Thomas Ruttig takes you on a short trip on Afghan traces in central Europe, this time encountering Afghanistan’s cultural heritage saved from looting and destruction and shown at a museum in Germany’s former capital.
II. Bonn on the Rhine
One of the major cultural venues in the town that was (West) Germany’s capital for more than 40 years and that hosted the first post-Taleban international conference of Afghanistan is The Bundeskunsthalle (Federal Art and Exhibition Hall) at Friedrich-Ebert-Allee, a modern and spacious structure only a comfortable tram ride away from Bonn’s central railway station. Here, the director of the show Susanne Annen has arranged a lavish presentation of exhibits from the National Museum in Kabul that were protected by museum staff from destruction by the Taleban regime or restored thereafter. This act of courage that gave the show its German title ‘Saved Treasures’ is reflected shown in an interesting introductory film that shows how the hidden exhibits were brought out from their secret vaults for the first time after twelve years in 2004.
At that time, Viktor Sarianidi also was present, the Armenian archeologist leading an Soviet-Afghan team that had discovered and excavated what is Afghanistan’s most famous artifact – the Bactrian Gold, found at Tela Tepe, the ‘Gold Hill’ (the spelling used at the exhibition, Tillya Tepe, originates in the Russian version) , close to Shibarghan in Northern Afghanistan in the winter of 1978/79. They unearthed exactly 21,618 pieces made of gold, silver and ivory from six graves, five for women and one for a man. It is not clear who the buried were, most likely nobles of a local nomad tribe that had adopted parts of Greek culture. The Bactrian Gold – with a foldable golden crown, a delicate little golden tree adorned with precious stone pearls, a pair of antelope-headed bracelets, a miniature Marco Polo sheep and a buckle with a man riding a fish (not a dolphin, as the catalogue says – that’s a difference to Greek pieces of the same kind and a sign for local craftsmanship) – clearly presents the centre of the Bonn exhibition.
To focus on the Bactrian Gold is not to underestimate the other exhibits that are grouped in four rooms, one for each archeological site: Tepe Fullal, Ai Khanom, then Tela Tepe and finally Begram. This clearly structured and beautifully illuminated presentation helps to understand even those who are not familiar with Afghanistan’s past how, over centuries, this area had absorbed not only Hellenistic influences but also Persian, Indian, those of the nomads of the Northern steppes and even Chinese. And each site’s discovery is connected to a story that is truly ‘oriental’.
The oldest one by far, Tepe Fullol, south of Baghlan town, is represented by three exhibits only, three dented or even cut up golden vessels. They were part of a larger find from 1966 when farmers dug them up in a field and shared them amongst themselves. Only five golden and seven silver pieces were rescued by the Afghan authorities. Even some of those were later looted. The vessels originate from the Bronze Age, between 2200 and 1900 BC creating a link between today’s Afghanistan and Mesopotamia in the West and the Indus culture in the Southeast.
This is followed by Ai Khanom, located at the confluence of the Kokcha and Amu rivers in today’s Tokhar province, already a post-Alexandrian Bactrian city, founded around 300 BC by Alexander’s satrap Seleukos. This site was found when local people showed Muhammad Zaher Shah, Afghanistan’s King who was hunting in the area, what they thought a strange stone in 1961. It turned out to be a Corinthian capital. Ai Khanom was the eastern-most outpost of the Hellenistic civilization, with temples dedicated to Greek gods, a gymnasium, a library, an amphitheatre and all. Unfortunately, literarily nothing has survived on the immediate spot. In the Bonn show, photos show just a desert closely packed with craters, the result of unauthorized diggings. Even Ai Khanom’s foundation walls dug out by the French Archeological Mission in Afghanistan, have disappeared.
Tela Tepe – on the area of another old Bactrian city, Emshi Tepe, inhabited by the Kushan – is another 150 years younger. The unimpressive hill, only three meters high, had raised Sarianidi’s interest because of its name and because shards had been found around there that were different from all others found in Afghanistan. What came out of it, Sarianidi called the ‘find of the centrury’ in the Soviet academic journal ‘Nauka i zhizn’ (Science and Live) where he published about it for the first time.
‘Only one meter deep – after removing wooden ceiling and bast mats – an overwhelming view presented itself to the excavators: skeletons that literarily sunk into golden jewelry that shone yellowish in the sun. Hundreds or even thousands of small golden buttons, buckles, bells, discs decorated with blue semi-precious stones, turquoise and garnet were sown to the funeral gown, The fabric itself seemed to be woven from gold. Golden threads and hundreds of pearls combined themselves into elaborate ornaments in the form of vine branches. The buried wore golden crowns. (…) Dozens of goldsmiths must have cooperated in the production of the countless platelets and buckles. (…) Following the fashion of the day, jewelry was preferred that reminded of the graeco-roman style.’(1)
The graves were apparently dug secretly to hide them from contemporary robbers.
Finally Begram, post-Alexandrian and still pre-Kushan – so either ‘Indo-Greek’ or Parthian –, represented by finds from the first and the beginning of the second centuries AD. The pieces shown are more diverse and seem to consist of a collection at a local court. They include glassware that was produced far away, in Roman Egypt or the Middle East, and unique delicate ivory carvings that originally served as furniture mountings, with erotic figures of dancing beauties that could fetch top prices by private collectors. Subsequently, they were looted from the Kabul museum during the reign of mujahedin Interim President Burhanuddin Rabbani – at the 2002 Emergency Loya Jirga accusations were raised that some of his closest family members had had their fingers in the disappearances. Some of the pieces were later recovered from the international black market and handed back to Afghanistan.
The Bonn show was a sensation for me. Finally I was able to see the Baktrian gold I had closely missed a few times. In the mid-1980s, the GDR embassy in Kabul had tried in vain – together with the Soviets who also wanted to show it – to get the Bactrian Gold for an exhibition to East Berlin, on the occasion of the city’s 750th anniversary. But President Najibullah put in his veto; he was afraid that the miniature pieces might be copied in Moscow and Afghanistan would not receive back the originals.
Amongst rumours that the treasure had been given away, Najibullah – who had moved it into the Presidential Palace – organized a non-public show in the ‘White Manor’ in Bagh-e Bala (also called Kot-e Baghcha), near the Kabul (Inter-)Continental Hotel in 1989 or 1990 for mainly Eastern European diplomats. Although based in Kabul now, I missed it. In 2002, I was close again: President Karzai had decided to open the vaults in which the treasure had survived also the Taleban period now and invited then UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and some of his staff to be present; I had talked my way into the group. But Karzai stopped the show in the last moment.
The Bonn exhibition had already before been shown in Paris, Turin, Amsterdam and five cities in the USA and Canada. It will still be open on in the city on the Rhine till (including) 2 October this year. Don’t miss it. And if you go there, take yourself time. The show is not big but with its different media – movies, photos, maps, a touch screen were you can turn some exhibits virtually around, the exhibits themselves and even a small library (in a room with toys for kids where you can rest on large cushions spread over the floor) – you can imbibe it best at a slow speed. It will take you three to four hours. Which will be well spent.
More information under: www.bundeskunsthalle.de. Catalogues are available in German, English and Italian.
To be continued (including the episode where my grandma encounted King Amanullah, promise)
(1) Quoted from a German translation of Sarianidi’s article, ‘The Sensation of Shibarghan: The gold find of the century’, Horizont weekly (East Berlin), 47/1980, p. 29.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020