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President Karzai opens Afghanistan exhibition at the British Museum.

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Sunday, 6th March 2011 – David Franchi


“Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World” was inaugurated by Hamid Karzai, President of Afghanistan, on Tuesday evening, 1st March, ongoing at the British Museum until the 3rd July 2011.

President Karzai was in London for talks with PM David Cameron. At the opening ceremony, present the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, and the Director of British Museum, Neil Mac Gregor, Karzai said: “After thirty years of war and continuing struggle, today, having on display Afghan heritage, reminds us again of the glory and endurance of our country. What we’ll see today, will remind you, ladies and gentlemen, of a different Afghanistan, of a peaceful Afghanistan, of an Afghanistan where society lived and nourished, where society mingled with countries around. Today, as I stand here my hope is that for Afghanistan people there is a prosperous Afghanistan, with a richer culture into the future, has once again revitalised. I declare the show opened”.

 Afghanistan benefited of being a vital intersection between Asia, Europe and Africa of important commercial itinerary, significant civilisations and merging artistic influences. This exhibition displays selected items from the British Museum and over 200 stunning objects loaned from the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul.

After many years of war, doubts arisen about the preservation of the Afghanistan heritage. The finds on display survived through great personal efforts, as Director of The British Museum, Neil Mac Gregor said: “For these objects are here, only, for the courage of scholars and curators who hid them and protect them”.

The first room is dedicated to Tepe Fullol. More than six thousand years ago, at the beginning of the Bronze Age (ca. 2200 BC), a population settled near Oxus River (modern Amu Darya), Hindu Kush. They had no writing, so the original name is lost, but they have been nominated ‘Oxus Civilisation’ from the river’s name. They left several manufacturing and architectural tradition. In 1966 farmers near the village of Fullol accidentally discovered a burial cache. The grave contained several gold manufactures, indicating that Afghanistan was already part of an extensive network of trade and cultural exchanges. 

Around 328 BC, Bactria, a province of the Achaemenid Empire, was conquered by Alexander the Great. The second room focuses on the Greek colony of Ai Khamun (‘Moon Lady’) founded in 300 BC. It developed into a prosperous town where Hellenism and eastern traditions merged together creating new art forms influencing Asia until the Islamic conquest. Ai Khanum was accidentally found in 1961 and brought to light by French archaeologists from 1964 to 1978. It is the best preserved Hellenistic city of Asia, modelled on a Greek urban plan and plenty of Greek and near East buildings. In the mid first century Ai Khamun was pillaged by the nomads Kushan.

[in photo:AfghanGold_29: Gold and turquoise appliqué known as the‘Aphrodite of Bactria’. From Tillya Tepe,Afghanistan, 1st century BC–1st century AD.National Museum of Afghanistan.]


Nomadic populations played a significant role for thousands of years. They were coming from the Eurasian steppes and appeared around the year 1000 BC. As a consequence of their migratory lifestyle, not much written remain. So the study of nomads is based on spotted archaeological sites and on the texts of the other civilisations relating to them. For example, a major source of information is Herodotus, a Greek historian from the fifth-century BC, who called them Scythians. Iranians called them Sakas.

Chinese files report the Yuezhi nomadic confederation was pushed out from their original territory in the Gansu area, around 175 BC. Some branches of them settled in northern Afghanistan and had a part in constituting the Kushan Empire (first century BC to third century AD) that broadened from Afghanistan to northern India.

The third room focus on Begram, the Kushan summer capital, built on the Silk Road. The site was partially excavated from the 1930s to the 1950s by French archaeologists. The finds of Begram demonstrate the assorted tastes of the local elite and their talent to accumulate great wealth.

Afghanistan is located on a central position of the Silk Road a widespread network of routes connecting East, South, and Western Asia with the Mediterranean world, as well as North and Northeast Africa and Europe. It was not a real “road” in itself but rather a logistical network identified as a series of pathways and stoppages utilised for the commercial transport of cargo. Made of long distance arteries, Silk Road routes were connected to several smaller networks of commercial and non commercial use. The Silk Road was also a representation of long travelling and remote business across Asia. Obstacles and perils burdened the huge distances. The same person was unable to transport goods for the whole route and only small supplies were movable from one end to the other. In recent years, Silk Road is again being used.

[in photo: AfghanGold_49: Ivory plaque depicting women standingunder gateways. From Begram, Afghanistan,1st–2nd centuries AD. National Museum of Afghanistan.]

One of the rare nomadic archaeological evidence is Tillya Tepe (‘Mound of Gold’ in local Uzbek) in the fourth room of the exhibition. Tyllia Tepe is a Bronze Age site, dated 4000- years- old, excavated by a Soviet team in 1978. Six Yuezhi graves of the first century AD were found belonging to a man and five women, together with a hoard of about 20,600 gold ornaments including coins, necklaces set with gems, belts, medallions and crowns. The collection is particularly valuable to the Afghan people, as much of their heritage was looted from museums during the civil wars after the fall of the Soviet backed regime.

The “Golden Hoard of Bactria” was briefly on exhibition in the Kabul Museum before the 1979 Russian invasion. In 1989, the last Communist president of Afghanistan, Mohammad Najibullah ordered to move the hoard from the museum to an underground vault at the Central Bank of Afghanistan in Kabul. The doors of the vault were locked with keys which were distributed to five trusted persons and could only be opened if all the keys were available, a form of protection against the numerous Taliban stealing attempts. During the US invasion, the Taliban tried a last attempt to steal the treasure, but they did not know that all keys were needed, so they planted bombs on the vault door. Before they could detonate the bombs, US troops arrived at the bank and the Taliban were forced to flee. The hoard was saved, as the vault bombing would result in a collapse of the store chamber, destroying it forever. In 2003, after the Taliban was successfully defeated, the new government wanted to open the vault, but the key- holders (tawadars) names were purposefully unknown. President Karzai had to issue a decree authorizing the safecracking. But in time, the five key holders were successfully assembled and the vault re- opened, witnessed by Viktor Sarianidi the archaeologist who originally found the hoard.

[photo :Standing_Ram: Gold headdress ornament in the form of a ram. From Tillya Tepe, Afghanistan, 1st century BC–1st century AD. National]

Museum of Afghanistan.The last room displays ongoing projects to preserve and promote culture in Afghanistan and the efforts to restore the National Museum of Kabul and its lost patrimony. Over the past 30 years friends of Afghanistan have tried to identify and to return those ancient treasures. The core message of this exhibition, in fact, is that in Afghanistan though disorder and violence there is hope.

Supported by Bank of America Merrill Lynch, the exhibition comes with other events, including performances, film screening, lectures, workshops, guided tours, family activities and gallery talks.


All images © Thierry Ollivier/Musée Guimet.

Published for: www.italoeuropeo.com

Direct link: http://www.italoeuropeo.com/entertaiment/arts/president-karzai-opens-afghanistan-exhibition-at-the-british-museum./


Written by davidfranchi

March 7, 2011 at 3:48 pm

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