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.
THE FRENCH DELEGATION: The new exhibition opens in the north-east of Afghanistan with a selection of funerary statues from Kafiristan or Nuristan – in other words the area straddling north-west Pakistan and north-east Afghanistan and home to the non-Muslim Kalash people.
Visiting this area in the early 2000s from Chitral in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province, the present writer was struck, as many visitors to the exhibition may also be, by the flourishing of this unique people whose origins are thought to lie with Alexander’s soldiers settling in the region. Opening the exhibition with material from the Kalash Valleys underlines the diversity of Afghanistan’s present-day populations.
Before entering the exhibition proper, visitors can watch an interview with Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan. Made in 1965 for French television before an official visit to France, in the interview Zahir Shah explains the development ambitions of his country and its long association with France, where he was educated. He underlines the role of French cultural cooperation in helping to reconstruct and promote awareness of Afghanistan’s long history.
The first room of the exhibition takes visitors to the north-east of Afghanistan and the border area with the Central Asian countries of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan that was once the home of ancient Bactria, the Greek kingdom founded by Alexander the Great where he married the Bactrian princess Roxana. When French archaeologist Alfred Foucher began working for the newly established DAFA in the early 1920s, his attention was drawn to this area in the hope of finding the remains of the Greek cities founded by Alexander.
In the event, the Hellenistic site of Ai Khanoum was only excavated much later, but in the meantime Foucher focused instead on the later Graeco-Buddhist sites in the region that he thought bore witness to a synthesis of Greek and Indian art in their striking statues of the Buddha and Buddhist bodhisattvas. According to the Chinese monk Xuan Zang who visited the region in 628 CE, there were once some 1,000 Buddhist monasteries in this area of Afghanistan, and Foucher set out to find them.
Excavation work took place at Bamiyan in central Afghanistan, where the giant twin statues of the Buddha were monumental examples of this form of art, as well as at Bagram, identified by Foucher as the site of one of the monasteries visited by Xuan Zang. Perhaps most spectacularly of all, the remains of the ancient monasteries of Tapa Kalan, Tapa Shotor, and Tapa-i-Kafariha, among others, at Hadda near Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan yielded some of the finest examples of Graeco-Buddhist art.
Examples of finds from these sites are included in the exhibition, along with photographic and other records of the excavations. There are reproductions of some of the frescos that once adorned the caves and Buddha niches at Bamiyan, together with statues of the Buddha in plaster and shale that were found at Hadda and preserved at the Musée Guimet in Paris even as similar collections at the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul were destroyed in the 1990s.
Following World War II, a new agreement was signed between the Afghan government and the DAFA, this time with a view to extending its activities away from a focus on Afghanistan’s Hellenistic and Graeco-Buddhist heritage towards the whole of its history from the Bronze Age to the present. At the same time, other foreign archaeological missions began working in the country, the most important being Italian, German, and Japanese.
The exhibition reflects these activities in photographs and finds from excavations at Surkh Kotal in north-east Afghanistan between 1952 and 1963, once an important centre of the Kushan Empire that succeeded the Graeco-Bactrian kingdom, and at Lashkari Bazar near the city of Kandahar in the south of the country between 1949 and 1951, a site that was once the winter capital of the region’s Islamic Ghaznavid and Ghurid Dynasties.
Later rooms show the work carried out by multiple teams on the Minaret of Jam in the west of Afghanistan, a lone minaret dating back to the Ghurid Dynasty. The latter established the Islamic Delhi Sultanate in India, the forerunner of the Moghul Empire. An instructive video in the exhibition shows the Minaret’s complicated internal structure.
There is also a review of work carried out at Herat in western Afghanistan, a city established by Timur, founder of the Timurid Dynasty, who is perhaps best known to Western audiences by his English name of Tamburlaine the Great. Various international teams have worked on the restoration of the city’s Gawhar Shad Mausoleum, Husayn Bayqara Musalla Complex, and Qala-e Ikhtyaruddin Citadel, as they have on the Mosque of Khwaga Abu Nasr Parsa in Balkh and of course also on the restoration of the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul after its destruction in the 1990s.
Writing in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, former Afghan ambassador to France Abdel-Ellah Sediqi refers to the history of French archaeology in Afghanistan in glowing terms, seeing it as a lesson in international cooperation. He expresses the hope that the Taliban regime that came to power in Afghanistan in August 2021 following the withdrawal of US forces will respect that legacy, a wish all visitors to the exhibition will share.
Afghanistan, ombres et légendes, Musée Guimet, Paris, until 6 February.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly