On a frigid day in December 1978, a large convoy of Russian tanks and armoured vehicles crossed into Balkh through the Temez border in the North of Afghanistan. The aim of the invasion was to shore up the flailing Marxist regime in Kabul.
On that same day, 80 miles away in the ancient city of Sheberghan, another Russian was working on a different mission. Viktor Sarianidi was frantically digging a mound in the freezing rain. That momentous wintry day began for the 49-year-old archaeologist like any other. Late in the afternoon, in that earthen barrow, situated 53 miles from the fabulous Amu Darya, the Oxus River, he found a treasure trove, and immediately claimed that it was the biggest find since the tomb of Tutankhamun.
Like Tutankhamun’s grave, these six burials contained over 20,000 artefacts and pieces of jewellery. Magnificently carved, the designs show the images of goddesses, dolphins and mythical animals, all inlaid with semi-precious stones. One of the objects of Tillya Tepe is a pair of gold pendants from the first century AD: studded with turquoise, lapis lazuli and garnet, and bearing the image of the ‘Dragon Master’. The master, looking composed and majestic holds two tamed dragons on his either side with their mouths touching his shoulders and their carnelian-mottled tails bent towards his feet. Encapsulated in this exquisite object, of a flourishing, indigenous nomadic art, is the craftsmanship and artistry of its creator. For me, the image of this serene master has a therapeutically calming effect.
Like that pendant, each artefact in the exhibition –Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World, currently in the British Museum – tells the tale of historic past: glorious in style and epic in proportion. Each object testifies to a fascinatingly rich culture that is confidently appropriating the arts and crafts of the rest of the world. From the discoveries of the Bronze Age stretching as far back as 2200 BC to the treasures of Ai Khanum – the Grecian city state in the north-east of the country – they depict an image of a land that has been at the crossroads of many ancient civilizations. These relics include influences from as far afield as Greece and Central Asia to the north, Persia to the west and China to the east.
The objects also bear the smears of a turbulent past, but they are not palimpsests: we see the fingerprints of hoarders, looters and vandals all at once – each trying to erase the others’ marks – but never do these take away from them their majestic beauty and timelessness.
As I walked out of the exhibition on a fine April morning, I thought of that December day 32 years ago when the city of Kabul stirred awake to the reality of a foreign occupation: brutal and barbaric. Yet, people did not know anything about the finds of the Tillya Tepe. The Russians withdrew from Afghanistan ten years later. The damage and sufferings they caused are still being felt; still fresh in memories; they will be so for a long time to come. But it is the objects of the Tillya Tepe that are being proudly shown in the British Museum today. By contrast, the legacy of the destructive Russian occupation will only be talked about in the history books.