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Crossroads of culture

Published Jun 7, 2011

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Afghanistan’s critical position in the Middle East was evident even when the ancients walked the Silk Road, and it remains so today. Landlocked it may be, but whoever controls those high, inaccessible passes controls a pivotal axis of the area.

Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World reveals the melting pot of cultures the country has always been. Taken from treasures the world thought lost forever when the museum in Kabul was repeatedly looted after the Soviet invasion in 1979 and in the civil war which followed, it shows the rich heritage of this forbidding place.

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In fact, a handful of officials from the National Museum of Afghanistan – at great danger to their own lives – had concealed the treasures now on display to preserve them for future generations.

While the museum in Kabul is undergoing reconstruction these works are travelling around the world, and are at the British Museum in London until July 17.

In a happy footnote, a large collection of priceless ivories that was stolen from Kabul has been given back to the Afghan museum by an anonymous British donor.

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The work is taken from four archaeological sites, all clustered in a remote northern corner of the country. From Tepe Fullol are beaten gold cups dating from 2200BC, providing evidence of a wealthy Bronze Age civilisation in the region.

At a year’s march from Athens, archaeologists found evidence of an entire Greek city at the furthest edge of Alexander the Great’s empire. The artefacts from Ai Khanum include the classical lines of columns, Corinthian capitals, the leer of a Grecian waterspout and a sundial from the gymnasium.

The ancient city of Begram sits at the heart of the Silk Road and in the late 1930s archaeologists discovered two sealed chambers in its royal palace. This spectacular collection of objects probably represents the hoarded treasure of the Kushan rulers and includes some of the most important antiquities discovered in Afghanistan. They came from across the known world and we can see bronze artefacts of Roman origin, glassware decorated with Bacchanalian scenes, Chinese lacquerware, polished alabaster vessels from Egypt and a drinking cup of rock crystal, finely etched with vine leaves.

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The most precious finds, however, show the influence of Indian art in intricate ivory carvings of mythological scenes which were inlaid in wooden furniture.

The treasure trove of golden jewellery from the nomadic tombs of Tillya Tepe is the highlight of the exhibition. Little is known about the people who wore these extravagant displays of wealth, and even less about why nomads would have kept such stores of gold.

Five women and a male warrior left behind 20 000 pieces of jewellery, including golden shoe soles, buckles inlaid with turquoise cupids, shimmering appliques that would have been worked onto their burial garments, brooches, bracelets, earrings and necklaces.

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The style merges influences from Greece, Central Asia and Persia in art that was indigenous to the Steppes.

The detail is often astonishing, such as the tiny Bactrian Aphrodite with an Indian dot between her eyebrows, the intricate work on an inlaid dagger or the friezes of the Dragon Master and the Mistress of the Animals.

The crowning glory is a portable crown: five tree decorations with leaves and flowers fluttering on them, which could be detached from the headband.

In a country still at war, one hopes these treasures will be safely preserved in their new home. - Sunday Independent

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