Alexander's Afghan gold
After establishing the Egyptian port city of Alexandria in 331 BC, Alexander the Great founded Greek garrison cities across Asia, including Afghanistan. His legacy is on show in a new Paris exhibition, writes David Tresilian
While not drawing quite the crowds making their way to the Grand Palais for Tr?sors engloutis d'Egypte, an exhibition of mostly Ptolemaic artefacts -- "submerged treasures" -- discovered off the coast of Alexandria and reviewed in Al-Ahram Weekly on 14 December, Afghanistan, les tr?sors retrouv?s across Paris at the Mus?e Guimet should nevertheless be on the itinerary of every visitor to the French capital.
This exhibition features discoveries of international importance made by French archaeological missions in Afghanistan over the course of the last century, most of which have never been seen before outside the country. In what is being seen as quite a coup both for the Mus?e Guimet, an institution specialising in south and south-east Asian art, and for the French capital, the exhibition allows visitors to gain their first glimpses of material that not only has never been lent before by the Afghan National Museum in Kabul, but that was also considered lost during the decade of civil war that wracked Afghanistan following the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989, destroying much of the country as it did so.
The material includes the famous "Bactrian gold" discovered by joint French and Afghan archaeologists in northern Afghanistan shortly before Soviet forces moved into the country in 1979. This material, long thought lost, survived the later civil war locked in the vaults of the National Bank in Kabul, where it was "rediscovered" following the US-led invasion in October 2001. It also includes Hellenistic objects from excavations carried out at the site of the ancient city of Ai Khanoum north of Kabul and Hellenistic and Indian materials found at Begram (Bagram).
Taken as a whole, Afghanistan, les tr?sors retrouv?s is one of the most important archaeological exhibitions to have visited the French capital for years, and it is the only opportunity European and international visitors will have to view this material before it moves onto the US leg of its world tour in April 2007. It is a fine successor to Afghanistan, une histoire mill?naire (Afghanistan: A Timeless History), an exhibition of mostly Graeco-Buddhist Afghan materials brought together in the wake of the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban, also at the Mus?e Guimet and reviewed in the Weekly in March 2002.
The exhibition is divided into three parts, the first of which displays materials discovered at Ai Khanoum by successive French archaeological missions, providing insights into the functioning of this Hellenistic garrison city founded following Alexander the Great's conquest of the area in the late fourth century BC. Alexander's epic journeys took him from his native Macedonia in northern Greece to the plains of the western Punjab in what is now Pakistan, destroying the Persian Empire as he did so, as well as through Anatolia, the Levant and to Egypt, where he founded the port city of Alexandria and consulted the oracle of Amun at Siwa.
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