Many long-term readers of Al-Ahram Weekly will remember the renewed international awareness of the culture and heritage of Afghanistan in the early years of the present century.
The destruction of the giant statues of the Buddha at Bamiyan in central Afghanistan by the then Taliban regime in March 2001 drew world attention to threats to the country’s heritage. The US invasion and subsequent occupation of Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington later in the same year meant that international attention was again drawn to the troubled country in the hope it would see a better future.
With the US invasion and the removal of the Taliban regime from the Afghan capital Kabul came new opportunities for archaeological excavation in Afghanistan, renewing a tradition that had all but ground to a halt with the Soviet invasion in 1979 and then the period of Civil War that escalated following the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989. Much of the country, and most of central Kabul, was destroyed in the Civil War, causing irreparable losses to the country’s heritage.
That tradition of archaeological study and excavation had been associated most with France and particularly with the DAFA – the Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan – that was set up at the request of Afghan king Amanullah in 1922 in order to develop archaeological expertise in Afghanistan. The Afghan government of the time, having memories of fighting multiple wars against the British, did not want to risk a British presence in the country despite the high reputation of the Archaeological Survey of India in what was then British India.
When it became possible for Western archaeological teams to work again in Afghanistan following the removal of the Taliban regime in 2001, the DAFA almost immediately returned to the country to take up from where it had left off some two decades earlier. At the same time, international interest in the country’s history and culture, already high, was stimulated by two important exhibitions in Paris in the first decade of the century that later went on world tours. They pointed to what had been lost, but also celebrated what had been saved, during the upheavals in Afghanistan.
They form the backdrop to a new exhibition at the Musée Guimet in Paris that reviews the history of the DAFA’s work in Afghanistan from its foundation in the early 1920s to the present. Entitled Afghanistan, ombres et légendes and running until 6 February, it provides not only a survey of the DAFA’s work and the important discoveries with which it has been associated, but also an account of the early history of what is now Afghanistan told through the excavations that allowed this to be pieced together.
Full of photographs and other records of the excavations – unfortunately often of sites now lost as a result of conflict – as well as of a succession of major pieces from the Musée Guimet’s own collections, the exhibition gives visitors a historical overview of this astonishingly beautiful country. Its heritage bears witness to the role it has played for millennia as a crossing point between East and West and as the home of successive civilisations from the Graeco-Buddhist to the Islamic.
It draws upon the two earlier exhibitions, also at the Musée Guimet, that marked the re-opening of Afghanistan to outside teams after 2001. The first of these, Afghanistan, une histoire millénaire, an exhibition of mostly Graeco-Buddhist materials (reviewed in the Weekly in March 2002), served as a reminder that Afghanistan, at a geographical crossroads of southwest Asia, once witnessed the armies of Alexander the Great as they passed through the region on their way to India in the 4th century BCE. The region hosted first a Hellenistic and then a Graeco-Buddhist civilisation from the death of Alexander to the early centuries CE.
The second, Afghanistan, les trésors retrouvés (reviewed in the Weekly in February 2007), took the story forward by displaying some of the important discoveries made by the DAFA over the course of the last century, many of which had never been seen before outside the country. For the first time, foreign audiences were able to gain glimpses of material that not only had never been lent before by the Afghan National Museum in Kabul, but that had also in some cases been considered lost during the Civil War that wracked Afghanistan following the withdrawal of Soviet forces.
It included the “Bactrian gold” discovered by joint French and Afghan archaeologists at Tillia Tepe in northern Afghanistan in the late 1970s. This survived the Civil War locked in the vaults of the Afghan National Bank in Kabul, where it was rediscovered following the US invasion. It also included Hellenistic objects from excavations carried out at the site of the ancient city of Ai Khanoum near the Tajik border and Hellenistic and Indian materials found at Bagram north of Kabul in the late 1930s.
These materials came as a revelation to international audiences, exhibiting the range of the successive cultures that have flourished in Afghanistan. The Hellenistic city of Ai Khanoum and the synthesis of Hellenistic and Indian culture that led to the Graeco-Buddhist art found at sites scattered across central Pakistan and northern, central, and eastern Afghanistan were particularly eye-catching.
After Alexander’s death in 323 BCE, his generals divided up his conquests. Ptolemy took Egypt and turned it into the richest and longest-lasting Hellenistic kingdom. Seleucus took the vast territories Alexander had conquered in Asia and controlled them through Greek garrison cities almost to the Indus River, Ai Khanoum and other sites in Afghanistan among them.