New York’s Metropolitan Museum’s recent, outstanding exhibit of Afghan treasures, Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul, was awe-inspiring. One thing is for sure: Afghanistan is rich. Well, it was, anyway, with gold, copper, tin, lapis, lazuli, and garnet. For the Silk Road that ran between eastern China and the Mediterranean Sea, Afghanistan was more than a thru-way—it was a destination.
Maps of ancient Afghanistan introducing the areas highlighted in the exhibit, but it was very difficult not to imagine the same map in a current context where American and NATO forces are traipsing across rugged terrain, bombing, killing and being killed. Dots marking the ancient sites on the Met’s maps suddenly morphed into small icons of explosions, as if I were looking at a map on CNN marking the latest ambushes by the Taliban against American forces.
The exhibit covered ancient Afghanistan, from 2200 BCE to 200 CE. A plethora of cultures and nations are represented in the stories and manifested in the artistic grandeur of the crafts, trinkets, jewels, goods, and art displayed. By my count eight significant regions (and too many sub-cultures or nations to count) could be discerned: Siberia, Mongolia, Syria, China, India, Egypt, Iran and, most significantly, Greek were all represented stylistically one way or another in these treasures. The palace at the city of Aï Khanum, for example, was a site that successfully merged the architectural and aesthetic influences of Greeks, Iranians, and local peoples.
From the first-century city of Begram visitors were treated to masterpieces of glasswork and pictorial art, extraordinary craftsmanship with bronze carvings, stunning, exquisite beauty in gold jewelry and adornments, and beautiful, delicate (and voluptuous) ivory carvings. I was stunned at the beauty of the trove.
Alas, Afghanistan has not been a peaceful country of late. When the Russians invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the pieces (originally on display at the National Museum in Kabul) were ushered into safes to prevent their destruction. Unfortunately, the brave museum workers of Kabul could not save everything—the museum and its antiquities were shamelessly bombed during the war. Later, the Taliban destroyed ancient art and statues dating back to145 BCE, the most infamous desecration of human creativity being the horrible shelling of the Buddhist statues of Bamyan, statues carved into the mountainside in the sixth century CE. And that magnificent site of Aï Khanum? It's nothing but rubble thanks to war. I wonder what we are losing each day as the current struggle trudges on with no end in sight...
It’s clear ancient Afghanistan was refined, highly cosmopolitan, and eclectic. Such perspective lends urgency to bringing the current war in that storied land to an end, to give the Afghans and the world another look at a magnificent, proud past.
Question: What are we missing from Iraq’s ancient treasures? And when do we see them?
This is one of several "quick reviews," a series that provides a snapshot of international arts and culture.
Follow Shaun on Twitter @shaunrandol
(photos courtesy of The Met)
Afghanistan, Exhibit, Quick Review