Rare artifacts from the National Museum at Kabul, shown at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art recently, brought alive the ancient civilisation of Afghanistan.

“Afghanistan: Hidden treasures from the National Museum, Kabul”, is as the title implies a showing of the most beautiful, rare and magnificent pieces from that country's premier museum. As one enters the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York one is accosted by a wall size photograph of the ramparts of the ancient town of Balkh, mud ramparts built on techniques from the Bronze ages, these are bathed in copper light.

Within these “Hidden Treasures” are some of the most remarkable archaeological finds in all of Central Asia. There are four collections here from different discoveries and time zones but together in this exhibit they throw light on our ancient shared past with those of the Afghan people.

The Oxus civilisation is represented by four golden fragments of bowls with geometric motifs and the rest with those of bulls and a boar. These were discovered in a place called Tepe Fullol and historians of this period have found links of this civilisation with that of the Indus Valley and Mesopotamia. Around 2200 BCE to 2000 BCE, there would have been trade and interactions between these highly developed cultures.

Marvellous survivors

The Greek colony at Ai Khanum was established after Alexander departed for India in 327 BCE. At the site of Ai Khanum, the Afghan king Zahir Shah in the 1960s on a hunting expedition saw a large Corinthian capital of a pillar and then invited French archaeologists to work on the site which they did.

There existed a wonderful town laid out with palaces, gardens and a gymnasium and amphitheatre.Discovered here is a comical water spout in the shape of a Greek theatre mask, pottery, Corinthian capitals, and statues of Hercules and a ceremonial plate of gilded silver representing the Greek goddess Cybele with Nike in her golden chariot drawn by lions. From the gymnasium survives a pillar with a carved and detailed sculpture of a teacher surmised to be one Strato who is supposed to have funded and rebuilt the gymnasium.

Next came the hoard from Begram which was at the heart of the Silk Road. At the site of Begram a hoard of these treasures were discovered when two rooms were found bricked up. Archaeologists who worked on the site speculate it could have been a wealthy merchant who hoarded his treasures and then left or was killed or forgot about it and it became a group of objects for the world to see what was traded then.

Ivory legs carved with beauties of the world on makaras, a series of flat ivories with women in various stages of shringara and domesticity and a very striking posture of a shalabhanjikasimilar to the gate at Sanchi are amongst the treasures here. A series of Greco-Bactrian plaster moulds with Greek imagery of Aphrodite, Eros and Ganymede amongst others are there to make moulds or casts. Glass of the finest translucence in the shape of fishes for perfumes or storage of unguents, bowls in the technique of mille flori or thousand flowers, bronze statues used as weights for trading, young riders cast perfectly with details of their bodies and a wonderful jug made in ceramic of a mythical bird with an anjali mudra. The fourth and final section is the gold of Tilliya Tepe, an ancient burial site where a nomadic group of six ancient people was found buried with many gold and turquoise ornaments. This has been known as the Bactrian hoard. In glass cases is displayed the core collection from nearly 22000 pieces discovered in 1978 by Viktor Ivanovich Sarianidi the Russian researcher for the Royal Academy of Science.

Precious secret

Gold collapsible crowns with trees of life that detach, earrings that are two sided with dragons and a special master of animals who controlled them as a ring master, head ornaments, brooches, gold pieces for all over the body, clasps richly detailed with Greek mythic imagery and adorned in gold with turquoise....... the list is endless. This Bactrian hoard was thought to be lost to the world with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but in that time and the ensuing years of the Taliban attacks, the true saviours of this hoard — employees of the National Museum of Kabul — put them away in trunks and hid them in a secret vault in the Presidential Palace of Kabul. Very few knew of the hidden place of these hoards. Finally after 30 years and the emergence of the Karzai government in 2004 they were taken out, authenticated, inventorised and shown to the world.

This exhibition has helped not only Afghan culture, but in its sharing with the world at large proven that there is a much more deeper and shared history of these peoples with the world versus the negative images shown in the media. In this way the Afghan people too could take pride in their heritage and culture. As a banner says outside the National Museum, Kabul says, ‘A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive'.