Afghanistan in London: New Afghanistan Exhibition at the British Museum

Next spring, the British Museum will showcase treasures from Afghanistan’s National Museum in Kabul. Here, curator St John Simpson discusses the exhibition for our World in London series.

“Although the Afghanistan exhibition doesn’t open until March 2011, we recently had a briefing for members of the press, which gave us an opportunity to introduce the incredible objects that will eventually go on show.

In the exhibition title we describe Afghanistan as the crossroads of the ancient world and I think that the 200 objects spanning 3,000 years will show exactly why that’s an appropriate description.

Its geographical position – on the edge of central Asia with India and China beyond to the east and Iran, the Middle East and the numerous cultures of the Mediterranean and the rest of Europe to the west – means Afghanistan was criss-crossed by ancient trade routes.

In many ways then, as now, it was a hub and meeting place for diverse cultures and neighbours, both near and distant, over thousands of years.

In the modern world it’s all too easy to think of Afghanistan solely as a place of conflict – and indeed the objects that will feature in the exhibition tell that story as well – but taking the long view we can see in the rich materials and ornate craftsmanship of these objects a far broader story.

Afghanistan has always been part of a complex network of cultures that doesn’t really take account of contemporary political boundaries. Long-distance travel and globalisation may seem like relatively new inventions, but the ancient world was much more connected than many of us may think. I hope we can help bring this inter-connectedness out in the exhibition.

One of the pieces on loan from the National Museum in Kabul illustrates this point particularly well: a pendant from the Tillya Tepe hoard found in the north-west of the country.

It features inlays of gold and turquoise. Two dragon-like beasts in the design suggest to some the influence of Chinese art but to others represent the heavenly horses of the Ferghana valley of neighbouring Central Asia.

The pendant also includes lapis lazuli, a type of blue stone only found in Afghanistan but coveted in the wider world for thousands of years. It crops up in the jewellery of ancient Egypt, the art of the ancient near east and as far afield as the art of the Italian Renaissance.

The fact that we nearly lost many of these stunning objects and signposts to the past to the events of Afghanistan’s recent history underlines how precious they are as well as the fragility of cultural heritage.”

Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World is at the British Museum from 3 March to 3 July 2011. Where else would you go to experience the culture of Afghanistan in London? Let us know in the comments below.

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  1. Lettice says:

    This exhibition looks facinating. Another winner from the BM!

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