Archive for Afghanistan

Blinded by the Light: Afghanistan’s Hidden Treasures

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Central Asia, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 7, 2009 by Liz Hager

Without art, there would be no record of the culture. —Fredrik Hiebert, National Geographic Society. 



Statue of the Buddha at moment of unwrapping, April 2004, Kabul (©National Museum of Afghanistan)


The context in which we view art often infuses it with additional meaning the artist never conceived or intended. Sometimes the contextual circumstances are so compelling that they become our predominant experience of the piece, eclipsing even the work’s artistic merits. 

Such is the case with the art on exhibit in Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul on view at the Asian Art Museum until January 25. The story of how these 228 items came to be on view—and, conversely, of how they easily might never have come to be on view were it not for the efforts of a small group of Afghanis—is thrilling. Like a good tale of espionage, this too is chock-full with elements of wartime danger and intrigue, brutish villains, high suspense, selfless acts. At its core this is a tale of collective heroism committed in the name of a greater good, in this case art. 


One of a pair of pendants showing the Dragon Master, Tillya Tepe, Tomb II; Second quarter of the 1st century CE; Gold, turquoise, garnet, lapis lazuli, carnelian and pearls, National Museum of Afghanistan (Photo © Thierry Ollivier/Musée Guimet)


First, the details of the story. The National Museum in Kabul was established in 1922. By mid-century its collection totaled some 100,000 items, including pre-Islamic and ethnographic pieces uncovered in 20th-century archeological digs throughout the country. Arguably the most famous of the excavated items—known as the Golden Hoard—were exhumed by Viktor Sarianidi in the fall of 1978 from an unassuming mound known as Tillya Tepe in the ancient land of Bactria

The Museum’s collection unequivocally established Afghanistan as a country with a sophisticated cultural heritage that stretched at least as far back as the Bronze Age. Moreover, the collection reflected the country’s central position at the cross-roads of great human migrations—Alexander’s march to the Indus, Buddhist monks trekking to China, Islamic armies fanning out from the Arabian peninsula, Silk Route traders, the campaigns of Persian conquerors, the invasions of Genghis Khan. And although the art of the Afghan region is stylistically unique, the museum’s artifacts displayed the telltale signs of the influences of Greek, Mesopotamian, Persian, Indian, Buddhist, Chinese, and nomadic tribal cultures.


Statuette of a woman standing on a makara, possibly a furniture ornament, Begram, Room 10, 1st-2nd c. CE, ivory 

The 1978 coup and ensuing Soviet invasion in 1979 made it clear that artifacts housed in Afghanistan’s museums were in grave danger.  It wasn’t until 1989 that curators began the process of moving pieces from the National Museum in Kabul, hiding them locations around the city, including the Ministry of Information and the Central Bank Treasury vault within the Presidential Palace.  Over the next few years, thousands of pieces were transfered. Workers were sworn to secrecy; “key holders” for various vaults were unknown beyond a tiny circle of people. Curators kept silent throughout the years of civil war and Taliban rule at enormous personal risk.

Unfortunately, not all of the collection could be moved by the Spring of 2001, when the Taliban mounted a catastrophic campaign to “destroy all images.”  Many will remember the most public of the casualties, the Buddhas of Bamayan.  But, museums suffered mighitly. As a result of the campaign, nearly two thirds of the 100,000 pieces in the National Museum’s collection, including many of the items stashed in the Ministry of Information, were destroyed or stolen.  

In a dramatic moment in 2004, after the Taliban had been run out of the country, curators gathered in at the Presidential vault. Sealed since 1989, noone knew what to expect. Museum inventory records had long been destroyed. Miraculously,  the Golden Hoard and many others of the magnificent treasures of the National Museum were safe.

Opening of the safe found to contain a trove of priceless Bactrian gold objects,  April 2004. (Photograph by Kenneth Garrett, ©National Geographic Society)


Given this extraordinary context, the exhibit cannot help but transcend pure artistic considerations. This is not to say that the pieces here are not delicate, elaborate, sophisticated, finely-wrought, entertaining, and fascinating for the glimpse they provide into lost civilizations. In the vein of Hiebert’s thought, however, it seems apparent that the overriding message of Hidden Treasures—the light that blinds us—is the enormous finality of culture extinguished. It’s almost impossible when viewing these recovered treasures not to ask “What if the Taliban had succeeded in removing this art from the world’s view?”  Thus, we are reminded that at stake is more than the culture of one peoples, but an exquisite record of humankind. 


Decorative plaque with a narrative scene, Begram, Room 13, 1st century CE, ivory and paint, 5.9 x 11.3 cm (©National Museum of Afghanistan)



Hidden Treasures brochure

Vandalised Afghanistan—Frontline (Hindu on Net)

Afghanistan Wants its “Dead Sea Scrolls” of Buddhism Back—British Library acknowledges that it has no idea how the scrolls came to London from Hadda.

Afghanistan: Images from an Era of Peace

Nancy Hatch Dupree—Museum under Siege and List of Stolen Items

Other Images

LACMA Head of a Bodhisattva (Gandahara)

Unique lunette with Buddha surrounded by adorants from Hadda area.

The Truth of Who We Are: Images of Afghanistan at SF Public Library

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Central Asia, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography, Words & Symbols with tags , , , , , on January 4, 2009 by Liz Hager
. . . Humankind is being led along an evolving course,
through this migration of intelligences,
and though we seem to be sleeping,
there is an inner wakefulness
that directs the dream,
and that will eventually startle us back
to the truth of who we are. . . 
Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, excerpt from The Dream That Must be Interpreted


Joseph Hoyt, The Great Buddhas of the Bamiyan Valley (destroyed by the Taliban March 2001), black & white photograph (© Joseph Hoyt 1979)

In early March 2001 the world was stunned by the news that the ruling regime in Afghanistan had destroyed the two giant Buddhas of Bamiyan. Claiming that these were idols and thus violated Sharia (Islamic law), the Taliban dynamited the 1500 year-old statues from their niches in the Hazarajat caves northwest of Kabul. The destruction of these exceptional and unique pieces of Buddhist art—despite worldwide protest and calls for moderation—should have been our wake up call about the ever-present danger inherent in the flash point that is Central Asia. Rather, for most Americans, the incident provided only a passing introduction to Afghanistan, a country so desperately poor and geographically remote that we failed to grasp the necessity of understanding more. We didn’t comprehend that a country, which has stood at a cross-roads of human history for millennia, has a rich culture. Alexander, the Silk Route merchants, Genghis Khan, Buddhists on their way from India to China all laid their specific cultural legacy on Afghanistan.  

Except for art historians, Buddhist scholars, and a relatively small number of concerned citizens, the event and the country were soon forgotten.   A mere six months later, however, Afghanistan roared violently back into the consciousness of every American. And little more than a year after that the country dropped from the radar screen once again, eclipsed by the US invasion of Iraq.

Soon, Afghanistan once again will colonize our consciousness. With Barack Obama committed to expanding military operations in the country, our notions, misconceptions, and prejudices of it are bound to surface. 

Operating on the theory that a picture is worth a thousand  words, those inclined to greater understanding of Afghani culture will want to see two San Francisco exhibits before they close this month—Joseph Hoyt’s Afghanistan 1970-1975: Images From An Era of Peace  (until Jan 18) at the Public Library and Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul (closes Jan 25; reviewed in separate VR post) conveniently located next door at the Asian Art Museum.  

Joseph Hoyt arrived in Afghanistan in September 1970, solely on the strength of a fireside conversation in Crete. Thinking he would merely pass through the country, he ended up staying for nearly a year. Over the next five years, Hoyt spent nearly 40 months in the country. 

I loved being there. Travel was cheap, safe, and easy. The people were friendly, open and generous beyond their means. The sounds, sights, and smells of everyday life were exhilarating. The contrasts were amazing: the deserts ran on seemingly without end. The mountains concealed green oases of vineyards, lush gardens, and apricot and mulberry groves. Even the names of the mountains were intoxicating: the Koh-I Baba, the Hindu Kush, the Pamirs. This was indeed a different world. It seemed I could not leave.. . The more I saw and experienced, the more taken by the people, the landscape, and the culture I became.


Afghanistan (click on map to enlarge) 

Hoyt shot hundreds of photographs during those 40 months, some 50 of which are included in the exhibit. All of the photos were taken before the Soviet invasion in 1979, at a time when the country was at peace and comparatively properous. The everyday shots in markets, on buses, and teahouses depict the Afghanis as a joyous, almost carefree, people.  


Joseph Hoyt, Nineteen boys cram a back-street shop to laugh and study the Koran in Kabul, black & white photograph (© Joseph Hoyt 1979)

The exhibit includes some stunning landscapes as well—in particular, the shot of hundreds of domed gumbazee structures rising from the dirt in the remote village of Lash-e Jouayn is mesmerizing in its strangeness.  Although they aren’t as engaging as the shots of people and landscapes, the several photos of the Bamayan Buddhas are interesting as cultural records. More interesting than the pictures themselves is Hoyt’s narrative about the excursion, for it evokes some of the specialness of the giant figures:

It was already quite cold as we were traveling in mid-October.  We arrived in Bamian quite late—probably after 2am—and were met by a tea house owner who showed us a place to put our mats.  To awaken and walk outside in the morning and be at the foot of the immense statues was stunning.  I spent the day climbing the cliffs and exploring the caves.  The two Buddhas are (were) quite far apart – it seems maybe nearly a mile from one to the other.  It was possible to actually climb through a series of caves to a room at the head of the larger Buddha where you could see out small opening and view the remains of the polychrome paintings of seated Buddhas and other scenes.  Some of the cave were quite large as I recall—high ceilings with openings looking out over the Bamian Valley and to the mountains beyond.

As I heard and read of the impending actions by the Taliban back in in 2001 I thought and hoped it was simply a publicity stunt.  As the days went on it became apparent they were serious.  To me it was unimaginable these uneducated religious thugs would go through with it.  How many generations had those massive figures dominated so benignly that lovely valley? 40? 50?

Regrettably, this era of peace in Afghanistan is virtually unknown to the the world at large; happily we have Hoyt’s record of it. His pictures are fragments in the larger truth of Afghanistan. And greater understanding of the Afghanis, their complex history, and rich culture, as Rumi observed, will eventually startle us back to the truth of who we are.

Note: According to tradition, Rumi was born in BalkhBactria, in contemporary Afghanistan, which at that time was part of the Persian Empire. The hometown of his father’s family; however, some Rumi scholars believe that he was born in Wakhsh, a small town located on the river Wakhsh in present-day Tajikistan. As a young adult Rumi fled to central Turkey to avoid war in his homeland.  In Konya, he founded the Mevlevi Dervish Order, also known as the whirling dervishes.  

More on Rumi.

Wider Connections

Joseph HoytImages of Afghanistan

Douglas Powell’s images of Afghanistan (1970s)

Obama’s Afghan Hurdles (Robert Kaplan, Atlantic Monthly)


Further Reading

Rory Stewart—The Places Inbetween. Just after the Taliban were deposed (2001), Scottish journalist/historian Rory Stewart ventured on a dangerous and seemingly impossible journey—walking across Afghanistan. He survived by using his wits, his knowledge of Persian dialects and Muslim customs, and the hospitality for which the Afghanis are well-known. In recounting this trip, Stewart meditates on the forces of tradition, ideology and tribal allegiance that shape life in Afghanistan’s countless places “in between.”

Greg Mortenson—Three Cups of Tea. An uplifting tale of how one person does make a difference. Mortenson, seriously lost in northeastern Pakistan’s untrammeled Karakoram Range, stumbled nearly 60 miles down a glacier to the Muslim hamlet of Korphe, where he was inspired to make a life-changing promise. This is the engaging story of how that promise became a reality. 

Robert Kaplan—Soldiers of God: With the Mujahidin in Afghanistan. Kaplan reports first-hand on the Afghan resistance to Soviet invasion in the 1980s. 

Steven Coll—Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001

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