On a foot that walked

Foot

(Image from Bernard (1969), 339)

A short blog, and a pendant, really, to my wild speculations in the last one.

I’ve been reading this excellent little book on Ai Khanum, the “Greek city” on the Oxus river in NE Afghanistan that was excavated by French archaeologists between 1964 and 1978. An image of the amazing find at the top of this blog, the perfectly lifelike foot of a god (on which more later), left me wondering, given all the perils that have beset Afghan antiquities in the last few decades, what had happened to it. Eventually I realised that I already knew the answer.

The foot in question was discovered in 1968 during the excavation of one of the major religious building discovered at Ai Khanum, the “Temple à redans” or “Temple with indented niches”. It is the fore portion of a left foot, sandalled. The French excavator Paul Bernard, in his report of the season’s excavations (CRAI 113 [1969], 313-55), has a marvellous few pages (338-41) extrapolating from this 27cm-long artefact to the statue it originally came from.

It was the cult statue of the temple, the god to whom the temple was dedicated, and had been positioned at the back of the cella of the shrine, the focus of a worshipper’s attention. It was of colossal proportions, two or three times life size, and the fact that only extremities of the statue were found, coupled with the shape of the back of the foot fragment, led Bernard to conclude that it was an acrolith, its head, hands and feet carved from marble and the rest of its body in unbaked clay moulded over a wooden armature, a technique typical of Greek sculpture at the time of the construction of the temple at Ai Khanum, about 250BC. Bernard was convinced that the foot could only have been carved by a Greek sculptor.

The god’s foot was sandalled, and again it is a typically Greek form of sandal that he was wearing. The straps of the sandal are decorated with palmettes and roses, and also with a motif that may point to the identity of the god represented, two winged thunderbolts. On this basis Bernard proposed that the god was Zeus, and furthermore that the dimensions of the cella in which he was located suggested a seated figure, “a Zeus enthroned in majesty as he is represented in Greco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek coinage, with his left arm drawn back holding the sceptre and his right hand advanced carrying the eagle of a figure of Victory.” If he was Zeus, though, he was most likely a Zeus assimilated to an eastern divinity: the temple in which this Greek statue sat or stood was distinctly un-Greek in architectural form and hence, one assumes, liturgical practice. Maybe he was both Zeus and Ahura Mazda or Mithra, or maybe (my personal favourite suggestion) the river god Oxus himself.

This fragment of Zeus enthroned on the banks of the Oxus in time took its place in the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul, in its heyday one of the great museums of the world, but one that (like the country it represents) has suffered much misfortune since. The damage wrought by the Taliban with their pickaxes in the Museum is familiar, but the foot was no longer there to be smashed when the Taliban came in 2001. Between 1992 and 1994 Kabul fell into chaos as a bewildering range of armed groups fought for control of the capital. In the midst of intense civil conflict the Museum suffered structural damage, and there was extensive looting, a lot of it pretty obviously to order. When in 1995 an inventory was taken of the Museum’s holdings, the foot was gone, along with many treasures from this remarkable institution, most notably the contents of its superb pre-war coin room.

From the mid-nineties until 2001 the trail went cold, but in April 2001 news reports surfaced announcing the presence of Zeus’ foot in Japan. On April 17, 2001 the Japan Times reported that “the marble foot of Zeus, dating back to the third century B.C.,” would be put on display at the Ancient Orient Museum in Tokyo. The report claimed that the artefact, illegally removed from Afghanistan and put up for sale on the international art market, was bought by “an anonymous benefactor in Tokyo”, “on condition that it be returned to Afghanistan when peace is restored there.”

This is all a little murky. April 2001 was a convenient moment to come clean about Afghan antiquities bought on the art market. In February Taliban had entered the Museum in Kabul and smashed any statues they considered idolatrous; in March the Buddhas of Bamiyan were destroyed. It was a good time for Afghan antiquities not to be in Afghanistan, and for art dealers to be heroes.

That may be excessively cynical. Earlier this year, at any rate, concrete commitments were made to return the foot to the Afghans. (I saw these reports in the summer, but didn’t put two and two [or should that be toe and toe?] together.) The context is the imminent arrival in Japan, from the start of 2016, of the touring exhibition of material from the National Museum in Kabul, “Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul”, since 2008 under the aegis of National Geographic. This exhibition has been staged in Europe and the US, Canada and Australia; it was at the British Museum in 2011. In connection with the exhibition’s arrival in Japan, it was announced that 102 Afghan artefacts from the National Museum collected by the Japan Committee for the Protection of Displaced Cultural Properties would be added to the touring exhibition, including “a fragment of the Left Foot of Zeus (3rd Century BC)”.

The Japan Committee for the Protection of Displaced Cultural Properties is certainly kosher. It was established in 2001 by a Japanese artist and academic called Ikuo Hirayama, a survivor of Hiroshima who had visited Afghanistan in the 60s and 70s, drawn most of all to Bamiyan, a place of course associated with Japan’s national religion of Buddhism, but specifically with the figure of the Chinese monk and traveller Xuanzang, a revered figure who provided the very earliest description of Bamiyan, then a flourishing Buddhist kingdom, when he passed through the Hindu Kush on his way to India in AD630. It was the Silk Road, the scene of Xuanzang’s epic travels, that really fired Hirayama’s imagination.

Hirayama died in 2009, but spoke movingly and forcefully about his experience of Bamiyan as a Buddhist on his first visit in 1968, and what should and should not happen to the site after the statues’ destruction by the Taliban. One of his images of Bamiyan can be seen here, and more of his art here. But if it was Afghanistan’s Buddhist past that drew Hirayama to Afghanistan, he became committed to protecting the country’s cultural heritage as a whole, and this mass repatriation of material is very much his personal legacy. (For another example of this remarkable man’s philanthropy, see this blog on the British Museum’s Hirayama Conservation Studio.) It’s a qualified positive, all the same: a return of artefacts so long after 2001, and at a time when Afghanistan appears a lot less stable than, say, in 2008. One senses there was some tough negotiation in the background. Also, though, the repatriation is not so much to Afghanistan as to a touring display of Afghan treasures that are never actually on display in Afghanistan. That will be the moment, when Afghanistan is peaceful enough, and has a National Museum secure enough, to host in Kabul itself the Begram hoard, the Tillya Tepe gold, and the amazing finds from Ai Khanum, including Clearchus’ inscription and Zeus’ left foot.

I’m particularly fond of globetrotting Greek gods: there is another one here, Athena. And another one, Hercules, here. But the globetrotting foot of a Greek god seems particularly apt, carved by a Greek in Afghanistan, 3,000 miles as the crow flies from Greece, spirited away to Japan via the Peshawar bazaar, now part of a perpetually travelling exhibition. I hope one day I set eyes on it, when that exhibition passes by the UK again, or (who knows?) maybe even in Kabul.

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About Llewelyn Morgan

I'm a Classicist, lucky enough to work at Brasenose College, Oxford. I specialise in Roman literature, but I've got a persistent side-interest in Afghanistan, particularly the scholars and spies and scholar-spies who visited the country in the nineteenth century.

2 responses to “On a foot that walked”

  1. kathrinluddecke says :

    What a wide-ranging and thought-provoking article! Lovely foot too of course 🙂

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