Review: Afghanistan exhibition at the British Museum

Soldiers, explosions, rubble and distraught victims are the first images that usually spring to mind in association with Afghanistan. However, the British museum’s current exhibition, Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World, is now offering a chance to rebuild foreign perceptions of this country by showcasing rare artefacts from its prosperous, ancient past.

The exhibition is clearly laid out with the objects grouped into the four different excavation sites that they were found at: Tepe Fullol, Ai Khanum, Begram and Tillya Tepe. The excavation site at Tepe Fullol has produced some of the earliest finds from Afghanistan, dating from as far back as 2200 BC while the other three sites have provided evidence of life in Hellenistic and first century AD Afghanistan.

One of the most striking features about the exhibition is the cultural diversity of the artefacts, which is the result of both Afghanistan’s ancient position as the centre of the ‘silk road’ (major trading routes between Asian and the Mediterranean) and the effect of Alexander the Great’s quest for domination of the east. It was a visual feast to see that side by side with a hemispherical Greek sundial were ivory furniture legs carved in the shape of the Indian goddess Ganga, Roman enamel beakers (made in Egypt, of course) colourfully decorated with harvesting and hunting scenes, a Buddhist coin with Hellenistic influences and glass fish flasks that have no other parallel in the ancient world.

The grand finale to the exhibition is the gold on display from Tillya Tepe (which aptly translates to ‘the hill of gold’). Uncovered at this site were the tombs of six nomads, one man and five women, who were buried with a multitude of intricately cut gold jewellery, many pieces inlaid with turquoise. It was pleasing to note that the women had items such as clasps decorated with warriors and the ‘Mistress of animals’ pendent; it seemed to me to hint at a fierce side which would have been fitting for their nomadic lifestyle.

My favourite piece from this section though had to be the gold crown composed of a design of trees covered in flowers, which is being used on the exhibition posters to lure viewers in. I would not normally lose my heart to such an obvious item but what the posters do not tell you is that the crown can be dismantled. The absurd practicality of having a status item that can be flat packed combined with the rogue thought that this crown was the upmarket forerunner to Ikea, brought a smile to my face.

What gave these artefacts a real edge though and made viewing them a particularly special experience was the story of how they came to be saved. Five brave archaeologists hid the treasures on display in a vault, each had a key and all five keys were needed to open it, therefore if just one had given up his key to the Taliban, the treasures would not be here today.

In fact I liked that this exhibition did not try to hide away its modern history behind its ancient past. A video at the start relates how excavations were halted and priceless artefacts were looted during the twentieth and twenty-first century. As you left the exhibition, dazzled by the gold from Tillya Tepe, there is a final display, a sort of epilogue, which contains a board with information on how Afghanistan is going forward to preserve its cultural heritage.

What is more, there is violence hinted at in the glorious ancient past: Alexander the Great’s conquering army swept through Afghanistan; Ai Khanum fell and was pillaged by invading nomads, and what exactly killed the six people buried in their prime at Tillya Tepe?

As you leave the exhibition, a quote on the wall reads ‘A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive’. Certainly, the staggering beauty and cultural variety of the artefacts in this exhibition, and the story behind their preservation, indicates that Afghanistan should hold its head high still. I highly recommend that you take advantage of this rare opportunity to see these treasures and learn more about this country.

Ploy’s highlights to look out for:

Base to Kineas’ funerary monument, Ai Khanum – The base stone to this stele has an inscription in Greek on it that I particularly liked:

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.

Enamel beakers, Begram – There are three of these on display, found at Begram, and after the crown they are my favourite items in the exhibit. Each of the beakers has different scenes painted onto them in colourful detail: one shows a woman in an orchard, with two men harvesting the grapes and the goddess Isis looking on; the second glass shows warriors battling who are thought to be Achilles and Hector and the third shows a hunting scene with exotic creatures such as a tiger and an ibex racing across the glass. The Egyptian, Indian and Greek influences depicted on these Roman artefacts found in Afghanistan shows that these great ancient cultures collided and fused together which, for me, heightened the exoticness of the ancient world.

Ivory furniture, Begram – The exquisite ivory panels and furniture brackets on display decorated a sofa and footstool found sealed in a room in the palace at Begram and seem Indian in style. The panels are intricately carved with sensuous, round breasted women, clad only in jewellery, who are depicted laughing or dancing doorways. A furniture bracket meanwhile is a similarly naked female riding the leogryph, a mythical hybrid of lion and griffin. Look out for the woman brashly breastfeeding her baby. Is this symbol of fertility juxtaposed with the eroticism of the nubile females meant to be seductive? What does this say about our own attitudes towards sex and parenthood?

Indian Lady Ganga furniture legs – Try and work out which parts of her are meant to be which animal. It was also fascinating to learn that a similar piece had been found at Pompeii.

Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World is showing until 3rd July 2011

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