Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World

Divided into four sections, the British Museum's Afghanistan exhibition situates a nation not only geographically " at the junction of the Silk Road's trading routes " but also historically, tracing its development from the etched golden vessels of the Bronze Age to the glittering contents of nomadic tombs from the first century AD.

Afghan vase © musée Guimet / Thierry Ollivier Photograph: British Museum

Afghan vase

The exhibition opens with the treasures of Tepe Fullol in Afghanistan's north: tantalising fragments of bowls with varied etchings combining Hellenistic patterning with vividly rendered animals.It is only when making the leap of two millennia however, to the objects of the Greek city of Ali Khanum (Lady Moon), that these patchwork openings gain their true impact, evocative reminders of just how ancient the roots of the Afghan civilisation are.Another leap takes us to the Summer Palace of Begram, where a hoard now thought to belong to wealthy merchants was unearthed in the 1930s. Two rooms were discovered, each filled with a bewildering array of Chinese lacquer, alabaster bowls, Egyptian rock-crystal vessels and Indian ivories: a tangible metaphor for Afghanistan's uniquely wide-ranging trading position.It was in 1978, on the eve of the Soviet invasion, that six tombs were discovered in northern Afghanistan. The quality and sheer abundance of the 20,000 treasures that emerged gained the site the name of Tillya Tepe " 'The Hill of Gold'. It is these objects " secretly preserved in the vault of the national bank " that form the final and climactic section of the exhibition.

Don't miss

Hailed as one of the 'world's most beautiful and priceless objects' is a beaten gold crown from the Tillya Tepe hoard dating from the 1st century AD. Designed and constructed from a series of five detachable pieces, uniquely the crown may be folded flat when not in use, offering a glimpse into the nomadic life of the object's noble female owner.Dancing girls emerge, hips quivering, bangles crashing, from ivory and bone Indian-style carvings from Bagram. Thought to be the earliest examples of Indian secular art, the paint traces of vermilion and indigo give a vivid suggestion of their original colourful state.While the golden contents of the six tombs at Tillya Tepe are dazzling indeed, spare a moment for the historical subtext hidden in their delicate workmanship. A pair of gold pendants whose mythical creatures bristle with inlaid gems " turquoise, garnet, lapis lazuli, carnelian and pearl " give persuasive testimony to Afghanistan's position as a hub of international trade routes.Related storiesBritish Museum exhibition blog.News story from the Guardian, including interviews with those behind the exhibition.Detailed review from the Telegraph.Detailed account of the excavation and preservation of the Begram Ivories in the Guardian.Gallery of exhibition images from the Telegraph.

Venue details

British Museum Great Russell Street London WC1B 3DG 020 7323 8299

Entry details

50% off with National Art Pass – £5 (standard entry charge is £10)

Open daily from 10am until 5.30

Open Fridays until 8.30pm*

*Last entry 70 minutes before close

Book via British Museum website or call +44 (0)207 323 8181

What the critics say


These are rare and sense-stunningly rich objects that speak of an almost unimaginably distant episode in the history of Afghanistan of a bold, deeply hedonistic civilisation, confidently appropriating the art and artefacts of other cultures.


Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World is precisely the kind of exhibition that the British Museum should mount - pure scholarship, enlightening, closing one gap only to open another. Beginners may be disappointed.


We end in a fabulous shower of gold. But the six nomad tombs of Tillya Tepe (around AD50) astonish most not by weight of carats but their workmanship.


It is some time since I saw a display of gold as intoxicating and tongue-yanking as this.


Yes, it is magnificent, but it's not a magical synthesis of cultures, more like a visual no man's land. Among the nomad gold, the exhibition's portrayal of Afghanistan as a "crossroads" becomes questionable. Goods were traded, but was any deep learning shared? Somehow it doesn't add up.