Afghanistan: A Re­newed Asian Heart

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Su Yi­long, pol­ished by Mark Zuiderveld, pho­tos by Li Xiaoyin

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

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