The bleak, vertiginous mountains rear up in serried ranks, miles and miles back to a harsh horizon. There isn’t a tree or a house, an animal track, a trace of human existence. The cruellest land, and one in which we can now only imagine a hidden Taliban rocket-launcher, a pod of silent, veiled men slipping from a cave. There’s beauty in this remote landscape, in the far north-east of Afghanistan – but it’s a kind of beauty that makes you shiver.
This is the picture that greets you, in wall-sized photographic reproduction, as you walk into the British Museum’s new exhibition Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World, which has arrived at its UK stop on a world tour of some nine western capitals, including Paris and Washington DC. The backdrop is a brilliant coup de théâtre because, as the show is about to tell us, under this harsh land lie objects of exquisite delicacy, proof of civilisations in utter contrast to the war zones familiar from our television screens. There seems to be, on the surface of this earth, no clue to the manmade riches within.
Yet 2,000 years ago, a young woman of 20 or so, about 5ft 2ins in height, was buried hereabouts, with several thousand pieces of worked gold: bracelets and headdress ornaments, golden buckles set with turquoise, hair clips and anklets, hundreds of gold pieces stitched to her clothing like the sequins on the bodice of a ballroom dancer.
Who was she – and to what other realm did she believe she would go, with all that bling around her? We know frustratingly little about her, or the others equally lavishly entombed in the necropolis at Tillya Tepe in the first century AD. That they were nomadic people makes it even more surprising, perhaps, that their riches would be permanently consigned to the earth like this: it was here that was found one of the show’s most extraordinary treasures, a complicatedly worked gold crown that actually folds up for easy carriage.
The word “extraordinary” hardly covers other aspects of Afghanistan’s past on show here. Imagine beneath this blasted land an entire Greek city, complete with amphitheatre and gymnasium, temples, palaces and courtyards. Such was the Hellenic city now known as Ai Khanum, built around 300BC in Bactria, at the very frontier of the Greek sphere of domination, a whole year’s march from Athens. Its ground plan was excavated by French archaeologists in the 1960s and a neat CGI reconstruction helps us to imagine the place, well fortified by its river and mountain boundaries and its mighty walls, while display cases show fragments of the luxurious living to be enjoyed within: gold vases, luscious bronze female figures of Indian dancing girls, the mosaics of a bathhouse.
Or Begram, the first-century summer capital of the Kushan kings, a dynasty whose power-base spread up into what is now Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and down into the Indian subcontinent as far as Varanasi. Objects found there show the extent of the trade along these important routes – as far east as China and as far west as Rome. An enamelled glass goblet, for instance, which is painted with a scene of people harvesting dates, was made in Roman Egypt and exported by sea via the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean to India, from where it would have travelled hundreds of miles overland to Begram. Who still thinks the globalisation of culture is a recent phenomenon?
Trade here included frankincense and coral, lapis lazuli and turquoise, indigo and silverware. Pearls from the Arabian sea; carnelian from north Africa. At Begram in 1937, French archaeologists made the sort of find of which they must always have dreamed: a sealed room full of treasure imported from China. And from Begram too came a set of superbly delicate carved ivories, probably Indian, and from the first century AD, which take pride of place in this show because of their emotional history. Looted from the National Museum in Kabul at some point in 1992-94, they were believed lost until an anonymous London dealer, who had spotted them on the international market and identified them, recently arranged for their return. Their restoration has been paid for by Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s conservation programme.
They are slender and fragile objects that once decorated parts of furniture – it needs the helpful reconstructions to appreciate what we are looking at. But vivid, playful details leap out: one ivory bench bracket shows a half-naked woman mounted on a rearing leogryph (a “sardula” in Indian mythology) – one of several mythological creatures here.
Such stories – of precious objects lost and found, looted or protected, hidden from the ravages of modern wars – are everywhere in this show, and it is to some extent a celebration of the heroes of Afghanistan’s cultural community, especially curators who hid objects in their homes to protect them from the vandalism of the extremists. The very first exhibit sets the tone: it’s a small limestone figure of a youth, made before 145BC, from Ai Khanum. It’s not in good shape – the head and feet are missing, and the belly area is smashed. Next to it in the vitrine stands a photograph of the piece in rather better (though far from perfect) condition, with the caption: “the statue before it was destroyed by Taliban officials in 2001”.
So we know that we are in for a slightly didactic note – but we really can’t mind about that. A video shows us the time of the Soviet occupation, when archaeological work “breaks down”, according to the commentator, and Afghanistan becomes a “place of war” rather than a place of culture. Those who know about the Afghan wars of the 19th century might think this is a rather short-term view of the country’s history – it has been a ravaged and disputed land for a long time – but in archaeological terms it is relevant, as the great majority of the finds here were made between the 1930s and the 1970s, even though some British explorers were beginning to make discoveries as early as the 1820s.
In fact the Russians themselves were among the many nations involved in Afghan archaeology, especially at an ancient site at Tepe Fullol (2200-1900BC), in the far north of the country, near mines that yielded precious lapis lazuli, where a large hoard of gold and silver vessels was found in 1965: one here shows a design of a bull similar to ancient Mesopotamian art, close to 4,000 years old. It was the first news of this sophisticated and very ancient culture.
From China to the Mediterranean, the influences reflected in this show are almost limitless. It shows how peoples always moved through this region, how cultures flourished and died, how the lands that were once rich became as barren as that stark mountain range. It’s a place still at war, but this exhibition stands as some sort of a beacon of hope. As I walked through the show, a line from TS Eliot’s The Waste Land kept ringing round my mind: “These fragments/I have shored against my ruins ...”
‘Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World’, British Museum, London WC1, until July 3, www.britishmuseum.org