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ART THROUGH THE AGES IN AFGHANISTAN Vol. I
An Historic Survey of Cultural Achievements from Prehistory to Commencement of Islamic Era
By Hamid Naweed
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2013 Hamid Naweed
All rights reserved.
Cultural History of Afghanistan, Clarifying some Misconceptions
Like most of European and Eastern countries, Afghanistan had different names in the course of its long history. Many civilizations have emerged in this ancient land starting from 3300 BCE to the modern ages. According to Rig-Veda, Avesta and Greek historians, the land that has been referred to as Ariana in pre-Islamic period mostly covered the present territory of Afghanistan. In the medieval Islamic epoch the land was called as Khurasan as well. Actually, many countries' names have changed over the centuries. Turkey was once called Anatolia, Iraq and Syria were called Mesopotamia, and Iran was called Persia until early 1930s. Having different names doesn't change a country's history or cultural identity. Afghanistan has always been a land with resourceful people and the center of many artistic creations. However, misleading term, which have been frequently used by some western researchers, and Iranian historians, have created a major misunderstanding of the cultural history of Afghanistan and the region in general. This is an important issue that needs to be addressed in order to truly understand the cultural realities of Afghanistan and its surrounding countries. The cultural existence of Afghanistan has been completely ignored in some of these historical surveys, especially by the 19th and early 20th century western scholars who have dealt with the art and history of the eastern countries. As a result of their misleading assessments, the artifacts that belong to Afghanistan are labeled in the world's famous museums as "Indian" or "Persian" art.
It is obvious that Iran and Afghanistan, being neighboring countries, have now and then shared some artistic endeavors and from time to time have invaded each other's territories. Occasionally some linguistic scholars have used the term "Eastern Iranian Languages" to describe the historical development of certain eastern Indo-European and/or (Indo-Aryan) dialects. However, the expression of "Eastern Iran" as a political entity is an invented term and does not have any historical veracity. For the sake of argument, let's concentrate on the term "Eastern Iran"; logically if there is an Eastern Iran there should also be a Western Iran. Have the terms "Eastern Iran" and "Western Iran" been mentioned in any credible historical text and confirmed by any Roman geographers or historians and geographers of the Islamic Era, like Utbi, Ibn Haukal, Yaqut Hamawi, or Idrisi?
Historically, when did this division take place? For instance, we know that the division of the Roman Empire into Eastern and Western Empires started circa 285 CE during the reign of Gaius Aurelius Diocletianus, known as Diocletian, Constantine the Great and Julian the Apostate, the philosopher emperor of Rome. In fact, Theodosius the Great was the last emperor who ruled the unified Rome. In 395 CE, the division of the Roman Empire was completed and the Byzantine Empire rose but where are the historical facts about "Eastern and Western Iran"? As a matter of fact, in the world maps of Idrisi, and Estakhri, the famous Muslim geographers of medieval time, there is no mention of the word Iran. However, the territories of Khurasan, Fars, Azerbaijan, Merve and Mawar-al-nahr (Transoxiana), are clearly marked in almost all of the maps of medieval time geographers. If these scholars are basing their theory on the Sassanid invasion of the Kushanian Empire in the 3rd century CE, the Ephthalite Emperors also ruled in Persia and for a period of almost 90 years, the Sassanid kings of Persia minted their coins under the governance of the Ephthalite rulers after the defeat of Firoz I by Akhshunwar in 484 CE.
Similarly, to label the schools of art that emerged in Kapisa, Kabul, Logar, Nangarhar and Gandahara during the Kushanian era as "Indian Art" is inaccurate. The new artistic approach that started in the 2nd century CE under the patronage of The Kushanian kings resulted in a combination of Buddhist philosophy with the Hellenistic art of Bactria in ancient Kabulistan (mainly in Bagram, Kapisa and Logar) brought fundamental changes in Buddhist iconography. The cultural influences of varied human civilizations on artistic creations are foreseeable in many cases. In fact most schools of art that flourished in the geographical zone, stretched from The Oxus Basin to The Indus Valley, and are so integrated that they cannot be labeled as the art of one particular country. For example, the recent archeological discoveries, south of Kabul and Shortugai in Kunduz can provide potential information on the ancient Aryan Trade Route, that connected the very ancient civilizations during the Bronze Age circa 3300 BCE. This was an era when copper and its alloy, bronze, were used as the main durable materials for manufacturing weapons and tools. Also during the Iron Age from 2100 –1800 BCE, the present-day territory of Afghanistan served as a linkage ground between the Oxus civilization and the Indus Cultural Basin. During this epoch the immigration of Arian tribes from foothills of Pamir and Hindukush Mountains to Indian subcontinent and Media materialized. Prototypes of the Aryan language entered the ancient land of Elam and Median Persia and gradually overshadowed the Elamite language of Persia.
Trade in lapis lazuli was a lucrative business during this era. Afghanistan's lapis stone and precious gems had many customers in Mesopotamia and Egypt. The Aryan trade road, which started from Sar-e-Sang Badakhshan, continued through the passageways and gorges of Hindukush and Koh-e-Baba Mountains to Mundigak, near Kandahar. The same trade route after passing through the valley of Helmand, and Darangiana, eventually reached the ancient city of Ur in Mesopotamia, via Median Persia. Apparently, this business venture was vital in connecting the different civilizations of the ancient world. There are many examples of Mesopotamian and Egyptian artifacts that are decorated with lapis lazuli and precious stones of Afghanistan, such as the "Harp of Sheba", dating back to 2600 BCE and the standing statue of the "Billy Goat and the Tree". Excavations in Mundigak, Kandahar indicated that in the 2nd millennium BCE, business relations between the cities of ancient Sumer and Mohenjo-Daro, were established via Kandahar. During the same epoch another road that started from Bactria continued towards southwest and finally reached Harappa, in Baluchistan. The archeological findings from Shortugai in Kunduz Province show the trade relations between ancient Bactria and Harappa, circa 1800 BCE. From Balkh another trade road proceeded towards Samangan, Baghlan, Kabul and Kapisa and after passing through Nangarhara, reached Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus Valley. The arrival of the Arian tribes circa, 1750 BCE constituted the commencement of Indo-Aryan culture. From Vedic period until the era of Kushanian Emperors (2nd-5th century CE) the flow of trade and ideas continued between Bactria and India, which resulted in edifying cultural and artistic exchanges. However, the British scholars who were stationed in India and were studying the expansion of Buddhism to other lands assumed that the Buddhist art of Afghanistan was a derivative of Indian artistic creations. Evidently, this assumption sounded logical to some people, but we know that Buddha was born in Nepal, circa 563 BCE, and his ideas spread into many different Asian countries, such as China, Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia. Thus to label all the artistic creations which contains Buddhist themes Indian, is far from reality. Buddha's images and statues have been created in many countries that are not part of Indian subcontinent. Archeological discoveries in Afghanistan belonging to the Kushanian period contain elements of Hellenistic art of Bactria, according to Alfred Foucher and many credible art historians such as Joseph Hackin and Jeannine Aboyer. For instance the statues of Hadda, Bagram and Bamiyan demonstrate this artistic quality. The recent discovery from Khwaja Safa area of Kabul shows the commencement stage of the School of Greco-Buddhist Art under the Mahayana principle of (The Great Vehicle) with Hellenistic characteristics. In Mahayana, Buddhists believe the representational manifestation of Buddha's images are allowed, while in Hinayana Buddhist faith (The Lesser Vehicle), which was common in Southern India under the strict Poly rules, representation of Buddha's images were more restricted. The collection of magnificent statues recently found by Afghan archeologist Zafar Paiman displays the first convention of the Buddhist monks after Buddha's death when the Mahayana Canon was adopted.
From the second to the 5th centuries CE, the territory of present day Afghanistan played the role in transferring the values of Buddha's philosophy to ancient Sogdiana and Chinese Turkistan, and subsequently to China. Despite the fact that many historians believe that Buddhist monasteries did not exist in Herat, a Buddhist monastery dating to the 1st century CE is discovered in the valley of Hariwa, revealing testimony of daily life of Buddhist monks. The monastery was hand-carved in the bank of the Harirud River, showing expansion of Buddhism in the western parts of Afghanistan hundreds of miles away from India. This shows that Herat was under the cultural sphere of influence of the Kushanian court, and Kushanian Kings endeavored to spread the values of Hellenistic Buddhist art of Kapisan style to all corners of their vast kingdom, including the Indian city of Mathura. However, it is interesting that the philosophy of Buddhism and the values of Greco- Buddhist art never expanded into Persia, perhaps it was due to the strong ascendancy of Zurvanism in the main land of Persia under the Sassanid's' rule. The artistic creations of ancient Persia especially under the Achaemenids were heavily under the influence of Mesopotamian art. Most of the statues of ancient Persia in Takht-e-Jamshid and Naqsh-e-Rustam are relief statues that reveal the qualities of Syrian and Babylonian artwork. Freestanding three-dimensional statues were not common in the art of ancient Persia. Despite all similarities, the artistic creations of Mesopotamia and ancient Persia have been studied spartanly in all standard art history books that are written by the western scholars. The same clarity and keen observation should be paid to study schools of art that were flourished in the present territory of Afghanistan, the Indus Valley and/ or India. But in many instances the curators of world famous museums have not been very careful in labeling the artifacts of the eastern cultures. For example to label Gandaharan Art as "Eastern Iranian art" is not accurate. Artistic studies indicate that the Persian artists were not familiar with the values and techniques of Gandaharan School of Art.
These are just a few examples of the sweeping generalization that needs to be clarified. Unfortunately the same attitude of generic labeling has been applied by a handful of western scholars to explain artistic creations of vast regions, which belong to the Islamic era. For example most of the literary pieces and artifacts of Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and parts of Turkmenistan are being introduced as part of Persian cultural heritage. This is another sweeping generalization that creates ambiguities in studying the schools of arts and literature of the region. We know that despite of the linguistic ties, there are major cultural differences between these countries and ancient Persia. The Sassanid Empire ceased to exist in the mid-7th century CE after the Arab invasion in 642 CE. The political entities that emerged almost three centuries after the fall of Sassanids in Khurasan and Transoxiana had their own cultural norms and artistic standards. The term "Persian art", invented by the late nineteenth century western scholars in their reference to the culture, history, art and literature of a vast geographical area including present-day Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asia, Turkey and Northern India is vague and generic. It is an inaccurate and preferential expression that has no equivalent in the Persian language itself. In fact, during the Islamic period, most of the independent kingdoms emerged from the soil of Afghanistan, Turkey, and Central Asia. The initial territory of Persia remained under the direct control of Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphs for quite sometimes. It was not until 1502 CE that Ismael Safavid, a Turkic-descent ruler, established the Safavid kingdom in Tabriz, Azerbaijan, and Persia became an independent country.
We also know that neither the Arab historians nor the indigenous people who lived in these areas referred to the entire region between the Oxus River and the Indus Valley as Persia, associated with the "Iranian Empire". During the Medieval Islamic era, these regions were called Mawara Al Nahr (Transoxiana) and Khurasan. Hence, there are no logical reasons to refer to the art of the Ghaznawid or the Timurid period, which were produced in the Afghan soil and Transoxiana and had no similarity to the art of ancient Persia, as "Persian art". The independent kingdoms that later emerged in the region during the 9th and 15th centuries, were established in a different phase of history under different circumstances. For an in-depth study of the cultural and artistic developments of the region, a fresh look is needed to accurately elucidate the cultural realties of these countries and use the correct terms for explaining the schools of art that flourished during this era. Such ambiguous terms as "Persian Art" or "Indian Art" for all artistic and cultural creations of the region are imprecise and a misleading lexis.
Another factor contributing to this confusion was the Iranian Pahlavi regime's attempt in 1930s to claim imperial heritage by identifying present-day Iran with the ancient Persian Empire by changing the name of the country from Persia to Iran.
In 1931 German scholar Joseph Markwart wrote a catalogue of the provincial capitals of Eranshahr. Two years later, in 1933 the publication of Namah-e Iran-e-Bastan (The Journal of Ancient Iran) was published in Berlin under the editorship of Major von Viban of the Political Department of the (NADPA). In the same year Adolph Hitler became the leader of Nazi Germany (The Third Reich). The journal of Iran-e Bastan was financed by Siemens-Schukken. A group of pro-Nazi Iranian intellectuals also supported the magazine and during the same timeframe Shah Reza officially changed the name of his country from Persia to Iran. Initially, the idea of Pan-Iranism was based on Adolph Hitler's Doctrine of Aryans being a superior race. Politically Hitler's strategy for supporting Persia was to have a strong base in Middle East and meanwhile suppress the Jews of Palestine.
Politically, Shah Reza was striving for the leadership of a larger area, "The Greater Iran." At the peak of World War II, he proclaimed that Iran represented a superior race in Asia, as Nazi Germany did in Europe. Shah Reza's goal was to establish a kingdom larger than the boundaries of Achaemenid Empire.
It is said that during the same timeframe Shah Reza's envoy approached the Afghan Government and requested Afghanistan's consent in changing the name of Persia to Iran. The Shah of Persia was aware of the fact that a large segment of this historic territory is actually situated on the Afghan soil. By not properly assessing the cultural and historic cost of Shah Reza's request the Afghan Government did not express any objection.
In 1939, Germany's Nazi regime provided about 7,500 books for Iranian readers to convince them in the claim of supremacy of the "Aryan Culture" and their kinship with the European Aryan race, mainly Germans. This book collection was called "The German Scientific Library" which gave a sense of nationalistic pride to Iranian intellectuals allowing them to claim artistic and cultural assets of other nations as their own. While Aryanism was becoming a source of vanity for the mainstream Iranian writers, there were a number of notable Iranian poets and scholars who were skeptical about these opinions. Malik-u-Sho'ara Bahar wrote an explicit essay on misinterpretation of Shah Namah of Firdausi. Meanwhile several Afghan historians, such as Mir Ghulam Mohamad Ghobar, Ahmad Ali Kohzad and Professor Habibi also wrote scholarly manuscripts on the history of Ariana, which shed light on the subject. Among the new generation of Iranian scholars, Reza Zia-Ebrahimi Professor of history and politics at the University of Oxford gives realistic assessments on the term Aryanism and its misuse.
Excerpted from ART THROUGH THE AGES IN AFGHANISTAN Vol. I by Hamid Naweed. Copyright © 2013 by Hamid Naweed. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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Table of Contents
Introduction.................... Pg. 1