, with no major settlement; the bow and arrow as their main weapons; jewelry made of precious materials as symbols of power and status; a strong link with the animal world, expressed in their artistic production of small, portable objects with distinctive imagery of both real and fantastic animals, often in combat or intricately merged or entwined, referred to as "animal style"; and complex funerary practices, involving communal ceremonies and ritual sacrifices.

A nomadic lifestyle does not spur the writing of history, and study of such cultures is based mainly on archaeological evidence scattered from the Caucasus to China and on the preserved texts of the settled civilizations with which nomads interacted. The work of the fifth-century B.C. Greek historian Herodotos is the major written source of information on nomadic tribes who roamed the western reaches of the steppes from the seventh to third century B.C., called by the Greek with the collective name of Scythians. Similarly, Iranians used the broad nomenclature "Saka" for the nomads at their northwestern borders.

Chinese records discuss a confederation known as the Yuezhi who were pushed out of their territories on the northwestern frontier border by another group around 175 B.C. Some branches of the Yuezhi are known to have eventually settled in northern Afghanistan, and it has been suggested that the individuals buried at Tillya Tepe were members of the Yuezhi confederation. The Kushans (first century B.C. to third century A.D.

Nomads from the Eurasian steppes overran northern Afghanistan around 145 B.C., bringing an end to the Greco-Bactrian kingdoms that had flourished there. The first evidence of this nomadic presence in the region was found at Tillya Tepe, or "hill of gold." In 1978, a Soviet-Afghan team of archaeologists made an extraordinary discovery: the cemetery of a nomadic family buried in the first century A.D. The graves revealed a stunning treasure of some twenty thousand gold objects, consisting of jewelry and luxury items including ceremonial weapons and appliqués. Most of them were inlaid with an astonishing range of materials, available to the local artists, particularly semiprecious stones such as turquoise from Iran, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan and Tajikistan, garnets and amethysts from India, and Baltic amber.

The finds at Tillya Tepe revealed a nomadic culture that was very refined and eclectic. The nomads retained their own imagery—the "animal style" of the steppes—but they also absorbed different elements from works of art traveling along the Silk Road, resulting in a synthesis and reinterpretation of Hellenistic, Indian, Chinese, and nomadic traditions.

The "Golden Hoard of Bactria" was presented to the Kabul Museum and displayed in 1980 and 1991 before disappearing from view. Thought to have been lost or stolen or melted down during years of civil war and turmoil, in 2004 the treasure was dramatically revealed to be intact, hidden away in a secure bank vault. A wide selection of the most representative objects from Tillya Tepe shown in the present exhibition are on view for the first time outside of Afghanistan.

Typical of nomadic burials, the graves at Tillya Tepe were dug into an earthen mound. In the Eurasian steppes, funeral mounds, or kurgans, were man-made constructions of overwhelming size, erected with a huge amount of the sod of grazing lands. In Tillya Tepe, however, the nomads reused an existing "hill," which was actually the earth-covered remains of a fortified mud-brick temple of earlier antiquity. The most important person, the chieftain in tomb IV, was interred at the highest point in the center of the mound, and the female burials were arranged roughly in a circle around him. The deceased were interred in lidless coffins that were wrapped with burial shrouds and placed in simple trenches covered by timber planks and earth.

No evidence survives to suggest how the people buried at Tillya Tepe died. Perhaps they were victims of sickness or the harsh Afghan environment. It is also possible that the women were sacrificed upon the death of the chieftain. According to Herodotos' description of the burial practices of Scythian nomads, a man did not go alone into the hereafter, but was accompanied by members of his household. Archaeological evidence from nomadic graves scattered from Ukraine to Siberia complements this account, attesting to impressive burials filled with gold adornments, weapons, symbols of high status, and provisions, servants, grooms, and horses to accompany the deceased into the eternal pastures.

One of a pair of clasps with Dionysos and Ariadne, 1st century A.D. Afghanistan, Tillya Tepe, tomb VI. Gold, turquoise; 2 5/8 x 2 3/4 in. (6.7 x 7 cm). National Museum of Afghanistan, Kabul, 04.40.53. Photo: © Thierry Ollivier / Musée Guimet