If you and I were to play that game where I say a word and you reply immediately with the first thing that springs to mind, and I were to say “Afghanistan”, I am 100% certain you would not shoot back with “art”. Neither you nor I would immediately associate Afghanistan with art. Not because it has never produced any, but because recent events have warped the country’s image so dramatically that issues of art feel irrelevant. Or even disrespectful.
These days, all we see encircling Kabul is a dangerous blob of violence, death, war and fundamentalism. We forget what formidable civilisations existed here once, what formidable art they made. As the chap in the video running at the entrance to the British Museum’s well-timed investigation of Afghanistan’s cultural past puts it, we forget that the past few decades in his country’s story are “a blip in time”.
Indeed we do. The explicit point made by this heartwarming display is that Afghanistan has a magnificent cultural history. The admission is worth paying merely to hear someone other than a general or a prime minister or a fundamentalist lunatic or the parent of a dead child consider the country’s lot. Throw in the unstoppable power of gold, of which there is a huge quantity on show, and you have an event no sensualist should miss. Or any truth-seeker. Or any art-lover.
Afghanistan was created by forces more powerful than the piddly ones we humans come up with, such as religion, war or trade. It was created by nature in a rumbustious mood. A set of blow-ups of the soaring mountain ranges that ring the country places us at a momentous Euro-Asian crossroads. India to the south. Persia to the west. China to the east. Uzbekistan and Russia to the north. This isn’t just a collection of mountain descents and important trade routes in waiting. It is a rocky approximation of the earth’s navel.
Afghanistan’s reward for being “the crossroads of the ancient world” was to be invaded by some of the ancient world’s most active marauders. The first was Alexander the Great, who left colonies in Herat, Kandahar and Bagram, and who paid particular attention to the settlement of Bactria, in the Oxus Valley. In 1964, a French archeological team began digging here and discovered a lost city called Ai Khanum. What should begin popping out of the ancient Afghan ground but mound after mound of Hellenistic art treasures: finely carved Aphrodites, gold cups decorated with Dionysus, precisely minted imperial coins, muscular statues of Hercules? The surprised French archeologists had happened on a mini Greece.
Although the BM is keen to show off this surprising Greek booty in a positive light as it broadcasts the good news about Afghanistan, the first object you actually encounter here, the finely carved torso of a youth from the necropolis at Ai Khanum, is a poignant fragment. When the Taliban took over, its fanatics forced their way into the National Museum in Kabul and destroyed the rest of the statue. Off with his head. Off with his penis. Off with his arms and legs.
None of the so-called barbarians who passed though Afghanistan in the past was ever as fully guilty of barbarism as the Taliban. In 2001, when they blew up the giant paradigms of peacefulness that were the Bamiyan Buddhas, the Taliban made it perfectly clear they were a modern evil working for the devil. Although this show dwells on none of that, it never lets you forget it, either. The heroism of the museum staff who saved all these artefacts by hiding them in secret corners of Kabul is celebrated in a poignant wall text. Without them, none of this would be here.
The art itself is so insistently broken and fragmentary that you find yourself extending particularly warm welcomes to the few pieces that remain complete. Ancient Afghanistan owed its wealth and its prominence to its central position on the Silk Road. If the Greeks are surprising visitors, so too are the happy Indian sensualists who carved the topless female figures found in the 1930s in Bagram, at the foot of the Hindu Kush. Carved out of Indian ivory, the Bagram goddesses are part of a spectacular hoard of international art treasure found in two sealed rooms on a site known as the New Royal City.
The latest thinking about the Bagram treasures is that they represent high-quality stock kept by rich merchants on the Silk Road. From Rome, they imported the most sophisticated painted glass being made anywhere in the world. There was beautiful lacquer, too, from China, imperial porphyry from Egypt and rock-crystal goblets decorated, exquisitely, with more tales of Dionysus. Above all were these unique Indian ivories, dating from the 1st century AD, showing goddesses and dancing girls bursting buxomly out of dense architectural frameworks. Let me repeat that date: the 1st century AD. While we in Britain were just entering our woad phase, the ancient Afghans were importing and making some of the world’s most sophisticated art. Someone from somewhere even created an illusionistic bronze bowl around which mechanical fish would swim. With moveable tails!
Islam, of course, plays no part in this potent history. This show celebrates earlier and truer traditions. Today, though, with China roaring, India growling and Russia thumping her chest, the world seems to be returning to an international power structure that is recognisably closer to the one that shaped ancient Afghanistan. As a quick skip through the FT will make clear.
While you’re at it, look up the price of gold. It will help you to appreciate the value of what you are staring at when you enter this show’s final and best stretch: the section devoted to what the Incas called “the sweat of the gods”. It is some time since I saw a display of gold as intoxicating and tongue-yanking as this. It was rescued by Russian archaeologists from a series of tombs discovered in Tillya Tepe — the Hill of Gold — in 1978. Whereas the rest of the show has a fragile sense of preciousness to it that tests your appreciation of the value of fragments, the gold of Tillya Tepe requires little sensitivity: dark glasses might be more useful.
Gold crowns, belts, plates, earrings, bracelets, rings; a gold belt of unimaginable size and intricacy, featuring yet another mounted Dionysus; a dagger of scary beauty made of gold inlaid with turquoise. The Scythian settlers who created this beautiful stash have been lumbered in the past with a dismissive array of titles: Asian hordes, aggressive nomads, ruthless invaders.
Amazingly, the first two centuries AD, when all this great art was made, are still known locally as the dark period. But you need to be blind to see anything on show here as a product of darkness.