Afghanistan has occupied a crucial strategic position in Central Asia since ancient times because of its unique geographical position. The routes of the ancient Silk Road criss-crossed Afghanistan’s valleys and mountain passes, linking ancient Greece and Rome with the great civilisations of China and India.
It has long been contested territory. Alexander the Great fought his way across the landscape where he established cities and left a lasting legacy of Greek culture. The vast empires of India and Iran battled each other across Afghanistan in the 1500s. In the 1800s, Afghanistan was the prize Britain won from Russia in the ‘Great Game’.
After 1919, Afghanistan was once again contested as Russia and Islamic groups (the Mujahedeen) fought, supported by the United States of America and Pakistan. Russia was forced to withdraw in 1989, leaving devastation in its wake. Civil war followed with the Islamic fundamentalist forces known as the Taliban taking control and destroying much of the country’s cultural heritage.
After the New York Trade Centre bombing in 2001, United States and United Nations forces invaded Afghanistan and by 2003, the Taliban had been subdued. Today, Afghanistan is looking to recover from centuries of war, working towards a positive and peaceful future.
Afghanistan has over 1,500 archaeological sites. The material in this exhibition is drawn from four key sites and spans 2,200 years – the period between 2,000 BC and AD 200.
Bronze Age gold goblet with local geometric decoration, Tepe Fullol, 2200 - 1900 BC
The gold and silver bowls from this archaeological site are over 4,000 years old. A farmer in Badakshan reported this discovery in 1996.
The objects from Tepe Fullol have given archaeologists and historians a better understanding of the Bronze Age in Afghanistan. They represent a civilisation previously unknown to scholars that must have had an impact on the major civilisations in the Indus Valley and Mesopotamia. The area was home to farmers and settlers from 7,000 BC. It was known to be rich in resources of tin and lapis lazuli but very little was known about the people.
Ai Khanum, palace excavations
Ai Khanum is the site of the architectural remains of the most northerly Greek city in the world. It was established by descendants of Alexander the Great’s soldiers left behind when Alexander headed to India. Hellenistic culture supplanted Persian influences in Bactria and survived for three hundred years. The Graeco-Bactrians were driven out by nomads in 145 BC.
In 1961 a Corinthian capital was shown to the King of Afghanistan, Mohammed Zahir Shah, while he was in the area for a hunting trip. This led French archaeologists to begin excavating the lost city in 1963. It is the only true Greco-Bactrian settlement excavated to date.
Begram excavations room 13
Begram and the Silk Road
The term ‘Silk Road’ derives from the popularity of silk (produced solely by China) as a commodity in the Roman Empire. The name evokes exotic and romantic images – camels and caravanserai, Marco Polo, adventurous merchants, marauding bandits and, of course, luxurious goods. Afghanistan was central to this network of trade routes that crossed central Asia, linking China and India with Greek and Roman settlements in the west and also with Egypt.
Begram is one of the most important archaeological sites in Afghanistan. Archaeologists found two rooms here, sealed over 2,000 years ago and filled with artefacts from all across the trade routes of the time. At first scholars thought the rooms and their rich contents were evidence of a royal palace but later research suggests they were vast storerooms of goods ready for trade along the Silk Road. Nobody knows why the owners never returned.
The objects found in the rooms reflect the high quality of artistry in Afghanistan 2,000 years ago.
Tillya Tepe Burial 1
The Bactrian Hoard at Tillya Tepe
The Afghanistan region was populated by wave after wave of Turkic and Mongol descendants –excellent horsemen and ruthless raiders epitomised in the figure of Genghis Khan. Nomadic culture and ways of life have continued on and are a source of fascination for some observers.
In 1978 Russian archaeologist Victor Sarianidi uncovered the ancient graves of six nomads together with over 21,000 gold artefacts of exquisite beauty and artistry. Presumed to be royalty, the nomads had lived between 100 BC and AD 100 and would have carried their wealth with them. The artefacts included thousands of miniscule items of jewellery and other adornments that had been sewn into their clothing.
When the Taliban came to power and began destroying works in the Kabul Museum, some brave curators hid the nomad hoard to try and preserve it. Rediscovered in 2003, this collection is travelling the world until its homeland is more stable and safe.