July 08, 2009

Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul, at the Met

With all that's in the news these days about Afghanistan and the turmoil in the region, it's refreshing to be able to visit a long ago time when Central Asia was home to a stable and thriving civilization that supported a mix of cultures and influences. A visit to the Metropolitan Museum's current exhibition "Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul" will lead you to discover the glory of the ancient empire and make the prevailing state of affairs even sadder.

The exhibition presents archaeological riches unearthed from four sites and spans Afghan history from 2200 BC to 200 AD. Many of these artifacts had been carefully hidden by the curatorial staff at the Kabul Museum to save them from probable destruction in the 1980's. In 2004, the crates were re-opened, and to everyone's relief the works had survived intact.

We begin in the Bronze Age at the site of Tepe Fullol where fragments of hammered metal and gold objects attest to a highly developed civilization and accomplished artisans. Next we come to ruins from the Greco-Bactrian city of Al Khanum featuring elaborately carved stone pillars and architectural details that reflect the Hellenic heritage of its founders.

The center of Begram was a major intersection located in the heart of The Silk Road, the collection of land and sea trade routes that connected China to the eastern Mediterranean. A wide variety of precious goods including silk and lacquer from China, rubies and ivory from India, horses from Mongolia and carpets from Persia traveled in caravans from market to market. In the 1930's and 40's, French archaeologists discovered a cache of artifacts dating to the Kushan Dynasty (100-300 AD). Several of these exquisite objects are on display here including ivory statues of voluptuous women wearing Indian-style dress, decorated glass vases and vessels (see above left) and a metal aquarium.

Finally we come to Tillya Tepe, literally "hill of gold", an early settlement in the northern area of Afghanistan. This part of the exhibition will take your breath away! In 1978 a team of Soviet-Afghan archaeologists discovered a series of tombs holding a wealthy nomadic family and their treasure of gold. Stunning jewelry, ornaments, knife sheaths, a folding crown (see right) and even shoes - all crafted of gold and much inlaid with turquoise and other semi precious stones. The craftsmanship and sophistication of design are amazing as is the sheer luxury of these items intended to accompany the deceased into the afterlife.

It is a testament to international cooperation, both during ancient times with the cross-cultural influences on the design of these objects, and currently that an American institution is hosting such an exhibit. I found the exposition spectacular and hope you get a chance to visit. "Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul" is on view until September 20.

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