Fragments of Ancient Afghanistan

Got to the NSW Art Gallery the other day to see a fugitive exhibition of antiquities from the once grand museum of Afghanistan.  Embroiled in war, civil strife and the harsh, repressive regime of the Taliban for decades, about 90% of the treasures have been lost or destroyed.  The keepers of this tiny surviving remnant collection risked their lives hiding the keys to the secret cache.  You can read their remarkable story here.

Now the collection is in exile, travelling the world so that people can get a glimpse into Afghanistan’s extraordinary multi-cultural heritage.  These fragments reveal a lost ancient world of people of the Bronze Age, the Greeks and Romans in the great wake of Alexander the Great, of India and of the nomadic tribes from places like nearby Mongolia and China.  I could not take photos of the collection, however can describe something of what I saw.

Most of the treasures come from the ancient Greek colony of Ai Khanum (Lady Moon) of the region of Bactria at about 100 BCE post Alexander the Great when it was a thriving melting pot of Indian, ancient Greek and Roman and nomadic cultures.

One of the first was an intriguing pottery figure of a stylised woman with a bird’s body.

There were some ancient Greek sculptures in limestone, sadly damaged. One of a young man with a beautifully modelled nude torso and drapery arranged about his neck and left arm.  Another was a dignified looking patriarch, director of a gymnasium with a hoary but neat beard.  And another was a waterspout in the shape of a Greek style comic mask.

A fragment of a tombstone had this inscription: ‘As a child, learn good manners;  as a young man learn to control your passions;  in middle age, be just;  in old age, give good advice;  then die, without regret.’… Some limestone Corinthian capitals.  Bronze statuette of Heracles with the green verdigris patina holding a long club.  A crescent-shaped plaque also in bronze featuring what looked like an oval-shaped female face – suggesting a moon cult. Pieces of broken crockery in schist stone, some inlaid with small triangle patterns with stylised horses prancing in a circle.

From Begram, a gate-way silk trading post: Ceremonial plaque depicting Cebele, Goddess of Nature with Nike Goddess of victory riding a chariot under Helios, the sun and the moon.  Two shadowy priests in the background assiduously attend to the Goddesses’ bidding.

Three Roman Egyptian glass goblets sadly shattered and reconstructed bearing traces of Roman painting.  Very clear and fine, fragile glass.  One of war, one of hunting and another of idyllic everyday life.

Some fine bronze objects:  of small pitchers, a medium shallow bowl with handles – minimal design – mass produced?  Figurines of riders in the Graeco-Roman style.  A cheery mask of the bearded and grape-vine crowned Silenus, companion of Dionysis the God of wine.  Some scale weights in the shapes of Athena goddess of wisdom – with her Medusa breastplate – and Ares the god of war.  Statuette of Harpocrates – Greek form of Egyptian god Horus – a tall child with finger resting on mouth.  A muscle-bound Serapis – Heracles with a club and a basket head-dress – in still gleaming bronze flecked with verdigris.  Winged Eros with a large bow.

A collection of decorated ivory plaques more in Indian style of luscious, lascivious hour-glass women in languorous poses – holding dishes of food aloft, riding a horse, titivating themselves – each scene with a suggestively part-opened door.

Three ivory statuettes of Indian River Goddess Ganga.  Each standing on the mythical makara monster – part crocodile, elephant and fish.  Blend of Greek and Indian representations of deities.  An ivory plaque with figure holding leaf-like tails of two makara.

Glass objects from Begrum – beautiful ribbed green bowl in Roman style, fish-shaped vessel with a cream body, blue eyes and fins.  Blue cup with honey-comb pattern and goblets, blue and cream with lacy trellis patterns.  Egyptian alabaster amphora.  Glass bowl made in imitation of agate.

A group of plaster medallions.  One of baby Eros clutching a butterfly to his chest – signifying union of physical and spiritual love.  Graceful depiction of young nude female woman offering a piece of fruit in outstretched hand.  Medallion of Endymion and Selene in a love scene. Porphyry bowl and vase simple but luxurious of smooth, polished red-brown stone flecked with white feldspar crystals.

Beautiful two-handled drinking cup of clear rock crystal with a delicate grape-vine leaf pattern etched on it.

Chair bracket of ivory depicting some brave bare-bosom woman riding a leogryph – a mythical creature with body of lion, wings of eagle and beak of parrot, emerging from the mouth of a makara.

Some decorative ivory plaques of women in alluring poses, dressed like Indian dancing girls, one even breast-feeding a child.

Gold objects and jewellery from the lost Bronze Age Oxus civilisation and of some Bactrian tombs of about 100 BCE crowned the treasures.  The Bronze Age gold was limited to broken fragments of gold vessels with patterns of parallel lines on them.  Of the Bactrian tombs, gold gleaming as beautifully as the day it was made – medallions, large rosette-shaped hairpins, crescent-shaped ornaments and pendants often inlaid with turquoise, but also lapis lazuli, carnelian and pyrite.  There were rings and a small gold cosmetics pot with chained lid and sides decorated with leaves and petals with a knob on the lid shaped like a pomegranite.

A beautiful pair of gold status-conferring clasps depicting fully armed warriors with spears and shields, helmets and knee-length tunics marked with lion-heads.  There were gold hair pendants and a bracelet with sliding ends and stones of turquoise, amber and lead glass each inset in gold.

The objects often show a strong nomadic influence.  A pair of gold pendants of a man dressed in Central Asian nomadic style with a Persian style crown holding two mythical dragons.  Two thick gold bracelets inlaid with turquoise and carnelian with the ends fashioned as stylised antelopes. What looked like an elaborate gold necklace of dozens of little hanging pendants and inset with stones of turquoise and amber was actually pinned to the garment itself in the nomadic fashion.

There was a collapsible gold crown of stylised trees and leaves.  The nomadic influence also entwined itself into depictions of Greek mythological scenes.  Clasps depicting Dionysis and Ariadne on monster steeds with muzzle of lion, goat beard and dragon crest.

Finally, there was a gold-handled dagger inlaid with turquoise.  Alongside were two elaborate gold dagger sheaths fashioned with rams’ heads and swastikas, hearts and flowers.  There was also a fine belt woven of flexible gold chains with medallions of a figure sitting on a panther holding a ‘kantheros’ (two-handled drinking cup).  There was a shallow, ribbed gold drinking bowl.  There shoe decorations and boot buckles, medallion style of man riding a Mongolian/Chinese style chariot drawn by dragons.

I left the exhibition with a kind of sadness that that was all that was left of such an amazing history of years of cross-cultural interaction, prosperous trading and peaceful co-existence.  But this little collection stands defiant in the face of those who seek to erase evidence of multicultural harmony throughout the ages.  It is also testimony to the incredible bravery of the people who seek to save these treasures so that others all over the world may study, ponder over or simply enjoy looking at them.


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