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Afgna's Treasure-Troves in Paris Exhibition


02 February 2007




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   A Post-Achaemenid Greco-Persian Jewellery piece from Talia Tappeh, Afghanistan (Click to enlarge)

LONDON, (CAIS) -- While not drawing quite the crowds making their way to the Musée Guimet for Afghanistan, les trésors retrouvés, should be on the itinerary of every visitor to the French capital.


This exhibition features discoveries of international importance made by French archaeological missions in Afghanistan over the course of the last century, most of which have never been seen before outside the country. In what is being seen as quite a coup both for the Musée Guimet, an institution specialising in Eastern art, and for the French capital, the exhibition allows visitors to gain their first glimpses of material that not only has never been lent before by the Afghan National Museum in Kabul, but that was also considered lost during the decade of civil war that wracked Afghanistan following the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989, destroying much of the country as it did so.


The material includes the famous "Bactrian gold" discovered by joint French and Afghan archaeologists in northern Afghanistan shortly before Soviet forces moved into the country in 1979. This material, long thought lost, survived the later civil war locked in the vaults of the National Bank in Kabul, where it was "rediscovered" following the US-led invasion in October 2001. It also includes post-Achaemenid Hellenistic objects from excavations carried out at the site of the ancient city of Ai Khanoum north of Kabul and Hellenistic and Indic materials found at Begram (Bagram).


Taken as a whole, Afghanistan, les trésors retrouvés is one of the most important archaeological exhibitions to have visited the French capital for years, and it is the only opportunity European and international visitors will have to view this material before it moves onto the US leg of its world tour in April 2007. It is a fine successor to Afghanistan, une histoire millénaire (Afghanistan: A Timeless History), an exhibition of mostly materials brought together in the wake of the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban, also at the Musée Guimet and reviewed in the Weekly in March 2002.


The exhibition is divided into three parts, the first of which displays materials discovered at Ai Khanoum by successive French archaeological missions, providing insights into the functioning of this Hellenistic garrison city founded following Alexanderof Macedonia's conquest of the Persian empire, in the late fourth century BCE. Alexander's epic journeys took him from his native Macedonia in northern Greece to the plains of the western Punjab in what is now Pakistan, destroying the Achaemenid dynastic Empire.


Following Alexander's death in 323, his generals divided his conquests among themselves, Ptolemy taking Egypt and turning it into the richest and longest-lasting Hellenistic kingdom, and Seleucus taking the vast territories Alexander had conquered in former Persian empire and controlling Greek garrison cities almost to the Indus River. Ai Khanoum was one of these, and the present exhibition includes notable items discovered at the site, as well as a rewarding Japanese video reconstruction of how the city might once have looked.


Visitors to the Musée Guimet's earlier Afghan exhibition in 2002 will be aware of the heartbreaking damage done to the excavated materials and to this site itself during Afghanistan's period of civil war and Taliban rule, photographs in the catalogue showing excavated ancient mosaics churned up and destroyed and building materials were re-used to support wooden posts in village tea-houses.


While the international protests that came in the wake of Taliban threats to destroy the monumental statues of the Buddha at Bamiyan in southern Afghanistan in the event did nothing to save these fourth-century-CE statues, they at least drew attention to the unique form of art pioneered in this region. Persian culture in south Asia gradually gave way to Hellenism and Buddhism, itself in turn later replaced by Islam. This resulted not only in the colossal representations of the Buddha at Bamiyan but also in the many sculptures of bodhisattvas, monks and ascetics that have been found at the sites of Buddhist monasteries in Afghanistan, notably at Hadda near Jalalabad in the south-east of the country, and at the Gandhara Buddhist sites in neighbouring Pakistan.


The collections of such materials once held by the Afghan National Museum have been destroyed. However material shipped to France under find-sharing arrangements can still be seen upstairs at the Musée Guimet, including the so- called Génie aux fleurs, an Afghan post-Achaemenid statue acquired by André Malraux in the 1920s. 


As far as the present exhibition is concerned, for many visitors the highlight will be the "Bactrian Gold" found in 1978 at the archaeological site of Tillia Tappeh ("mound of gold") in northern Afghanistan and displayed in the show's second room. Dating from the first century CE, this includes brooches, rings, earrings and decorative hair pieces made of gold and lapis-lazuli, and was found in six tombs, five of women and one of a man. Together, these items testify to the role of the region during the Parthian dynasty of Iran, which has played for millennia as the gateway to India and to south and east Asia. The tombs contain artefacts such as rings and other objects bearing the image of the goddess Athena, as well as items bearing the stamp of Indian and Chinese cultures, showing how different cultural influences came together in this region in the centuries following Alexander's conquest.


The exhibition's third and final room contains objects found walled up in two underground chambers at Begram by French archaeological missions in 1937. In addition to numerous Indian ivories, the chambers contained items testifying to the memory at least of Hellenistic impact.


Afghanistan, les trésors retrouvés, Musée Guimet, Paris, 6 December 2006 to 30 April 2007.






Extracted From/Source: Al-Ahram Weekly

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