Afghanistan: A Renewed Asian Heart
An exhibition has 231 pieces of exotic treasures from the third century BC to the first century AD of Afghanistan, including the delicate- made gold crown and colour- painted glass cup, displaying the country's culture and history.
An ancient kingdom on the Silk Road ripped apart by years of war, amazing treasures that survived the disaster, and a legend full of twists and turns. Afghanistan: Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul, an ongoing exhibition in the East Wing of the Tower Gallery, at the Meridian Gate of the Forbidden City brings over 200 legendary Afghanistan treasures to China for the first time. Here one can witness the glorious thousand-year culture of a country; here is a place ripped apart by years of turmoil. The country's determination continues. It will last until June.
This exhibition selected 231 pieces of exotic treasures from the third century BC to the first century AD, found at four archaeological sites of Tepe Fullol, Aï-khanum, Tilla Tepe and Begram. Among the treasures are a gold cup 4,000 years old, bronze statues and stone sculptures from ancient Greek polis relics, and over 100 gold ornaments as part of the famous Bactrian Gold. Through the exhibition, viewers not only get to appreciate various treasures and have an exotic Silk Road experience but also learn more about Afghanistan's rich history and culture.
The Unknown History of Tepe Fullol
Ancient Afghanistan was located at the juncture of South Asia, Middle Asia and West Asia. It has been an important stronghold for exchange between Eastern and Western civilisations, and a critical location on the Silk Road, hence called “The Heart of Asia.” Various cultural exchanges in Afghanistan can be seen everywhere in this exhibition as an enduring theme.
The oldest set of treasures in the exhibition proves that Afghanistan represents the convergence of different civilisations: four cups from 2200 to 1900 BC, unearthed from Tepe Fullol. Although 4,000 years have passed with vessels broken, exquisite patterns can still be seen. Researchers believe the image of a bull with beard on the patterns clearly reflect a Mesopotamian influence, but the geometric shape is in a typical Middle Asian style.
This indicates that as early as in the Bronze Age, the exchange and interaction of civilisations began here. Experts believe that the earliest human settlement in this area can date back to 7000 BC. Unfortunately, the rise and fall of civilization in this area has buried deep in the wind and sand of history, unknown to
man. These shining gold cups remain, proof of the civilisation's existence.
The Lost City of Aïkhanum
Like Tepe Fullol, Aï-khanum was once a lost city until it was found in the 1960s. In 1961 when King Mohammed Zahir Shah was hunting beside Amu Darya River near the northeastern border of Afghanistan, he saw the ancient stone pillars unearthed by local farmers and identified them right away as ancient relics of Greek style. He ordered men to conduct archaeological excavation and discovered the ruins of a large and ancient Greek city.
It turned out in the fourth century AD, Alexander the Great set off from this place and headed south for India. Some of his soldiers and their descendants chose to stay here and gradually replace the local Persian culture with Pan-hellenistic culture. The Greek sundial, Greek architecture, and gargoyle found here is in a Mediterranean style.
Among many items discovered from this area, the most arresting one is a round bronze decorative panel made in 300 BC. The gold foil has fallen off in many parts of the panel, but motley traces of gold still shine. On the panel is Cybele the Greek Goddess of Earth wearing a golden crown and riding a lion chariot toward an altar.
The driver is Nike the Goddess of Victory, with a pair of wings on her back. In the sky is the golden God of Sun, the stars and the moon. Such a pure and exquisite Greek style is rare in the world. More archaeological evidence shows that around the second century BC, this was already a cosmopolitan city for literati, priests, businessmen and military personnel.
Discovery of the Century in Tilla Tepe
The most delicate item you must see is the gold crown. Although inside a sealed box, when viewers walk by, the thin gold patches on the crown sway beautifully from vibration. Its creator not only made full use of gold to ensure its sophisticated crown was light enough, but also designed it to be separated in six parts. Even the decorative pieces can be removed. Therefore, the crown can be easily carried.
It was found in an ancient burial tomb in Tilla Tepe in the north of Afghanistan and is the best piece of Bactrian Gold. In 1978, the Russian archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi found six ancient burials of nomadic tribes. With 21,618 unearthed gold items, the discovery caused a sensation in archaeological circle and was called one of the greatest modern discoveries. These cultural relics date back to Bactria or the Bactrian Kingdom ruled by nomads. They tell a unique Afghan story: Around Year One, nomads rode their horses and left the steppes of Central Asia, passed Amu Darya River and created a new civilisation.
Their arts reflect a combination of Eastern and Western elements, and the willingness to settle wherever they go. The animal patterns on the vessels come from the Siberian wilderness, as a dancing bear can be seen with a grape vine in its mouth on a gold knife handle; on another gold sheath are Chinese elements, which is the doubledragon pattern; a gold statue of Aphrodite the Greek Goddess has a bindi between her eyebrows, an Indian style. It represents the convergence of Greek and Indian cultures.
Unfortunately, a few months after the Bactrian Gold was discovered, Afghanistan was involved in war. Staff in the National Museum of Afghanistan had to secretly move the treasures to a safe place. In the face of terrorism, violence, civil war and rumours, they remained silent and protected the location so that the relics would be spared from destruction. In 2003, these valuables finally showed up again and started their global exhibition tour, which has survived multiple disasters.
Begram and the Silk Road
Like Tilla Tepe, Begram in the northeast of Afghanistan is a place where people found large amounts of treasures in the ancient city ruins, including bronze statues from Greece, colour class cups from Rome, and lacquerwares from China in Western Han (206 BC–AD 24). The best ones are many Indian style ivory statues such as a smiling Indian goddess, ivory and bone sculptures related to Buddhist culture.
Most relics have found their way to China this time around. On a delicate colour goblet, a man and a woman are working under a palm tree, indicating a harvest season. The figures are wearing simple clothes, but this reflects the style and colour of the clothing from the time period. The glass vessels and ornaments in various shapes such as a glass dolphin, blue vase and glass fish still remain colourful and fresh after over 1,000 years, which attests to the skills of ancient craftsmen.
Begram is an important archaeological site in Afghanistan. Archaeologists found two rooms sealed over 2,000 years ago with trading goods inside. Researchers first believed these two rooms and treasures inside them to belong to the palace, but it turned out that they were large vaults built to store goods to be traded on the Silk Road. The handicrafts in the rooms reflect the high arts in Afghanistan 2,000 years ago.
With various arts, cultures and technologies, the exhibition is an insightful window to learn about Afghan civilisation. As a key point on the corridor connecting China and the west, and an important stop along the Silk Road, Afghanistan has become the heart of Central Asia where civilisations converge.
Colour-painted glass cup from Afghanistan