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Afghan Gold, Ivory Dazzle in British Museum Exhibition: Review

Woman Statuette
An ivory statuette of a woman standing, possibly a furniture ornament from Begram. The work is on exhibition in "Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World." Source: British Museum via Bloomberg

Senior political figures appeared at the opening reception for the British Museum’s new exhibition “Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World.” Speeches were made by the U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the latter dressed in his trademark robes. Other leading politicians were in the audience.

This confirmed -- if confirmation were needed -- that Afghanistan is a hot political topic. The exhibition demonstrates that this territory has been important, and intermittently wealthy, for millennia. Some of the items on show are eye-poppingly spectacular and also beautiful: quantities of golden jewelry from the 1st century A.D., sensuous ivory carvings from India, glassware made in ancient Egypt.

The recent history of these objects has been turbulent. They are treasures from the National Museum in Kabul, all of which have escaped two decades of looting and bombing plus deliberate iconoclastic destruction by the Taliban.

An estimated 70 percent of the museum’s collection disappeared during 20 years of war and Taliban rule. Miraculously, many of the finest items survived. Some, including the astonishing hoard of precious artifacts found at Tillya Tepe (“the Hill of Gold”) were hidden in a vault beneath the presidential palace, re-emerging only in 2004. Others, looted from the museum, were recovered on the art market.

Cultural Friction

Looking further back, these works tell a story of cultural fusion and friction. Globalization is nothing new, yet you seldom see such compelling evidence as the so-called Bagram Treasure.

Now the site of a huge U.S. base, Bagram was a city in ancient times. In the 1930s, French archaeologists found an astonishing cache of items there. It was either a royal treasury, hidden away in times of trouble or -- more likely -- an art dealer’s stock from the early centuries A.D. Among the objects was a Roman toy aquarium made of bronze, in which metal fish would float, waggling their fins, when it was filled with water.

Glass beakers from Bagram are painted with figures resembling Pompeian frescoes. Most remarkable -- indeed the most beautiful exhibits in the show -- were a series of ivory carvings resembling the styles of southern India. It is easy to imagine what would have happened to these full-breasted, hip-swaying female figures if they’d been discovered by the Taliban.

Alexander’s Legacy

The Bagram treasures make the point that Afghanistan is a point of cultural interchange, where currents from India, Europe, China, Iran, Central Asia and the Middle East all met. Even more startling, historically, are the finds from Ai Khanum, a Greek colony founded around 300 B.C. by one of the successors of Alexander the Great. Following his conquests, for over a century a Greek empire covered much of the territory of modern Afghanistan. On show are pieces of classical architecture and sculpture that you might expect to see in Greece itself or Italy.

Finally, there are items found at Tillya Tepe by a Russian-Afghan archaeological expedition in 1978, just before the Soviet invasion. They are the personal adornments of nomads from the Asian Steppe, buried in northern Afghanistan 2,000 years ago. This is bling of the highest quality: a delicate, fold-away golden crown, bracelets, clasps and pendants borrowing motifs and mythological figures from Greece and Iran.

Everything in the exhibition speaks of cultural interchange, and often also of conflict. Where cultures meet, they may collide. That’s the history of Afghanistan.

“Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World” is at the British Museum, London, through July 3. The exhibition is supported by Bank of America Merrill Lynch. Information:

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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