If you are a certain age and come from an Anglo-Celtic or European background, your mental alignment may have rendered you, on balance, Eurocentric. Even the word “mediterranean” — meaning centre of the earth, suggests this mindset, as does “far east” and “near east”. Middle Asia, that sprawl of desert and steppes from Mongolia to the Black Sea where nomads roamed and settled, has long been submerged by the traditional historians’ triumphalist leanings towards ancient Greece and Rome. But today historians, archaeologists and anthropologists are dismantling this mindset at a furious pace.
In 1978 in Afghanistan, more than 21,000 gold items were discovered in six related burial sites of nomadic tribesmen at Tillya Tepe (hill of gold). The survival of these pieces and others from three further archaeological sites (Fullol, Aï Khanum, and Begram) is worthy of a good detective novel, but the stories the works themselves embody is the visceral record of thousands of years of cross-fertilisation of cultures which flourished and faded across this vast expanse. These fragmented treasures also tell us that the world was “global” much earlier than we thought.
Afghanistan was formerly three regions — Aria, Arachosia and Bactria — until the western powers drew a pencil line around all three. Its history was shaped by its position on the convergence of trade routes known as the silk road, along which silks and lacquer reached the west and lapis lazuli, ivory, turquoise, amber, glass and garnets travelled east. At one end lay the Rome of Emperor Augustus and at the other China’s Han Dynasty.
The contemporary events which ravaged Afghanistan — the Soviet invasion in 1979, the rise of local warlords, the strictures of the Taliban, the American occupation and widespread looting of archaeological sites have all diminished the vast legacy of artefacts which embodied the stylistic influences of the nomadic steppe peoples, the Greeks, the Romans, Mesopotamia (now Iraq) Persia (now Iran), China and India.
By 1995 Kabul and its national museum was in ruins. In a remarkable act of courage and determination, museum staff and others spirited away many of its contents to a secret hiding place. The vaults that held them were opened in 2004 and now a selection of these pieces have landed on Sydney’s doorstep. Dr Masoudi, director of the museum, traced the previous destruction of the National Museum and the restoration and re-cataloguing of thousands of works in an illustrated talk at the Art Gallery of NSW on Thursday 6 March.
The nomadic tribes of the steppes focused their aesthetic on portable items: buckles, gold appliqués stitched to garments, inlaid sword hilts and fittings, belt plaques and bridle ornaments for their horses. So closely was the nomad associated with his horse that it may have given rise to the myth of the centaur: half man/half horse.
Many of the objects in this exhibition demonstrate the lasting stylistic influences of Greece, thanks to the dissemination of skilled Greek goldsmiths throughout the region but also the civic intentions of Alexander the Great who, on his whirlwind marches through Bactria to India and back, established cities and cultures in the Hellenistic style.
There are feasts for the eye in every corner of this exhibition, ivory fragments of furniture, vessels carved from schist, bronze statues representing various gods and goddesses, terracotta buddhas, chalcedony intaglios, gold ornaments as fragile as parchment and solid gold objects inlaid with turquoise.
Many pieces demonstrate the centrality of the animal kingdom to the well being and the religious beliefs of these cultures. Some hybrid forms which combined features of different animals — and imaginary ones — was a phenomenon across the ancient world
The presence of those mythical figures, Heracles, Athena, Nike, Aphrodite, Eros, Psyche, Zeus, Silenus and Harpocrates, remind us that for the thousands of years before Judaism, Christianity and Islam made their appearance, the highways along which gods and goddesses made their intersecting journeys from region to region in the middle east — always mutating in accordance with the beliefs and predilections of a culture — were very busy thoroughfares indeed.