Afghanistan – Shadows and legends

Wednesday, December 14: Lecture visit by Sylvie Ahmadian, lecturer at MNAA-Guimet.

On the occasion of the centenary of the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan. (DAFA), the Guimet Museum presents a vast exhibition dedicated to Afghanistan. This country, where great civilizations such as Darius' Persia, Alexander the Great's Greece or the Kushan empire have succeeded one another, has an artistic and cultural past of extraordinary richness and great diversity. Crossed by the famous "Silk Roads", the Afghan territory was the theater of exchanges, which remained unsuspected for a long time, between the Far East, the Indian world and the Mediterranean world, not to mention the expansion of Buddhism which found here, in the heart of Asia, his second chosen land.

This country is a mosaic of ethnic groups and a region, Nuristan, located in the northeast of Afghanistan and on the northern borders of Pakistan, has more or less resisted Islamization. Its population, which refers to itself as Kalash (lawyers), has retained its linguistic and cultural specificity. The female costume is characterized by a heavy hairstyle embellished with cowries, bells, pearls and old coins. Nuristan was part of the old Kafiristan whose funeral customs were particular. A few wooden statues are a striking testimony to this: the most spectacular is a male statue wearing a high conical turban with a cylindrical winding around the head. This conical turban is found on other statues including a horseman.

The French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan. was the result of a rapprochement encouraged by Alfred Foucher (1865-1952) between France and King Amanullah Khan (1892-1960). Created in 1922, it was active in Afghanistan despite the geopolitical vicissitudes experienced by this country until recently. The missions have thus been able to discover and restore a large number of sites during this century of activity. Since Alfred Foucher, other directors have worked both on research and on enriching the museum's collections.

Alfred Foucher's idea was to find the site of Alexandria de l'Oxus which was located in Balkh (Bactres), "the Mother of Cities" according to literary sources, but without any other result than to identify constructions of Islamic era. Joseph Hackin (1886-1941), then director of the Guimet museum, had joined Foucher in Bactres, and brought back from this expedition the stele of the Great Miracle, exhumed in Kapisa. He endeavored to open the museum to the art of Gandhara and to enrich the collections by purchases. However, it was not until the excavations of Jules Barthoux (1881-1965) on the Hadda site that the collections took on another dimension. The wife of Joseph Hackin, Ria, discovered in Begram, between 1937 and 1939, the famous treasure, part of which remained in the Kabul museum, as required by the DAFA contract, while the other came to enrich the Museum. Today, the Musée Guimet's Afghan collections are the largest outside of Afghanistan.

Two funerary statues, a seated woman and a horseman. Nuristan. Drink. Late 19th century

Female head. Hadda. Stucco on sandstone with traces of polychromy. 3rd century.

Genie with flowers. Hadda. Stucco. 3rd century.

Buddha at the Great Miracle or Miracle of Shravasti. Paitava. Schist with traces of gilding. 3rd-4th centuries.

As said earlier, Balkh had been a disappointment for archaeologists. It was not until 2003 that the discovery of Hellenistic architectural elements from clandestine excavations proved that the city was indeed ancient. From 2004 to 2009, excavation campaigns made it possible to clear habitat areas, at Tepe Zargaran, demonstrating an occupation from the 4th century BC. JC

The site of Hadda, located near Jalalabad, had been mentioned by the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang (602-664) and was excavated as early as 1923, uncovering a large number of monasteries and votive stupas. It is the revelation of a stucco sculpture of a Greco-Afghan style more Hellenistic than the art of Gandhara. Hadda appears to have been active from 1er century to 7th century. The finesse of the work and the inventiveness of the artists sometimes give the impression of real portraits. Most of the exhibited works come from stupas or niches. The fact that there are many heads without a body is explained by the fact that it was attached to the wall while the head was sculpted outside the wall. While many sculptures were probably cast first, the details were worked on by the artists to give them more personality. On the end of the site, it seems that the raw earth replaces the stucco. The famous Flower Genie is a fine example of this refined Greco-Afghan art.

The region of Kapisa, north of Kabul, also cited by Xuanzang who says he saw more than a hundred monasteries there, has indeed turned out to be very rich in archaeological remains. The schist stele of the Great Miracle of Shravasti brought back by Joseph Hackin comes from Païtava. As much as the school of Hadda had adopted a great flexibility thanks to the use of stucco, the sculptures in schist of Païtava show a certain stiffness and conventional compositions.

Bamiyan was discovered in the middle of the 19th century and the DAFA carried out excavations and restorations there, but this exceptional site had previously been the subject of numerous literary citations. Xuanzang mentions more than a thousand monks living in cells dug into the cliff. The long cliff is carved with hundreds of niches or meeting rooms but what attracted the most attention were the two colossal statues of Buddha. We know that the largest (55 m) is datable between 580 and 636 and the smallest (38 m) between 540 and 591. wood and cords, itself covered with a thin layer of clay for modeling the draperies. It is possible that the final coating was painted or gilded. The absence of a face may refer to a destruction due to the Islamization of the valley around 720. These two statues were unfortunately dynamited by the Taliban in 2001. The DAFA worked punctually in Bamiyan from 1922 to 1970. In particular , life-size drawings of the wall paintings, some of which are presented in the exhibition, were executed by Jean Carl (1900-1941) in 1935. The one overlooking the Big Buddha is interesting because it depicts Surya (Hindu sun god) standing on his chariot and dressed in Sasanian fashion.

Jean Carl also exhumed the remains of a Buddhist monastery in 1937 in Fondukistan. It presents itself, like the majority of monasteries, with a central stupa, in the middle of a courtyard surrounded by niches or chapels inhabited by sculptures. These bear witness to a certain mannerism influenced by the art of the Gupta (posture) and by Sassanid art (beaded patterns of clothing). The statues on display are in dried earth with traces of pigments. A Bodhisattva adopts an almost languorous pose while an adorned Buddha is dressed in a three-pointed camail. A coin dated 689 makes it possible to date this set from the end of the 7th century.

The 38 meter Buddha photographed in 1972. Bamiyan. Rock, raw clay, straw, wood. 6th century ©M.Colas.

Surya on his chariot. Buddha niche of 38 m. Bamiyan. 7th-8th centuries. Survey carried out by Jean Carl. Gouache on canvas. 1935.

Adorned Buddha, wearing a three-pointed camail. Fondukistan. Dried earth and traces of polychromy. Late 7th century.

Bodhisattva. Fondukistan. Dried earth and traces of polychromy. Late 7th century.

The site of Aï Khanoum, at the confluence of the Amu Daria and the Kokcha had been identified by Jules Barthoux but never exploited. It was in 1961 that King Zaher Shah spotted him and informed the DAFA. Founded at the end of the 4th century before our era, the city is divided into an acropolis and a lower town, the whole being protected by a wall. Although very Hellenistic, the cleared buildings also show strong oriental influences. It could be the Eucratideia mentioned by Strabo.

Reconstruction of a set of plates. Begram. Ivory. 1st-2nd centuries.

Medallion (emblema) with the helmeted ephebe. Begram. Plaster. 1st-2nd centuries.

Goblet decorated with the abduction of Europa. Begram. Painted glass. 1st-2nd centuries.

Begram, located north of Kabul, had been identified by Alfred Foucher as the capital of Kapisa mentioned by Xuanzang. During the excavations of the lower town, Ria Hackin discovered, in 1937 and 1939, two chambers containing a collection of objects from various sources demonstrating that the town was a strategic hub on the trade routes. The "treasure of Begram" is made up of glassware from Alexandria, bronze objects andemblemata Hellenistic, Chinese lacquerware and a remarkable set of Indian ivories. These ivories formed the decoration of wooden furniture on which they were fixed by small copper nails. All the motifs are almost exclusively feminine and testify to a refined art combining sculpture in the round, relief reliefs and engraving. In addition to the female figures, a whole architectural and vegetal decoration adorning the plates evokes India from the 1er or 2th century after our era.

The archaeological richness of Afghanistan has long pushed research into the high periods into the background. In Afghanistan, the first agricultural communities appear in the fourth millennium BC.

Footed vase with stylized vegetal decoration. Mundigak. Terracotta. 3000-2500 BC. JC

Female statue with kaunakès called "princess of Bactria". Bactria. Serpentine, limestone. 2500-1800 BC. JC

Merlon with arrow decoration. Surkh Kotal. Limestone. 2nd-3rd c.

In the 50s, the site of Mundigak had revealed the existence of a real Bronze Age city, active between the fourth and second millennium BC. The artisanal production is varied and of high quality, in particular the stemmed goblets with vegetal and animal decoration. Around 2500 BC, the Oxus civilization appeared in northern Afghanistan, which also covered Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. This period bears witness to numerous exchanges with Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley and the circulation of raw materials such as lapis lazuli. The most famous figurines are the "Bactrian princesses", composite statuettes (Serpentine for the dress and the hairstyle, limestone for the head and the neck) representing a seated woman, dressed in a loose garment reminiscent of the kaunakès encountered on the statues from Sumer, fabric with long wicks imitating animal hair (goat or sheep).

The monumental complex of Surkh Kotal was discovered in 1951 and attests to the Kushan presence in the north of the Hindu Kush. The main temple, located at the top of a hill, was accessible by a monumental staircase punctuated by three terraces. Two chapels flanked the cella and in the southern one were found three statues of royal figures in Iranian garb (kaftan, baggy trousers and boots), one of which is close to the statue of Kanishka (127-147?) found at Mathura. Engraved texts where Greek letters are used to transcribe an Irano-Bactrian language show the continuity of the Greek heritage until the 3th century.

In 1952, during the renewal of the contract linking the Afghan State and the DAFA, the latter was asked to broaden the research to the Islamic heritage, to train Afghan archaeologists and to no longer have the exclusivity of the excavations. .

Detail of the costumes of dignitaries or guards on the murals of the audience hall of the South Palace. Lashkari Bazaar. 11th-12th c. ©Marc Le Berre, around 1951.

Detail of the stucco panels adorning the walls of the South Palace. . Lashkari Bazaar. 11th-12th c. ©MNAAG.

Minaret of Jam. Baked bricks, some glazed. 1194. Photo from 1972. ©M. Colas.

Lashkari Bazaar, excavated between 1949 and 1951, which was the winter capital of the Ghaznavid rulers (997-1187) has known many adventures. Partly burnt down during the Ghurid conquest of Jahansuz (1149-1161), it was rebuilt under the Ghurids (1151-1221) only to be destroyed during an incursion by Genghis Khan (1155/1162-1227) on the 13th s. Palaces were built of mud brick on stone or baked brick foundations. In general, the decoration with floral or geometric motifs was in stucco, but mural paintings have also been discovered in the large southern palace. They represented an alignment of characters dressed in rich caftans with large lapels and were to constitute the sovereign's guard.

The 65-meter-high Jam Minaret is made up of four tapering cylindrical shafts resting on an octagonal base. The walls are entirely covered with a geometric decoration of baked bricks enhanced with a Kufic inscription in turquoise blue enamelled bricks. Erected in 1194, it probably marks the site of the ancient city of Firozkoh, summer capital of the Ghurid dynasty. In fact, it would be a high victory tower after the victory over the Ghaznavids. A remarkable documentary by the Iconem company, filmed by a drone, allows you to see it entirely up close and to visit its interior.

From 1950 until 1979, other archaeological missions operated in Afghanistan and Ghazni was devolved to the Italian IsMEO. In addition to pre-Islamic discoveries, particular attention was paid to the conservation of Islamic remains (royal palace, minarets, private dwellings, tombs).

Anteroom giving access to the mosque located in the western part of the central courtyard of the Ghaznavid palace. Ghazni. Baked bricks, stuccos and marble slabs. 11th-12th c. Photo from 1966. ©IsMEO

Panel decorated with octagons carved in relief on a background decorated with a plant composition of half-palmettes and fleur-de-lis. Ghazni. Marble. 11th-12th c.

Cup with radiating decoration. Kashan. Ceramic, decoration of metallic luster on opacified glaze. 13th c.

Ghazni had been the capital of the Ghaznavids and then of the Ghurids, becoming an important political center of the eastern Muslim regions, attracting poets and scholars. Marble was used extensively there because a quarry was located near the city. Combined with the stuccoes in the upper part, marble slabs in the lower part formed a sumptuous decor. These plaques were decorated with plant motifs and often adorned with an upper band through which ran a poetic inscription in Persian, written in Kufic characters. Many fine ceramics from Kāshān, Iran, have been found in Ghazni, exhibiting a metallic luster due to oxides embedded in a fluid paste which, on firing, diffuse into the glaze. Ghazni was also an important metallurgical center.

Hanap. Afghanistan or Iran (?). Bronze, decoration inlaid with embossed silver. 15th c.

Poetic anthology. Baburnameh. Herat. Illuminated manuscript. Around 1480.

Bodhisattva in a niche. My Aynaks. Earthen. 5th-7th c.

Herat, located to the west, is known to have been a political and cultural center of the Timurid Empire (1370-1507) and was a city rich in various monuments such as the great Ghurid mosque of the 12th century or the Mausoleum of Gawharshad (1417-1438). A city twice ransacked, the monumental heritage of Herat has suffered greatly from the wars. The city was also renowned for its inlaid metals, its ceramics and was a very active artistic center in the 15th century. The art of miniatures and calligraphy was brought to a very high level with painters like Kamal al-Din Behzad ((1450-1537) whose fame has endured through the centuries.

Babur (1483-1530), the last Timurid king in Kabul and founder of the Mughal empire in India (1526-1858) had written his Memoirs, Babournameh (the Book of Babur) which were the subject of many illustrated copies of miniatures, especially during the reign of his grandson, Emperor Akbar (1542-1605).

Today, an extremely threatened site is that of Mes Aynak, located near a copper mine whose concession was given to a Chinese company. This ensemble, made up of a city, chapels and Buddhist monasteries in the surrounding area, of great wealth, testifies to an art close to Bamiyan but also to Sassanid Iran or Miran in Xinjiang. The ancient exploitation of the copper mine is attested by the enormous deposit of slag resulting from the smelting on site and seems to have been abandoned in the 8th century.

The Guimet Museum has the privilege of possessing an exceptional collection of works from Afghanistan, a collection that is all the more precious since the ancient heritage and museum institutions in Afghanistan were destroyed and looted during the 20th century and remain, still in danger today, since the return of the Taliban to power in 2021.


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