Decorative plaque with women standing under gateways, 1st century A.D. Photo: Supplied
Buff youths emerge in relief from plaster medallions. Three voluptuous women with hand-span waists and perfect bosoms tease in ivory. Electric-blue glass has been blown into the shape of a fish. An antelope pursued by hunters dashes across a painted glass goblet. An elephant head, trunk and tusks, carved in ivory, forms the leg of a piece of furniture.
"Archaeologically, it's right up there," Michael Brand says. "People will never see more important archaeological objects and they will probably never see objects that have a more remarkable history." The director of the Art Gallery of NSW is talking about Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul, an exhibition of pre-Islamic artefacts in gold, bronze, ivory, plaster and glass opening at the gallery next month. It offers an alternative view of a country whose image has been appropriated by warlords, poverty, human rights abuses, war and violence.
It all involves individual decisions; do you care or do you not, do you think preserving heritage is worthwhile?
But as astonishing as the treasures in the exhibition are, the fact that there is an exhibition at all is almost as remarkable. Through decades of horror - the Soviet intervention, civil war, the Taliban regime - Afghanistan's rich cultural and archaeological bounty, dating back millennia, was looted, bombed, shelled, burnt, shattered, blasted and scattered.
Photographs show the Kabul museum on the outskirts of the city as a building pock-marked and crumbling. About 70 per cent of its collection was lost to looting. Then, in 2001, infamously, the Taliban dynamited the immense Buddhas of Bamiyan, carved into a cliff 230 kilometres north-west of the capital.
The Buddhas could not be saved from the Taliban's quest to eliminate what they decreed was idolatrous imagery but the heroic efforts of museum staff to hide some treasures in the face of great personal risk deserve a Hollywood script. In 1989, as Soviet forces were withdrawing from Afghanistan, a delegation of officials and scholars watched as staff stashed boxes packed with a trove of the museum's treasures in a bank vault within the presidential palace in Kabul. Other artefacts were also cloistered at the Ministry of Information and Culture. A code of silence hovered over the hoard until 2004, two years after Hamid Karzai had been installed as interim president, when the vaults were opened and pieces that most experts had believed were long gone were revealed. They included what National Geographic magazine has described as the "crown jewels of Afghanistan", the legendary Bactrian Gold.
Since then, the museum diaspora has been painstakingly reassembled - from the vaults, from sifted rubble, from dusty storerooms and from dark corners of the international art market. About 9000 artefacts have been returned to the country.
"It all involves individual decisions; do you care or not, do you think preserving heritage is worthwhile or not," Brand says. "At a time when some people might say that these things aren't as important as economic factors or something else, you find time and time again people willing to risk their lives to protect old objects.''
But it might be premature to celebrate the repatriation of the country's heritage. Despite the intervention of Western countries, including Australia, Afghanistan remains a country in turmoil and Hidden Treasures has been on the road since 2006. "It's just too dangerous to go home is the sad story," says Brand of the exhibition, which has visited institutions including the Musee Guimet in Paris, the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and, before its AGNSW outing, was shown in Melbourne and Brisbane.
"That's why you've got this very unusual situation of highly important objects travelling for so long; normally the tours that go on for the longest are the ones that are least missed and this is the exact opposite."
The exhibition, which features discoveries from four archaeological sites in northern Afghanistan, blurs the line between archaeology and art. "These are fantastic art and design objects as well as being archaeological," Brand says. "So many of the pieces are unusual. You don't find them in a museum of Indian art or a museum of Chinese art or a museum of Roman art or Greek art."
The exhibition reveals Afghanistan's complex multicultural history and its position at the centre of ancient civilisations and at the heart of the Silk Road. None of the artefacts are the result of a monoculture; they reveal the ghostly fingerprints of Alexander the Great and Indian craftsmen working in Afghanistan. They show traces of India and Imperial Rome, Ancient Babylon and Persia, and of Zoroastrianism, Hinduism and Buddhism along with the Hellenistic pantheon. Each of the four sites represented have a tale of Indiana Jones-calibre romance. "They all have astounding stories and some sad ones too, in terms of subsequent damage to the site," Brand says.
At Begram, a storeroom sealed 2000 years ago was opened to reveal unimaginable riches including glass goblets and voluptuous ivories. At Tillya Tepe, or "hill of gold", the burial site of a nomad chieftain revealed the famous Bactrian Gold - turquoise and garnet and mother of pearl-studded body ornaments, antelope-headed bracelets and pendants portraying the "dragon master". The site called Ai Khanum means "Lady Moon" and was founded by followers of Alexander the Great.
Brand conjures up a vision of Afghanistan that bears no resemblance to the desolate war-torn frames that flash across nightly news bulletins. He describes a country with irrigation systems and riverbeds and exquisite gardens. What people couldn't grow, mine or make was imported. "So you might be living in a very beautiful little oasis; in a little walled villa or a little walled palace in a fortress sitting under beautiful trees with fountains, eating food out of gold vessels or beakers that have been blown somewhere else and so you can actually have a very, very sophisticated lifestyle."
Remarkably, painted glass beakers found at Begram, dating back to the 1st century AD, survive intact and offer a vivid insight into the pastimes of the era. On one, women with head-dresses and blue and yellow robes pick fruit from date palms. More scantily clad male figures upend pitchers of the harvest. A goblet shows a battle scene - combatants armed with shields and spears, some on horseback, two lying dead. Some experts have speculated that the illustration depicts the battle between Hector and Achilles, the heroes of the Trojan war.
Zahir Youssofzay is a research associate at the University of Sydney's Department of Archaeology who migrated to Australia in 1998. In 1989 he was in the delegation in Kabul's presidential palace bank vault to watch as the country's treasures were concealed.
Youssofzay is unlikely to argue with scholars who consider ancient Begram, unearthed in 1937 and 1939, to be one of the most astounding repositories of commodities traded along the Silk Road in the 1st century AD. "This is pure Indian art," says Youssofzay as he flicks through the Hidden Treasures catalogue and stops at a page showing the three voluptuous Begram ivories.
Brand, whose background is in Indian art, says Begram was a trading post or town that was well-connected with the rest of the world, a place of speculating merchants, some perhaps from India, and considerable wealth. "With Begram, you're in the realm of luxury goods too. Think about being an Indian merchant and you have access to some fantastic ivory craftsmen, and you think you could sell material like that."
He brings his imagination to bear on the story: "Someone in Afghanistan suddenly is told, 'Wait 'til you see this stuff, you've never seen this stuff before' and they open up the package and they're thinking, 'Wow, like, where'd you get this from?'."
Brand singles out another exhibit - a very simple pair of shoe soles, right and left, cut from thin gold sheet. The soles are from the Tillya Tepe Bactrian gold hoard and, in a world where those of substance and status were mounted on horseback or reclined on fine carpets, an expensive or decorated sole would have signified a noble way of life. "Visually they are probably the least interesting but it just shows the refinement and the sophistication of culture which is pretty amazing."
While Hidden Treasures is not an exhibition focusing on the life of any one particular historical personage, there's one name that comes up repeatedly - that of the warrior who founded Kandahar and other settlements throughout Afghanistan. "When you look at this part of the world the name that hovers over everything is Alexander the Great," Brand says. Many of the objects in the exhibition "carry the resonance of his presence in that part of the world".
Brand likes to think about the number of pairs of hands through which the artefacts might have passed. "These objects have been seen by and handled by so many different people; Indian or Indian-trained workmen, Indian merchants, Afghani merchants, rulers of different types. Each of these objects has a really interesting biography.
"That adds to the mystery of it too: it's these people who we don't know a lot about but who were very well-connected. We tend to think that with jet air transportation the world is smaller and people are mixing more, but we shouldn't forget that people mixed a lot a long time ago."
Brand describes a world two millennia ago that was commercially sophisticated and in which people, goods and ideas travelled across vast distances.
"We are not the first, curious, well-travelled generation."
Youssofzay smiles as he looks through a catalogue of objects he has seen many times. He has stopped at a page showing a limestone Corinthian "capital" - the uppermost element of a column - excavated from Balkh near Afghanistan's border with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. "If we don't find these things, how will we understand," he says. Youssofzay is talking specifically about understanding the Greek influence on Afghanistan's history but he might equally be talking in general terms about understanding the past and how it can guide us in the present.
"We've got to be always vigilant about keeping all these channels of curiosity and interest open," Brand says. "You've got to really try to protect this idea of exchange of ideas, exchange of people, broadening of our horizons. You've got to work to be open-minded. People can become close-minded at any time and Afghanistan obviously became very close-minded under the Taliban. This exhibition teaches a lot about [open-mindedness] and also on the bad side, when these avenues are closed down brutally. I just hope that [the exhibition] will capture people's imaginations - that when cultures actually talk to each other and trade with each other and people move backwards and forwards, that is when you get these moments of extraordinary creativity."
People in Sydney's 10,000-strong Afghan community hope the Hidden Treasures exhibition will bring other levels of understanding. "When people hear 'Afghanistan' they imagine it's about killing, war, torturing, fighting, asylum seekers, suicidal attacks, but in reality it's not," says Arif Nabizada, a community worker from Guildford who arrived here in 2005.
"This exhibition is giving a window of hope … because Afghanistan has a rich culture, a rich history and this presents that," says Nabizada, who is from the Hazara ethnic minority. After the Taliban regime came to power in 1996, life became difficult for his family. "I remember when Taliban came to our village, all the males ran away; Taliban gave us a deadline of 24 hours to leave the village so we left. We could not take all our belongings, everything [was] left behind."
Nabizada's father arrived by boat in Australia in 2000. Five years later he sponsored the remainder of the family to join him from Pakistan. "Our contribution to the Silk Road is part of the rich history in our history book," says Nabizada, who is helping organise events for the Afghan community to tie in with the exhibition. "It's a good opportunity for the Afghan people to present the Afghan culture to the wider Australian society."
Nabizada's hopes seem to be captured in the words engraved in stone at the Kabul National Museum: "A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive."
Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul opens at the Art Gallery of NSW on March 7.