Even after eight years and counting of violent engagement with Afghanistan, few know the depth of Afghan history. Somehow, this onetime crossroads of the Silk Road has been ignored by the West for the majority of the modern era. The art exhibit “Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul,” put together by the National Geographic Society and currently touring North America, offers an excellent introduction to that colorful history and a chance to view some extraordinary art. Due to its location and large deposits of precious resources, Afghanistan’s history is in equal measure astounding and horrific. Its Central Asian glory--amazing location, lush green hills, and lots of gold–has seduced Westerners from Alexander the Great to Leonid Brezhnev - and most recently, George W. Bush. Once viewed as a quick means to avenge Middle Eastern terrorism, the American mission in Afghanistan is quickly falling into the same trap that has ensnared past invasions of this war-hardened country. Ralph White wrote in Political Psychology in 1990 that aggressors lose largely because they “fail to expect the fierce, tenacious resistance of their victims” due to “a lack of realistic empathy.”
Afghanistan’s culture of tenacity and incredible natural resources have been combined to produce a wealth of art. The pieces of art, which were displayed at the Met until September, offered an amazing variety, diversity, and grandeur. The art, all from about 4,000 years ago, comes from four ancient Afghan sites that were either excavated or in the process of being excavated when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. These treasures were housed in Kabul’s National Museum of Afghanistan, but the Museum suffered heavily from Soviet bombing in the 1970s and 1980s. Courageous museum workers saved a small fraction of the precious art during the initial bombing, hiding it in the sealed vaults of the Presidential palace. Thought to be lost, the artwork was uncovered in 2003, intact.
While the works on display are heavily influenced by Persian, Indian, and Greek art, all are distinctly Afghan. Especially noteworthy were artifacts from Begram, a major city along the Silk Road that flourished during the first and second centuries. An Aphrodite figurine was found at Begran surrounded by images of Persian deities, complete with Indian beauty mark and wings made of gold from Bactria. Additionally, the exhibit included artifacts from Tepe Fullol, a Bronze Age civilization that engaged in trade with Mesopotamia, India, and the Northern Steppes. A bowl with geometric designs excavated at Tepe Fullol dates back 7,000 years.
The most stupendous, awe-inspiring works are from the burial site of Tillya Tepe. Tillya Tepe was once a burial mound for a warrior and five princesses from a nomadic Central Asian clan. Within the mound, luscious gold jewelry, belts, and decorations surround them. A collapsible solid gold crown was made for each of the princesses so that it could be more easily packed.
Upon entering this section of the exhibit, the low lighting makes sense—absolutely everything is gold, with a bit of turquoise thrown in. It appears to have been retrieved directly from the center of the earth and brought to emanate warmth, eliciting awe that man could have wrought such beauty.
Not only do these objects display the cultural wealth of Afghanistan, but they also reflect the culture of the ancient world. Putting aside their staggering beauty, it seems as if the curators of this exhibit recognized that the power of these objects lie predominantly in the lessons that they might teach a Western audience. By placing heavy emphasis on gold, the curators indicate that Afghans, then and now, cannot be erased, though terror in their country might be.
The Afghan culture, indeed, is tenacious, after centuries of war. Their nation has been under siege longer than the span of American history. The curators of this exhibit have not only brought together a stunning array of art, but they forced their predominantly American audience to contemplate the brevity of American hegemony in the context of the culture whose art speaks of history, and richness in all senses.