Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World, British Museum, London

These treasures survived invasions and the Taliban. But while the backstory is extraordinary, the workmanship inspires wonder in its own right

Five centimetres tall, the golden "Aphrodite of Bactria" rests a bangled hand on an ultra-curvy hip, Bollywood style. Below, her Greek gown swirls, and wings sprout from Olympian shoulders.

It's Classical civilisation, but not quite as we know it: on her forehead is a prominent Indian bindi mark. Near her, on glass goblets painted in riotous blues and yellows, nymphs and swains gather in the vintage, but with palm fronds in the background of their idyll: grapes or dates?

A plaster-cast medallion, a smug pretty-boy ties his long hair back in a band with a show-off seductiveness that might have shocked Mediterranean fans of cropped warrior youths. An Indian ivory nymph boasts a beyond-hourglass figure and fails to hide it, not with a dhoti but diaphanous Greek drapery. And the shimmering gold crown of a nomad princess turns out to be a fold-away marvel made of five detachable sections: portable bling by an antique Ikea. On her chest, for the journey to the otherworld, this wandering diva bore a Chinese mirror. Where are we, as so many strands of East and West entwine? In Afghanistan, two millennia ago.

Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World has rightly caused a stir for its humbling backstory. Between the Soviet invasion of 1979 and the fall of the Taliban regime, the National Museum in Kabul – home of these 230 or so treasures – suffered every hardship and indignity a storehouse of culture can endure, including near-total devastation. Much was lost but, from the director down, the staff secreted away in underground vaults, hotel cellars and even their own homes thousands of objects that made up the precious evidence of Afghanistan as a nursery of culture, not a killing-ground.

It took until 2004 to complete the long haul of recovery. Then, in 2006, the show that celebrates this miracle of survival began its tour in Paris. The people who bring it to you now are heroes of archaeology in ways that dwarf even Indiana Jones.

The British Museum exhibition, of a manageable size, highlights finds from four sites in northern Afghan-istan excavated between the 1930s and 1970s. In this region, the multiple paths of the Silk Road criss-crossed as they snaked between China and the Med. Forlorn, barren, windswept wilderness? Forget it. Two thousand years ago, this patch was a multicultural hub. In the first century AD, you might serve meals from the same ribbed-glass bowl in Bath as in Begram, north of Kabul.

The outlier cache here originates in Tepe Fullol, a Bronze Age burial hoard of golden goods dated to 2000BC. These sumptuous fragments tell not of desert isolation but a network of trade from Mesopotamia to India. The other three movements of this cosmopolitan quartet range in time from the third century BC to the first AD. At Aï Khanum a Hellenistic city flourished, one of many founded in Bactria by Alexander the Great's troops. Here, a year's march from the heartland, bearded stone sages preside over the mind-and-body "gymnasium" and bronze Heracles swings his club. Yet a gilded plate fuses Greek and Asian motifs: hey, we're not in Macedonia any more.

Aï Khanum fell in 145BC to nomad tribes. If you had the scary horsemen marked down as barbarians, think again. Two treasure-packed storerooms found intact at Begram prove that, 2,000 years ago, the Kushan dynasty had not only settled down and grown rich, but forged trade links with every chic supplier of luxury items from China to Rome. Was this a palace or – as now seems more likely – a high-value bonded warehouse? Whatever: enjoy the Roman-Egyptian glass, the sturdy Greek bronze figures, and the frisky Indian maidens semi-nude on ivory plaques. In a medallion of Eros and Psyche, the infant love-god seems to struggle free of his setting.

We end in a fabulous shower of gold. But the six nomad tombs of Tillya Tepe (around AD50) astonish most not by weight of carats but their workmanship. Others will swoon over that five-part turquoise-inlaid crown. I left haunted by the transfixing gaze of a little horned ram, a headdress ornament, every detail of his wool, muzzle and muscles picked out. Our hyper-alert ram matches no known imported style. He belongs to Afghanistan.

Until 3 July (020-7323 8181)

Next Week:

Charles Darwent dips into the Ashcan Painters, at the National Gallery

Art Choice

EO Hoppe's photographs capture between-the-wars Britain, and a raft of famous faces from George VI to George Bernard Shaw (at the National Portrait Gallery, London, to 29 May). And prepare to be bowled over by Cory Arcangel at the Barbican's Curve gallery: he's projected 14 giant bowling video games, all impossible to win (to 22 May).

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory