Ceremonial Plaque depicting Cybele on her chariot, early 3rd century BC

by 29lab 26-05-2023

Afghanistan had some great treasures in National Museum, Kabul. The destruction-loving Taliban, whose aim was to mutilate all that was pre-Islamic in origin, were not able to lay their hands on these, as President Najibullah ordered many of these objects moved to an underground vault, beneath the presidential palace in Kabul

IT is not easy for me to get out of my mind an image of a superbly carved, nearly life-size, figure of the sun god, Surya, that I saw long ago in National Museum at Kabul. Fashioned out of white marble, there it stood, displayed in all its majesty, most of the body intact: except for the face, which was rubbed, abraded – not broken – worn off almost beyond recognition.

Puzzled by this uneven damage to the 9th-10th century, evidently Indian figure, I looked questioningly at the deputy director of the museum, who was taking me around. It is believed, he explained, that the damage goes back to the times of Mahmud of Ghazni (971-1030 AD), the ‘but shikan’ – ‘breaker of idols’ – as he was called. The iconoclastic sultan found this figure and, fired with the zeal to desecrate or destroy all idols, laid it flat, and had it embedded, face up, right in front of the throne on which he used to sit so that everyone approaching him had to walk over it, leather boots and all. The face being the most raised part of the figure in that state kept being walked over, day after day, year after year….

Ceremonial Plaque depicting Cybele on her chariot, early 3rd century BC

Ceremonial plaque depicting goddess Cybele on a chariot. Ai Khanoum, Afghanistan. 3rd century BC

Nearly a thousand years have passed, but one is reminded every now and then that the days of iconoclasm, and of fanatical adherence to one’s narrow beliefs, are not quite over. Consider the acts of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The mindless destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas — some of the greatest works of their kind — stays in the mind, fresh like a wound, “eternally touched up and iodised, but never healed”, as a poet once said. When they ran over the capital some time later and took control of National Museum, Kabul, they aimed not only at laying their hands on all its riches, but also mutilating all that was pre-Islamic in origin, which meant, for the most part, any figures or idols.

This, however, is not a story about loss, but about foresight and courage, and the drama that inheres in it. For, at the heart of it is the famous Bactrian Gold, a great treasure that lay buried under Tillya Tepe, the Hill of Gold, in Afghanistan, for close to 2,000 years. Bactria, centre of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom, was a land, once ‘filled with the riches of a thousand cities’, as a Roman historian described it: the easternmost outpost of the Hellenistic world, a melting pot of cultures on the Silk Road, and an entrepot of commerce in Central Asia. Here, in this corner of Afghanistan, were found, in 1978, more than 20,000 gold ornaments, spread over six Kushan burial mounds, which were dug up by a team, led by a Greek-Russian archaeologist, Viktor Sarianidi: coins, necklaces, figurines, funerary objects, belts, crowns and medallions in sparkling gold, most of them superbly crafted.

Ceremonial Plaque depicting Cybele on her chariot, early 3rd century BC

Ivory figurine of a goddess. Standing Begram. Afghanistan. 1st century AD

Just a year later, however, events overtook this great discovery, for Afghanistan became a theatre of war, with the Soviets invading the country and civil war breaking out. For 17 years this conflict went on. However, one unexpected development marked the period. Seeing so much destruction all around, the then Soviet-backed President, Najibullah, following a committee’s decision, ordered the Bactrian hoard, along with other selected objects, moved from the National Museum to an underground vault belonging to the Central Bank of Afghanistan, beneath the presidential palace in Kabul. The doors of the vault, as the account goes, were locked with keys, which were distributed among five trusted men, designated as tahwildars. Not till all five men were assembled, each with a key, could the vault be opened.

It is reported that the Taliban were looking for the Bactrian treasure. However, when the vault was located by them, the keys could not be found — they were about to dynamite the vault door open – something that would have destroyed everything inside it – when they had to retreat, with the coming in of American troops. Fortunately, with some kind of peace restored, in 2003, the vault was opened, with all five tahwildars holding the keys, successfully assembled. Everything, fortunately, was intact. Dr Massoudi, the present director of the National Museum, Kabul, tells the story with understandable emotion. He was a key-holder, one of the persons under great stress throughout this period, and it is to him, as to the others involved in the drama, that the President of Afghanistan paid, publicly, a rich tribute for having played a valiant part.

The Bactrian gold has still not found a permanent home, however. For, as Dr Massoudi said in an interview, Kabul’s National Museum was severely damaged during the civil war, with 70 per cent of its items looted. The next best thing was thought of, therefore, to send a part of the collection on an international tour, along with some other objects that had survived. Different agencies helped: Unesco, the National Endowment for the Arts in the US, and so on. Earlier this year, the show titled “Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World”, opened to great acclaim at the British Museum, London, after having been to several other places.

A passage from the report on the exhibition read like this: The Afghanistan on show has all the colour you’d expect from a place that was just a camel ride away from the frontiers of China and the Greek Empire. In one display, a voluptuous female figurine in ivory stands on a makara, a sea creature of Hindu mythology. A few feet away, a bronze Eros looks bemused at the fact that he was exhumed north of Kabul instead of in Athens. Most impressive, however, are the rows of golden objects unearthed in Tillya Tepe in northern Afghanistan ….

Also, in the show – something that the report did not speak of – was that magnificent ceremonial plaque depicting Cybele, the great Earth Goddess, riding a chariot driven by lions even as the sun and the moon look on from the heavens above. It is as if eternity was beckoning.