Afghanistan has brought its crown jewels to London, almost. In the British Museum‘s latest breath-stopping display, we are drawn on a journey of wonder into this culturally hybrid world of two thousand years ago. In London we proudly claim what is now the world’s most multi-cultural society, but this ancient crossroads of the Silk Road came close, if only by the conduit of trade and, presumably, artisans. As a result, Greek stylistic influence crossed paths with Chinese, Indian, Roman, Mesopotamian and Central Asian in a feast of artistic cross-fertilisation. Seeing this exhibition is like a whistle-stop tour of all those places.
The tightly conceived and focused display is packed with exceptional works of bronze, delicately carved ivory, plaster, alabaster and glass (including fish-shaped flasks and a hypnotically cobalt blue vase). Most of the exquisite gold jewellery, etched gold and silver bowls and zoomorphic figures, some inlaid with glints of turquoise, lapis, pearl, malachite or garnet, came from Tillya Tepe (‘hill of gold’) up in the harsh mountains of the Hindu Kush. In a real historical coup, archaeologists unearthed six tombs spilling out thousands of these rich artefacts destined to accompany their owners in the afterlife.
The discovery took place in 1978 during a key period for Afghanistan, a kind of inter-regnum between the last king, Zahir Shah (deposed in 1973) and a socialist republic. But civil war was brewing (to be knocked on its head by the Soviet invasion, in 1979) something I and my friends were blissfully unaware of in 1976 as we motored through Afghanistan in our classic VW van. The archaeologists were far more aware when being threatened by armed tribespeople on horseback – a wild edge that’s still there.
But back to the exhibition, don’t miss it. It’s as visually priceless as its historic value. Even Hamid Karzai came to the opening in his characteristic sweeping robe (OK, a dubious supporter).