Robert Fisk: Afghanistan's ancient treasures must be saved

Over the door of the Kabul museum today is a Persian quotation: 'A nation stays alive when its culture and history are kept alive'

Share
Related Topics

More than 30 years after I watched the Soviet army slithering in their great T-72s past their new headquarters at Bagram north of Kabul, more than nine years since the first Americans took over the same airbase, I have gazed at last upon the treasures of Bagram.

Not in Kabul – where they were spared the destruction of the Taliban by the courage of old museum staff – but in a travelling exhibition in the peace of the village-city of Ottawa, which Queen Victoria named as the capital of her Canadian colony in 1858, a consolation prize between the Scots-Brits of York (now Toronto) and the Québecois of Montreal. Just 16 years earlier, the 23-year-old queen's army had been destroyed in the Kabul Gorge – which left its own belt-buckle antiquities for the Kabul bazaaris to peddle.

Yet as so often in Afghan history, I found the treasures of Bagram and Ai Khanum and Tillya Tepe oddly unAfghan. Why was I standing in Ottawa to stare at a perfect Corinthian capital, something I would scarcely glance at in Athens? Or a gold and turquoise clasp showing Dionysus and Ariadne seated on a monster? Hadn't I polished off Greek mythology at Sutton Valence School in Kent? What was Harpocrates – Horus the Child – from Egypt doing here? Or those big-breasted Kama Sutra women from Bagram? Shouldn't they be in a glass case in Delhi?

But that, of course, is the point. Afghanistan's ancient cities lay on the Silk Road between Rome and China, and its art embraced Greek gods and Chinese princesses and Indian ladies and – breathless here at a future cultural genocide – Buddhas. Afghans today exhibit the same Silk Road features; the thin faces of the Indus, Tajik-Chinese faces, the green eyes of the Greeks and Alexander.

Just as the Roman emperors splashed their names all over the cities of antiquity, so did Alexander. Thank God he didn't invent the steam train. Station announcements in Egypt for slow trains east would have gone something like this: "The 11.05 from Alexandria Central will call at Alexandria Charax (change here for modern-day Basra), Alexandria Areion (modern-day Herat), change here for Alexandria Margiana in present-day Uzbekistan and Alexandria Eschate (which is now Khojat in Tajikistan), Alexandria Caucaso (Bagram) and Alexandria Arachoton (Kandahar)."

But with what delicacy did the royalty of these lands adorn their palaces and homes. The ivory body of a lion from Bagram flies with the wings of an eagle, snapping at its enemies with the beak of a parrot. From a tomb at Tillya Tepe – in Uzbek, the "Golden Hill" (65 miles due west of Mazar-e-Sharif) – comes a young woman's jewellery, ornaments of flowers, hearts, masks, raindrops, squares, triangles; the fragment of a funerary monument, a gift from Clearchos, a student of Aristotle with an inscription in Greek which says with fourth-century wisdom: "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." There is lacquer from China, roosters with human heads, a fish-shaped flagon with ribbons of liquid glass for fins and gills, and fish on Roman-Egyptian glass goblets and, perhaps most remarkable of all, a five-part take-it-to-bits crown of gold and turquoise, fit for any king – but easy to dismantle when you have to carry it on your camel convoy to neighbouring cities.

A Hellenic capitol comes from Balkh – in 300BC, the largest Afghan city, just to the east of Tillya Tepe – which was destroyed by Genghis Khan almost 1,000 years later. Fly over Kandahar and Helmand – indeed over the fourth century BC sites of Lashkar Gar – yes, one of our favourite anti-Taliban biffing fields – and it is still just possible to make out the sand-swamped walls of forgotten villages that were erased by the very same Ghengis Khan.

And why, I wonder, do we so brazenly destroy the story of our own history and humanity? The Afghan hoard was damaged and pillaged during the country's civil war – the magnificent museum at Hadda, near Jalalabad, was burned after the 1979 Soviet invasion – and the Kabul National Museum was hit by a rocket and burst into flames in 1994 while being used as a military base. In Beirut, the National Museum stood on the front line throughout the 1975-1990 civil war, its Phoenician sarcophagi gashed by shell fragments. The great libraries of Sarajevo were deliberately shelled to ruins in the 1990s. The loss of Iraq's inheritance of civilisation in 2003 remains an American as well as an Iraqi disgrace.

Over the door of the Kabul museum today is a Persian quotation: "A nation stays alive when its culture and history are kept alive." But is it possible to believe that even these golden artefacts from Afghanistan will survive the 21st century in their new Kabul home? The Taliban, courtesy of the Saudis and the Pakistanis, brought deliberate destruction to the physical history of Afghanistan. And to Bagram came first the Soviet army – at their base, they taught the Afghans how to use electricity rather than nail pliers to extract information from prisoners – and to Bagram 21 years later came the Americans to waterboard their victims. From antiquity, Afghanistan obtained the culture of gold and collapsible crowns. From us, they obtained the culture of torture.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Hydrographic Survey Manager

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Structural Engineer

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Structural Engineer Job...

Generalist HR Administrator, Tunbridge Wells, Kent - £28,000.

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Generalist HR Administrator - Tunbri...

Head of IT (Not-for-Profit sector) - East Sussex

£45000 - £50000 per annum + 5 weeks holiday & benefits: Ashdown Group: Head of...

Day In a Page

Read Next
James Foley was captured in November 2012 by Isis militants  

Voices in Danger: Syria is the most dangerous country in the world for journalists

Anne Mortensen
Texas Gov. Rick Perry might try to run for president again in 2016  

Rick Perry could end up in jail for the rest of his life — so why does he look so smug?

David Usborne
Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape