In the minds of many outside the country, Afghanistan occupies a space somewhere between war and chaos. But millennia before the Soviet invasion kicked off 30 years of conflict and upheaval, and well before the Taliban began to brutalize its own people, Afghanistan flourished as a hub along the Silk Road. From as early as the first century B.C., the region was known as a meeting place for artisans and traders, not warlords and insurgents.
That’s the implicit message of the British Museum’s latest blockbuster exhibition, Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World. Running until July 3, it brings together 230 objects that have survived bombings and lootings and deliberate destruction by the Taliban. “I hope this exhibition will introduce our ancient civilization to the British people, who usually hear stories of killing in Afghanistan,” says Omara Khan Masoodi, the director of Kabul’s National Museum, which has loaned all of the artifacts on display while it is being rebuilt following years of war. “Afghani people aren’t just fighting with each other. They love their culture, their art, and know the value of these things.”
The Afghanistan on show at the London museum sits at the center of trade routes not the periphery of the civilized world. It conveys all the color you’d expect from a place where the frontiers of China and the Greek Empire were just a camel ride away. In one display, an ivory figurine depicts a voluptuous woman swishing her hips and standing on a makara, a sea creature from Hindu mythology. A few feet away, a bronze Eros looks bemused at the fact that he was exhumed north of Kabul instead of in Rome.
Most impressive, however, are the rows of golden implements unearthed in Tillya Tepe the “Hill of Gold” in the northern plains of Afghanistan. Found in the tombs of a nomad prince and five female relations, the treasure trove includes gold and turquoise leg bracelets shaped like snakes, clasps depicting Cupid riding a dolphin, a pendent of a Chinese man taming two dragons, and a collapsible crown consisting of four golden trees.