Thursday, October 30, 2008

Treasures of Afghanistan At the Asian

If SF has one world class museum, it’s the Asian. In "The Treasures of Afghanistan", the Asian continues its tradition of beautifully mounted exhibits of both artistic and historical value. They come from a part of the world we still know too little about due to decades of war and instability, but reveal how affluent and sophisticated this region was, straddling the trade routes between East and West, and taking cultural influences from both.

Long thought to be lost, the collection of Afghan gold from the National Museum of Kabul has survived decades of war. Among the hidden treasures were Bronze Age gold pieces, hundreds of ancient coins, and the famous "Bactrian hoard," a collection of some 20,000 gold, silver, and ivory objects from burial plots at Tillya Tepe in northern Afghanistan.

Workers involved in the transfer swore secrecy and designated "key holders" for the vaults. They kept their covenant through civil war and Taliban rule at enormous personal risk.

The exhibit focuses on four main archaeological sites. Fullol is the oldest and gold vases found at this Bronze Age site are used to illustrate Bactrian sophistication c. 2000 BC. The gold was mined locally, but the decoration of the objects show that already at this early date the first recorded Afghans were reaching out to their neighbors and beginning to establish the trade links that would one day become the Silk Road. Although we tend to be preoccupied by the Afghan treasures that were saved from the Taliban, the vases provide a neat statistical illustration of how the treasure fared overall. Only one of the silver vases and three of the gold vases are still part of the Kabul Museum collection; another silver vase has been identified with an antiquities dealer in London and negotiations for its return continue. The surviving vases owned by the Afghans are in the exhibition and show the cultural background to the region, which later produced the Oxus Treasure.

Aï-Khanoum was founded at the end of the 4th century BC by Greeks who had come to conquer the area with Alexander the Great: rather than retracing their steps, they chose to settle in the area and founded a city. The polis was established along Hellenistic principles, and its public buildings were prime examples of Hellenistic architecture: Greek temples, a stone theatre, a palace, and a gymnasium. It was probably the ancient Alexandria on the Oxus described by the geographer Ptolemy, which flourished under the Seleucids until around 250 BC, when the region declared independence. Eucratides made the city his capital and renamed it Eucratideia in the early 2nd century BC, but 50 years on it had already been abandoned.

Aï-Khanoum was excavated by the French in the 1960s and 70s, but badly looted in subsequent decades; locals dug trenches through the site looking for more of the fabled Bactrian gold, and when they failed to find it dragged away the carefully hewn architectural blocks to re-use as building material. Once one of the best-preserved Hellenistic cities in the world - an eastern Greek Pompeii - little more of Aï-Khanoum survives than the exquisitely carved architectural elements in the exhibition.

The highlight of the exhibition must be the 1st-century BC Bactrian gold from the hoard found by Viktor Sarianidi at Tillia Tepe in northern Afghanistan in 1978. At the time the country was occupied by Soviet troops, and then closed to the world by the Taliban, so few archaeologists got to see these rare treasures before they were spirited off to a vault. The six princely tombs from Tillia Tepe illustrate the funerary wealth of the period and its extensive trading links: a bronze mirror was made in China, the ivories came from India, and much of the jeweler is Graeco-Roman in design if not in origin,

Five women and one man were each interred in their own sepulchers around a monumental temple-like structure. The sheer mass of their wealth in the necropolis must reflect the identity of a ruling family. The temple originated in the second millennium BC and was repeatedly rebuilt, marking it as an important point of religious focus in the area. The items in the burials show extensive trade links once again, but the deceased are more mysterious: the current suggestion is that they were actually nomads.

The aim of ‘Afghanistan, Rediscovered Treasures’ is to raise funds to rebuild Kabul Museum and to raise awareness of the fascinating history of that great country. In time, when Kabul Museum is secure the objects will return there and the Afghans will also be able once more to appreciate their own ancient culture.

Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul
Through January 25, 2009


Zoomie said...

My brother saw this show in DC and wrote to encourage me to go when it came to SF. I'm hoping to get there next week - he said it was fabulous!

tangobaby said...

Oh, I almost went last week but my plans did not work out. But soon, soon! You have certainly whetted my appetite for beauty.