Afghan Treasures Exhibition: a peep into a rich heritage

  What does a nomadic Afghan princess who lived sometime between 1st century BC and 1st century AD, wear on ceremonial ocassions when she stands by the side of her Chieftain? And how does she travel with it when they roamed in northern Afghanistan? 

 The answer is a foldable crown in gold like this,  where each vertical tree like piece could be detached from the headband and inserted into small gold tubes on the inside of the diadem, and then laid flat to go into a saddle bag — one of some 228 extraordinary artifacts, long thought to have been stolen or destroyed during the quarter of a century Afghanistan’s conflict on display at this exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

A documentary film shown at the exhibition narrated by celebrated Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini showed how they were found in a vault under the Presidential Palace in 2004.

 For a museum freak like me, I couldn’t have asked for a better treat than the Afghanistan Hidden Treasures exhibition.   “The works on view span Afghan history from 2200 BC to the second century AD and come from four archeologicalsites: The bronze age site of Tepe Fullol; the Greco-Bactrian city of Aϊ Khanum; the trading  settlement of Begram, which flourished in the first and second centuries AD; and the roughly contemporary necropolis of Tilya Tepe,” said the brochure.


Afghanistan was centrally located on the “Silk Road” — this was not one single road but a phrase that covered  many land sea routes between the eastern Mediterranean and Chinese frontiers.  These routes developed from 300 BC to c.200 AD, linking cities, trading posts and caravan watering holes  as adventurous trading on precious metals, coins, glass, semi-precious stones, silk textiles lacquered bowls and other luxury goods were carried out.  Most of these items were small but of high value considering the distances that these merchants needed to cover.  

For me the gold crown was the most fascinating item but it is actually one of the last items on display and I have jumped ahead of the stroy.  The crown has stayed in my head as I spun possible stories of the lady who wore it and the people who loved her enough to bury her with all her jewellery. 

So to start at the beginning — let’s take a look at the  bronze age site of Tepe Fullol, where in 1966, farmers near the northern Afghan village of Fullol accidentally discovered a burial cache.  it contained first evidence of  what the archaeologists call the “Oxus civilisation” in Afghanistan.  This cache was the first known evidence of the existence of the urban culture that is supposed to have developed 4000 years ago. A culture that left no known writing.  The grave contained several bowls made of gold like this fragment of a bowl depicting bearded bulls.   Designs which included animal imagery such as this came from Mesopotamia and the Indus valley cultures (present day Pakistan).

Afghanistan rich in gold, copper, tin, lapis lazuli, garnet and carnelian attracted many invaders  and In the sixth century BC northern Afghnaistan fell to the Persians who referred to it as Bactria.  The next came the big invader In the fourth century BC –Alexander the Great.  He  established Hellenezid Government, introduced the Greek language, art and religion into the region.  Around 328 BC Bactria became the eastern out post of Greek culture in Asia.

The exhibition brochure tells us that “One of Alexander’s successors, Seleucius 1, founded the Greco-Bactrian city of  Aϊ Khanum (“Lady Moon”) at a strategic location along the Oxus river. …  Excavations in 1964, uncovered  a city modeled on a Greek urban plan, with a theater, fountains, temples, tombs of the city’s benefactors, a residential area, and a gymnasium for education and sports.” At the  exhibition a short film recreated what Aϊ Khanum would have looked like in its hey day.

 This statue found in a niche at the site is supposed to be of the gymnasium’s director and is dated as one from the 1st half of the second century. 

Inscribed on the pillar were five obligations of Life


Stage 1:  Childhood:  Learn good manners.


Stage 2:  Youth:  Control your passions.


Stage 3:  Adulthood:  Learn to be just.


Stage 4:  Senior years:  Give good advice.


Stage 5:  Death:  Die without regret.





The NGA brochure says “this plaque made of gilded silver is one of the oldest antiquities from Aϊ Khanum.  It depicts Cybele, Greek goddess of nature, riding in a chariot. Next to her is the winged goddess Nike, holding the reins. The chariot is drawn by two lions passing through a mountainous landscape strewn with rocks and flowers. Cybele is attended by two priests; one behind, holding a parasol and the other standing on a tall alter, making an offering. Three heavenly bodies shine down from the sky; the sun god Helios, a crescent moon, and a star.  In sum the plaque shows the goddess of nature presiding within an orderly cosmos.”


The trading  settlement of Begram

Two sealed and undisturbed storerooms containing luxury goods  in Begram discovered by French archaeologists in the 1930s and 1940s show a remarkable collection of trading items.  No one could figure out why these diverse objects were kept in sealed rooms but the collection was extraordinary and had many works in ivory, of voluptuous women at doorways, dancing, playing musical instruments and beautiful glassware. No doubt women were good models that still sold goods even then.

This statuette is supposed to be of the Indian river goddess Ganga,  standing on a makara (mythical animal the brochure says is part crocodile, part elephant, and part fish) and is thought to have been a furniture ornament.



And this is another bracket that supported the arm of a chair.  Here again we see  — another hybrid beast called a leogryph with the body of a lion, wings of an eagle and beak of a paarot in ivory.







This goblet is adorned with a scene of harvesting dates

Tilya Tepe

Nomads from the northern steppes, which stretches from the Black Sea to Mongolia overran Bacteria around 145 BC bringing to an end the Greco-Bacterium kingdoms that had flourished there,” says the exhibition brochure. 

The first evidence of this nomadic existence such as the crown of the nomadic princess was discovered in Tilya Tepe meaning “hill of gold.” 

The site revealed a culture that was more refined, eclectic and Hellenized,” said the brochure.  Excavated in 1978, the site contained the tombs of a Chieftain and five female members of the household who had been buried sometime in the 1st century BC or the 1st century AD. Although the cloth and the dress material had decayed, the gold buttons and clasps and the jewellery remained.  The exhibits  had recreated the dresses which were held  together by little gold  flower/star shaped studs .

Among the finds at  Tilya Tepe  were:


Ornament for the neck of a robe in gold, turquoise, garnet , lapis lazuli, carnelian and pearls







Headdress ornament in the form of a ram in gold







One of a pair of boot buckles showing a chariot drawn by dragons in gold turquoise and carnelian and shows the influence of the Chinese and the buckle showed signs of wear.








 One of a pair of clasps depicting Dionysus and Ariadne in gold and turquoise






Detail from a pair of pendants depicting the “dragon master” in gold turquoise, garnet, lapis lazuli, carnelian and pearl.




In these Tilya Tepe objects you could see the influence of many cultures — Chinese, Indian, Siberian, Persian, Greek and Roman.

When I came home I took another look at this painting that hangs in my home. It was a crumbly painting of an Apsara ( one of many heavenly maidens who come down to earth from time to time) playing a flute.   I found it then  when I rummaged around a small curio shop in a back lane Singapore in the late 1980’s.  Seeing my interest and wanting probably to make a sale the shop girl then said :” It’s a fairy lah, from one of the silk route caves.” Now, I wonder?


The text on the exhinbition and artefacts here is based on this NGA brochure written by Frank Hiebert, curator and National Geogrpahic and Susan M. Arsenberg, department of exhibition programs, National Gallery of Art.

Photogrpah of the National Gallery of Art, Apsara palying the flute, the boot buckle from the foyer display  by Chulie de Silva.

The other photographs of the artefacts were re-photographed from the brochure and from picture postcards and book marks.

The collection, belongs to the National Museum of Afghanistan, Kabul, whose motto is “A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive.”

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