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Heritage of Afghanistan Exhibit: Full Text of This Exhibit

Cultural exhibit scanning 2,000 years of Afghanistan's history.

Note on Full Text

Please note that the text on this page comprises that of the entire exhibit where available.

There may be additional information on other pages within this exhibit's Guide that expands on the production, as well.

Together, the text from these two sources comprise all the information covering this topic.

Full Text of This Exhibit

Title Card  [Wall mounted]

Note: Bracketed numbers within the text refer to corresponding numbers in the list of Display Case Artifact Captions that follow this Title Card:

The cultural history of the region now known as Afghanistan has been traced back 50,000 years.  By 3,000 B.C.E., when most of the world was still living in Stone Age societies, the people of Afghanistan were developing an urban civilization that formed a bridge between the Bronze Age civilizations of the Indus Valley and Sumeria.  Living half way between the Far East and the Far West, the Central Asian people of Afghanistan have been enriched by many cultures over the centuries.  This exhibition of books, manuscripts, and sculptural artifacts is a salute to this cultural richness.

Among the greatest cultural achievements of ancient Europe were the coins and statues of Greece.  In the 4th century B.C.E., Alexander the Great brought both art forms to the Afghan region on his way to try to conquer India.  The silver coins of the northern Afghan region known as Bactria are among the finest engravings of the age.  It is rare that coins can hold their own as works of art beside large sculptures, but these coins can.  The remarkable quality of such Hellenistic coinage remains the standard by which the artistic quality of coins is judged today.  Examples of Alexander’s famous coinage and Greco-Bactrian coinage are on display in this exhibition.  [1, 2, & 3]

Statues of Apollo stimulated the first figurative images of Buddha.  Before the Greeks came, Buddha was represented only by symbols.  The first statues were created in the early Buddhist Empire of Gandhara, which stretched from Kabul to northwest India.  Gandhara flourished for many centuries.  Just at the time Christianity to spreading throughout the Roman Empire, in the 2nd & 3rd centuries C.E., the art and religion of Buddhism was radiating out from Gandhara to China.  The visual language of these early Buddhist artists in what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan still forms the basic structure of Buddhist painting and sculpture throughout Asia.  Examples of Gandharan sculpture and coinage are on display.  [4 & 5]

During the Middle Ages, between the Fall of Rome in the 5th century C.E and the rise of the European Renaissance in the 15th century C.E, the trade route between China and the West came to be known as the Silk Road.  It was a well-traveled road for many merchants and many armies.  Many empires rose and fell in Central Asia.  Each left its footprints in the cultural sands of Afghanistan.  Before Alexander the Great, it was the Persian Empire that ruled the world between Greece and India.  Greater Persia included what is now Iran and Afghanistan.  The culture of Greater Persia continued as a loosely woven social unit for many centuries, and remains so today.  The native religion of Zoroastrianism, which began in Afghanistan, remains alive from Tehran to Delhi.  The distinctive vocal music of the traditional ghazals can still be heard throughout the land.  

After the Greeks, and the Persians, came Muslim armies moving east from Mongolian Turkey passionately inspired by the spirit of Islam.  Gradually, Muslim empires dominated Greater Persia in the 7th century, Northern India in the 12th century, and finally Greater India, which is what all of Southeast Asia was called until World War II.  By the 13th century, Islam reached as far as Indonesia, which remains the largest Muslim population in the world today.  The visual art that emerged in Greater Persia and Greater India is a dynamic synthesis of many cultures.  When the shamanic Mongolians moved from the edges of China toward the West, where they converted to Islam.  The word Islam means “surrender,” surrender ego to the Will of God.   Only then can there be true linkage with God. The Mongols brought the arts of China with them.  Those visual traditions were integrated with the arts of Persia, and then with the Mughal art of northern India.  The art and architecture of the Mughals, who proudly descended from the Mongols, reached its zenith in the 17th century, with Persian-Afghan paintings and the stupendous Taj Mahal.

From of the rich cultural soil of the Afghan world was born some of the world’s finest literature.  No collection of words is more important in the Muslim world than the Qur’an (Koran), the most holy “Word of God” revealed by the Angel Jibril (Gabrial) to the Prophet Mohammad in the 7th century.  

Its sacred pages have been copied over and over again in beautiful Arabic script by devoted scribes throughout the Islamic world.  Old pages from the Qur’an, made by hand with ink and gold, are on display.  [6]

Tales of the Arabian Nights started as oral traditions in Afghanistan, then passed through the poetry of several languages before it reached Western ears.  The Shah Nameh (The Book of Kings), one of the greatest books ever written, began in the Afghan part of Greater Persia and became the national epic of the region.  Composed by Firdawsi in 1010, it is the most important single piece of literature in both Iran and Afghanistan.  Some of its 60,000 rhyming couplets are still memorized from Tehran to Kabul.  It was composed for the King of Ghazni.  Ghazni is now the Sister City of Hayward, California  It was first translated into English in the 1830s.  In the West, its words are best known in association with pages illuminated with magnificent 16th century miniature paintings.  A richly printed modern edition of 1972 from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is on display.  [7]

Rumi (1207-1273) was born in Balkh in northern Afghanistan, legendary home of Zoroaster (as well as Dionysos).  Rumi’s family later moved to Konya in what is now eastern Turkey.  There is became a spiritual teacher in a land where ancient Greek deities, medieval Christian traditions, and Buddhism mixed peacefully with Islam.  Many consider this great poet and Sufi mystic to be Afghanistan’s most important contribution to the world.  His primary religious heritage was Islam, but his spirit reached out to Hindu and Christian alike.  He was a truly zuniversal soul.  His profound poetry, written in Farsi, has been translated into many languages.  New editions of all shapes and sizes may be found in many bookstores around the world.  Examples are on view in this exhibition.  [8]  To the surprise of many contemporary literary critics, Rumi is now the best selling poet in the United States. 

The Mongols under Genghis Kahn invaded Central Asia in the early 13th century.  Therefore, Rumi’s father moved his family west.  The cultural complexities that followed Rumi’s era split Afghan literature into Persian, Turkic, and Pashto.  The present political boundaries of Afghanistan were drawn in 1747.  However, true political independence was an uncertain dream, as European imperialists forced their claims during much of the 19th & 20th centuries.  One positive outcome of the English occupation is an excellent historical record of how Afghanistan was perceived by outsiders.  Samples of these drawings, paintings, and photographs were published in Afghanistan Observed 1830-1920, which was published by The British Library in 2010.  A copy is on view in this exhibition.  [9]  Included is an 1840s watercolor view of Ghazni. [see program cover and exhibit poster].

With the emergence of Kabul as a publication center in the 20th century, a contemporary literary community is developing.  The Kabul Museum is being restored after being held hostage by the Taliban.  Masterpieces from the Kabul Museum started a world tour in Europe in 2007.  The exhibition traveled to New York, Washington, D.C., Houston, San Francisco, and Quebec between 2008 & 2010.  The monumental catalogue of 303 pages, Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul, is on display in this exhibition.  [10]  The National Archives in Kabul holds a precious collection of books and manuscripts that not only document national history but also provide mirrors of national identity.  A color catalogue from the National Archives is on view in this exhibition.  [11]  Moreover, modern art by Afghan men and women also is slowly emerging from the bitter ashes of war.  A new Afghanistan is being born.

F. Lanier Graham
Curator of Art Collections
University Library, CSUEB

Display Case Artifact Captions:

1.  ALEXANDER THE GREAT, 4th century B.C.E.

                Medium:  Silver coin of the 3rd century B.C.E.
                Probably the most famous coin of Ancient Greece
                Collection:  Institute for Aesthetic Development, Brentwood

2.  EUKRATIDES I, King of Bactria, 2nd century B.C.E.

                Medium:  Silver coin of the 2nd century B.C.E. (replica)
                Collection:  Institute for Aesthetic Development, Brentwood

3.  MEANDER, King of Bactria, 2nd century B.C.E.

                Medium:  Silver coin of the 2nd century B.C.E.
                Collection:  Institute for Aesthetic Development, Brentwood

4.  SILVER COIN of GANDHARA, 6th-3rd century B.C.E.

                Medium:  Silver.  From the region of Taxila
                Collection:  Institute for Aesthetic Development, Brentwood

5.  HEAD of BUDDHA, 2nd or 3rd century C.E.

                Medium:  Stone
                Collection:  Private Collection, Hayward

6.  PAGE from the QUR’AN (KORAN)

                (transcribed in the 7th century)

                Medium:  Ink and gold on paper, 18th century, C.E.
                Collecction:  Special Collections, University Library of CSUEB

                (written in the 11th century; illuminated in the 16th century)

                Modern edition published in New York by the
                Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1972
                Collection: Special Collections, University Library of CSUEB


                by Rumi

                Published in New York & London by Penguin Compass, 2001
                Collection:  Special Collections, University Library of CSUEB


                Published in New York by Amber Lotus, 2010
                Collection:  Special Collections, University Library of CSUEB


                Published in London by the British Library, 2010
                Collection:  Mohammed H. Qayoumi, Hayward

10.  Pages from a Catalog of the NATIONAL ARCHIVES, Kabul

                Published in Kabul by the National Archives
                Collection:  Mohammed H. Qayoumi, Hayward


                Published in Washington, D.C. by National Geographic, 2008
                Collection:  Mohammed H. Qayoumi, Hayward