The discovery I think I’m most proud of – more so than anything I’ve ever managed to explain in Horace or Virgil or Ovid – is a minute-long clip of scenes in Kabul, Afghanistan on YouTube released a few years back by Pathé News. Huge numbers of precious newsreels were made freely available and the editing was minimal, resulting in inaccurate descriptions of the contents: this video was misidentified as footage from 1919, when King Amanullah (1892–1960) had seized power in Afghanistan after the murder of his father.
In actual fact it was film, with German subtitles, from a decade later. In the winter of 1928–9 Amanullah’s reign was coming to a violent conclusion, with rebel forces led by Habibullah Kalakani (1890–1929), soon briefly to be Habibullah II (or “Son of a Water-carrier” to his enemies), converging on the Afghan capital. In the newsreel we see the rebels marching into the city through the snow, a glimpse of Habibullah himself, and then a fleet of large biplanes. These are the Vickers Victorias of the RAF which, in the first airlift of its kind, carried members of the Afghan royal family and foreign residents out of danger to British India. All told, a precious historical survival, that clip, and it was good to have it properly labelled – as it was until Pathé decided to delete all comments from their videos.
Amanullah was facing a rebellion in 1928–9 because of a series of radical and rapid reforms that he had introduced in his conservative country, most controversially in the area of equal rights: women were permitted to unveil and emerge from seclusion, and much of the resistance could be traced to this affront to traditional values. But Amanullah’s reforms also covered politics, national finances and the armed forces, and his ambition ultimately was to remake Afghanistan on the model of Kemal Atatürk’s Turkey (1923–38), turning it into a modern nation state that could command the respect of its peers.
A friend of mine, whose grandfather was Minister (effectively Ambassador) in the British Legation in Kabul during Amanullah’s reign, has a collection of picturesque views of Afghanistan in Amanullah’s day, Yadgar-e Afghanistan / Souvenir d’Afghanistan. This contains mainly pictures of public buildings and palaces, all built by Amanullah in a resolutely European style, not one of which (I think) is still standing. Syed Mujtaba Ali (1904–74), the Bengali scholar and nationalist who taught in Afghanistan in the 1920s, describes in Deshe Bideshe (1948), his memoir of the country, the surreal scenes when formal Western dress – suits, ties and waistcoats – was officially mandated overnight.
It was all too far and too fast for Afghanistan beyond the capital, and Amanullah, deposed by Habibullah’s men, lived out his life in exile in Italy, where his daughter India, born during the uprising on January 1st 1929, still lives.
One of Amanullah’s strategies for becoming a “proper” country, out of the shadow especially of its overbearing neighbour in British India, was to found a National Museum and encourage the archaeology that would fill it. In 1922 agreement was reached with Alfred Foucher (1865–1952), the French archaeologist, and the Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan (DAFA), was established, with a monopoly on archaeological activity in the country. The British were very satisfactorily snubbed, and remarkable excavations would follow at Hadda, Begram, Surkh Kotal, Ai Khanum and elsewhere.
Amanullah also established the first Afghan National Bank, and it may have been at this time also that the Bank-e Melli adopted its current emblem, the image of the Greek gods Castor and Polydeuces (Pollux) on horseback taken from the reverse of a coin of the second-century BC Greco-Bactrian king Eucratides. The image has graced Afghan banknotes since the end of the 1970s, and as I write still does. But a National Museum full of the classical artefacts that the first DAFA expeditions were keen to uncover amounts to a peculiar paradox: modernity asserted through a shared respect for deep antiquity.
A tug-of-war between modernising reform and conservative resistance has been the recurrent story in recent Afghan history. As the holdings of the National Museum grew ever richer, another king, Zahir Shah (1914–2007), introduced reforms at a slower, more diplomatic pace until he was deposed by his cousin Mohammed Daoud (1909–78). Then the Cold War, up to that point quite expertly played by Afghanistan, became its undoing. The communists who killed Daoud introduced reforms far more radical and abrupt even than Amanullah’s, and there was an uprising in response, a Soviet occupation, a civil war, the Taliban, 9/11, and a US/NATO occupation which has now very suddenly ended.
The Museum has not escaped these vicissitudes unscathed, as is well known: it was pillaged during the civil war, and vandalised by the Taliban. Speaking personally, I have allowed myself to become more emotionally invested in Afghanistan than I imagined I would when I made some visits a decade ago, in its people, its landscape and its history. But one place I both love and am confident I shall never see again is the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul. I reserve a special affection for two objects. The one is a foot of Zeus, probably syncretised with Mithra, excavated at Ai Khanum on the Oxus, stolen from the Museum in the 1990s, and returned from Japan just a couple of years ago.
The other is an inscription from Rabatak in northern Afghanistan that was heroically recovered by the historian Jonathan Lee in the 1990s. It catches the great Kanishka, whose Kushan Empire dominated Central Asia in the early centuries AD, serving as a trading and cultural link between East and West at a crucial moment of national assertion, and repudiating a lingering Greek cultural influence on his realm.
As for Afghan banknotes, the coin image carried on the notes perhaps originated in the enormous coin holdings of the Museum, one of the first things to disappear in the civil war. But developments in Afghanistan over the last two decades ensured that a blog I wrote on the topic was translated into Persian and featured in the digital edition of an independent newspaper published in Kabul.
A fear of reform has reasserted itself this week. In the past this fear has found expression in the destruction of historical artefacts. I hope, and hope is really all I have, that the evidence of Afghanistan’s rich history escapes this new regime. But, more importantly, I hope that courageous journalists do too – and I hope above all that Afghanistan, with around 50% of its population teenagers or younger, can find that elusive balance between the very old and the very new.
Llewelyn Morgan is Professor of Classical Languages and Literature and Fellow of Brasenose College, Oxford. On his blog he pursues a longstanding interest in Afghanistan and its neighbourhood
For more on the fascinating interaction between Greek culture and ancient Bactria, please take a look at this piece by Bijan Omrani.