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Embassy in the News

Silent Survivors of Afghanistan’s 4,000 Tumultuous Years


WASHINGTON — Art objects inspire many reactions, perhaps most crucially acts of preservation or destruction. From 1979 to late 2001, destruction had the upper hand in Afghanistan. The Soviet-Afghan war, the ensuing civil war and finally the pernicious rule of the Taliban inflicted incalculable losses on active archaeological sites and ancient monuments and artworks.

In March 2001 the world watched helplessly as the Taliban blew up the two giant Buddhas carved from existing rock that had faced each other across the Bamiyan Valley for 1,500 years. The progressive destruction of the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul was less blatant but equally tragic. Its collection of 100,000 artworks and artifacts — one of the finest in Asia — spanned several millenniums of Afghanistan’s rich, multicultural history.

The museum suffered looting, bombing, fire; the Taliban ordered destruction of all depictions of the human figure. By the time they were driven from power in November 2001, the Kabul museum had lost two-thirds of its collection. (Since then the museum has been safe, although looting continues outside Kabul.)

But isolated acts of preservation and some lucky circumstances also prevailed. In 1988 a small group of the Kabul museum’s staff hid crates packed with about 600 of its most precious artworks in the vault of the presidential palace. No one was sure how these crates had fared until 2004, when they were retrieved with their contents intact.

Around 200 of these works are in “Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures From the National Museum, Kabul,” at the National Gallery of Art here. At once revelatory and heart-rending, this show, making a four-city American tour, has much to tell about Afghanistan, past and present.

The objects in the exhibition date from 2200 B.C. to around the second century A.D., that is, from the Bronze Age to the height of the Kushan Empire, which reached nearly across Asia and deep into the Indian subcontinent. Included are Indian ivories, Roman-Egyptian glass vessels, Greek and Greco-Bactrian bronzes and carved stone, as well as a trove known as the golden hoard of Bactria, an ancient empire in northern Afghanistan.

The combination offers a picture of Afghan cosmopolitanism, which was fed by the trade routes of the Silk Road, and the ethnic diversity resulting from invasions and peaceful migrations alike. Structured to focus on four important excavation sites, this show is the latest phase in a close working relationship between the National Geographic Society and the Kabul museum. It has been organized by the society in collaboration with the National Gallery and overseen by Fredrik Hiebert, a National Geographic Society fellow.

It begins and ends with gold objects separated by more than two millenniums. The first group consists of three rare Bronze Age gold bowls, one intact and fragments of two others. They were found in 1972 at a single site, Tepe Fullol, in northeastern Afghanistan, but their very different styles reflect influences from across Asia. The designs on the intact bowl are abstract, a square divided by an X; each quadrant contains a stepped square found on artifacts from Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. One bowl fragment is strictly local, with motifs of a wild boar, trees and mountains. The other fragment features a majestic bearded bull, an image common to Mesopotamia, 1,200 miles to the west.

Subsequent displays contain objects from the Greco-Bactrian city of Ai Khanum, founded in 300 B.C. by a follower of Alexander the Great and excavated by French archaeologists from 1964 to 1978. (Destined for Kabul’s Institute of Archaeology, which was completely destroyed, these finds survived, unnoticed, in crates that never got farther than the Ministry of Information and Culture in Kabul.) This gallery contains two leafy Corinthian capitals; lidded, partitioned bowls (for unguents and perfumes); and a full-length statue of a man named Stratos who grasps the folds of his robe in one hand, a gesture that might have influenced centuries of statues of Buddhist sculptures.

The showstopper in this section is a large ceremonial plaque in silver and gold from the third century B.C. that might have been part of Alexander’s entourage. It represents Cybele, the Greek goddess of nature, riding in a chariot driven by the winged goddess Nike, seen in profile. Their high, lion-drawn chariot seems Syrian, but the naturalism of the figures is largely Greek. This naturalism is at its best in the priest who walks behind the chariot, carrying a large parasol. He leans back with his head tilted up — making sure the deities are properly shaded — in a pose that has the alert springiness of a circus juggler. Also marvelous: the gold rocks and incised flowers underfoot.

This show is, in a sense, a bundle of good news that only gets better. The largest and most diverse gallery contains objects found in two sealed rooms in the ancient ruins of Begram in the late 1930s. Whether they represent a king’s treasure or a merchant’s stock has not been determined, but the loveliness of many of the Greco-Roman bronzes (a small, youthful head of Silenus that could be from the Renaissance); the Egyptian-Roman glass (clear, opaque, painted, elaborately fretted); and the turned porphyry vessels is beyond dispute.

Best of all, these displays attest to the survival of nearly all the Kabul museum’s revered Begram ivories. Whether made in India or locally, these small reliefs, used to decorate furniture, are exquisite. Deeply carved, they resemble gods and goddesses of Hindu temple sculpture. But the scenes here are miniature and worldly, dominated by curvaceous women unaccompanied by men (or gods); they enjoy one another’s company — sharing gossip, jokes or maybe wine — among elaborately carved archways and grills, and surrounded by opulent plants in gardens whose gates are left tantalizingly ajar.

If gold is your thing, the show’s final galleries will be your idea of heaven. These contain the extraordinary jewelry, weapons, coins and clothing ornaments found in six royal graves (of five princesses and one prince) dating from the first century A.D. They were discovered in 1978 by an Afghan-Soviet archaeological team led by Viktor Sarianidi at Tillya Tepe in Bactria and hurriedly excavated in the months before the Soviet invasion.

All the objects here are thought to have been made in a single Bactrian workshop and bespeak a culture that, like the Mongols’, wore its wealth, mostly sewn onto clothing in appliqués small and large, single or lavishly repeated, abstract and figurative. The most elaborate bow to mobility is an ingenious crown with five points — each a cut-out tree motif dangling scores of tiny gold, leaflike discs — that can be taken apart quickly and packed flat.

Some of the pieces show a blending of cultural influences like nothing else in the exhibition. A small solid-gold Aphrodite that was once decorated with little pine-nut pieces of turquoise has a Greek “Winged Victory” drape, sickle-shaped wings and an Indian beauty mark, as well as a soft, rounded face; slightly saucy pose; and squat body that abandons the Greek ideal of female beauty for something more subcontinental. She might almost have danced straight out of a Bollywood movie poster.

Often, in the cosseted quarters of a museum, we forget that every work of ancient art is a survivor, a representative of untold numbers of similar artworks that perished. This triumphant exhibition makes us remember, while demonstrating that every survivor saves much more than just itself: long strands of culture, identity and history waiting to be woven back together.

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