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18 September 2014
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Afghanistan: At the Crossroads of Ancient Civilisations

By Dan Cruickshank
Bamiyan Buddha before demolition
Bamiyan Buddha before demolition ©

Once a cultural crossroads, Afghanistan has been ravaged by 22 years of war and the Taliban regime whose systematic destruction of the country's cultural heritage culminated in the blowing up of the Bamiyan Buddhas. Early in 2002, Dan Cruickshank travelled to Kabul to investigate what treasures remain and find out how Afghanistan's people have dealt with attempts to destroy their culture and national identity.

Cultural crossroads

Afghanistan is at the centre - the crossroads - of ancient civilisations stretching back at least 3,000 years. Its richness and strategic importance - located as it once was at the meeting point of Chinese, Indian and European civilisations - means that through the centuries it has attracted many outsiders, invaders as well as merchants. Alexander the Great conquered the region in 300 BC, and from the early years of the new millennium the Silk Route passed through central Afghanistan carrying commerce, culture and religion between the major western and eastern civilisations.

These civilisations have all left their marks on the people and the culture of the country. Most dramatically the monastery of Bamiyan - where the trade route coming south from India met the route from China to the Roman Empire in the west - is a product of Afghanistan's rich past. Buddhist monks, moving along the Silk Route, created a monastery within the cliff face overlooking the road by hollowing out cells, halls and chambers and - in the 4th to the 6th centuries - carved there two colossal statues of Buddha. This was the first time the 'enlightened one' had been expressed not in abstract but in human form.

'...many traces of the rich past have been unearthed in Afghanistan, and stupendous treasures have been found.'

In modern times, during the last 60 years, many traces of the rich past have been unearthed in Afghanistan, and stupendous treasures have been found. These include: the Kunduz Hoard of silver coins - the largest and most splendid Greek-style coins ever discovered; the Bagram Treasure - a collection of precious 2nd-century Roman, Chinese and Indian artefacts, showing the eclectic mix of high-quality works that passed along the Silk Route; also, only discovered in 1979, the Bactrian Gold, excavated at Tilla-Tepe, which included over 20,000 items from the 1st century. The mix of Classical and oriental influence evident in the items forming the collection of Bactrian Gold demonstrates the creative fusion between cultures that has given Afghanistan its distinct character.

Minaret at Ghazni
Minaret at Ghazni ©
As well as artefacts, Afghanistan contains architecture of world importance. The 1,000-year-old Buddhist Pillar, the 80ft-tall Minar-i-Chakari, standing high above the plain of Kabul, was a wonderfully engineered and sophisticated structure. While at Ghazni there are giant 11th and 12th-century minarets - a form developed in a spectacular manner by the enigmatic minaret at Jam, which stands in strange and splendid isolation in a lonely valley to the east of Herat.

Published: 2002-09-01

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