The hidden beauty of Afghanistan

Maureen Corrigan
Summary 
The latest exhibition at the Melbourne Museum is Afghanistan, Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul. The treasures are from four of the 1,500 archeological sites in Afghanistan. They show a rich mix of cultures from Greek, Roman, Indian, Chinese and local Bactrian, going back over 4,000 years. The treasures, thought lost or destroyed were re-discovered in 2003, safely hidden. For over 30 years, the country has been in chaos. Art such as these treasures could be at risk again in the future.
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Maureen Corrigan on 24/05/2013
An ornate golden crown
crown

The crown of a princess, buried at Tillya Tepe in northern Afghanistan.

Despite its recent reputation for war and strife, Afghanistan is home to some of the most beautiful and complex archaeology in the world. This turbulent country is central to the old Silk Road trade routes, which once linked Asia to the Middle East. It has been continuously inhabited for at least the last 8,000 years.

I have just been to the latest exhibition at the Melbourne Museum called Afghanistan, Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul. The exhibition is on an international tour and is visiting the Melbourne Museum until 28 July this year.

The treasures

There are over 1,500 major archeological sites in Afghanistan. The pieces in this exhibition are from four of the most northern sites and include some of the most remarkable archeological finds in Central Asia. The most ancient of these four sites, Tepe Fullol, is over 4,000 years old. During the Bronze Age, its inhabitants left behind decorated gold bowls, now in fragments, as well as a beautiful golden goblet. The other three sites are more recent, aged at approximately 2,000 years.

The Greek city site, Ai-Khanoum, gives us treasures dating back to 250 BC, during the early trading period of the Silk Road. Within this visiting collection you'll find sculptures, drinking vessels, parts of buildings and furniture, statuettes and decorative plates. They are made from a wide range of precious and semi-precious materials, including gold, bronze, silver and ivory as well as more common materials such as limestone, stone, terracotta and alabaster. These objects typify the classical Greek style, successfully melded with local ideas, products, traditions and culture.

From the site of the ancient city of Bagram there are the contents of two sealed storerooms. Discovered 80 years ago and sealed away for 2,000 years, these objects date from the first century AD. This collection includes ancient glassware, art, precious objects and decorative furniture. Many of these show a vibrant mixture of Roman, Indian, Chinese and local Bactrian influences.

The site where most of the objects in the exhibition were found is Tillya Tepe or 'Golden Mound', a burial site near the northern city of Sheberghan. Surveyed in 1979, the site contained more than 20,000 individual gold and precious stone artifacts in six burial sites. Many of these items are very small, but highly intricate. One burial mound held a princess with her crown; a nomadic gold headpiece that could be disassembled for travel. All of the people buried here had jewels on them, both worn separately and applied to their clothes as elaborate decoration.

Discovered, displayed, hidden and saved

With the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the rise of the militant separatist groups in 1996 came warfare, looting and widespread destruction. Unfortunately, this also included damage to the National Museum in Kabul. Everyone thought that the artifacts touring in this exhibition, many of which had mysteriously gone missing from the Kabul museum, had been lost forever. It was not until 2003 that the director and curators of the museum revealed the secret of where they had been hidden. At great personal risk, these brave individuals had moved most of the artifacts to the vaults of the central bank in the Presidential Palace, saving them from unscrupulous looters.

These remarkable treasures, through lifelike images, elaborate styles and beautifully crafted materials, show a life rich with a mix of cultures from the past. It is worth remembering that this is both Afghanistan's, and our, ancient past. One of the aims of this exhibition is to broaden people's views and to show another side of Afghanistan, different to the one so often reported in the world's media.

The future

After 30 years of strife in Afghanistan, travelling exhibitions help raise awareness of the difficulties this country faces as it attempts to rebuild. The current government is trying to strengthen Afghanistan's cultural heritage with a revival of the arts and a rekindling of national pride in the ancient past. The National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul has now been rebuilt. Conservators are restoring and recovering other works of art. And at the end of this tour, the Afghani authorities hope to return these treasures to Afghanistan for permanent exhibition. The motto of the new museum is 'a nation stays alive when its culture stays alive'. It is my fervent hope that they succeed and create a new era of respect and tolerance for Afghanistan's historical and cultural identity.

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