Archeology on the way to Mazar

For the women, progress

My first good night’s sleep in Afghanistan and a good thing, since today Dr. Ahmed and I go to Mazar. Just as I’m getting out of bed around 9, I feel the earth move. It is the Kabul effect of the massive Pakistan earthquake. Maybe because I’ve felt the aftershocks of a quake before (Thessalonika, 1978) but I make nothing of it, and it’s not until I talk to friends in Kabul later in the day that I learn what it was.

We pass through the Salang tunnel uneventfully. When I took the same route in November 2002 it was freezing cold, the mountains were covered with snow, and a massive traffic jam kept us in the tunnel for an hour. This time there are hardly any cars. The descent in altitude from Kabul’s mile high height is ear-popping. The countryside is pretty here and I’m looking forward to two stops we’re going to make to see archeological sites.

The first, Surkh Kotal, just outside of Pul-i-Khumri, is a Hellenistic temple re-discovered only in 1951, when inscriptions were found during road-building, according to Peter Levi (“The Light Garden of the Angel King”) who calls it “one of the most surprising and impressive of all archeological sites”. The other, better known, which I told Dr. Ahmed about when I first learned he was moving to Samangan, is the Takht-i-Rustam, a 40 foot high Buddhist stupa on the outskirts of town. He’s since become enthusiastic about the site, which is a local diversion.

Surkh Kotal (“Red Hill” in Uzbeki) is about a mile off the main road from Pul-i-Khumri to Samangan, on our left hand side. We ask directions at a Pashtun mudbrick village and after fifteen minutes on dirt roads we see a hill with what might be man=made features. Up at the top is a nervous-looking watchman. He wants money from us to photograph the site, which seems preposterous, but we agree to slip him a few dollars after he guides us around.

This Kushan site once held a stature of the emperor Kanishka, and was probably build around 220 or 230 A.D. according to Levi. The site was abandoned due to lack of water and rebuilt with a new well, according to an inscription that was in the entrance hall of the Kabul Museum when Levi published in 1972. The inscription is in an eastern Iranian language but the script is based on Greek. I have to see if it’s still in the Museum- I studied ancient Greek intensively in college and the idea of combining it with a variety of Persian is mind-boggling.

Much of the detail described by Levi has disappeared, whether to thieves or to a museum I do not know, and I found the site disappointing after Levi’s breathless praise.
There are no longer “finely cut marble stairs” or “three of the four sides of a big Hellenistic agora, lavishly marbled and pillared”. Levi says Surkh Kotal was excavated by the French archeological mission to Afghanistan under Daniel Schlumberger, and published in Journal Asiatique in 1964, but perhaps work done since when resulted in the removal of some of these pillars. Now there are only three stumps, none over two feet high.

The scale of the site is still impressive. Facing east, its monumental staircases, now reduced to slopes, reminded me more of the Mayan pyramids or Angkor Wat than of anything Greek I’ve seen.

An hour or so later we came to Samangan, but because the sun was already low in the sky we didn’t visit Dr. Ahmed’s house. We made straight for Takht I Rustam, the bed or seat of Rustam, the hero of the Shahnamah. This Buddhist monastery is truly an impressive site, though with a thudding, lumbering power rather than the grace I remember in the stupa at Sanchi in Bihar, India. The main feature is a stupa carved from solid rock, the work done from the top down, so that the resulting structure is surrounded at a distance of maybe fifteen feet by walls of solid rock. You enter from a bridge to the top of the forty foot high stupa, where a 4th century kiosk was supposed to be Rustam’s place to relax. The sloping roof doesn’t allow you to get very close to the edge, but you can see the caves carved into the encircling walls. When you leave the stupa and walk on the surrounding rock, you see an impressively precise water storage system carved into the rock, culminating in a deep well.

There are more caves carved into a hillside a hundred yards away. The largest is said by Levi to be ninety feet long and fifteen feet high. It was already getting too dark to see well by the time we entered the caves, but the simple elegance of the decoration, which included a pillar, symbol of the Buddhist law, was refreshing.
It was past the breaking of the fast when we arrived at Dr. Ahmed’s home in Mazar. The family trooped out to greet us, and I saw that the house had been freshly painted in Art Deco pastels, pale limes and sea greens and yellows. My favorite of the children, Leeza, was much taller than a year ago, when we’d celebrated her fifth birthday. She ran up to me and kissed me on both cheeks. Her older brother Fayaz a manly seven and a half, and veteran both of school and English classes, greeted me with a handshake and “How are you?” Parisa, a year and seven months now, had been the youngest when I’d visited last, weaning noisily. Now she was joined by a new seven month -old sister, Asila, who was sleeping. Their mother, Angela, 26, and a sort of model Afghan wife and and mother, tall, fair, pious, and hard-working, presented me with two sets of shalwar kameez she’d made herself, and a gold ring with a pink stone.

I noticed that Angela and her sisters in law Atefa and Sonita and Sonya were all wearing shalwar kameez (in fact all sewn by Angela). This was a welcome change from the too-many layers I’d worn before- a skirt over shalwar (pantaloons) and then a long top over the skirt, not to mention the coat or chador over all of the above when one went outside. It was an instance of the creeping Indianization of Afghan culture inspired by the Bollywood films and TV serials that everyone here watched because the Urdu was more or less transparent to Farsi speakers. (I’d noticed in Dubai that I was on the verge of understanding some of the Indian shopkeepers, but apparently the linguistic overlap is about fifty percent, not enough for me as a not very good Farsi speaker.)

You could say that the battle for Afghan culture was being waged between Indian and Gulf influences, and both were in evidence. In Kabul and along the road I’d noticed that women wore not only chadris (burkas in Arabic) and chadors (as in Iran) but also the same long black robes I’d bought in Yemen and Dubai for use here. I liked the look, not only for its elegance, and because black suits me, but because allowed me to wear jeans and a t shirt underneath.

Shalwar kameez was more comfortable in the hot weather we were having in Mazar- the temperature, I’d seen on the internet, hovered in the 90s. Last year it had been very cold, freezing at night, and I’d brought a zero-degree rated LL Bean sleeping bag accordingly. It seemed likely to go unused.

The family gathered in the main room of the house and I distributed the presents I’d brought. First there was a wooden folding dollhouse for the girls, a puzzle and kaleidescope and Matchbox cars for Fayaz, and small dolls and stuffed animals and finger puppets for general use. The dollhouse was the first anyone had ever seen, and Fayaz was as enraptured as the girls. For Marya, the matriarch of the family, and the grandmother of a 7 year old though few years younger than I, I’d brought a mink coat in Kabul ($100) and an amber and gold necklace that had belonged to my mother. Angela got an Hermes scarf that I’d bought for my mom but she had not had a chance to use before she died. For Atefa, the unmarried 30-year old daughter, I had lipstick and an opal and gold necklace from Australia, and for Sonita, a college student who was due to wed soon, a book on her field of radio journalism and a leather picture frame with space for two photos. For Sonya, 14, there was make up and jewelry. I told Naseem, Marya’s husband, that I’d buy the family a DVD player the next day (they cost about $50-60), since I hadn’t had a clue what to get him.
Then Marya brought out dinner for Dr. Ahmed and me- aash, a delicious thick Uzbek soup with little lamb meatballs and noodles, topped with chaka (thickened yoghurt). After that, everyone drifted off to sleep, though the adults would wake before dawn for the last meal before the next day’s fast.

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