Monday 21 March 2011

Civilisation is power

Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World, British Museum, London

Afghanistan always grabs our attention. Or rather, anything to do with that country’s life at the present time does. But can its past have much of an attraction? Can archaeological work done and finds discovered there have anything to say about the role of the country in today’s increasingly unstable international scene? Does the way a country has developed in the past have universal lessons? This exhibition gives us an opportunity to consider these questions.

And in order to do so we have to examine the raw material on offer. The exhibition features artefacts found in Afghanistan between 1937 and 1978, which were subsequently lodged in that country’s National Museum. Feared to have been lost after the Soviet invasion of 1979 and the civil war that followed, as well as the later destruction by the Taliban of figural displays, they are drawn from four sites. The first is Tepe Fullol,which dates to 2000 BC. And dating from between the 3rd century BCand 1st century AD, we have Ai Khanum, a Hellenistic Greek city on the Oxus River and on the modern border with Tajikistan; Begram, a capital of the local Kushan dynasty whose rule extended from Afghanistan into India; and Tillya Tepe (‘Hill of Gold’), the find spot of an elite nomadic cemetery. Which of the exhibits are not only visually outstanding but also able to give us insights about contemporary Afghanistan? What they may say to the wider world?

From Tepe Fullol we see early evidence of high standards of workmanship in the form of a gold goblet from 2200-1900 BC with a geometric stepped square design based on woven textiles. Finds from Ai Khanum give us an insight into the region’s intellectual life and the way it was influenced by Greek educational methods. We see a limestone statue of a Greek youth from 145 BC,scarred by Taliban-inflicted damage, along with a portrait (probably) of Strato, head of the Ai Khanum gymnasium - where both intellectual and physical training took place - from the period 200-150 BC. Science is represented by stone hemispherical and cylindrical sundials from the 3rd to mid-2nd centuries BC,with the engraved lines on the former helping to give it the sophistication of any modern scientific instrument. Decorative architecture abounds. Moulded clay roof decoration from the Ai Khanum Palace dating from the 3rd century BC features wings with powerful, yet graceful, curves whilst, more playfully, there is a limestone waterspout from the 3rd to mid-2nd centuries BCwith a gargoyle taking the form of a powerfully-jawed fish.

Begram givesus sensuous - and sophisticated- domestic decoration in the form of ivory Indian furniture legs in the shape of a goddess from the 1st century AD (significantly, these are similar to material found in Pompeii extant at the time of its destruction inAD79) along with an ivory plaque depicting curvaceous women standing under gateways from the 1st to 2nd centuries AD. The creators of this plaque obviously delighted in the female form, with the women’s bodies emphasised by the contrasting oppressiveness of the heavily-built gateways. The state of (un)dress of the women featured here would probably not commend them to the Taliban. From the 1st to 2nd centuries AD there is a pastoral scene on a painted, almost complete glass goblet depicting figures harvesting dates, using colours that are almost startlingly fresh and which give the scene an almost three dimensional effect. Finally, Tillya Tepe lives up to its name as it yields for us, from the 1st century BC to 1st century AD gold, turquoise and carnelian boot buckles depicting a chariot drawn by dragons as well as a gold crown from the same period. This crown is a riot of curves and shapes as if a controlled explosion of these gold forms has been frozen in midair.

This exhibition reminds us that international involvement and influence in Afghanistan are nothing new. Like Belgium and Poland it has - because of its geographical location - found itself an unwilling cockpit in world affairs, the fate of countries when caught between competing power blocks. It also shows that cross-border trade is a centuries-old activity: it helped to bring about the ideas and art which these exhibits exemplify. Multi-culturalism in the proper sense of borrowing what may be attractive from other cultures was going on here long before its misinterpretation as the idea of putting all cultures on an even level irrespective of the merits of their content became fashionable in the late 20th century.

But what this exhibition, arguably, also shows - even if it is not spelt-out in direct terms - is that the growth of civilisation is not a linear progression. Rather like a ball zig-zagging around a football pitch as a game ebbs and flows - it is moved by the cross-currents of politics, race, science and religion. For the cultural, artistic and intellectual breadth of these artefacts show a level of sophistication that we might not immediately associate with the culture of contemporary Afghanistan. It would be interesting to know what artefacts from that country there are - from periods later than those featured here - which can match in intellectual rigour and artistic skill the objects we see in the exhibition. If what is available cannot reach those standards, then it would be of interest to know which forces have caused them to deteriorate.

An exhibition of any aspect of the arts is an invitation to evaluate and - when right to do so - admire human skills and the insights they exemplify. But this one has a deeper significance. Over the past 30 years human lives have been put at risk in order to safeguard from loss or destruction the items we see on display here. These objects were sometimes seen by those who wished to seize them not just in terms of greed-fuelled looting but of the threat they posed to the belief systems of those who wished to destroy them. Civilisation is power: a power which constantly challenges its enemies and invites its defenders to maintain and expand it. At a time when cultural relativism continues to hold sway in Western institutions this should be the main lesson to be learnt from the exhibition.

Till 3 July 2011

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