Treasures from Tillya Tepe ... a pair of gold clasps depicting warriors. Photograph: National Museum of Afghanistan © Thierry Ollivier/Museé Guimet
From The Guardian, Saturday 19 February 2011
By Peter Thonemann
In 1978 a hoard of treasures was discovered at Tillya Tepe, Afghnistan. Having survived thirty years of shelling, looting and Taliban raids it's the highlight of a new British Museum exhibition
Are you keen to help finance the activities of warlords and insurgents across Afghanistan and Pakistan? As I write, eBay is inviting bids on no fewer than 128 ancient Bactrian and Indo-Greek silver and bronze coins, from sellers in Pakistan, Singapore, Thailand and the United States. Probably every one of them is the product of looting over the past 20 years. With luck, you might even pick up one of the tens of thousands of items plundered from the collections of the old National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul between 1992 and 2001. For those with deep pockets, I can particularly recommend the eBay seller "The Precious Art from Past", who is currently offering 289 looted AfPak objects for sale, including an extraordinary ancient Gandharan sculpture of a seated Heracles in near-perfect condition, yours for £18,950 plus postage and packing.
Such are the hazards of living at a "crossroads of civilizations". It must be said that this kind of briskly utilitarian attitude towards Afghanistan's pre-Islamic heritage is nothing new. In 1999, the leader of the Taliban government, Mullah Omar, issued a decree forbidding any damage to the monumental Buddhas of Bamiyan, on the grounds that the Taliban considered the Bamiyan statues "as an example of a potential major source of income for Afghanistan from international visitors". Aside from their potential economic value, no obvious benefits derived from the existence of the Bamiyan Buddhas: as Omar rightly noted "In Afghanistan there are no Buddhists to worship the statues."
Why should a Pashtun Muslim feel any sense of responsibility for the culture of Gandharan Buddhists? Dozens of times over the past 3,000 years, the plains and valleys around the foothills of the Hindu Kush have changed hands between Iranians, Greeks, Chinese, Scythians, Turks and Indians. An oft-photographed plaque outside the National Museum in Kabul reads: "A Nation Stays Alive When Its Culture Stays Alive". No one should be taken in by the bland phrasing – this is as provocative as it gets. Which culture? Whose nation? In March 2001, Omar gave one answer, by revoking his decision of two years earlier and ordering the dynamiting of the Bamiyan buddhas. Simultaneously, most of the few remaining pre-Islamic objects in the Kabul museum were also smashed or sold off. It would be quite wrong to see the events of March 2001 as merely an act of barbarous vandalism (though they certainly were that too). They also represented a particular claim about which bits of Afghanistan's history were worth preserving: for the Taliban, the only "national culture" that mattered was the one that began in AD622.
For an alternative account of Afghanistan's bloody history – one, as it were, with the Buddhists left in – we can look to a spectacular exhibition which opens at the British Museum next month. Neil MacGregor, director of the museum, hopes to show that "We are at a historically anomalous moment when the country is seen as remote and isolated . . . Afghanistan's relationships are long and deep." At the heart of the exhibition is the miracle of Tillya Tepe, the "hill of gold", a huge earthen barrow 80 miles west of Mazar-i Sharif, between the Hindu Kush mountains and the streams of the Amu Darya. Some time in the mid-first century AD, this mound was chosen by a nomadic prince as his burial kurghan. The prince himself was interred at the peak of the hill, and a horse was sacrificed and buried alongside him. In a ring around the prince's tomb were the graves of five women, probably his five wives, all of them clad in gorgeous textiles and jewellery of extraordinary splendour.
Archaeologists recovered more than 20,000 objects from these six tombs, the richest of them coming from the graves of the two women buried closest to the Tillya Tepe prince. One of these two favoured princesses was buried with a silver Chinese mirror lying on her breast; beside her were an Indian ivory comb, a gold seal with the image and name of the goddess Athena in Greek, two distinctly European cherubs riding on the backs of dolphins, and, most remarkably of all, a gold coin of the Roman emperor Tiberius, minted at Lyon in Gaul between AD14 and 37.
Who were these women? What language did they speak? The jewellery from Tillya Tepe is like nothing known from any other part of the world: Chinese, Indian, Bactrian, Siberian and Greek styles are jumbled and fused together into a glorious but baffling kaleidoscope. Many of the gold objects are studded with brilliant coloured stones, above all with turquoise. Particularly common are turquoise stones in the shape of hearts. These probably depict the ivy plant, sacred to the Scythian nomads of central Asia: in 329BC, during his expedition into the central Asian steppe, Alexander the Great saw nomadic burial mounds and trees wreathed with ivy. There are other reasons to think that the nomads of Tillya Tepe might have been Scythians – the main sources of turquoise in inner Asia lie in the hills around Mashhad, around 300 miles west of Tillya Tepe in the heart of Scythian territory in north-eastern Iran.
It is hard to overstate the importance of the finds from Tillya Tepe. Nomads are the quintessential "people without history"; the nomadic encampment normally leaves no traces for the archaeologist to recover. These burials are, effectively, our only evidence for the long nomadic interlude in Afghan history between the fall of the Greek kingdom of Bactria in around 145BC and the rise of the Kushan state in the late first century AD. And crucially, whoever these nomads may have been, they were self-evidently as cosmopolitan as they come. Here, at the intersection of three ancient Asiatic trade routes, the princesses buried at Tillya Tepe were about as isolated from the wider world as Carla Bruni.
As their jewellery clearly shows, the Tillya Tepe nomads sat at the centre of a web of cultural connections and influences stretching across thousands of miles, from the Mediterranean to the Ganges. To the south, across the high passes of the Hindu Kush, the Kabul river valley leads down towards the Khyber pass and India. North of the Oxus river, a tangle of trading routes (the "Silk Road"), stretching from Han China through Xinjiang and central Asia, had grown up over the course of the last two centuries BC. It was in northern Afghanistan, in the region of Tillya Tepe, that the Chinese silk road met the long-established caravan routes stretching west across the Iranian plateau into Mesopotamia and, ultimately, across the eastern borders of the Roman empire. Fragments of Chinese silk have been found across the Roman empire, from Palmyra in the Syrian desert to Holborough in Kent. Whichever route this silk took on its way to Europe, whether overland via Iran or by ship from India to the Roman ports on the Red Sea, it could not avoid passing through the nomadic pastures of northern Afghanistan. The gold coin of Tiberius in the princess's grave at Tillya Tepe, 3,000 miles from its mint in southern France, is just one tiny trace of this vast network linking Beijing to the shores of the Atlantic.
The nomad graves were first uncovered by a Soviet-Afghan team in the autumn of 1978. Afghanistan in the late 70s was far from the ideal place and time for a vast hoard of gold of this kind to emerge. Late in 1979, once the finds had been analysed and photographed, they were handed over to the National Museum in Kabul for safe-keeping. By the end of the year, the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan. In 1988, as it became clear that the Soviets were preparing to withdraw, the communist president of Afghanistan, Muhammed Najibullah, had the finds from Tillya Tepe and other sites (including Ai Khanoum and Bagram, also on display in the British Museum exhibition) crated up and sealed in the vaults of the Afghan Central Bank. This proved to be a far-sighted move. As the country slid into anarchy in the early 90s, the Kabul museum was repeatedly shelled and looted; it was during these years that the museum's tens of thousands of artefacts began to be dispersed across the world.
When the Taliban took Kabul in 1996, Najibullah was promptly lynched and the bank vaults searched, without success. The few museum staff who knew the location of the Tillya Tepe finds kept it to themselves, and the crates were left undisturbed throughout the period of Taliban rule. Their fate officially remained unknown until 2003, when safes beneath the presidential palace were opened by the Afghan minister of culture. Sadly, the security situation in Kabul was still so fragile that it was impossible to contemplate displaying the Tillya Tepe gold in the Kabul museum itself. Since 2006, the artefacts have been touring Europe and the United States. Few Afghans have ever had the chance to see them in their home country.
Still, the Kabul museum is at least open to visitors again. In 2009, a small exhibition, Rescued Treasures, went on display at the museum, including the pick of more than 2,000 looted Afghan artefacts impounded at Heathrow airport in 2004. The British ambassador to Afghanistan, Mark Sedwill, described the purpose of the exhibition as "giving the Afghan people back that sense of cultural heritage that was so nearly taken from them". It is depressing to learn how few of these "rescued" objects actually came from the original, pre-1992 Kabul collection: most were the product of a fresh wave of looting of Afghanistan's ancient sites in the 90s and early 2000s.
Given Afghanistan's recent history, I think we ought to be a little wary about the ambassador's notion of a single Afghan "sense of cultural heritage", on the brink of being lost, but now "given back" to "the Afghan people". The Kabul museum is situated far to the south of the city centre in the Dar al-Aman district, a European-style suburb laid out by the westernising Shah Amanullah Khan in the 1920s. On the opposite side of the road from the museum lie the bombed-out ruins of Amanullah's Dar al-Aman palace, complete with Parisian arcades, neo-classical pediments and formal gardens. The juxtaposition of the two buildings is no coincidence. As in modern Iran, Afghanistan's pre-Islamic "heritage" is a sharply politicised and divisive issue. Iran's ruling Shia clerics view their pre-Islamic past with intense suspicion: the site of Persepolis, in particular, is stamped with the secular and westernising aspirations of the Shah's regime in the 1960s and 70s. Happily for Persepolis, the archaeology of ancient Persia is also central to Iranian national pride, since it proves how much older and more civilised they are than the Sunni Arabs. Afghan archaeology, while also closely associated with the secular wing of the country's urban elite, has no such useful nationalist overtones to protect it.
It is possible to over-analyse the dynamiting of the Bamiyan buddhas and the repeated vandalism of the Kabul museum. Whatever else he had in mind, Mullah Omar's actions in early 2001 had a lot to do with sticking two fingers up to the west. But there is a reason why that provocation was so effective. The Taliban were consciously and deliberately turning their back on Afghanistan's long history of engagement with China, the subcontinent and the west. The destruction of the buddhas was the crudest possible way of rejecting what they saw as a threateningly "secular" and cosmopolitan version of Afghanistan's history. Today, in a political context of de-Talibanisation, we are returning to the notion of a historically open, culturally pluralist Afghanistan – an Afghanistan which acted as a "crossroads of the ancient world" (to quote the title of the British museum exhibition). Which side will win this particular argument remains to be seen. For anyone within striking distance of London in the next four months, this really is Afghanistan as you have never seen it before.
Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World is at the British Museum, London WC1, from 3 March to 3 July 2011. www.britishmuseum.org