It’s like a scene that reads from an adventure movie. Hillsides littered with gold artefacts, prized ornaments, bricked up hoards of glassware, and tombs of an esteemed warrior and his princesses. ‘Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul’ is a discovery trail of centuries-old riches. However, this exhibition also shows a side of Afghanistan that many Australians don’t usually see.
Not only can visitors find a treasure trove of gold and precious artefacts here. They can walk through Afghanistan’s history as a central hub along the Silk Road trade route during a time when ruler Alexander the Great was roaming the earth. The exhibition is also, importantly, the cultural legacy of a team of “key-holders” from the National Museum in Kabul who risked their lives to hide thousands of priceless pieces during some of Afghanistan’s darkest days of war in recent times.
Across four intriguing rooms, each representing significant archaeological sites discovered in northern Afghanistan, ‘Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul’ brings its visitors closer to the secrets of Afghanistan’s Silk Road and cultural roots, and the suspense surrounding the ancient region of Bactria.
Visitors step into Tepe Fullol, originally an urban settlement that existed over 6,000 years ago. Remnants of this settlement, nestled on the banks of the Oxus River, reveal a time when the rugged, arid mountain ranges of the Hindu Kush were tamed by farming methods. During the Bronze Age, settlers took advantage of natural resources on hand, such as copper, tin, gold, and garnet, to expand their villages into thriving, urbanised areas for fortified buildings. Limestone carvings from ancient façades tell of the opulence and intricacy of this area that was built by wealthy farmers.
Aï Khanum is where visitors witness Greek influence in this part of Afghanistan. At this eastern Silk Road outpost, archaeologists discovered a city that replicated Greek urban plans. A gymnasium was found, a beacon of knowledge represented by an impressive double-sided sundial that’s on show among valuable sculptures, bowls, spouts and chair legs carved out of ivory. A ceremonial plate, depicting the Greek goddess Cybele, is one of the oldest pieces in the collection and a symbol of a time when people died without regret.
This extravagant city also revealed a flourishing, cosmopolitan setting; a destination for people to share artistic and cultural influences, confirmed by artefacts exhibiting Indian influences. During this time, from about 328BC, the Silk Road was operating at its optimum – traders rapidly buying and selling luxury goods from faraway lands. Aï Khanum, or ‘Lady Moon’, thrived until about 145BC when it was looted by nomads from Central Asia.
The ancient city of Begram became another point of excitement for archaeologists when a merchant house was discovered during excavations in the 1930s and 1940s. Rooms were crammed with trade objects, bronze, glassware and stone, indicating the city’s importance as a manufacturing and trade centre that extended as far as the Ganges River Valley.
Each room was bricked up, and it was assumed that merchants were to return to gather their valuable goods. But they never did. What they left behind was a bounty of timeless items such as blown glass vessels shaped as fishes, drinking horns, drinking cups, vases depicting scenes of battle and date harvesting. One enamelled glass drinking vessel stands proudly in a cabinet, its colourful artwork reminiscent of Roman Egypt. A bronze aquarium, complete with moving parts, is another genius piece for visitors to wonder over.
Tillya Tepe, meaning ‘Hill of Gold', provides visitors to the exhibition even more splendour, opulence and amazement. When archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi discovered this site, he was plucking gold hair pendants and jewellery out from the hills with his fingers. What he also uncovered was a series of tombs, each housing a high-ranking nomadic warrior and his five princesses. One princess was found in a coffin carved from a single log, indicating her Central Asian origins. These corpses were found adorned and lying in state ready for an afterlife.
It’s not known how these esteemed nomads died, but it was clear that nomads from this era wore their wealth and were open to influences during their travels. So, it was natural for Sarianidi and his team to discover pieces embodying a culmination of Indian, Roman, Siberian and Chinese styles made from gold, turquoise and precious gems. What’s also surprising about the pieces on display here, from gold shoe soles to an elaborate collapsible crown and a rare iron and gold dagger, is the scale of objects discovered. More gold was found in these tombs than in the tomb of Egyptian Pharaoh King Tutankhamun.
After his excavation of the area in the late 1970s, Sarianidi was forced to flee Afghanistan due to war. These treasures were later transferred from the National Museum in secret and housed in vaults at the Presidential Palace and Ministry of Information and Culture by a group of museum workers, named the “key-holders”. The workers, determined to save what was left of Afghanistan’s history and culture, feared the collection would be vulnerable to looting. The collection remained in these in vaults, in safety and secrecy, during civil war and Taliban rule. It wasn’t until 2003 that this secret was revealed to the world.
There is a strong, underlying theme in this exhibition, that Afghanistan’s history is “an encounter of peoples, ideas and beliefs”. And, it’s an exhibition that signals Afghanistan’s heritage being slowly returned and restored. By the time visitors to this exhibition reach the exit, they can reflect on Afghanistan’s culture by viewing enlarged photos of traditional life in Afghanistan. It’s hoped that at the conclusion of the exhibition’s international tour, the treasures are returned to the restored National Museum in Kabul and housed permanently there.
It was said by one key-holder that “a nation stays alive when its culture stays alive”. The rich story unravelled in ‘Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul’ is one bold and significant step in achieving this.
‘Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul’ runs from now until July 28, 2013 at Melbourne Museum. Adults $24, concession $16, children $14, MV members $14. Tickets are on sale by phoning 13 11 02 or via Melbourne Museum's website.