It's refreshing to visit an exhibition that reaches further back into Afghanistan's history than the US-led invasion, past the Soviets and the Great Game, to explore the country's heritage as a vibrant international meeting point.
As its current President Hamid Karzai, who opened the exhibition in London on Tuesday, said, in times gone by Afghanistan was "the crossroads of many civilisations", and lay at the heart of the Silk Road trading route. Since then, many of the country's treasures have been looted, lost and destroyed by everyone from ancient nomads to the Taliban, but many were saved in secret vaults and have only been unearthed in the past few years.
An exhibition of some of these rediscovered artefacts has been touring through Europe, America and Canada for the past five years and now reaches London, where it's supplemented by ivory pieces that were stolen in Kabul in the 1990s and recently bought by a London art dealer. They have been restored by the British Museum's team, and will be returned to Afghanistan's national museum at the end of the tour.
Neil MacGregor, the British Museum's director, pointed out at a preview of the exhibition just how beautiful the ivory fragments were and also "what an important role the international community can play in recovering material that has been stolen". He said he wanted to end the narrative of creation, exchange, destruction and recovery "on a note of hope".
Grouped by excavation site, the artefacts on display tell a story of a region that mixed Greek and Roman art and architecture with Indian, Persian and local influences. Greeting visitors to the show is a limestone statue of a naked young man, with a cloak draped over his arm in a Greek style, but with shoulder-length hair that suggests local heritage. Dating from some time before 145BC and found in the Afghan site Ai Khanum, it not only tells a story of a fusion of ancient cultures but also of the fragility of a nation's heritage. Already damaged when it was dug up in 1971, it was pieced back together by French archaeologists and put on display at the National Museum in Kabul. Then, in 2001, it was destroyed again and, although Afghan conservators have again restored the piece, it's still missing a head.
The exhibition's curator, St John Simpson, explained at a preview of the collection why it's so amazing that any of these pieces survived at all. "During the civil war, Kabul was torn apart by rival warlords and the museum became the front line," he said. "It was out of bounds even to curators for 10 years." That's when around 70 per cent of the museum's collection was looted or destroyed. The only reason the pieces on display today were saved was because they were the most precious showcase materials, and they were hidden off-site.
When, in 2001, figural representations were banned by the Taliban, wrecking gangs went to work destroying age-old treasures. Scientists are gathering at a conference in Paris this month to work out how to piece back together the giant stone Buddhas of Bamiyan, once a spectacular tourist attraction, which were destroyed in 2001, and more than 2,000 pieces in the museum at Kabul were smashed apart, including the now-restored nude statue at the exhibition's entrance. In Simpson's words, with its history of destruction, renewal, concealment and display, the statue is "a simile for the whole of the country and the whole of the exhibition in one piece.".
Stories such as this make the exhibition about more than just old pieces of stone and metal: the Roman-style brooch of Aphrodite that sports a very Indian-looking beauty mark; the sculptural sundials showing the exchange of scientific ideas that was going on between Greece, Egypt and India; the snippets of Delphic wisdom inscribed on the tomb of Ai Khanum's founder by a Greek philosopher who was taught by Aristotle.
Among the broken, faded remnants, there are a couple of pieces that still look as splendid as they would have in the possession of ancient nobility. The most dazzling is a gold crown from the first century AD, which belonged to a rich nomadic woman. It was created so that it could be dismantled for travelling and slotted back together and is incredibly intricate, covered with flowers, cut-out heart shapes and jangling pendants that shiver with the slightest movement in the room. The gold gleams bright yellow, and the design can be traced back to Korean influences.
The crown is part of a larger display showing jewellery unearthed at Tillya Teppe, a burial site for a nomadic tribe of northern Afghanistan. Chunky gold necklaces and delicate pendants were among the 20,000 pieces discovered at the site, with designs of cupids, dolphins and mythical beasts inlaid with semi-precious stones. "It's a world whose cultural origins extend up into the Siberian steppe," Simpson said. "Nomads traditionally leave such a light footprint that it's very difficult to ever find them. We're lucky."
Jewellery elsewhere in the collection, dating from even earlier, is made from deep blue, polished lapis lazuli. According to Simpson, in antiquity the precious stone was only found in one small, remote valley in northern Afghanistan and is "a fingerprint of trade wherever it's found". It helped make the region grow wealthy.
Another section shows the contents of a sealed storeroom full of Roman glass, Indian ivory and Chinese lacquerware, including voluptuous dancing women representing the Indian river goddess, Ganga. She stands on a makara, a mythological creature that is part elephant, part crocodile and part fish and wears an Indian-style dress. These items would have been traded along the Silk Road, a network of trade routes stretching from China to the Mediterranean. Although Arabia wasn't on the same overland route as Afghanistan, it was part of a trading network traversing the Indian Ocean, and Arab frankincense would have been on the same ships moving Roman glass and Indian goods.
There are no plans yet for the Afghanistan exhibition to come to the Middle East, although Simpson says that he's expecting the tour to run and run, pointing out that it's doing "a fantastic job of raising funds and cultural awareness for the rebuilt museum in Kabul". He points to the ivories bought in London and given back to the National Museum of Afghanistan through the exhibition, which have been studied, unearthing new facts about the way they were once colourfully decorated.
"This illustrates that even with well-known pieces and exhibitions that travel and travel, that you can still wring out new little nuggets of information," he said. "It shows how important it is not only to keep this culture alive but also to carry on exhibiting and researching it."