Hidden Treasures of Afghanistan

Story and photos by Keyhan Farahmand

‘Afghanistan, hidden treasures’ and Khadim Ali’s ‘The haunted lotus’ are two exhibitions showing at the Art Gallery of NSW. ‘Hidden treasures’ is a collection of valuable artefacts from Kabul’s national museum, and originally from four parts of Afghanistan: Ai-Khanum, Begram, Tepe Fullol and Tillya Tepe.  ‘The haunted lotus’ shows painting by artist Khadim Ali.

 Afghanistan, hidden treasures

Ai-Khanum, “Lady Moon” in Uzbek, was founded in the 4th century BC by one of Alexander’s followers, and is located in the northern part of Afghanistan between the Amou-Darya river and Kokcha. The Afghan king Mohammad Zaher Shah first encountered Ai-Khanum, one of the most beautiful towns in Central Asia, while out hunting in 1961.

Three years later archaeological excavations began, supervised by the French Paul Bernard. But The Russo-Afghan war, followed by the civil war and thne Taliban war, forced the excavations to stop.  Although since 2006 French archaeologists started to cautiously return to Ai-Khanum, the site was severely damaged by looters and fights between Taliban and anti-Taliban’s forces.

 The City of Begram, Silk Road trading post, 1st – 2nd centuries BC

The Silk Road, or Silk Route is a series of trade and cultural transmission routes that were central to cultural interaction through regions of the Asian continent. They connected the West and East by linking traders, merchants, pilgrims, monks, soldiers, nomads and urban dwellers from China to the Mediterranean Sea during various periods of time. The ancient city of Begram was partially excavated in the 1930s and 1940s by French archaeologists who uncovered a building with several rooms. Two of the rooms, Room 10 and Room 13, contained a remarkable cache of trade objects, such as bronzes from the Greco-roman world, glassware and porphyry from Roman Egypt, lacquered bowls from China, and ivory furniture ornaments carved in India.

Tepe Fullol, bronze Age farmland

The treasures discovered in Tepe Fullol are some of the oldest archaeological in Afghanistan and date back to the 2200-1900 BC. Afghan farmers found these gold and silver treasures in near Fullol village in north east Afghanistan. The bowls found on this site were made by local craftsmen, and the gold may have been obtained from sources close to the Amou-Darya river. Some of the beaded objects may have been inspired by works brought in from outside Afghanistan.

In 1978, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the Soviet archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi discovered several graves that had been dug in a very old place in Tillya Tepe.  He unearthed an exquisite golden crown that was capable of splitting into smaller pieces and could be easily placed in a small box for transport . This ancient piece showed that this cemetery belonged to Kushan rulers – a wealthy family. These Ancient works include more than 20 thousand pieces of jewellery in the shape of cupid, or the god of love, fish and animals, legendary rugged design embellished with semi-precious stones. Design and applied art works of these examples clearly show the local ancient art, which was influenced by ancient Greece, Central Asia and Iran.

Since September 2006 the ‘Afghanistan, hidden treasures’ exhibition has travelled the world, starting in Paris, and after that Turin, Amsterdam, New York, Francisco, Texas, Washington, Ottawa, London, Stockholm, and Norway. According to national Museum of Afghanistan curator Kabul Omran Khan Masoudi, the main reason for the travelling exhibition is to change “distorted faces” of “war-torn” Afghanistan, and to show the world about the ancient civilization of Afghanistan. Until now, nearly more than US$3 million has been raised for the museum around the world.  The art works are on display at the  Art Gallery of NSW until June 15.

The Haunted Lotus

‘The haunted lotus’ is a display of paintings by Afghan artist Khadim Ali. The ideas for the paintings came from the Persian Book of Kings, or Shahnama. Ali’s father had read the book to him when he was a little boy, and Ali relates the paintings to violence in Afghanistan. he identifies the book’s hero with the history of Hazara people in Afghanistan, especially people living in the caves at Bamyan, made world famous as the place that statues of the great Buddha were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. Also on display are handmade carpets made from his paintings by artisans in Kabul.

Ali was born in Bamyan and grew up in Pakistan as a refugee. He trained in classical miniature painting at the National College of Art at Lahore, and studied calligraphy in Tehran. His work has been included in museums and private collections around the world. Ali now lives and works between Sydney, Quetta in Pakistan, and Kabul.

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