By Amber Haq
Pierre Cambon peers at the intricately carved second-century ivory statuettes, his eyes sparkling. The head curator of Afghan arts at Paris's historic Musée Guimet is contemplating the elegance of the sculpted female figures. "One cannot ignore the homage to femininity these represent," he says, keenly aware of the irony of their provenance. They were discovered in 1937 by Cambon's predecessor, the French archeologist Joseph Hackin, in Afghanistan, where women have since been forced to hide their feminine forms under burqas.
These figures are among the 220 remarkable artifacts that have survived the Soviet occupation, a civil war and the rise of the Taliban to compose the eye-opening exhibit "The Rediscovered Treasures of Afghanistan" (through April 2007). Many of the pieces have not been seen since 1988, when the Soviets departed and President Mohammad Najibullah ordered treasures stored in the vaults of the Afghan central bank and the Ministry of Culture for safekeeping. Others?including the ivory statues?have never been displayed before. Their arrival in Paris is an important reminder of the country's resilience. "This exhibit shows that Afghanistan is something other than a war zone," says Roland Besenval, head of the French Archeological Delegation to Afghanistan (DAFA). "International organizations dealing with the reconstruction of the country must not ignore the important role of this cultural heritage in the Afghan identity."
Visitors will receive a colorful crash course in Afghan history. The exhibit journeys from the Greco-Bactrian civilization (2200-1800 B.C.), which re-presented the eastern frontier of the Hellenistic world during the Bronze Age, to the Kushan Empire (A.D. 100-300), which once extended across Afghanistan from the Caspian Sea to the Ganges Valley. Separate galleries are devoted to four of the country's most important archeological sites. Artifacts from Fulol include gold vases representing the last vestiges of the Bactrian Greco-Buddhist style and the influence of the Indus Valley civilization. The gold pieces from Ai-Khanoum, built by Alexander the Great in the fourth century B.C., reflect Hellenistic influences. The royal tombs of Tilla Tepe reveal astounding gold jewelry, adorned with Afghan lapis lazuli, Indian garnet and Chinese jade. And the treasures from the silk-route town of Baghram include Hellenistic bronzes and Greco-Roman glassware. Together they offer a clear picture of the rich and diverse traditions that shaped the country. "Afghanistan has stood at the crossroads of civilizations throughout the millennia," says Cambon. "The region represents the place at the end of the world from both Eastern and Western perspectives?a land where cultures intermingled to give birth to new forms of art and craftsmanship."