Archive | September 2015

An archaeological whodunnit

A more misleading title to a blog you will never see. There’s no murder here, no crime at all. No tension or thrill for that matter. There is a slight mystery, maybe even a touch of deceit, but I’d be kidding you if I pretended this was anything other than the most self-indulgent blog I’ve ever written. Not least because it’s about Afghanistan, a place I keep trying not to write about. It’s just too fascinating.

In 2008 I got to visit Ai Khanum, an archaeological site on the northern border of Afghanistan. It is not an easy place to get to, and it was one of the highlights of my life, an unforgettable 40th birthday present from Alan MacDonald, at the time based in Afghanistan with MACCA, the Mine Action Coordination Centre of Afghanistan. Here I am at the site, the River Oxus and Tajikistan behind me, feeling short alongside Alan and two Afghan MACCA officials, Mohamed Shafiq and Sayed Aga.


Even without the archaeology Ai Khanum is a stunning location, set in the angle created by the confluence of the Amu Darya (Oxus) and the Kokcha rivers. The site was dug by French archaeologists in the sixties and seventies, and they found some quite spectacular things. It was a city established by Alexander or one of his successors 3,000 miles away from Greece, but equipped with characteristically Greek things like a theatre, gymnasium and stocks of olive oil, even Greek texts: some of the texts themselves, parts of a philosophical dialogue, weren’t actually found, but the imprint of their ink had been left on the earth.

Much of what was brought to light at Ai Khanum illustrated the nostalgia of the Greek colonists for their homeland, and there was plenty of evidence also of the compromises they were obliged to make with their new and radically different environment. The city traded in the most famous product of its hinterland in Badakhshan, lapis lazuli, and some of the city’s architecture, and by implication some of its religion, politics and social life, was more middle-eastern than Greek. But however one cuts it, Ai Khanum represented a fascinating encounter between Greek and non-Greek culture.

My very favourite artefact, probably the main reason I wanted to see the place, was a visually unappealing block of stone inscribed with Greek, some lines on the ideal life (originally inscribed at the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, in Greece) and a poem explaining how a man called Clearchus had travelled all the way from Delphi to Ai Khanum and set up the monument when he arrived. There’s more on Ai Khanum and Clearchus’ inscription here; a 3D video tour of the reconstructed city here; and a while back I tried to explain the significance of Clearchus’ journey here. The Delphic wisdom was as follows:

Παῖς ὢν κόσµιος γίνου
ἡβῶν ἐγκρατής
µέσος δίκαιος
πρεσβύτης εὔβουλος
τελευτῶν ἄλυπος

As a child, be orderly,
As a youth, be self-controlled,
As an adult, be just,
As an old man, be of good counsel,
When dying, feel no sorrow.

So, an exciting archaeological site for any Classicist, but especially one with a thing about Afghanistan like me. But that’s not quite what I’m concerned with in this blog. Ai Khanum was excavated from 1964-78 by the archaeologists of DAFA, the Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan. Something that has intrigued me for a long time is the official account of how the site was originally discovered in the sixties. In 1961, the story goes, the king of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah, was shown some impressive archaeological fragments (one of them a large Corinthian capital) during a hunting expedition. He then summoned the Director of DAFA, Daniel Schlumberger, to an audience, and requested that the archaeologist visit the site to assess what he had seen. It’s a great story, the King inspiring the archaeological investigation of Afghan history, and I suppose that’s exactly what makes me suspicious.

Ai Khanum had certainly been “discovered”, in some sense, earlier than 1961. In 1836-8 Captain John Wood, on the skirts of a mission to Kabul led by the greatest of the Great Game operators Alexander Burnes, travelled through what is now north-eastern Afghanistan, then the territories of the terrifying ruler of Qunduz, Murad Beg, tracking the course of the river Oxus to its source, or at least one of its sources. Later, on 18 March 1838, during a journey out from Qunduz with Dr Perceval Lord (whose medical treatment of Murad Beg’s brother had been what gained Wood access in the first place), he visited “I-khanam” where, he was informed by locals, “an ancient city called Barbarrah” had stood. A century later in 1926, in the very early days of DAFA (which was established in 1922 by agreement between Amanullah, King of Afghanistan, and the French archaeologist Alfred Foucher), Jules Barthoux set off on a tour of northern Afghanistan in search of promising sites for investigation. One of them was “Aï Khanem”, identified in Barthoux’s notes, in Foucher’s report of his tour to the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres in Paris, and even on a map of Afghanistan in an article in the French national newspaper Le Temps on 6 July 1930, as a place of archaeological interest.

Barththoux map


Now, a lot happened between 1926 and 1961, and Barthoux had parted company from DAFA on poor terms. There’s also a difference between a general sense that there’s something very old to be found, and the very specific pieces of Greek archaeological material to which Zahir Shah alerted Schlumberger. So I’m prepared to believe that Barthoux’s information about Ai Khanum had been forgotten by the sixties, or at least that it hadn’t struck anybody as of urgent importance. The same could be said for John Wood’s account in A Personal Account of a Journey to the Source of the Oxus, although Paul Bernard, who directed the excavations at Ai Khanum, did later base some speculative but very interesting arguments about its early history on Wood’s account.

Let’s assume, at any rate, that it took Zahir Shah’s intervention to alert Daniel Schlumberger and Paul Bernard to the archaeological potential of Ai Khanum. I’m not so sure that it was such a revelation for the King of Afghanistan himself.

In 1923 Burhan al-Din Kushkaki published Rahnuma-ye Qataghan wa Badakhshan, an abridged version of a report by Mohamed Nadir Khan of a tour of north-eastern Afghanistan in 1921-22. Nadir Khan was at the time Minister of Defence, and he and three other ministers had been dispatched by the reforming King Amanullah, shortly after his accession in 1919, to report on various parts of the country. In effect, the Rahnuma was part of Amanullah’s Domesday Book. One of the places visited by Nadir Khan was called ای خانم, Ai Khanum, “which in ancient times had been a city”. Like all previous visitors to the site, Nadir Khan noted the traces of buildings still visible.

Nadir Khan later became king himself, after Amanullah’s overthrow in the events I described here. But probably the most relevant thing about Nadir Khan is that he was the father of Zahir Shah, the king who supposedly discovered Ai Khanum on that hunting expedition in 1961. The Rahnuma was translated into Russian in 1926, for obvious reasons given the proximity of the Soviet Union. It wasn’t translated into French until 1979. But while the archaeologists of DAFA were very likely unaware of it, I doubt that Zahir Shah was.

What I wonder is whether Zahir Shah had reasons over and above an interest in archaeology to push DAFA towards Ai Khanum at this time. Something to be understood is that Zahir, though king, was not the real power in Afghanistan at the time. As Tamim Ansary explains in Games without Rules, his wonderfully readable history of modern Afghanistan, since 1929 Afghanistan had been ruled less by individuals than by a family, or “the Family”, as Ansary calls it, the collectivity of the male members of the Musahiban clan. In 1961 real power resided with Daoud, Zahir’s cousin, officially the Prime Minister. A couple of years later, in 1963, Zahir Shah managed to sideline Daoud, assume power himself, and enact sweeping democratic reforms. In 1973 Daoud took power back from Zahir, but in the process unleashed the radical left-wing forces which would see Daoud ousted and killed in 1978. Up until 1978, however, change of regime in Afghanistan was actually just a reshuffling of the Musahiban cards, the result of internal, and necessarily largely invisible, politicking within the Family.

I think we can see hints of this politicking in the events surrounding Ai Khanum in 1961. Zahir Shah had encouraged Schlumberger to visit Ai Khanum, but Schlumberger had to return to his university in France for a spell and deputed another French archaeologist to go in his place, Marc Le Berre. The King gave Le Berre authorisation to travel to Ai Khanum, but the local governor refused him access. Eventually Schlumberger visited the site in December 1962, and was convinced of its importance. In a report Schlumberger commented on the fundamental importance of securing the approval of the Prime Minister, Daoud, for their proposed excavations. And yet Zahir Shah by his initiative, aided by the spectacular character of the archaeological site he had brought to DAFA’s attention, got his way.

I don’t think it’s too hard to see this as the King using the foreign archaeological mission to assert his own authority. What made Ai Khanum especially sensitive was its location right on the border with the Soviet Union. Generally the French archaeologists in Afghanistan avoided going near the borders; as it was, a token number of Soviet archaeologists were included in the team when excavations got fully under way in 1965. But an exciting, internationally significant archaeological excavation on the Soviet border initiated by the King had its own symbolism. When Zahir Shah ousted Daoud shortly after, the new policies involved, among other things, a turn away from Daoud’s reliance on the Soviets, an opening up to the outside world, an emphasis on cultural openness and education. Internally and externally, it seems to me, the processes that Zahir Shah kicked off by his audience with Daniel Schlumberger answered to those aims rather precisely.

Well, maybe, maybe not. But I’d like to believe there was more to Zahir Shah’s hunting trip than meets the eye.

A few things last week set me thinking again about this question. The main one was a Twitter conversation with Mary Munnik in which it came home to me, for far from the first time, how utterly opaque Afghan politics are to me, ancient, medieval and modern. That should be borne in mind when assessing my musings above: I really and honestly don’t have a clue, but I can’t help but find it all thoroughly fascinating.


I’ve read or re-read some interesting stuff on DAFA, Zahir Shah, and Ai Khanum in the last few days:

Tamim Ansary, Games without Rules (2012);

Paul Bernard, ‘Aï Khanoum “La Barbare”‘ & ‘La découverte du site grec et de la plaine d’Aï Khanoum par John Wood’, in Paul Bernard & Henri-Paul Francfort, Études de géographie historique sur la plaine d’Aï Khanoum (Afghanistan) (1978), 17-23 and 33-8;

Rachel Mairs, The Hellenistic Far East: Archaeology, Language, and Identity in Greek Central Asia (2014);

Françoise Olivier-Utard, Politique et Histoire: Histoire de la Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan (1922-1982) (1997); 

Marguerite Reut, Qataghan et Badakhshan, par Mawlawi Borhan al-Din Koshkaki Khan (1979);

Zamariallai Tarzi, ‘Jules Barthoux : le découvreur oublié d’Aï Khanoum’, CRAI 140 (1996), 595-611.

For his Country

The chapel in Brasenose College, Oxford, like any college chapel, is festooned with memorials: principals, senior fellows like Walter Pater, and on the southern wall of the ante-chapel, a handful of former students. The first few are Indian Civil Service, and the very first one attempts to capture life and death in a modern colonial bureaucracy in Latin: the ICS becomes CIVILE MUNUS APUD INDOS. Thereafter they stick to English, no doubt wisely, but one of them is for my money the most remarkable, thought-provoking epitaph in the whole building, possibly in Oxford. It’s a plain sheet of brass, as restrained in its language as its form:


What the viewer realises with a start, of course, is that the country for which Justus Carl von Ruperti fought and died was not this country but Germany. The presence of a memorial to an enemy combatant in an Oxford chapel is arresting enough; the fact that it was first proposed in 1950, as it turns out, is something I find stunning. All in all, even though Richard Davenport-Hines gets the details a bit wrong (Ruperti’s memorial is separate from the main World War II memorial), he’s right that it “is heart-stopping to anyone who sees it.”

What follows are the fruits of some research on Ruperti’s plaque, all driven by my fascination for a memorial to a German soldier erected within a very few years of the War. I’ve found some information in the records of Governing Body meetings in Brasenose, although they record the very minimum, and Justus Carl’s nephew, Lippold von Klencke, has been incredibly generous with information from family documents. Ruperti’s student file, though again extremely spare by today’s standards, had some interesting details. But I’m sure there’s more to know, so please don’t hold back if you can help. For example, I find not a hint of controversy surrounding the decision to commemorate Ruperti, and that surprises me. There are a few memorials to German war dead around Oxford (Oxford had had many German students), but they’re not a subject that’s much talked or written about. At New College there’s a separate memorial for World War I, but none for World War II. At Merton College two names of German dead were added to the World War I memorial in 1994. At Balliol College I know that the inclusion of five German names from World War II, only one of them a combatant, provoked objections from old members when it was proposed in 1947. When Konrad Adenauer, the German Chancellor, toured Oxford in 1951, visiting the memorial in Balliol that carried his nephew’s name, there were protests at Oriel College which forced him to change his itinerary. At Brasenose, there is very little information at all.

Justus Carl von Ruperti, always Juscar to friends and family, was a Prussian aristocrat, his father Max von Ruperti a high administrator, Regierungspräsident of Allenstein, one of the three administrative regions of East Prussia: the regional capital, Allenstein, is now the Polish city of Olsztyn. Within Ruperti senior’s jurisdiction, to the south of the city of Allenstein, stood the Tannenberg Memorial, which commemorated an overwhelming German victory over Russia in 1914 by evocation of the medieval Teutonic Knights, folkloric champions of Christianity and defenders of the eastern frontiers of Germany. Tannenberg was a potent expression of German national identity.

I mention the Memorial because it gives a sense of the times, and because in 1932 it was the catalyst for conflict between Max von Ruperti and the NSDAP, the Nazi Party. Hitler, characteristically, saw Tannenberg as an opportunity to promote his own political agenda, but Ruperti refused to allow a Nazi rally to be held at the site, on the grounds that it contravened the essentially non-partisan nature of the Memorial. When Hitler came to power after the elections in March 1933, Ruperti was summarily sacked as a consequence.

What I’ve been trying to do in the last few weeks is understand the motivations of Juscar von Ruperti, who after all died fighting in Hitler’s war, and understand the thinking of the Brasenose fellows who decided to commemorate him. One thing that helped me understand was one of the first things I discovered, which was that the moving force behind Juscar’s memorial was Barry Nicholas, a Law Fellow and later the Principal of Brasenose, who had himself served in World War II. I knew Nicholas myself very much in passing, but found myself studying his life in some detail a few years back when I had the nerve-wracking job of composing a Latin memorial for him after he died in 2002. It now hangs on the wall just a few feet from Juscar’s. What I discovered about Nicholas is what Harry Judge describes in this obituary: he was a remarkable man, principled, humane and profoundly wise, someone I would trust implicitly to be right about something like this.

But back to Tannenberg. The memorial is now totally obliterated. This blog tells the story of the aftermath of its abandonment in the face of the Soviet advance in 1945. But while it existed it was an unapologetically nationalistic monument, and when we, in 2015, look at images of its severe, völkisch architecture, we struggle to dissociate what we see from expressions of Nazi ideology. But the Memorial was conceived and built well before the Nazis took power, even though later appropriated and redesigned by them, and Max von Ruperti combined patriotism with courageous and principled opposition to the NSDAP.

In 1931 the Canadian Kathleen Coburn stayed with the von Ruperti family in Allenstein. She found them open-minded, opposed to militarism, and motivated by a strong social conscience. Coburn accompanied Frau von Ruperti, Juscar’s mother, to see the welfare initiatives that she patronised in Allenstein, impressive efforts to counter the impact of the Depression. What is striking, though, is that this social work took place in an overtly patriotic framework. An institute visited by Coburn provided education for “girls from lower-class farm families”. They were trained in practical skills such as handicrafts, but also introduced to folk music and culture, and central to the whole exercise was discussion of German politics and the cultivation of a “national” culture. There was no belittling of non-German cultures, Coburn noted, but there was a notion of social development which saw it as an essential part of the creation of a better and stronger Germany. East Prussia, at the eastern edge of German territory, was a place where German identity was especially vulnerable. But the combination of patriotism and high principle is a thread that runs through other accounts of the period: for example, the portrait of Adam von Trott, executed in 1944 for his role in the Bomb Plot against Hitler (his name is on the memorial at Balliol), in the biography by Giles MacDonogh. This is not to say that Hitler wasn’t also motivated by nationalism, of course, just that German nationalism and National Socialism were not, despite Hitler’s best efforts, straightforwardly interchangeable. At any rate, what Coburn witnessed happening under the aegis of the Vaterländische Frauenverein, the Patriotic Women’s Association, suggests the environment in which Juscar spent his childhood. (I found the account of Coburn’s visit in C. Morgan, ‘A Happy Holiday’: English Canadians and Transatlantic Tourism, 1870-1930 (Toronto), 356-8.)

Juscar was born in 1914, and at the time of his father’s enforced retirement in 1933 was 18 years old, a student in Law with History and Economics at Munich University, having done a first term at Königsberg (it was standard practice to move between universities within one degree). In the same year he won the Rhodes Scholarship that brought him to Brasenose College, where he stayed for two years (earning himself a diploma in Economics and Political Science) from October 1933 to June 1935 before returning to Germany with the intention of finishing his law degree at Göttingen, where his parents now lived.

In actual fact he was obliged to serve with the army for the two years after his return to Germany, and only resumed his degree in October 1937. He remained a student until 1941, when he submitted a research dissertation. At Brasenose he was highly regarded, bright, engaged and (important for a Rhodes Scholar) a team player, rowing in the Brasenose 1st VIII. He and his contemporary Fritz Caspari, a determined opponent of the Nazi regime who left Germany in 1939, set up a scheme for non-German Rhodes Scholars to visit Germany. It was normal for German Rhodes Scholars to spend two rather than the standard three years at Oxford, but Ruperti left open the possibility of returning at a later stage for a third year. In the event, by the time he finished his law degree in Germany, war had broken out between the two countries, something the Rhodes Scholarship had been expressly designed to prevent.

In letters back to the Principal of Brasenose, William Stallybrass, excerpts of which were published in the college magazine at the time, Juscar describes military life, and offers his perspective on developments later in the 1930s. In 1936 he reads The Times of London while acting as an instructor of new recruits; in 1937, in a snowstorm in Lüneburg, he reminisces about rowing at Oxford; in 1938 he admits to a grudging fondness for military life, adding that the army “is one of the few institutions in this country, which are not so intensely affected by politics as most things are.” In June 1939 Stallybrass ends the “Principal’s Scrapbook” with a message from Juscar on “how genuine a wish for peace there was in Germany” (“This is a good note on which to end,” wrote the Principal). In 1941, under the heading “OUR GERMANS” he records that “J.C. von Ruperti (1933) has sent a message via America that he is well and at Göttingen writing a thesis.” At the time of his application for a Rhodes scholarship he was said to be aiming to join the Diplomatic Service. But he was soon back in the army, and in August 1943 was killed in Russia, in the aftermath of the decisive Battle of Kursk.


Photos of Juscar from his 1933 application to Brasenose

Back in 1938 Juscar had written to Stallybrass about the Anschluss of March 1938. It is the most challenging thing I’ve read related to Juscar, but it tells me again how well Hitler played the nationalistic consensus within Germany in the 1930s:

“As regards politics, I feel like sitting in a big bus, with perhaps a map, to ascertain from time to time where I am, but with not the least chance of influencing the course which the driver takes. I can’t say that I disagree with the driver’s choice of places where to get, and sometimes he even seems to take the right approach… Our bus, by the way, has been going at 100 m.p.h. again for some days in March; and again, as so often before, all the passengers were genuinely delighted to get where she took them. There was indeed general approval of the Anschluss and admiration for its speedy perfection, also among some parts of the intelligentsia as stand somewhat apart on many other occasions; since they, more perhaps than others, have a feeling for the historic importance of the development. Moreover, in this union of the Greater Reich a number of imponderables come into play, which is hard to explain, although their effects cannot be denied.

Please remember me to everyone in College. Oxford, I am sure, is as peaceful and pleasant as ever. May it continue like that for ever.”

Adam von Trott responded similarly to the Anschluss. MacDonogh comments that “it took a while before Trott was able to appreciate fully what had happened on 11 March, and to differentiate between a legitimate alteration of what he believed to be an unjust treaty [i.e. Versailles], and a step towards world domination on the part of a criminal adventurer” (p.114).

In the Brasenose archives, thanks to Georgie Edwards our archivist, I got to read the Vice-Principal’s Register (the minutes of the College Governing Body) and trace the process of approving and realising the plaque for Ruperti. When the process started, basic information was lacking. An initial proposal was made in June 1950, and approved by the college “if Mr Nicholas could find out whether [J.C. von Ruperti] was in fact killed during the war.” There is then silence for three years, by which time Juscar’s death, and date of death, had evidently been properly established. In September 1953 an approach was made to the renowned engraver Leslie Durbin, best known for a ceremonial sword presented to Stalin in 1943, but Durbin proved too expensive. The plaque, engraved in the event by Messrs William Pickford for £20, was finally affixed in 1954. On July 29, 1955 the Principal (by now Hugh Last) shared a message with the Governing Body from the Chairman of the Association of German Rhodes Scholars: “At their Annual Meeting held last month in Francfort, the association of German Rhodes Scholars, on being informed that a memorial  to Justus v. Ruperti had been put up in the chapel of B.N.C., passed a vote of thanks for this chivalrous and noble act.” The German Rhodes scholarships were in fact suspended until 1969, as they had been after World War I until 1929. One of the first scholars after the suspension was lifted in 1969 was Juscar’s nephew, Lippold von Klencke.

There is a great deal that this record doesn’t say, especially about Barry Nicholas’ motivations for proposing this memorial, and the reactions of other members of the Governing Body. Perhaps there were none, but if so, why not? I can only assume that even in 1950 Nicholas had clear evidence that Ruperti was no Nazi sympathiser, and was, on the contrary, a man of liberal political opinions. Nicholas had also been a Brasenose student in the 1930s, and although he didn’t coincide with Ruperti, they must have had acquaintances in common. For me my confidence on this point came from a document that Juscar’s nephew Mr von Klencke was kind enough to show me, an entry from Juscar’s diary dated August 9, 1943, just a few days before his death.

It is a remarkable, and poignant, insight into his thinking. He describes the desperate situation he and his men found themselves in after the Soviet victory at Kursk, in headlong retreat, on the front line, and without air support. They were doomed, and knew it. In these circumstances Ruperti candidly shares with his diary his thoughts on Germany’s future, and then describes a friendly dispute about politics between himself and a fellow Oberleutnant from Hamburg, Grießbauer, the man who would communicate news of Juscar’s death to his family, and die himself soon after. There is patriotism in their conversation: they are both intensely concerned about what will happen to Germany. There is not a hint of Nazi ideology. Juscar writes of Germany’s need to find its way back from pride and arrogance to an awareness of human limitations, to value over and above the national interest the worth of humanity in general. “Germany must be strong and remain so, but internally just and just in its relations with neighbours and other countries, not guided by dogma but by concern for decency, human dignity, and mutual assistance.” “The value and freedom of the individual, though bound by Law and Justice, Morality and finally God, must be reestablished.”

I return again to that laconic phrase on the memorial, “Fighting for his country,” a simple (but heart-stopping) assertion of Juscar’s lack of ideology, his common humanity with the enemy that was commemorating him. In the first paragraph of the diary entry that patriotism, which I think is key to the story of Justus Carl von Ruperti (and which I think Barry Nicholas also thought was key), finds a different expression, as Ruperti talks about his responsibilities to his men (he was the commander of a “Schwadron” or company), and his attempts to give them the Germany they were very unlikely ever to see again:

“What depresses me most these days is that you cannot explain yourself to the men, cannot say to them how you really think… I ought to be totally frank with them even in these circumstances, but it can’t be done. It is too dangerous… All that’s left, then, is to try to understand them in human terms, to make this time easier for them, and to let them find a home (Heimat) in the comradeship of discipline and rules.”

In the words of Principal Stallybrass, this is a good note on which to end.