Unique exhibition spotlights Afghanistan’s Buddhist period
An exhibition called Afghanistan: Rescued Treasures of Buddhism organized by the National Museum aims to present the war-torn country in a different light, to draw attention to its rich cultural history and point out the many influences that left their mark on Afghan culture and traditions. The exhibition focuses on the country’s pre-Islamic Buddhist period. Its chief organizer Lubomír Novák showed me around and began by explaining what makes the exhibition so special.
Where were these artefacts found and how were they preserved?
“The majority of artefacts presented at the exhibition are from a site called Mes’ Aynak located some 40 kilometers eastward from Kabul. The site is specific because it was one of the crossroads on the Silk Road, there was a mining agglomeration, several Buddhist monasteries, a fort and probably also a Zoroastrian shrine. So it is our aim to present this site which is really amazing and will probably be destroyed due to the fact that it lies on a large copper deposit, probably the largest in the world.”
“Not many people around the world know that Afghanistan is not just an Islamic country but that it has a rich Buddhist history.”
Were the artefacts hidden in order to protect them from being destroyed?
“They were hidden and nowadays they are preserved in the depositories of the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul.”
And have they been restored? What condition were they found in?
“The majority of artefacts presented here were stored in the depositories in Kabul and only those artefacts that were in a really bad state were conserved in the laboratories of Kabul Museum, there were not many of those and we restored them in the laboratories of the National Museum in Terezin in the Czech Republic.”
And the Afghan side agreed with that?
“Yes, the agreement was that the Czech Museum would get the exhibition for free and in return we would restore all the artefacts for the Afghan Museum.”
Can we take a turn around the exhibition now and can you point out some of the interesting pieces you have on display?
“In another glass case we have specimen of several coins from Afghanistan and we wanted to show people the continuity from the Greek period so the first displayed coin is that of Alexander the Great -that’s four to five hundred years before the main focus of the exhibition - and them we continue with Kushan and Sasanian coins in order to show the chronology of rules in Afghanistan in that period. ”
“Yes, the second hall presents the site of Mes’Aynak and here we have a reconstruction of a Mes’Aynak house. Inside visitors can see two large storage jars that served to store food and water.”
So this is what the houses looked like?
“Approximately. It is a model of what a Mes’Aynak house may have looked like.”
And it was made of wood?
“No, they were made of Adobe bricks.”
And here we have quite a few pieces…..
This Buddha’s eyes have been scratched out…
“Yes, on this painting we can clearly see what happened to Buddhist art after the coming of Islam. Sunni Islam forbids the depiction of human beings which is different compared to Buddhism so they censored the art as we can see here. Eyes were scratched out or else they were painted black. They preserved the painting but censored it in a way so that it would not contradict the Sunny doctrine of Islam. So Islam did not destroy all the previous art but it modified it according to its teaching.”
And here we have more Buddhas – statuettes…
So there was the Indian influence and the Greek influence as well?
“Yes, because in the Kushan period Afghanistan was a melting pot of the Greek influence which came with Alexander and remained there during the Hellenistic period and it mixed with nomadic influences after the coming of nomadic tribes which were the main ethnic group from which the Kushan dynasty formed and it melted with the influence from India so the Kushan period in Afghanistan was really a multi-cultural empire that shows influences from various parts of the world from Persia, from India, from China from central/Asian parts of the Silk Road so it was really an amazing place and the Kushan period is considered to be the Golden Age in the history of Afghanistan.”
And you can see these influences in the way the Buddhas are sitting or standing?
“In the Kushan period Afghanistan was really a multi-cultural empire that shows influences from various parts of the world- from Persia, from India, from China from central/Asian parts of the Silk Road.”
“Not just in that but in the whole artistic presentation in clothing, profile etc. It is really hard to explain, people need to see it for themselves, to compare the statues and try to detect the Greek influence.”
And what have we here?
“This is one of the biggest artefacts on display - the head of Buddha made of clay. It is very heavy and it was very difficult to transport it from Kabul National Museum to Prague. The face shows clear Indian influence and it has a very peaceful expression so it is tempting to lower yourself a little in order to look into Buddha’s eyes and find a bit of peace here at the exhibition.”
And how has the public responded? How much interest has the exhibition generated?
The exhibition is on display at the Náprstek Museum of Asian, African and American Cultures. For more information go to: