Archive | Bamiyan RSS for this section

Gradus ad Aornon


The archaeological site of Barikot/Bazira, with Mt Elam (Aornos) in the distance behind it, courtesy of Luca M. Olivieri

(Ah, January 2015: composed sipping tea on the roof of a Maharajah’s palace in Jaipur…)

If you thought the British in India in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were stretching every sinew to deprive Indians of their right to self-determination, think again. Because what a lot of them spent a remarkable amount of time and energy doing was locating the Rock of Aornos.

This mountain, somewhere to the west of the Indus in what is now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, was the site of a famous victory by Alexander the Great in 327/6 BC, but that was about as much as anyone knew: ancient writers generally aren’t too hot on geographical precision. Still, it was a rare visitor to the territory beyond the river who didn’t see fit to express his firm opinions on the matter. Aornos was at Ranigat, or near Attock, or maybe Tarbela. James Abbott, the political officer who gave his name to Abbottabad, the city where Osama bin Laden was killed, scrutinized the mountains to the west of the river, presumably with a telescope: British jurisdiction in his day (the 1850s) only reached as far as the Indus, and he couldn’t get any closer. Nevertheless Abbott’s candidate for Aornos, Mt Mahaban, was the favourite for a while until Aurel Stein’s visit to Swat in 1926. In On Alexander’s Track to the Indus, Stein made a powerful case for Pir Sar, a mountain ridge further up the Indus, and there generally the question rested.

The Europeans who set eyes upon the Indus in the nineteenth century were a motley bunch, imperial functionaries, spies, deserters, mercenaries. But almost to a man they were obsessed with Alexander and any evidence they could find of his presence in this part of the world, whether the coins with Greek inscriptions that Alexander’s successors minted, or the physical landmarks of Alexander’s campaigns across Central and South Asia. There was intense debate about the location of Alexandria in the Caucasus, for example, a city founded by Alexander before he crossed the Hindu Kush in 329BC. It’s now securely identified as Begram, the site of the airbase north of Kabul, but many in the nineteenth century were convinced it was Bamiyan. The most famous of travellers beyond the Indus, in his own day at least, was Alexander Burnes, author of the bestselling Travels into Bokhara. Burnes lost a day on his travels to Bokhara on the banks of the river Beas in the Punjab, searching fruitlessly for the twelve huge altars that Alexander had erected to the Olympian Gods at the point of his furthest advance into India.

But Aornos was the great prize. The capture of the fortress-mountain, so impregnable it was said even Heracles had failed to conquer it, was one of Alexander’s very greatest exploits.

It’s worth wondering why Alexander was so very important to these men. They had all received good classical educations, so he was a European hero they had read about since childhood: Abbott’s argument for Mt Mahaban is full of quotations of the Latin and Greek sources, for example, and the title of his article on the subject, “Gradus ad Aornon”, “Steps toward Aornos”, plays on the title of an aide to Latin verse composition, Gradus ad Parnassum, “Steps toward Parnassus”, that the young Abbott would certainly have encountered at school in Blackheath. It helped that most of these explorers had a very rosy picture of Alexander’s campaigns in Asia. According to Josiah Harlan, an American soldier of fortune in Afghanistan in the 1830s, he was “a European philanthropist” who “performed feats that have consecrated his memory amongst the benefactors of mankind, and impressed the stamp of civilization on the face of the known world.” Alexander was a model for men who believed, as these men did, that they too were bringing “civilization” to backward peoples: Harlan was an extreme example of this, increasingly incapable of distinguishing himself from Alexander of Macedon. But Alexander was also, I think, something familiar in the very alien and disorienting terrains and cultures where these men found themselves. If these European interlopers could convince themselves that Alexander had been there before they had—had even left his mark on this exotic landscape—that made them less anxious about their own presence in places they really didn’t belong.

Harlan’s assessment of Alexander was romantic nonsense, needless to say. In reality Alexander campaigned with remorseless brutality, and left unimaginable chaos in his wake. The academic Horace Hayman Wilson, writing in the 1840s, pointed out that the ferocious campaigns attributed to Alexander “would have been held up to execration had they been narrated of a Jangiz or a Timur, but are passed over almost unnoticed by historians when they are narrated of the type of classical civilization, a Greek.” Absolutely right, but Wilson’s was a lonely voice at the time, and much later even a man of immense humanity like Aurel Stein seemed to lose all objectivity when Alexander was mentioned, reverting perhaps to the excitement of the schoolboy who first heard of Alexander’s exploits. In the 1990s the TV historian Michael Wood travelled to Pir Sar and met an old man who still remembered Stein: “He spoke a lot about Iskander…”

Pir Sar, Stein’s candidate, undoubtedly fits well with the ancient accounts of the capture of Aornos, and most writers on Alexander still accept Stein’s identification. But I happen to prefer another theory which identifies Aornos as Mt Elam, near Barikot. I like it because it juggles the ancient accounts pretty well, but mainly because it allows another voice to be heard besides that of Alexander and the triumphant Greeks.


Near the summit of Mt Elam, photo from Aurel Stein, “On Alexander’s Track to the Indus.”

Let me try to explain myself.

Giuseppe Tucci was an Italian expert on Buddhism who spent a lot of time in Swat investigating the Buddhist and other archaeological remains there. He had a chequered history, a bit too close to Mussolini, and a bit too close also to the regime in Japan in the 1930s, whose militarism was more Buddhist in inspiration than most people appreciate. But Tucci’s research in Swat gave him something that other Aornos hunters, armed with their classical texts, didn’t have, and that is an understanding of the culture and beliefs of the people Alexander encountered when he invaded, the victims of the Aornos campaign as opposed to the Greek victors.

The ancient sources describe people from all around taking refuge, in face of the Macedonian onslaught, on this mountain top, only for Alexander to capture it amid predictable scenes of carnage. Tucci was convinced that, if the people of this area had needed to take refuge from an invader, they would have gone to a sacred place, and evidence suggests that Mt Elam was a holy mountain for the people of Swat from time immemorial. There is a story of the Buddha associated with the place: we’re told by the Chinese traveller-monk Xuanzang, who climbed Elam in the seventh century AD, that in an earlier life the Buddha was happy to die here in return for hearing just half a verse of the Buddhist teaching. Elam is also a place of pilgrimage for Hindus, sacred to Rama, whose name has been written on a rock at its summit. Even the tale told by the Greeks of Heracles’ attempts to capture Aornos hints at a local myth of a god’s abode assaulted by another god or demon.

The stupa at Amluk-dara, with Elam/Aornos behind, a perennially sacred place, courtesy of Luca M. Olivieri

The ancient accounts of the capture of Aornos are predictably violent: Alexander’s troops reached the summit as the defenders had begun to make their escape, and massacred many of them as they fled. “Others, retreating in panic, perished by throwing themselves down the precipices,” the Greek historian Arrian records. If Tucci was right, what Alexander’s troops were doing was attacking the most sacred place of the Swati peoples, the abode of their god or gods, somewhere to which they would only resort in absolute desperation. Tucci suggests that the name that the Greeks heard as “Aornos” was in the local language “aarana”, “a common name for any sheltered place.” If Aornos is Elam, a tale of exceptional military prowess becomes more like a story of the impact of war on civilian populations.

Incidentally, I’m glad to see that Tucci’s theory, even if it’s generally overlooked by historians of the ancient world, is well known where it matters. Malala describes gazing at Mt Elam from her bedroom window in Mingora, “a sacred mountain” to which the Swati people fled as Alexander approached “believing that they would be protected by their gods because it was so high.” I’m sure she’s right about this, as she is about so many things.

The view back, from Mt Elam/Aornos to Barikot, courtesy of Luca M. Olivieri


J. Abbott, “Gradus ad Aornon,” Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 23 (1854), 309–63;

A. Burnes, Travels into Bokhara (1834);

H. H. Wilson, Ariana Antiqua (1841);

B. Macintyre, Josiah the Great (2011);

A. Stein, On Alexander’s Track to the Indus (1929);

M. Wood, In the footsteps of Alexander the Great (1998);

G. Tucci, “Preliminary report on an archaeological survey in Swat,” East and West 9 (1958), 279–328;

L. M. Olivieri, “Notes on the problematical sequence of Alexander’s itinerary in Swat: a geo-historical approach,” East and West 46 (1996), 45-78;

idem, “‘Frontier archaeology’: Sir Aurel Stein, Swat, and the Indian Aornos,” South Asian Studies  31 (2015), 58-70.

Nota bene 


This, as I probably don’t need to tell you, is a banknote.

To be specific, it’s a 10-afghani banknote printed in 2004 (my thanks to Dr Amelia Dowler of the BM for that astonishingly precise piece of identification), and it’s been hanging about in my wallet since my last trip to Afghanistan in 2011.

What I hadn’t noticed in all that time, and only did notice when Roh Yakobi drew my attention to it last week, was the emblem in the top right corner, above the picture of the building (the mausoleum of Ahmad Shah Durrani, considered the founder of Afghanistan, in Kandahar). Here’s a close-up:

This is the seal of Da Afghanistan Bank, the central bank of Afghanistan established in 1939 (1318 in the Iranian/Afghan solar calendar). But alongside the name of the bank in Pashto, in Arabic script at the top and Latin script at the bottom, there’s a text in Ancient Greek, ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΜΕΓΑΛΟΥ ΕΥΚΡΑΤΙΔΟΥ, “Of the great king Eucratides.”

Eucratides was a Greek king of Bactria (roughly northern Afghanistan) in the second century BC (rough dates 170-145BC). What’s represented in the centre of the seal is in fact one of his coins. Here’s a silver tetradrachm of Eucratides with the same design:

@Rani nurmai

This blog is essentially my best attempt to answer a question that Roh Yakobi put to me, a very good question: what on earth is a two-millennia-old coin image of a Greek king doing on a modern Afghan banknote?

To start with the coin design, and Eucratides. The image on the bank note is the “reverse” of the coin. On the “obverse” is an image of the king himself, in a cavalry helmet and cloak, but on this side, surrounded by Eucratides’ name and titles, we see two galloping horsemen in conical hats, holding palms and long stabbing spears. Their equipment associates them with Macedonian military tactics (the Greek kings of Bactria were all inheritors directly or indirectly of Alexander conquests in the region) and the cavalry for which Bactria was famous. But the star over each of their heads identifies them as Castor and Pollux, the Dioscuri or divine sons of Zeus by Leda. The pair are saviour gods, helpers of humanity in crisis.

Eucratides, like all the Greek rulers in the borderlands of India, is a shadowy figure. He may have seized power in Bactria; certainly his reign seems to have been a very violent one, his campaigns potentially extending as far as N.-W. India, and his death may have come at the hands of his own son. Apollodorus of Artemita (at Strabo 15.1.3) calls him “ruler of a thousand cities”; one in particular we know was called Eucratidia, and it may be the same as the remarkable archaeological site of Ai Khanum in N.-E. Afghanistan. Then again, and this is the story with almost all the information we have about Eucratides, it may not.

In between fighting and founding/retitling cities, Eucratides minted some very innovative coins (which are the most tangible evidence we have about him): the description of himself as “Great” on this one is one such innovation, and almost certainly indicates that his grip on power was in reality highly vulnerable. “The coins of Eucratides I or Great, are very numerous, and of very spirited execution,” wrote Charles Masson, the nineteenth-century deserter-cum-antiquarian, as he fossicked around Begram, north of Kabul, the site of the great city of Kapisa/Alexandria ad Caucasum before it hosted an airbase. But the most famous example of Eucratides’ coinage is the so-called Eucratidion, at 169.2g. the largest gold coin surviving from Antiquity. This was bought in London by a French dealer in 1867 from a man who had carried it from Bukhara in a pouch secreted in his armpit. It is now housed in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.


Image from Gallica Digital Library.

A celebrated design, then, and quite a common archaeological find in Afghanistan. We still need to explain its presence on the note, but the first step is to establish why Da Afghanistan Bank, when it was founded in 1939, adopted this design. The answer offers a fascinating insight into Afghanistan’s perception of itself at that moment.

The establishment of an Afghan central bank was part of a bigger project to modernize Afghanistan under the Musahibun regime of Zahir Shah (king of Afghanistan from 1933 to 1973). Taking as its models European nations and “advanced” Islamic countries like Iran and Turkey, Afghanistan was giving itself the institutions of a developed state. Responding to the wave of nationalism in the world of the 1930s, in the words of Robert D. Crews in his excellent book Afghan Modern, “Afghans faced the test of demonstrating their right to belong in this world of nation states by articulating a national language, culture and past” (p.156). This could take the form of national financial institutions, and also of discriminatory policies against non-Muslims, especially Jews (dangerous notions of Aryan ancestry were also in the air). But a 2,000-year-old coin image, too, contradictory as it may seem, could symbolize progress in thirties Afghanistan.

The explanation of this lies in the archaeological work undertaken in Afghanistan in the previous two decades. Archaeology had properly begun in Afghanistan with the agreement between King Amanullah (another modernizer) and the French government in 1922 to establish the Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan (DAFA). By the late thirties, as Nile Green explains (“The Afghan discovery of Buddha: civilizational history and the nationalizing of Afghan antiquity,” International Journal of Middle  Eastern Studies 49 (2017), 47-70), the discoveries of French archaeologists at such sites as Begram and Hadda (of which the publications began to appear in numbers in the mid-thirties) were starting to secure the interest of the Afghan leadership. The National Museum of Afghanistan, which moved into its new premises in the administrative district of Darulaman in Kabul in 1931, was being turned, mainly by these French discoveries, into one of the richest collections in the world. In 1937, according to the French chargé d’affaires, “The excavations at Begram have been visited by several ministers … the king himself visited the exhibition mounted at the Kabul museum.”

We need to appreciate what a dramatic change this represented in Afghan attitudes to their past, an emphasis on pre-Islamic cultures, Buddhist as well as Greek, which superseded and sidelined Afghanistan’s Islamic heritage, hitherto the focus of Afghan historiography and national identity. This new emphasis was facilitated by the activities of DAFA, but it also represented Afghanistan’s attempt to align its own historical identity with what Green calls the “civilizational norms” of the developed world that it aspired to join. By highlighting its Greek heritage, Afghanistan could claim a share of the classical origins of Europe and the West. A state-owned bank represented civilization and modernity in the 1930s, but so did a coin with Greek writing on it.

Green’s article focuses on a key personality in these cultural developments, Ahmad Ali Kuhzad, an Afghan archaeologist who had worked with DAFA and subsequently in a series of Persian publications communicated the insights gained by the French into ancient Afghan history to the Afghan elite and beyond. I suspect Kuhzad was more directly involved in this design than I can now establish. There’s a Kuhzad publication from 1938/1317, Maskukat-i Qadim-i Afghanistan, Ancient Coins of Afghanistan, which I’m trying to get my hands on, but which I’m fairly confident will contain lots of images of Eucratides coins when I do.

So that’s how Eucratides made it onto the seal of the State Bank, and it tells us a lot about Afghan aspirations in the 1930s. But we still have to explain how he made it onto the notes.

That happened in 1979, but in this instance I suspect the Bactrian Greeks had a less to do with the development. Take a look at these four Afghan bank notes (images all from Banknote World), the first of Zahir Shah in 1967:


The second is of Daoud Khan (1977), Zahir Shah’s cousin, who deposed him in 1973 and established a republic:


The third is from 1978, and was printed by the communist government of Nur Muhammad Taraki and Hafizullah Amin, which had overthrown and killed Daoud:


Finally from 1979/80, and this is the first note to have Eucratides on it (although he has stayed there ever since), a note issued by the communist government of Babrak Karmal, installed by the Soviets after they had intervened and overthrown Amin:


Each of these notes has a “national” emblem on it. On Zahir Shah’s it’s a long-established symbol of Afghanistan, a mosque containing minbar (pulpit) and mihrab (the niche indicating the direction of Mecca). Daoud replaces that with an symbol for the Republic of Afghanistan, an eagle. But the image of Taraki’s regime is a big departure, retaining the corn sheaves that surround Zahir Shah’s and Daoud’s emblem, but containing within just the name of their faction of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, خلق (Khalq), meaning “People”. It is this image that is superseded by the seal of Da Afghanistan Bank when Karmal’s alternative faction of the Communist Party,  پرچم(Parcham, “Banner”), is installed by the Soviets.

The Taraki/Amin regime was exceptionally brutal (there is a moving article about its crimes by Nushin Arbabzadah here), and the radical and precipitate reforms it attempted to impose on Afghanistan provoked the uprising that turned into the ten-year resistance to the Soviet occupation. It was with the immediate aim of deposing Amin (who had in the meantime got rid of Taraki) that the Soviets stepped in at the end of 1979. All this meant that Karmal’s regime had every reason to distance itself from its fellow communists and from their uncompromisingly partisan approach, and I think this best explains their adoption of the seal of the Afghan central bank in place of the Khalq emblem, a gesture implying at the same time economic prudence (though all of these notes have the name of the bank prominently somewhere) and a national project more broadly-based than narrow factional interests.

But Eucratides also offered Parcham a non-Islamic motif. Zahir Shah’s mosque was of course overtly Islamic; Daoud’s republican eagle still had a minbar and mihrab represented on its chest. In the 1930s an Ancient Greek king had represented civilization and development. Here he represents secularism, I suspect, as well as the Afghan nation. It’s odd that a king’s name and a pair of saviour gods could do any such thing, of course, but what the Greco-Roman world can be used to endorse is endlessly surprising.

Very useful to me when writing this was a deleted BBC Persian article on Afghan banknotes that Roh Yakobi found: there’s a scan of it here. Most of the information I’ve discovered about Eucratides and his coinage I owe to Frank L. Holt’s book on Afghan numismatics, Lost World of the Golden King, another excellent read. He somewhat unsportingly points out toward the end of the book (p.209) that the Greek lettering on the banknote is slightly misspelt, replacing the delta in Eucratides’ name with a lamda: ΕΥΚΡΑΤΙΛΟΥ, not ΕΥΚΡΑΤΙΔΟΥ.

I am nevertheless even more attached to the Afghan banknote in my wallet after Roh’s revelation than I was before.

[There is now a Persian version of this blog on the Ettela’at Ruz site here, translated by Hamid Mahdavi.]

Zeus in Tokyo

(July 2016)


Image from P. Bernard, “Quatrième campagne de fouilles à Aï Khanoum (Bactriane),” CRAI 113 (1969), 313-55, at 339.

The foot is as beautiful as a foot can be, which it turns out is very beautiful. It is a left forefoot, strictly speaking, a piece of marble 21 cm across and 27 cm from its perfectly modelled toes to the strap of its sandal. “The sculptor worked well à la grecque,” wrote its excavator, Paul Bernard, “and I would go so far as to say, faced with the perfection of the work, that he could only have been Greek.” Yet it was found in the principal temple of Ai Khanum, a site beside the Oxus on the northern frontier of Afghanistan, and I am contemplating it in a display case in Tokyo.

It was unearthed in what had been the inner sanctuary of the temple. In a brilliant few pages of his report of the season’s excavations to the Academie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres in Paris, Bernard, Director of DAFA, the French archaeological mission in Afghanistan, extrapolated from this fragment to the full statue. It was two to three times life-size, probably seated, and an “acrolith,” the head, hands and feet rendered in marble with the rest of the statue modelled in clay over a wooden framework. As for the god’s identity, the sandal he was wearing is decorated with a palmette, rosettes and a third symbol that offers a powerful clue, two winged thunderbolts at either extremity of the strap. Thunderbolts point to Zeus, chief of the Greek pantheon, perhaps as depicted on contemporary coins with a sceptre grasped in his left hand (fragments of the statue’s left hand seemed to be closed around something cylindrical,) and an eagle or victory in his extended right. 

But this most Hellenic deity sat in a temple emphatically un-Greek in architectural form, and the ritual it hosted must have been comparably syncretic. This was Zeus assimilated to an eastern deity, the Iranian god Mithra most likely (coin images also give Zeus a solar crown, Mithraic iconography), but maybe the god of the river beside which he sat enthroned. Oxus was worshipped along his banks from the time of the Persian Empire up to and beyond the advent of Islam.

In its palpable Greekness the marble foot encapsulated one aspect of this remarkable, disorienting dig deep in Central Asia. The DAFA excavations at Ai Khanum extended from 1964 until 1978; the foot was found in 1968. What they had uncovered was “a Greek city in Afghanistan,” clear physical evidence, long but vainly sought by the French archaeologists, of a Greek presence in Central Asia in the aftermath of Alexander the Great’s campaigns in the fourth century BC. In fact it was more than just “a Greek city”, as the architecture of the temple already indicates, but Ai Khanum did offer remarkable insight into Greek colonisation of the east. Evidence of such Greek cultural staples as drama, philosophical dialogues and olive oil contributed to a picture of Greek colonists doing all they could to convince themselves they were still Greek, 2,500 miles from their homeland.

The foot of a syncretic deity, carved by a Greek in Afghanistan, has already covered some metaphorical distance. But this particular piece had a great deal further to travel. Its next stop was the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul, which by the 1970s, enriched by stunning discoveries at Begram (seemingly a merchant’s stock from the first century AD), Hadda (a series of richly embellished Buddhist monasteries) and Surkh Kotal (a dynastic cult centre of the Kushans, the dominant power in Central Asia in the first centuries AD) as well as Ai Khanum, had become one of the most celebrated collections in the world. (The National Museum of Afghanistan could also claim, refreshingly, that all its holdings originated in Afghanistan.)

In the anarchy of the 1990s, however, when the Soviets had evacuated Afghanistan and the forces of the anti-Soviet mujaheddin were fighting among themselves for control of the country, the museum found itself on the front line between government and opposing factions. The exhibits judged most valuable, including the “Bactrian gold” grave goods found at a nomadic burial site at Tillya Tepe in the late 1970s, were removed to secure locations in government buildings. Frantic efforts were made by staff and foreign volunteers to secure what remained in the museum, but the building was isolated, unstaffed, and hopelessly vulnerable to militias in need of funds.

One of the foreign volunteers, the architect Jolyon Leslie, described in the May 1996 issue of the SPACH newsletter (SPACH had been established to protect Afghanistan’s cultural heritage) the targeted nature of what followed:

“It is clear that once the news of the state of the Museum surfaced, the demand abroad for pieces from the collection, to a large extent, drove the looting. From the very beginning, it was evident that the intruders knew exactly what they were looking for. As the most portable objects (coins) and those of the highest value (including the ivories) disappeared, the looters have become ever-more audacious in their search for riches. Only months ago, a large schist Buddha (which we had presumed safe due to its weight) was hacked off the wall and spirited out of the lobby of the Museum overnight.”

Zeus’ foot was already long gone.

The logistics of transporting a solid stone sculpture from a warzone to a private collection in the developed world are complex, needless to say, but expertise was at hand. The bazaar in Peshawar, across the border in Pakistan, played a key role in the trade. International dealers had the contacts there, and were happy to shell out exorbitant sums to representatives of militia groups in the confidence that collectors in the West and Japan would give them a 100 per cent mark up. Export licenses were forthcoming from officials in various transit countries for the right price.

No doubt dealers and collectors consoled themselves with the thought that they were rescuing precious antiquities from the perils of war. As it transpired, they probably were: neither Zeus’ foot nor an image of the Buddha would have escaped the attention of the Taliban when they entered the museum with sledgehammers in February 2001. But back at source in the mid-1990s, the price fetched by an image of the Buddha was funding a savage conflict for control of Kabul.

Another item looted to order was a fine second/third-century AD relief, also solid schist, of the Buddha converting the Kashyapa brothers, staunch Brahmans sceptical of the Buddha’s new doctrine. It was excavated by a DAFA team at the monastery site of Shotorak north of Kabul in 1937, and stolen from the first-floor corridor of the museum on 31st December, 1992. It is a striking example of “Gandharan art,” the meeting of a Greek aesthetic and Buddhist worship. At the far right of this relief stand images of the couple, Kushan elite, who dedicated it. “The man, although wearing garments of Kushan style, has a Hellenistic cast of features,” we read in David Snellgrove’s great compilation The Image of the Buddha, “while the woman has adopted an entirely Greek costume,” striking evidence of the continuing “vitality of the classical tradition” half a millennium after Alexander.

The ultimate destination of this relief was Japan; Zeus’ foot and the Buddha mentioned by Leslie (unearthed by farmers at Sarai Khuja north of Kabul in 1965, and again second or third-century AD) soon followed it. An exhibition of the “Bactrian gold” and other material placed in secure storage before the looting began, has been circling the globe, in various guises, since 2006. When it came to the British Museum in 2011, the Sarai Khuja Buddha was restored to the National Museum of Afghanistan’s collection with some fanfare by an anonymous London dealer, who had purchased it from a collector in Japan. This year, when the exhibition arrived in Japan, it was supplemented by a small collection of items “rescued” from the antiquities market, some of which also originated in the museum in Kabul. They include fragments of wall paintings from the monastic caves at Bamiyan, stucco figures, the relief of the Kashyapa Brothers—and the star exhibit, Zeus’ foot. The publicity for the exhibition in Japan stated that with the conclusion of the exhibition in the Tokyo National Museum all these items, like the Sarai Khuja Buddha, would be restored to the National Museum in Kabul.

How Zeus’ foot made its way from the National Museum of Afghanistan to the National Museum of Japan is clear enough in outline, less so in detail. It appears that the dealer who secured it in Pakistan and sold it on to a Japanese collector was British. Thereafter we’re dependent on a narrative that was first pitched in 2001 and to which the literature of the exhibition in Japan adheres very closely: it was the passion and commitment of one man, Ikuo Hirayama, that recovered these pieces from private ownership. Hirayama was a successful and wealthy nihonga (neo-traditionalist) painter. A native of Hiroshima, he was a hibakusha, survivor of the Bomb, and as well as that formative experience, his art reflected both a deep Buddhist faith and a personal interest in the origins of Japanese Buddhism. Afghanistan in the Gandharan period had a special place in Hirayama’s affections, a critical stage in the transmission of Buddhism to east Asia, and hence (to Hirayama’s mind) the source of much of what made Japan what it was. Bamiyan with its giant Buddhas, first visited by Hirayama in 1968, was a particular focus of his interest and a regular subject of his painting. His model and inspiration was the seventh-century Chinese monk Xuanzang, who travelled to India in pursuit of sacred texts and left us the first and fullest account of Bamiyan when it was still Buddhist.

Hirayama was a generous benefactor, reflected in the Hirayama Conservation Studio at the British Museum, which specializes in the preservation of Asian paintings, funded by Hirayama and the Five Cities Art Dealers Association of Japan. In Tashkent, Uzbekistan one can visit the Ikuo Hirayama International Caravanserai of Culture. The Ikuo Hirayama Silk Road Fellowship Program supports academic research. He enters the saga of Zeus’ foot when, in 2001, he established the Japan Committee for the Protection of Displaced Cultural Properties, its aim to safeguard art and antiquities displaced by conflict from their country of origin, with Afghanistan again the focus. The Committee collected a total of 102 artefacts smuggled out of Afghanistan with a view to returning them to Afghan ownership. Now in 2016 (Hirayama died in 2009) 15 of these illicitly trafficked antiquities are on display alongside the exhibition in the Tokyo National Museum, the foot among them, and the promise of repatriation is finally, it seems, to be honoured. [It was: in August 2016 the foot and other artefacts were returned to Kabul.]

What complicates this picture is that Hirayama was also a collector, and a voracious one. Two private museums in Japan survive him, one near Hiroshima concentrating on his painting, and another, the Hirayama Ikuo Silk Road Museum in the mountains of Yamanashi Prefecture, which showcases his collection of artefacts from the Silk Road. The Gandharan material he managed to collect is of staggeringly high quality, quite comparable to the holdings of famous national museums, though only a fraction is on display in his museum.

As for the sources of his collection, some of it must originate in illicit digs, and some of it must come from Afghanistan: the lack of provenance makes it hard to be certain. The sculptures are exquisite but deracinated, strictly objets d’art in the absence of any information about the monastic environment for which they were created. Zeus’ foot is of course a vastly richer survival for the ritual context in which Paul Bernard and his team were able to set it. Nor is it self-evident by what principle the items in the Tokyo exhibition are being returned to Afghanistan, even though some of them did not originate in the National Museum, while ostensibly Afghan pieces in Hirayama’s private collection are not.

We are informed that Hirayama secured these items from Japanese collectors or dealers, but that no money changed hands. The aim is presumably to distance the operation from the antiquities market, but it’s hard to know how else it could have been managed. In any case, it all rather presupposes an expert understanding of the trade on Hirayama’s, or his advisers’, part: only a seasoned collector could have had the requisite connections or access. The exculpatory psychology, however, is familiar enough. Dealers and collectors of antiquities, like the rest of us, need to see their activities as culturally beneficial, protective rather than acquisitive. Given recent Afghan history, artefacts from that country have been especially easy to style as recipients of cultural rescue, and collecting as disinterested guardianship: the date of the establishment of the Japan Committee for the Protection of Displaced Cultural Properties, 2001, when the Buddhas of Bamiyan were blown up and antiquities that remained in the National Museum smashed by Taliban, was, a cynic might suggest, an excellent moment for dealers and collectors to present themselves as heroes. Nevertheless, Hirayama’s work on behalf of these “cultural refugees”, as he called them, brought him honours from UNESCO; and by his good offices Zeus’s foot, lost without trace since its theft from Kabul, was exhibited in Tokyo in the same year, clearly identified as a piece of Afghan cultural heritage.

If the ethical contradictions of collecting are on display in Tokyo, a more profound oddity of the commercial network in which Zeus’ foot was caught up is captured by a simple glance at a map of the Eurasian landmass. At one extreme is London, base of the dealer who apparently sold it; at the other, Japan, where he, and other dealers, found a ready market. Equidistant between the two, four thousand miles from each, lies Afghanistan. A market of course entails a taste for an artistic style. In the West Gandharan art commands top dollar at major auction houses, but the source of its appeal deserves greater attention. When Kipling, early in Kim, describes Gandharan sculpture in the Lahore Museum, “done, savants know how long since, by forgotten workmen whose hands were feeling, and not unskilfully, for the mysteriously transmitted Grecian touch,” he captures the thrill that Europeans found in Gandharan art, like Ai Khanum a beguilingly displaced piece of the familiar. As such, the Raj collectors of Gandharan buddhas, whose heirs donated them to British museums, were part of a larger colonial phenomenon, the identification in the traces of the Greek presence in north-west India of a charter myth justifying their own presence in a space where Europeans—and the archetypal European, Alexander—had left so potent a mark before them.

To find, as one does, that Gandharan art possesses a comparable mystique in Japan is thus intriguing, and nowhere embodies the phenomenon better than Hirayama’s own museum in Yamanashi. The visitor literature insists on the relevance of this material to Japanese identity: talk of origins is much in evidence. Hirayama’s trips to Central Asia, and Afghanistan especially, were undertaken “in search of the sources of Japanese culture”; the Silk Road art showcased here, Gandharan especially, illustrates how “what we now proudly call Japanese culture has been blessed with the cultures of many other countries.” Elsewhere Hirayama had described his first visit to Afghanistan in 1968, “to seek the origins of Japanese culture and to follow the way that Buddhism diffused” out of India and towards Japan. The physical setting of the museum reinforces this message. The Yatsugatake mountains around the museum, according to the pamphlet, were one of the centres of the prehistoric Jomon people, “the origin of Japanese Culture.” Most strikingly of all, the Hirayama Ikuo Silk Road Museum is so orientated as to capture from its upper terrace a perfect view of Mount Fuji, for Japanese and non-Japanese the ultimate symbol of the country. The implication is that art from Central Asia belongs, somehow, in Japan.


Fuji in cloud, from the museum.

Hirayama’s tastes were his own, but his preoccupation with Afghanistan reflects a wider Japanese interest in central Asian art and history. This is not independent of western cultural tastes, but is additionally motivated by Japan’s perception of its special relationship with the early Buddhist cultures of Asia. Since the Second World War this has driven an active humanitarian engagement with Afghanistan, but also archaeological activity. The focus of Japanese archaeologists has been Buddhist sites, although far from limited to them, and Bamiyan in particular. A project by Kyoto University in the 1970s, led by Professor Takayasu Higuchi, created a comprehensive photographic record of the site of Bamiyan, with its hundreds of monastic caves dotting the cliffs around the giant Buddhas. This, needless to say, has proved a precious resource since 2001, and indeed Japan was of all countries the most active in trying to dissuade the Taliban from destroying the Buddhas of Bamiyan.

The trade in Gandharan art is the dark side of this academic involvement, and the symmetry with the West again arresting. Perhaps inevitably, Japan’s taste for Gandharan art encapsulates in its own way the country’s modern history, a process involving both intense emulation of the industrialized West and energetic assertion of a unique Japanese identity. Insisting on Japan’s obligation to assume a leading role in safeguarding Asian cultural properties, Hirayama had asserted that “Only Japan can carry out such a task because it has close spiritual and cultural ties with Asian countries. Western countries cannot do that job.” One might counter that the Japanese attachment to Afghanistan, at any rate, is every bit as wishful and romantic as the western; it’s just that Alexander the Great has given place to Xuanzang.

We should be grateful that Zeus’ foot is returning to Afghan ownership, by whatever means, and applaud UNESCO’s pragmatic approach to the problem. As for the deeper reasons for the travels and travails of this particular antiquity, at the root of its discovery by French archaeologists at Ai Khanum, no less than its adventures in the international art market, is the aesthetic appeal of the fusion of east and west in a Gandharan Buddha, or in Zeus-Mithra’s foot. I for one travelled all the way to Tokyo to see it.


Back home in the National Museum, Kabul in August 2016 (photo courtesy of Zardasht Shams)

Did Alexander wear my hat?

image-2 copy

This is a pakool, پکول, or you might hear it called a Chitrali cap, or even just an Afghan cap. At any rate it’s an article of headwear from the Afghan/Pakistan borderlands with which we’re these days pretty familiar. If you visit that part of the world, it’s an obvious souvenir: I purchased this one, like generations of travellers before me, in Chicken St in Kabul in 2008.

More recently I’ve been surprised to discover the pakool at the centre of quite a heated academic debate, pursued in the pages of some very prestigious classical journals. It began with an article in American Journal of Archaeology in 1981, “The Cap that Survived Alexander”, in which Prof. Bonnie Kingsley made the arresting observation that the pakool closely resembles an ancient item of headwear, the kausia (καυσία):


This is a terracotta figure of a “Macedonian boy” (from Athens, about 300BC) in the British Museum: the kausia seemed to have functioned for Macedonians pretty much as the kilt does for Scots, the defining garment of a Macedonian man.

It’s true, too, that this Macedonian boy does look exactly like he’s wearing a pakool. Kingsley didn’t think the similarity was coincidental, and argued that the kausia, along with other characteristically Macedonian items of clothing, originated in the part of the world where the pakool is now worn. There were no clear references to the Macedonian kausia, in texts or artistic representations, before Alexander the Great, she claimed, and so the pakool/kausia must have been adopted by Alexander’s troops as they approached India through what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan in 327-6BC. (There is some reference to the adoption of native dress by the soldiers: Curtius 9.3.10-11, Diodorus 17.94.2).

In 1986 Kingsley’s article received an academic response, and quite a decisive one. In Transactions of the American Philological Association Ernst Fredricksmeyer, an Alexander specialist, proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the kausia was just too established a staple of the Macedonian wardrobe for it to have been imported from Central Asia toward the end of Alexander’s campaigns. A nice illustration of the “Macedonianness” of the kausia is an epigram by Antipater of Thessalonica (in Macedonia), addressed to the Roman aristocrat L. Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus in around 11BC (Anth. Pal. 6.335):

Καυσίη, ἡ τὸ πάροιθε Μακηδόσιν εὔκολον ὅπλον,

καὶ σκέπας ἐν νιφετῷ, καὶ κόρυς ἐν πολέμῳ,

ἱδρῶ διψήσασα πιεῖν τεόν, ἄλκιμε Πείσων,

Ἡμαθὶς Αὐσονίους ἦλθον ἐπὶ κροτάφους.

ἀλλὰ φίλος δέξαι με· τάχα κρόκες, αἵ ποτε Πέρσας

τρεψάμεναι, καὶ σοὶ Θρῇκας ὑπαξόμεθα.


I, the kausia, once the Macedonians’ comfortable gear,

both shelter in a snow-storm and a helmet in war,

thirsting to drink your sweat, stout Piso,

have come, a Macedonian, to your Italian brows.

But receive me generously; maybe the wool that once routed

the Persians will help you too to subdue the Thracians.


So Fredricksmeyer scotched the idea that the pakool inspired the kausia pretty effectively, but he wasn’t ready to ditch the whole idea of a connection. He agreed that the hats were uncannily similar, and I think as a Classicist and Alexander expert he wanted the similarity to be significant. Kingsley had recorded an encounter in Afghanistan between a Californian and an Afghan (it’s not clear to me whether the Californian is Kingsley herself or someone else): “A Pashto-speaking Afghan living near the Khyber Pass, in giving a rust-colored cap to a young American from California, informed her that his tribal ancestors had received the cap from Alexander!” Kingsley had argued that the opposite was the truth: Alexander and the Macedonians had got their hat from the Afghans. But Fredricksmeyer was happy on this basis simply to reverse the direction of transmission. It was the Macedonians who had introduced the pakool to Afghanistan and Pakistan. In other words, in the pakool-wearing Mujahedin on our TV screens we were looking at a surviving relic of Alexander’s campaigns in the East.

That’s an intoxicating idea for a Classicist. Like a lot of intoxicating ideas, though, not very plausible. The debate between Kingsley and Fredricksmeyer rumbled on for a while (see the bibliography below; Kingsley’s last intervention was published posthumously), with Fredricksmeyer latterly slightly less confident about any connection between the pakool and Alexander the Great. The coup de grâce was administered by Willem Vogelsang of the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden (under the not-so-catchy title of “The Pakol, a distinctive but apparently not so very old headgear from the Indo-Iranian borderlands”), who showed that the pakool is actually a simple adaptation of caps with rolled rims worn all over the borderlands of China, India and Central Asia.

It took a sober ethnologist to puncture the romantic ideas of the Classicists. To put that another way, it took a scholar who understood this part of the world on its own terms to correct a perception driven by obviously Western priorities. But this is what for me makes this academic tussle is the 1980’s quite timeless. Classicists, or at least the classically educated, have been indulging similar fantasies about Afghanistan and Pakistan ever since the first Europeans arrived there. When the French mercenary Claude-Auguste Court first set eyes on the valley of Peshawar, he “wondered how the necessity to make a livelihood had given me, a mere French officer, the possibility to go so far away and behold the most beautiful scene of Alexander’s exploits.”** When the British beheld this surviving fragment of a Buddhist monastery, it was again as a sign that Alexander had been there before them:

Minar-e Chakari

In this case the British were encouraged by the Afghans, in whose folklore Alexander figured large. The local name for the Pillar of Alexander was the Minar-e Sikandar, but neither that nor the man near the Khyber Pass was the result of folk memories of Alexander’s campaigns, but rather the continuing popularity in Afghanistan of the cluster of tales known for convenience as the Alexander Romance (an astonishingly widespread storytelling phenomenon you can, if you’re so inclined, read more about here). I’m pretty sure that another product of the encounter between Alexander-obsessed Europeans and Afghan folklore is the persistent idea, thoroughly debunked, that the non-Islamic people who survive in Chitral are descendants of Alexander’s soldiers.

Well, at this remove it’s obvious enough, I think, that the Kingsley/Fredricksmeyer exchange says more about the 1980s AD than the fourth century BC. When Kingsley wrote her first article, pakools were all over our newspapers and television screens, worn by people that back then we idolised, the Mujahedin fighting the Soviet-backed government in Kabul after the Soviet invasion in 1979. Since then the associations of the cap have been variable. In the fighting between the Taliban and Northern Alliance before 2001, the pakool was the mark of the northern forces  (a black turban identifying the Taliban), but the 1980s had lent the hat a lingering jihadi chic (there are photos of Osama bin Laden wearing one): the Pakistani Taliban favour it, as do some ISIS fighters.

Back in 1981, though, the impulse to link the Mujahedin’s characteristic headwear to Alexander must have been hard to resist. To me that’s as interesting as any other theory, because if Alexander the Great isn’t influencing anyone’s style of hat, he remains the filter through which the West all too often seeks to understand Afghanistan.


B. M. Kingsley, “The cap that survived Alexander”, AJA 85 (1981), 39-46;

— “The ‘Chitrali’, a Macedonian import to the West”, Afghanistan Journal 8 (1981), 90-93;

— “The Kausia Diadematophoros”, AJA 88 (1984), 66-68;

— “Alexander’s ‘kausia’ and Macedonian tradition”, 
Classical Antiquity 10, (1991), 59-76;

E. A. Fredricksmeyer, “Alexander the Great and the Macedonian kausia”, TAPhA 116 (1986), 215-227;

— “The kausia: Macedonian or Indian?” in I. Worthington (ed.), Ventures into Greek History (Oxford, 1994), 135-158;

W. Vogelsang, “The Pakol, a distinctive but apparently not so very old headgear from the Indo-Iranian borderlands”, Khil’a 2 (2006), 149-156.

(**J.-M. Lafont, “Private business and cultural activities of the French officers of Maharajah Ranjit Singh”, Journal of Sikh Studies 10 (1983), 74-104, at 86)

On a foot that walked


(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.

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.

Just a dog

Dash in AfghA full-scale dog-blog was always on the cards. I came quite close in this one, when a figure in a photo I’d been shown turned out to be a pioneer of Afghan Hound breeding. But this blog is devoted to a single dog, a fox terrier called Dash who belonged to the archaeologist and explorer Aurel Stein.

Actually Stein owned seven dogs in succession, and every one of them was called Dash. The name was more common at one time than it seems to be now: Queen Victoria’s Dash was a King Charles spaniel. It still seems slightly odd to give every one of a sequence of dogs the very same name, and Stein, whose claim to fame is above all as an investigator of the Buddhist cultures of Central Asia, sometimes toyed with the idea that the latest Dash was a reincarnation of one of its predecessors.

Anyhow, the subject of this blog is Dash II, or “Dash the Great” as Stein liked to refer to his very favourite of them all; he also called him Kardash Beg, “The Honourable Snow Companion”, when he discovered with delight that his new dog had a relish for snow. Pets belonging to Aurel Stein could expect to encounter some pretty gruelling climatic conditions.

Stein acquired Dash the Great in 1904, and the dog accompanied him on his Second Expedition into Central Asia from 1906 to 1908, Stein’s most audacious,  most successful, and ultimately most controversial venture into Chinese Turkestan. It was during this expedition that Stein was able to investigate a trove of Buddhist material in the Mogao caves at Dunhuang, removing a large quantity of texts, textiles and paintings. But earlier in the expedition he and his team had made the high-altitude crossing from the very northeastern tip of Afghanistan into Chinese Central Asia, and later he undertook a perilous, and very nearly disastrous, crossing of the Taklamakan desert.

Dash is a regular presence in Stein’s accounts of his expedition, especially the popular Ruins of Desert Cathay (1912), often most visible in moments of particular intensity. As things become very desperate during Stein’s crossing of the Taklamakan desert, his men threatening to mutiny, he is grateful that Dash makes do on “a saucerful [of water] spared from my cup of tea”. As they scale the 16,000-foot Wakhjir pass between Afghanistan and China, the generally irrepressible terrier whimpers with the cold and insists on sheltering beneath Stein’s fur coat. On another occasion he’s roused from sleep in Stein’s tent by the excitement of Stein and Chiang-Ssu-yeh, Stein’s “Chinese secretary and helpmate”, when they find proof that the frontier fortifications they’re investigating date from as early as the first century AD.

Dash chases marmots in the high country, “distinctly provoking for so indefatigable a hunter”, develops a knack of mounting a horse, “jumping up to the stirrup, and thence to the pommel of whoever was offering him a lift”, and gets badly mauled by a pack of semi-feral sheepdogs. When the party finds itself having to cross the Kash river over a ridiculously makeshift bridge, the poor thing is trussed up in a bag and passed along a wire rope along with the rest of the baggage.


The expedition took its toll on Stein. As he crossed back into India in 1908 he suffered frostbite while surveying at high altitude, losing several toes of his right foot after being carried down in agony to Ladakh. When he was eventually fit enough to travel, he describes his departure for Britain at the end of 1908 and enforced separation from Dash, “the last of my faithful travel companions, but, perhaps, the nearest to my heart”: dogs were not allowed on the P. & O. Mail boat. Dash made his own way to Britain on a separate steamer, spent four months in quarantine, and “was joyfully restored to his master under Mr P. S. Allen’s hospitable roof at Oxford.”

P. S. Allen was a Fellow of Merton College, Oxford, and he and his wife Helen were scholars of Erasmus and two of Stein’s oldest and closest friends; their “hospitable roof” was 23 Merton St., where Stein always stayed on his visits to Britain, and where Dash would actually spend the rest of his life. Stein seems to have decided that his “inseparable little companion” had had enough adventure. At any rate, when he returned to India he left Dash behind with the Allens. The comfortable new home of this canine veteran of the sand and snow deserts of the Taklamakan and Pamir Knot is now part of the Eastgate Hotel.


Dash lived with the Allens for another nine years, and while Merton St. was his home, he was clearly left to wander wherever he liked across Oxford. But as the First World War drew to a close, a new and deadly threat to an increasingly decrepit old dog was being introduced to Oxford’s streets, the motorised Omnibus. Percy Allen wrote to Stein to explain what happened:

He took himself out for a walk one aft. Friday, 27 Sept. [1918], & was run over by a motor bus in Park End St—the street which goes down to the station as the continuation of the High & Queen St. The police brought around his collar next morning, & reported that he had been killed instantaneously, & that they had buried him in their usual place. Helen went to the police station to enquire, as soon as we returned home—10 days later—but by that time it was too late to unearth him & bring him to sleep in the garden where he has so often slept before.

It’s a terribly banal end for a dog who’d seen so much, run over by a bus on Park End St. (Although I’ve subsequently walked the distance from 23 Merton St to Park End St, and Dash clearly hadn’t lost his wanderlust.) Soon the regular letters between Stein and the Allens turned back to the urgent issues of the day, the Armistice just a month or so after Dash’s death, and the Spanish Flu. But for as long as Dash is the focus of these letters between old friends, he provokes a touching outpouring of affection between them. Helen Allen reminisced to Stein about Dash’s life in Oxford:

He has been as outstanding amongst dogs, as his master amongst men; such sagacity & such devotion. I can see him in so many different poses: returning on a Cotswold walk after a chase after a hare, to look which way we were gone meanwhile, locating us & then heading straight for our slow plodding figures; looking up full of enquiry when he heard: “Go and meet him, Dash,” & then bounding forward joyously as he caught sight of Percy…
Such faithfulness as he has shown must surely meet a fit reward.
And we send you many thanks for the added happiness you brought into our lives through Dash.

“Surely a Ulysses among dogs,” wrote Percy Allen to Stein:

full of wise counsel & dignity, & greatly attached to his friends. You brought great pleasure into our lives thro’ him: for wh. we thank you, amice noster, as for so much else. Blessings on Dash the Great.

Stein, in response, thanked his friends for their comforting words:

Never before, I feel sure, had a faithful canine companion’s departure been recorded in words more true and deserved. How grateful I feel to [Helen] for having thus softened the pang which this sad news caused me the enclosed letter for her cannot express adequately. I do not command the inexhaustible goodness of soul which is life’s greatest boon in you both, nor that grace of expressive brief words which mature and constant communion with Erasmus have bestowed upon you both. I never cease to give thanks for all the brightness which you two have brought into my existence for the last twenty years—but my gratitude must be equally great for all you have done to help me in facing sad losses and trials.

Well, we all know dogs can be surrogate objects of affection for people who find it difficult to express emotion. Why else are English people so fond of them? In happier times, too, “Dash” had been a vehicle for the Allens’ affectionate pride in their friend’s success, writing a letter to congratulate Stein on the knighthood he received in 1912:

23 Merton St
Bara din 1912
Many congratulations, dear Master. Am wearing my collar of achievement.
If I had known this was coming, I should not have cried on the Wakhjir.
Whip the young one, and keep him in order.
Bow wow
(Have assumed this title) SIR DASH, K.C.I.E.

Still, just a dog.

Dash photooo