Afghan Antiquity


TURIN, Italy — There’s a general, and luckily false, belief that the years of war have wiped out Afghanistan’s artistic heritage. Many of the greatest objects from the Kabul Museum survived the years of war and are part of “I Tesori Ritrovati,” a revelatory show now in Turin.

Many of the 220 items in this exhibit were hidden for decades in the vaults of the Presidential Palace in Kabul, while others are recent finds; it’s highly unlikely you have seen any of them before. The current show began its tour in December at Paris’s Musee Guimet, which also lent a few objects to the show, and will travel to Bonn, Amsterdam and the U.S. before returning to exhibition in Kabul for the first time in some thirty years.

In Turin, you enter the exhibit by descending from the street level to the remains of the city’s Roman theater. The installation in a series of relatively small rooms in the vaulted brick basement of the 1899 Manica Nuovo di Palazzo Royale, allows for an intimate experience of the mainly small-scale art.
The show is organized according to the four sites which yielded most of the works and it starts slow, with Bronze Age vessels of schist and metal (2200-1800 B.C.) from Tepe Fullol, near the lapis mines of Badakhshan in northeastern Afghanistan. They’re the oldest in the show, and the most charming to my eyes is a gold cup with a sharply incised wild boar, tree and mountain.

The second section covers the most famous archeological site in Afghanistan: Ai Khanum, or “Lady Moon,” close to the Tajik border. The Ai Khanum excavations, done by the French between 1964 and the Russian invasion in 1978, changed the way archeologists and historians thought about Central Asia. The remains of the Greek colony, founded in 300 B.C., blended Hellenistic architectural elements and civic forms such as theaters and gymnasiums with Persian palace design — suggesting a more complex, interlayered confluence of civilizations than historians had previously imagined. All of the works from Ai Khanum predate 145 B.C., when the city was destroyed by nomad invaders, and those here include a humble clay jar with a fluid Greek inscription.

An ivory river goddess. Both pieces of art featured date to the first century A.D. and can be seen at ‘I Tesori Ritrovati,’ an exhibition of art from the Kabul Museum.

The third section, with objects from around Bagram, is where the “oohs” and “ahhs” begin. Fifty kilometers north of Kabul and now the site of a U.S. military base, Bagram was first called Kapisa. Alexander the Great renamed the city “Alexandria of the Caucasus” when he passed through it, and it became an important city of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom after his death. The objects from Bagram are probably the most historically important in the show, especially the Roman glasses and pitchers, whose strident colors are a shock for eyes accustomed to the weathered Roman glass in most museums. While the exhibition catalogue rhapsodizes about the “expressivity” of the paintings of scenes of battle, hunting and fishing, seeing these items is the visceral equivalent of learning that Greek and Roman statues and temples were originally painted in bright tones.

Nearby these glasses, two cases of Kushan ivory reliefs and statues depict luscious scenes of palace life. Another vitrine has three ivory statues of river goddesses, one 56 centimeters tall. With their voluptuous, globular breasts over slender waists, and their huge-eyed faces, they resemble Gandharan Barbies. The most unusual ivory is the 30-centimeter-tall sculpture of a full-breasted woman riding astride a griffin, her face appearing on both sides of her head. Another surpassingly rare object is a sort of bronze aquarium, a shallow dish with fish depicted on the base, from the first century A.D. Attached to a system of weights underneath the dish are fins and tails designed to move when water is put in the basin.

The final section, two rooms of finds from Tillia Tepe, near Shiberghan in northern Afghanistan, has the most popular appeal. Here is the legendary Bactrian gold from a group of six tombs excavated by a joint Soviet-Afghan team in 1978. The gold ranges from delicate filigree work to solid gold bracelets more than 3 centimeters in diameter at their widest point, and it’s much enhanced by being displayed against a background of sand in jewel-case-like vitrines.

There are gold jewels for women and men, many with fascinating details that mark them as specific to a time and place: a snake-man carries a sturgeon (think caviar from the Caspian Sea); a depiction of the wedding of Dionysus and Ariadne has Asian aspects; and an ingenious crown with detachable points is of a form seen all the way east to Mongolia and Korea.

Yet a dime-sized coin may be the most important historical object here. The nearly unworn depiction of a man pushing a wheel — the Wheel of the Law of Buddhist theology — from the first century A.D. may be the earliest figurative representation of Buddhist doctrine.

Satisfying as the show is, it could have been better designed and notated. Particularly in the Tillia Tepe section of the show, the small items would be easier to appreciate with mirrors behind them or through moveable magnifying lenses. Not all the descriptions are translated from Italian into English, and some of the English renderings are inaccurate. What’s more, the tone of the wall texts runs to the na├»ve, with praise for the “tolerance” of the ancient nomadic cultures.

Ultimately, “I Tesori Ritrovati” is heartening not because it commemorates an idyllic nomadic past, but because it suggests that beauty, at least, endures. It’s an opportunity to see wonderful objects in an atmospheric setting — and that’s enough reason to go.

Ms. Marlowe is the author, most recently, of “The Book of Trouble: A Romance” (Harcourt, 2006). She travels frequently to Afghanistan.

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