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Culture: A historical junction

An account of Afghan history, art, heritage and war - a long history

Published on 1 October 2002

Author(s): The New Courier #1 October 2002

Type:  Historical account

Afghanistan’s strategic position at the junction of China, India, Central Asia and the Middle East, made it a meeting point of culture, commerce, conversion and conquest. Its art, architecture and archaeology bear witness to this extraordinary past.

Traces of intense cultural activity once marked the routes that centuries ago joined east and west, north and south across Afghanistan. Ruins of ancient cities, such as Kapisa, in the heart of Afghanistan, and Aï Khanoum and Yemshi on the northern Afghan plains told a story of complex exchanges with other lands. At Aï Khanoum, archeologists discovered an orientalized Greek city; at Kapisa they unearthed a treasure trove of Indian ivories, Chinese lacquers and Roman art, and at Yemshi they found motives reflecting the disparate artistic styles of India, Greece, Iran, China and the nomads of Central Asia. War, theft and acts of destruction by the Taliban have, however, devastated much of Afghanistan’s rich and varied heritage, which vividly illustrated several high points in the history of civilization over the past 2,500 years. And although efforts are now underway to protect what remains, much of what was destroyed is irreplacable.

The legacy of Alexander the Great

The Achaemenid Persians were the first to include Afghanistan in their empire in the 6th century BC, but a few coins found at the foot of Tepe Maranjan in the centre of Kabul were the only surviving evidence of their presence. These have now been stolen. Alexander the Great, having crushed Achaemenid power, was the next to invade Afghanistan in 328 BC. A Macedonian who became steeped in Greek culture after his conquest of Greece, and then an oriental monarch captivated by the idealism of the East, Alexander was himself the embodiment of cultural intermingling.

Unable to quite conquer Central Asia, because of fierce resistance, Alexander colonized it. He founded several new cities there and his men intermarried, introducing Hellenism but at the same time becoming thoroughly Asianized and integrated into the local population. This cross-fertilization of cultures resulted in a multinational kingdom that bridged the disparate cultures of India, Iran, Greece and China. It’s name was Bactria and one of its cities was at Aï Khanoum, at the confluence of the Kokcha and Amu Darya (ancient Oxus) rivers in northern Afghanistan. Aï Khanoum was the easternmost Greek city ever discovered in Asia, and before their work there was interrupted by the Soviet invasion in 1979, French archeologists uncovered a triangular metropolis with sides 1.6 km long. Inside it were many typical Greek monuments, including a gymnasium, a 6,000-seat theatre, a stadium, public baths and temples. Its Hellenistic architecture incorporated the three classical styles: Ionic, Doric and Corinthian. Some of its shrines, however, were more Persian than Greek.

The past five years have been fatal for Aï Khanoum. “The site has been ravaged by clandestine diggings,” says Afghan archeologist Zemaryalai Tarzi. “And what was left of the ancient ruins, including stately columns, their shafts, capitals and bases, have been transported for use as ordinary building materials in neighbouring villages.” Alexander`s conquests took place at a time when Greek art and thought were in fullest flower and the peoples of Asia were quick to adopt – and adapt – the aesthetics of Greece. A single example speaks volumes: statues at Tepe Shotor near Jalalabad, in southern Afghanistan, represent Alexander, Heracles and Dionysos as acolytes of Buddha. Tepe Shotor, which, transformed into an open-air museum, was one of the brightest jewels of Afghan archeology, has also been destroyed.

The Nomad Invasions

No fully satisfactory explanation has ever been offered for the periodic explosion of nomadic peoples from – or through – Central Asia, but the pattern is clear: the region’s sedentary peoples were repeatedly overrun by mounted nomads, and its cities repeatedly razed and rebuilt with each successive invasion. The invaders pitched their tents and settled down, adopting the civilized ways of those they had conquered. And, having become soft themselves, they submitted in turn to a new wave of hardy warriors. Thus, in the first century BC, the Greek kingdom of Bactria was conquered by the Scythians, who, one hundred years later, were overrun by the Parthians. Hard on their heels rode the Kushans, nomads of Central Asian origins, who at the beginning of our era settled astride the Hindu Kush. From their centre in Afghanistan the Kushans, pushed their frontiers across what is now Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Tadjikistan, eventually taking in the whole of northern India and parts of northwest China.

Having no traditions on which to build a settled way of life, the nomadic Kushans adapted what they found in ways best suited to their own personality. What emerged was a vibrant indigenous culture born of the fusion of western oriented Greco-Bactrian styles with those from eastern-oriented India and interpreted by the forceful character of Central Asia. The result was vital and dynamic and is best illustrated by the Golden Hord of Bactria: a treasure trove of Kushan art discovered at Tillya Tepe in the vicinity of the city of Shibarghan on the northern Afghan plain. Archeological excavations, began there in 1978, revealed six tombs dating from the lst century AD, the zenith of Kushan power in these regions. The excavators speculate that the burials, five of them women, were of the nobility of the nearby ancient city of Yemshi, perhaps even the rulers.

The corpses were draped in cloth shrouds decorated with hundreds of gold and silver disks reflecting the many traditional art styles of Central Asia. Indian, Greek, Iranian, and Chinese motifs are readily perceptible, but perhaps most interesting is the influence of the animal art of the pastoral nomads. The infusion of this pastoral style gave life to an art that was fast becoming static, as the hybrid traditions from which it derived lost their vigor. Another eloquent example of the encounter of civilizations on Afghan soil is the Treasure of Begram discovered in the ruins of the Kushan summer capital of Kapisa, 60 kilometers northeast of Kabul, on the fertile Begram plain. French archeologists excavating the site shortly before the outbreak of World War II found a treasure trove of precious objects from the eastern Mediterranean, India and China. Hidden in a chamber of the royal city, they found hundreds of plaster moulds of Greco-Roman medallions, painted glassware from Alexandria in Egypt and Chinese lacquered furniture encrusted with Indian ivory. The ivories were divided between the French Musee Guimet and the Kabul museum. Those in Kabul have long since disappeared.

Buddhism and Gandharan Art

It’s difficult to say how early Buddhism entered Afghanistan. According to legend it arrived from its homeland in India via Trapusa and Bhallika, two merchants who were the first lay followers of Buddha. This story is based on popular etymology identifying the name Bhallika with the town of Bahlika (Balkh) in northern Afghanistan. It is more probable, however, that it was at the time of the 2nd century AD Kushan king Kanishka I that Buddhism spread from northwest India through Afghanistan to areas further north and east. At the same time, Buddhist art also crossed the borders of its land of origin penetrating the cultures it encountered. A curious hybrid art form emerged combining Western Classical elements with those of Central and southern Asia. It carried the name of the region where its famous workshops flourished: Gandhara, an area comprising the Kabul Valley and adjacent areas.

Gandhara subjects reflect not an intermingling or proper synthesis but the often awkward coexistence of disparate stylistic influences that have – for that reason – made Gandharan sculpture so distinctive. These influences are Greco-Roman, Indian and Parthian. It was also at Gandhara that the Hellenistic concept of personality combined with religious influences from India, to bring about one of the turning points of Buddhist art. Up to this point the Buddha himself had not been represented in person. Instead, symbols such as an empty throne, a horse without a rider, a parasol, a bodhi tree or footprints had been used to indicate his presence. But at Gandhara the image of the Buddha appears in human form for the first time.

This notably gave rise to giant statues of Buddha at Bamiyan (See page 48), in the heart of the Hindu Kush, which were demolished in 2001 following a decree by the Taliban’s spiritual leader Mullah Omar ordering “all non-Islamic statues and tombs” to be destroyed. In the 6th century, Turkic tribes began a westward wave of migrations from their original homeland in Mongolia that ethnically swamped Central Asia. While in the 8th century, Muslim Arabs swept east decisively altering the strength and distribution of its religions. Afghanistan was affected by both of these developments. Visiting Kabul in 644, Chinese pilgrim Hsuen-tsang noted: “The king is Turk, the men naturally fierce and impetuous.”

The Growth of the Islamic Empire

Not only did the Turks of Central Asia embrace Islam, they became its new cutting edge. By the end of the first millennium, the military manpower and fighting skills of Turkic steppe nomads had taken over the role played by the desert Bedouins during Islam’s first extraordinary period of expansion through the Near East. And a second era of Muslim expansion began. From the final decades of the 10th century through the 11th and 12th centuries Afghanistan was the seat of powerful Muslim kingdoms: first the Ghaznavid Dynasty, then the Ghorid dynasty. During this period Islam became firmly established in Afghanistan, which became a springboard for the islamization of northern India.

The Ghaznavids, in 1008, defeated a confederacy of Hindu rulers at Peshawar, annexed the Punjab, and extended Muslim influence as far south as Lahore. Then came the Ghorid conquests which, by the end of the 11th century, had expanded Muslim rule over most of northern India, adding Delhi and Ajmer to the Islamic realm in 1192, and two years later Bihar and Bengal. The spread of Islam brought profound changes in the art and culture of Central Asia. In the 9th to 13th centuries, figurative fresco and sculpture – forbidden by Islam – disappeared, and was replaced by non-representational art. Four main styles of decoration: floral, calligraphic, geometric and arabesque dominated all other art forms.

Despite the dominance of common Islamic values each region preserved essential individual features of its art and culture. Among these were the miniature paintings of the School of Behzad in Herat, which continued to represent human images. In the field of architecture, Muslims allied the traditions of the past with scientific and mathematical precision and developed new forms in building and new tastes in decoration. This produced a large number of masterpieces of architecture and art, including the early 12th century Tower of Masud III, at Ghazni in central Afghanistan, whose plan is an eight-pointed star with seven bands of ornamental brickwork, terra-cotta panels and stucco decorating its shaft; and the late 12th century Minaret of Jam which soars to a height of 65 meters over the western Afghan plains (See page 43).

The Timurid Renaissance

This fruitful cultural development was interrupted by the devastating invasion of Central Asia by the armies of Genghiz Khan. Only in the 14th and 15th centuries with the emergence of the Timurid Dynasty did Central Asia have the opportunity for a renaissance of culture. In a succession of 15 military campaigns in 23 countries lasting 50 years, Timur, known in the West as Tamerlane, carved out an empire stretching from the Indus River to the Black Sea. By 1370 the Turco-Mongol warrior was undisputed leader of the steppe, and in 1380 defeated the Il Khans to become master of Persia. In 1398, Timur stormed through the Khyber Pass, devastated Sind and Punjab and sacked Delhi. In 1399 he invaded Georgia, and in 1401 stormed Baghdad and Damascus. In 1402 he defeated the Turkish Ottomans in Ankara. Had he not died of pneumonia in 1405, as he was leading his armies against China, Timur may even have conquered that too.

Timurid art forged a new aesthetic by linking the cultural traditions of the many lands they conquered with their own Turkic origins. From conquered territories in Persia, India and the Middle East, Timur plundered both talented craftsmen and treasures to enhance the cities of Central Asia. What they created was neither Persian, Indian or Arab, although it reflected the influence of all three. Nor was it modeled on the old Central Asia. Instead, these captured architects embellished Timurid cities with buildings possessing a new and dazzling Tatar concept. The 40-year rule of Timur’s son, Shah Rukh, a devout Muslim and a man of peace, saw the transformation of the restless nomad empire into an orthodox Sunni Muslim state with Herat, in western Afghanistan, as its capital. Although Herat is also known for its monuments dating from the powerful Muslim Ghorid dynasty – including the 12th century Great Mosque, which was reconstructed in the 14th century in all its blue and turquoise-tiled splendor – the city’s real treasures are its monuments from the 15th and 16th centuries, when the art of Timurid ceramic revetment reached its height. Even after the collapse of the Timurid Empire, the faience mosaic and blue tiles that were its hallmark continued to exert strong influence on later flowerings of ceramic art in Iran and Turkey.

The court of Shah Rukh and his successor Husayn were verdant centers of art and learning. The enlightened sovereigns protected such creative personalities as the poet Djami and the miniature painter Behzad. During their rule Herat became one of Asia’s most important literary, artistic and cultural centres. One of Herat’s favorite sons was Mir Ali Shir Nava’i, a venerated 15th century poet, known as “the Chaucer of the Turks.” As Chaucer had done in English, Nava’i revolutionized a national literature by becoming the first outstanding writer to use the Turkish vernacular in his works. In Nava’i’s hands, Turkish, a language traditionally regarded by medieval men of letters as uncouth and plebeian, achieved recognition as a graceful medium for poetry and prose of the highest order.

Born in Herat in 1441, Nava’i added the Turkish language to the roster of the world’s major literatures. One of his best-known verses is: 
        Since the best of men must pass 
        through Death’s portal, 
        Happy is he who makes his name immortal.

One man who did, was Timur’s great-great-great-grandson Babur, who seized Kabul and carved out a kingdom in Afghanistan, from where he launched his invasion of India to become the first of the Moghul emperors. At Kabul, Babur built a beautiful landscape garden (See page 55 ) that was the predecessor of many famous imperial gardens in the South Asian sub-continent. Babur’s garden was damaged by internal fighting between 1992 and 1995, as were many other cultural icons of Kabul, including the museum (See page 51).

With the help of UNESCO and other organizations active in the restoration process, including the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and the Development and Humanitarian Services of Afghanistan, this and historical sites elsewhere in Afghanistan are to be restored. Meeting in Kabul in May, Afghan authorities and international organizations seeking to rehabilitate Afghanistan’s cultural heritage, mandated UNESCO to establish an international committee to undertake operations concerning the safeguarding of the Afghan cultural heritage. A similar type of structure has already been successful in Cambodia, where it has been working since the end of that country’s war.

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