By Tijen Horoz
When I tell you that I am going to talk about Afghanistan what are your first thoughts? The Taliban? Islamic extremism? War? Some of you may think further back to the Soviet invasion of 1979, the Civil War before that or Afghanistan’s reputation as a hotspot for hashish on the famous Hippie Trail. The chances are that, because of Afghanistan’s modern history many of us would not think of an ancient land, an important route on the Silk Road, a melting pot of cultures and peoples, a land seeped in history and art. That is why the British Museum’s Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World has come at exactly the right time. The exhibition, which gives us the opportunity to see some of the treasures that survived the Taliban, Communist invasion and civil war, is a much needed reminder of the richness of Afghanistan’s pre-modern past.
The exhibit begins with a video which talks about our perceptions of Afghanistan now and the attempts of many hard-working archaeologists and historians to uncover Afghanistan’s more ancient past. After so many of Afghanistan’s remarkable artefacts, texts and sculptures have been destroyed, (let us not forget that it was this country that once housed the two largest examples of standing Buddha carvings in the world before they were blown up by the Taliban), you cannot help but feel a great sense of privilege in being so close to surviving examples of Afghanistan’s rich history.
The items are displayed in accordance with a timeline that reveals, as do the items themselves, the many different cultures that have influenced Afghanistan at one time or another. And it is this fusion of cultures, beliefs and ideologies that is the most fascinating aspect of Afghanistan. As an important stop on the ancient Silk Road trading route that stretched all the way from Europe to Far East Asia, Afghanistan was, like all of the countries along this route, a multicultural melting-pot of people and a witness to the mixing of the artistic, ideological and linguistic influences of many different peoples.
This is presented very well by the British Museum and as you make your way around the exhibits you become more and more aware that the concepts of multiculturalism and aspects of globalisation, always assumed to be modern constructs are in fact hundreds of years old. The mind boggles at the sheer scale of movement between Europe, the Middle East and Asia at a time when there were no cars, trains or aeroplanes and one is even more overwhelmed by the fusion of cultural and religious influences brought about by interaction through trade and commerce. Brought over for our viewing from the National Museum in Kabul are beautiful examples of Ivory jewellery and furniture, inlaid with scenes from well-known Indian myths, glassware depicting the Trojan Wars, representations of Cupid and Dionysus and even a gold brooch of the goddess Aphrodite sporting a Hindu bindi. Examples of Mesopotamian and Persian influences are also abundant, particularly in the pottery displays. Marvelling at these items I recalled my wonder at spotting a depiction of the Greek mythical winged horse, Pegasus in a Buddhist fresco in Dunhuang, North –Western China. Looking at the rare and much-sought after Lapis Lazuli stone found in a few of the items in the exhibition I was reminded of, when in those same Buddhist grottoes in Dunhuang, our guide informed us that the brilliant blue in some of the frescoes was achieved through the use of Lapis Lazuli, imported all the way from Afghanistan.
The exhibition captures perfectly the magic of the Silk Road and Afghanistan’s role as a crossroads of the Ancient world, absorbing the many influences of those who passed through it and using these influences, to inform its own culture.
As I attended the exhibition on its opening night it was very crowded especially for such a small space and the price for non-members was dearer than the current entry fee of £10 so now is definitely the time to go if you want to avoid the crowds and get in for a more reasonable price. Although I was slightly disappointed that the price of an exhibition, that I believe is so important for people to see, made it less accessible to everyone I must commend the British Museum for housing an exhibition that seeks to encourage people to look past the troubles of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, to look past the Marxists, the Soviets, the Taliban and the British occupation to the rich tapestry that is Afghanistan’s history.
Peoples’ responses to the mention of Afghanistan should not just be ones of fear or pity. It is a country that has played a remarkable role in world history and exhibitions like this one highlight that. And maybe that is an important part of the healing process. My feelings upon leaving the exhibition ranged from awe to frustration at not being able to go there myself, but the overall feeling was one of hope that a country with such a rich heritage has no choice but to find its feet again.
The British Museum exhibition, ‘Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World’, has been extended until 17th July 2011.
Tijen Zahide Horoz graduated from King’s College London in 2009 with a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and Language. She is now studying for an MA in Turkish and Middle Eastern Studies at the School of African and Oriental Studies.
Photo credits: Pair of bracelets terminating in lion heads (Tillya Tepe, Tomb VI), 1st entury BC-1st century AD gold and turquoise, National Museum of Afghanistan. Copyright Thierry Ollivier / Musee Guimet
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