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Northwest Territories

A century of heritage in Afghanistan – Culture – Al-Ahram Weekly

Many longtime readers of Al-Ahram Weekly will recall the renewed international awareness of Afghan culture and heritage in the early years of the present century.

The destruction of the giant Buddha statues in Bamiyan in central Afghanistan by the then Taliban regime in March 2001 drew the world’s attention to the threat to the country’s heritage. The US invasion and subsequent occupation of Afghanistan following the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington later that same year resulted in renewed international attention being drawn to the troubled country in hopes that it could see a brighter future would see.

With the US invasion and the withdrawal of the Taliban regime from the Afghan capital of Kabul, new opportunities for archaeological excavation in Afghanistan emerged and renewed a tradition that had all but come to an end with the Soviet invasion of 1979 and the period of civil war was escalated after the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989. Much of the country and most of central Kabul was destroyed in the civil war, resulting in irreparable losses to the country’s heritage.

This tradition of archaeological study and excavation was most closely associated with France and in particular with DAFA – the Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan – which was founded in 1922 at the request of the Afghan King Amanullah to develop archaeological expertise in Afghanistan. The Afghan government of the time, remembering several wars against the British, did not want to risk a British presence in the country, despite the Archaeological Survey of India’s high standing in what was then British India.

When it became possible for Western archaeologists to work again in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, DAFA almost immediately returned to the country to pick up where it left off some two decades earlier. At the same time, the already high international interest in the country’s history and culture was stimulated by two major exhibitions in Paris in the first decade of the century, which later went on world tours. They pointed to what was lost, but also celebrated what was saved during the upheavals in Afghanistan.

They form the backdrop to a new exhibition at the Musée Guimet in Paris, which chronicles the history of DAFA’s work in Afghanistan from its inception in the early 1920s to the present day. It is entitled “Afghanistan, ombres et légendes” and runs until February 6th. It provides not only an overview of DAFA’s work and the important discoveries with which it is associated, but also an account of the early history of modern-day Afghanistan, told through the excavations that made it possible to piece this together.

Packed with photographs and other records of the excavations – unfortunately often from sites now lost to conflict – as well as a number of important pieces from the Musée Guimet’s own collections, the exhibition gives visitors a historical overview of this amazingly beautiful country . Its legacy is a testament to the role it has played for millennia as a crossroads between East and West and as home to successive civilizations from the Greek Buddhist to the Islamic.

It draws on the two previous exhibitions, also at the Musée Guimet, which marked Afghanistan’s reopening to outside teams after 2001. (The Weekly in March 2002) recalled that Afghanistan, at a geographic crossroads of Southwest Asia, once witnessed the armies of Alexander the Great was when she was in the 4th century B.C. passed through the region on their way to India. The region was home to first a Hellenistic and then a Greco-Buddhist civilization from the death of Alexander until the early centuries AD.

The second, Afghanistan, les trésors retrouvés (reviewed in The Weekly, February 2007), advanced the story by showing some of the important discoveries DAFA had made over the past century, many of which had never before been seen outside the country. For the first time, foreign audiences were able to gain a glimpse of material that not only had never been previously loaned from the Afghan National Museum in Kabul, but was thought to have been partially lost during the civil war that ravaged Afghanistan following the withdrawal of Soviet forces.

These included the “Bactrian gold” discovered by French and Afghan archaeologists in Tillia Tepe in northern Afghanistan in the late 1970s. This survived the civil war in the vaults of the Afghan National Bank in Kabul, where it was rediscovered after the US invasion. It also included Hellenistic objects from excavations conducted at the site of the ancient city of Ai Khanoum near the Tajik border, as well as Hellenistic and Indian materials found at Bagram north of Kabul in the late 1930s.

These materials were a revelation to international audiences, showing the breadth of successive cultures that have thrived in Afghanistan. Of particular note was the Hellenistic city of Ai Khanoum and the synthesis of Hellenistic and Indian cultures that resulted in the Greco-Buddhist art found in sites scattered across central Pakistan and northern, central and eastern Afghanistan.

After Alexander’s death in 323 B.C. his generals divided up his conquests. Ptolemy conquered Egypt and turned it into the richest and longest-lived Hellenistic kingdom. Seleucus conquered the vast territories conquered by Alexander in Asia and controlled them through Greek garrison towns almost to the Indus River, Ai Khanoum and other places in Afghanistan including.

THE FRENCH DELEGATION: The new exhibition opens in north-east Afghanistan with a selection of funerary statues from Kafiristan or Nuristan – the area stretching between north-west Pakistan and north-east Afghanistan and home to the non-Muslim Kalash people.

Visiting this area from Chitral in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province in the early 2000s, the author was, perhaps like many visitors to the exhibition, struck by the flourishing of this unique people, whose origins are believed to lie in the settlement of Alexander’s soldiers in of the region. The opening of the exhibition with material from the Kalash valleys underlines the diversity of the population of Afghanistan today.

Before entering the actual exhibition, visitors can watch an interview with Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan. Made for French television in 1965 before an official visit to France, in the interview Zahir Shah explains his country’s development ambitions and his long association with France, where he was educated. He highlights the role of French cultural cooperation in reconstructing and promoting awareness of Afghanistan’s long history.

The first room in the exhibition takes visitors to northeast Afghanistan and the borderlands with the Central Asian countries of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which was once home to 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 formed DAFA in the early 1920s, he became aware of this area in hopes of finding the remains of the Greek cities founded by Alexander.

While the Hellenistic site of Ai Khanoum was not excavated until much later, in the meantime Foucher focused instead on the later Greek Buddhist sites in the region, which he believes testified to a synthesis of Greek and Indian art in their striking statues of the Buddha and the Buddhist Bodhisattvas. According to the Chinese monk Xuan Zang, who visited the region in AD 628, there were once about 1,000 Buddhist monasteries in this area of ​​Afghanistan, and Foucher went in search of them.

Excavation work took place at Bamiyan in central Afghanistan, where the giant twin statues of the Buddha were monumental examples of this art form, and at Bagram, identified by Foucher as the site of one of the monasteries visited by Xuan Zang. Perhaps most spectacular are the remains of the ancient monasteries of Tapa Kalan, Tapa Shotor and Tapa-i-Kafariha, including those at Hadda near Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, which have produced some of the finest examples of Greek 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 frescoes that once adorned the caves and Buddha niches at Bamiyan, along with statues of the Buddha in plaster and slate found at Hadda and even kept in the Musée Guimet in Paris as similar collections in the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul were destroyed in the 1990s.

After World War II, a new agreement was signed between the Afghan government and DAFA, this time with the aim of expanding their activities away from focusing on Afghanistan’s Hellenistic and Greek Buddhist heritage to include the entire history from the Bronze Age through the Gift. At the same time, other foreign archaeological missions began to work 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 northeastern Afghanistan between 1952 and 1963, once an important center of the Kushan Empire that succeeded the Graeco-Bactrian Kingdom, and at the Lashkari Bazar near the city Kandahar in the south of the country between 1949 and 1951, a place that was once the winter capital of the region’s Islamic Ghaznavid and Ghurid dynasties.

Later rooms show the work of several teams on the minaret of Jam in western Afghanistan, a lone minaret from the Ghurid dynasty. The latter founded the Islamic Sultanate of Delhi in India, the forerunner of the Mughal Empire. An instructive video in the exhibition shows the intricate internal structure of the minaret.

It also gives an overview of the work at Herat in western Afghanistan, a city founded by Timur, the founder of the Timurid dynasty, perhaps best known to Western audiences by his English name Tamburlaine the Great. Various international teams have worked on the restoration of the city’s Gawhar Shad mausoleum, the Husayn Bayqara Musalla complex and the Qala-e Ikhtyaruddin citadel, as well as the Khwaga Abu Nasr Parsa Mosque in Balkh and of course the restoration of the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul after its destruction in the 1990s.

The former Afghan ambassador to France, Abdel-Ellah Sediqi, writes in glowing terms in the catalog accompanying the exhibition about the history of French archeology in Afghanistan and sees it as a lesson in international cooperation. He expresses the hope that the Taliban regime, which came to power in August 2021 following the withdrawal of US forces in Afghanistan, will respect this legacy, a wish shared by all visitors to the exhibition.

Afghanistan, ombres et légendes, Musée Guimet, Paris, until February 6th.

* A version of this article appears in print in the February 2, 2023 issue of Al-Ahram Weekly

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