Ancient wonders of Afghanistan

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An exhibition of Afghan treasures at the British Museum reveals a truly fascinating history, says Adrian Hamilton. And it's a testament to the heroic curators who saved the collection from the ravages of war

For most of us, Bagram in Afghanistan means a vast US base. Not for the British Museum.

In it's latest exhibition, on Afghanistan, Bagram (or Begram as it is called here) takes pride of place as a major trading city and the summer capital of the North Indian Kushan empire in the first centuries AD. There French archaeologists made a remarkable discovery in the late 1930s when they opened up a couple of sealed storerooms, containing the remains of a series of exquisite ivories that once covered chairs and couches, together with vases and bronzes as well as some astonishing engraved beakers and glass of the period.

The ivories are truly wonderful, as good as anything that survives from India itself in the period, depicting women and children at play and leisure with all the voluptuousness of the sculptures we know from early Indian temples. But then so are the decorated beakers, imported from Roman Egypt and Syria, depicting hunting scenes and mythological figures with the freshness and colour that we know from villa frescos of the Mediterranean at the time.

This being an exhibition about Afghanistan, it inevitably has a political purpose – not just to show that the country has a great cultural past of its own, but also that great and courageous efforts have been made by museum staff to preserve its treasures from the depredations of a full 30 years of war, anarchy and vandalism.

Each of the troves on display has its own story of Afghan curators and archaeologists secreting their whereabouts and defending them, even under threats to their lives, from gangs of looters and militia. To this the British Museum has added its own coda of Begram ivories taken and sold on the international market and now generously gathered by wealthy collectors to be returned to the country.

It's not a new exhibition, it should be emphasised. Indeed it has been almost continually on the move around the world for the last five years, starting in Paris, sent abroad to arouse and sustain international interest and assistance in the country and its past. Nor can it be said that the British have played a major part in its archaeological story, despite our role and association with the country. The Russians and French have been far more active in uncovering the past.

What the BM has done in this case, besides adding the final display of private rescue, has been to organise the exhibition into four lucid parts, each concentrating on major finds. The point of it all is to show that Afghanistan, even from the earliest times, was not just a mountainous region on the fringe of settled civilisations to the west, south and east. It was, as the exhibition's subtitle posits, "at the crossroads of the Ancient World", a source of wealth in itself from raw materials, particularly the lapis lazuli so prized by ancient civilisations, but also situated smack on the trading routes between the Mediterranean and Iran to the west, India to the south-west and China to the east.

The show starts, logically enough, with the Bronze Age gold bowls found by peasants in north-eastern Afghanistan and promptly cut into pieces for fair division amongst the finders. They date from around 2,000BC, and give evidence of a substantial civilisation sitting between Mesopotamian and the Indus cultures of the period. The craftsmanship is fine, the figures and the geometric patterning of the reconstructed objects have the primitive force of the period.

But it is between 300BC and around 200AD that the displays really get going. In 327BC, Alexander the Great, after some of the hardest-fought battles of his campaigns, finally took Bactria, the eastern end of the Persian Achaemenid Empire. His troops then revolted before he could go on into India, forcing the reluctantly departing conqueror to consolidate his gains with the foundation of several colonies and frontier posts.

Ai Khanum, built by Alexander's commander and successor, Seleucus, is a bit of Greece transplanted to Afghanistan, complete with temples, gymnasium, theatre and all. Its discovery and excavation in 1964 proved that the Hellenic occupation was more than skin deep. The finds on display of Corinthian capitals, sun dials and funerary statues could just as easily have been encountered in Greece itself. Their influence on Bactrian as Indian culture was profound.

In the end, the Greco-Bactrian kingdom lasted barely two centuries before the nomads from the north swept down and obliterated it, here as elsewhere. A second wave then founded the Indian Kushan Empire, which in turn flourished in Begram with a display of wealth and a diversity of objects that would have made any metropolis proud.

But it is with the glorious display of gold ornaments excavated from the burial mounds of the nomadic Scythians from the north that this exhibition makes its final flourish. Tillya Tepe, the "Hill of Gold", was discovered by Russian archaeologists in 1978 to worldwide acclaim and it was this prize that the bandits of the war period most eagerly sought. Astonishingly, it was kept from their deprivations by one brave Afghan who refused to reveal its whereabouts.

Gathered together here is not just an astonishing display of the conspicuous wealth that these first century AD horsemen went in for. Travelling light, they covered their loose clothing and themselves with clasps and bracelets of extraordinary vitality. Here, Greco-style cupids on dolphins lie close to golden belts with figured medallions. Mythical figures fight each other along the sheaths and guards of the swords and daggers. A collapsible crown of tree decorations shimmers with golden leaves, while a pair of pendants has a man controlling a pair of dragons with turquoise, garnet, lapis lazuli and carnelian chains hanging from the group.

For the archaeologists these objects raise endless questions about the continuing influence of Greek motifs and Iranian influence. Just what did go on in Achaemenid Bactria and what was its cultural legacy? Even the royal association of the Begram find has been questioned, with more recent research suggesting a trader's depository rather than a monarchical one. But of the Scythians and their beliefs we still know little. There is much still to learn about Afghanistan and its past, not just as a crossroads of other cultures, but a source of craft and arts itself.

For the ordinary visitor, though, however intriguing the history may be, what will excite are the objects themselves. We've all heard of Scythian gold, but here is the real thing, glorious in its profusion. Most of us know the Roman way with glass, but the Begram hoard has a life and colour that is truly stunning. A group of plaster medallions from Begram may have been intended as models for clients to order from but are quite entrancing in their own right. A Scythian necklace described as an "ornament for the neck of a robe" is a masterpiece of polychromatic forms.

Afghanistan needs our support and the brave souls who preserved these treasures are owed all our thanks. But one shouldn't be too studious about going. It's not a pilgrimage, but a journey of delight.

Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World, British Museum, London WC1 (020 7323 8181) to 3 July. The exhibition is supported by Bank of America Merrill Lynch

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