Hidden treasures from a lost city

Hundred of artifacts saved by Afghan museum staff in 1978 are now on display in Ottawa

Hidden treasures from a lost cityIn northeastern Afghanistan, where the snowmelt waters of the Kokcha River flow into the silty grey expanse of the Amu Darya River, a flat-topped hill rises above the valley below. Its eastern slope is gentle and can be easily climbed, while its western side ends in a cliff on which one can stand and, on clear days, see the snow-capped Hindu Kush rise above the distant horizon. One of Alexander the Great’s generals built a city here in the fourth century B.C., complete with a theatre, gymnasium and palace. The culture that flourished in the city showed its Greek roots, but also the influence of civilizations in Mesopotamia, Persia, and the Indian subcontinent. The city, likely named Alexandria on the Oxus, was a hub, where people and ideas from around the world intermingled. Less than 200 years after it was founded, nomads from the Central Asian steppe invaded. Alexandria on the Oxus was lost to history for 2,000 years.

It was rediscovered in 1961 when a local peasant showed a stone fragment to Afghan King Zahir Shah, who was hunting in the area. The king recognized the artifact’s importance and summoned a French archaeologist, who began an excavation. Then the Soviets invaded. Their occupation was followed by years of civil war. Alexandria on the Oxus, now known by its Uzbek name, Ai Khanum, or Lady Moon, was destroyed once again.

When I visited it in the fall of 2001, the front lines of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance militia ran right through the sand-covered ruins of the city. It was out of range of all but the luckiest of Taliban shells, yet it commanded a magnificent view of their positions to the west. An old Soviet tank was dug in near to where the ancient citadel used to stand, and an exquisite Corinthian column lay in the dust just behind shallow trenches where teenage Afghan soldiers trash-talked their Taliban counterparts on walkie-talkies. Pottery shards were everywhere. I’m ashamed to say I pocketed a few and thereby added my name to the long list of scoundrels who have plundered the ancient world. But with smoke rising from U.S. air strikes on Taliban lines just a few kilometres away, the odds of any artifacts from Ai Khanum ever making it into a museum seemed vanishingly small.

What almost no one knew at the time was that a small group of heroic Afghans had already taken steps to ensure that Ai Khanum’s treasures were protected and would one day be shown to the world. In 1978, with decades of chaos looming ahead, staff at the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul hid thousands of artifacts from across the country in vaults in the basement of the presidential palace. These vaults were opened in 2003. Their contents now form a travelling exhibition that will be at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau until the end of March.

Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures is spectacular. The artifacts are drawn from four sites, including Ai Khanum. One site dates from the Bronze Age, about 4,000 years ago. The other three are from the Hellenistic period, when Alexander’s generals and their successors ruled kingdoms in the Near East and Central Asia. The Silk Road trading route flourished at this time, and caravans from the Far East, the Mediterranean, and South Asia met in Afghanistan. They carried with them sculptures of Indian ivory, Chinese silver mirrors, Egyptian glass, and Roman bronze. Imported traditions blended with local ones. Some of the most riveting artifacts come from tombs of the nomads from the north who migrated into Afghanistan and displaced Alexander’s descendents. These include an intricate gold and turquoise pendant of a man wrestling dragons, and show artistic influences from as far away as Siberia.

“Today it is hard for visitors to understand how interconnected the world has been from a very early time,” says Moira McCaffrey, curator for the exhibition at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. The artifacts on display go some way toward making that clear. They also demonstrate how right the Kabul museum curators were to hide those treasures during Afghanistan’s decades of war. In 1971, archaeologists digging at Ai Khanum discovered a statue of a young man broken into 29 fragments. They glued them together and displayed the salvaged piece of art at the National Museum of Afghanistan. When the Taliban took Kabul, they decided the statue was blasphemous and destroyed it. It has since been reassembled once more and is now part of the travelling exhibition. But the Taliban smashed the young man’s face beyond repair.

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