I’m currently deep into Ovid’s Fasti, possibly the world’s favourite Latin poet’s least popular poem. The Fasti is Ovid’s poetic version of the Roman calendar, originally designed to consist of twelve books corresponding to the twelve months. Ovid’s exile from Rome in AD 8 put paid to that, or at any rate Books 1-6 are all that survive for us to read. I’m studying it at this moment because we’ve just added Book 6, June, to one of our main literature courses.
Actually I need no excuse to read the Fasti as it’s probably my favourite poem of Ovid, and one thing I love about it is the way that the poet’s focus on Rome’s calendar, which automatically entails an interest in the religious festivals that make up the Roman year (and thus the history of Rome), also grounds the poem in the physical city of Rome, where stood the temples at which all the various religious festivals took place, and whose foundation dates were also commemorated in the Roman calendar. As Catherine Edwards says, “It was not possible [for Ovid] to consider the organisation of Roman time without engaging also with the spatial context through which Roman time was articulated” (Writing Rome: textual approaches to the city, p. 57): Ovid’s Fasti is a poetic calendar, but it’s also a kind of poetic city plan. I may not be selling it very well, but this is a city plan composed by the wittiest, most inventive versifier Rome ever produced.
Well, I found myself thinking very hard about the topography of Rome in a cafe in Bath last week. I had reached Fasti 6.395-396, forte reuertebar festis Vestalibus illa,/ quae Nova Romano nunc Via iuncta foro est. The issue here is the first word of the second line, quae in the text I was reading, but which I instinctively felt should be qua. (Bath is an appropriate place to get fixated on Latin minutiae, I feel.) I’ll set out the passage around it with the Loeb Latin text and English translation, though as we’ll see the Latin and the translation, by the celebrated anthropologist Sir James Frazer, don’t entirely match up:
“It chanced that at the festival of Vesta I was returning by that way which now joins the New Way to the Roman Forum. Hither I saw a matron coming down barefoot: amazed I held my peace and halted. An old woman of the neighbourhood perceived me, and bidding me sit down she addressed me in quavering tones, shaking her head. ‘This ground, where now are the forums, was once occupied by wet swamps: a ditch was drenched with the water that overflowed from the river. That Lake of Curtius, which supports dry altars, is now solid ground, but formerly it was a lake. Where now the processions are wont to defile through the Velabrum to the Circus, there was naught but willows and hollow canes; often the roisterer, returning home over the waters of the suburb, used to tip a stave and rap out tipsy words at passing sailors. Yonder god (Vertumnus), whose name is appropriate to various shapes, had not yet derived it from damming back the river (averso amne). Here, too, there was a grove overgrown with bulrushes and reeds, and a marsh not to be trodden with booted feet. The pools have receded, and the river confines its water within its banks, and the ground is now dry; but the old custom survives.’ The old woman thus explained the custom. ‘Farewell, good old dame,’ said I; ‘may what remains of life to thee be easy all.'”
Forte revertebar festis Vestalibus illa, 395
quae Nova Romano nunc Via iuncta foro est.
huc pede matronam vidi descendere nudo:
obstipui tacitus sustinuique gradum.
sensit anus vicina loci, iussumque sedere
alloquitur, quatiens voce tremente caput: 400
“hoc, ubi nunc fora sunt, udae tenuere paludes;
amne redundatis fossa madebat aquis.
Curtius ille lacus, siccas qui sustinet aras,
nunc solida est tellus, sed lacus ante fuit.
qua Velabra solent in Circum ducere pompas, 405
nil praeter salices cassaque canna fuit;
saepe suburbanas rediens conviva per undas
cantat et ad nautas ebria verba iacit.
nondum conveniens diversis iste figuris
nomen ab averso ceperat amne deus. 410
hic quoque lucus erat iuncis et harundine densus
et pede velato non adeunda palus.
stagna recesserunt et aquas sua ripa coercet,
siccaque nunc tellus: mos tamen ille manet.”
reddiderat causam. “valeas, anus optima!’ dixi 415
“quod superest aevi, molle sit omne, tui.”
It is the festival of Vesta, June 9, and Ovid reminisces (or claims to) about walking somewhere in the vicinity of the Roman Forum and seeing a woman walking barefoot. There follows an explanation of the oddity from an older woman, who explains that this part of Rome had once been marshy. The Nova Via or New Way (in actual fact exceptionally old even in Ovid’s day) ran along the south side of the Forum, below the Palatine Hill, and the statue of Vertumnus probably stood near the junction of the New Way and the Vicus Tuscus, which led into the centre of the Forum. (Andrew Sillett alerts me to Alessandro Barchiesi’s identification of the shape-shifting Vertumnus with the old woman, uicina loci, whom Ovid meets and speaks to, The Poet and the Prince, 188-189, which is a very good idea…) The Lake of Curtius, meanwhile, was a monument in the heart of the Forum. It is typical of the Fasti that Ovid gets his information about ritual practice by a combination of interested observation (the scholarly persona he adopts in the poem), and a knowledgeable informant explaining causae, “causes,” here the old woman of the neighbourhood to whom Ovid somewhat untactfully wishes the best for the limited period of life remaining to her. That scholarly character, the role of the informant and the interest in causes and etymologies (such as that of Vertumnus) place the Fasti very firmly in the tradition of the Hellenistic poet Callimachus.
But I’m fixated on that quae. As I’ve already suggested, the Loeb’s Latin text and English translation don’t quite match up here. Frazer translates 395-396, forte reuertebar festis Vestalibus illa,/ quae Nova Romano nunc Via iuncta foro est, as if it is not quae that starts 396 but qua. A subtle change, for sure, but changing the relative pronoun from a nominative to an ablative does make quite a significant difference to the sense. Reading qua, as Frazer evidently does, Ovid is walking “along the route by which the New Way is now connected to the Roman Forum.” Reading quae, Ovid is walking along the New Way itself, and the Latin means “along the route which, as the New Way, is now connected to the Roman Forum,” or “along the New Way, which is now connected to the Roman Forum.” Qua places Ovid on a side street connecting the Forum and the New Way, in other words, while quae places him on the New Way itself. And what is weird, and quintessentially Fastian, is that while I’m worrying about a detail of Ovid’s text I’m also thinking very hard about the detailed topography of the Roman Forum.
For what it’s worth (and I tend to attach quite a lot of significance to this), the manuscript evidence is pretty unequivocal. Almost all our sources for the text of Fasti 6.396 have qua not quae. We owe the reading quae to the Danish scholar Johan Nicolai Madvig, but the longest defence of quae has been made by Franz Bömer,* who addressed the question in the course of producing a full commentary on the Fasti. I’m not personally persuaded. Bömer’s article elaborates in some detail what scenario Ovid might be describing if we go with quae, but aside from other things the upshot is a rather redundant description of the New Way, “which is now connected to the Roman Forum” (so what?) that to me doesn’t come across as very Ovidian.
The best way to positively justify qua is by means of a map, and here is the vicinity of the Temple of Vesta taken from Samuel Ball Platner’s The Topography and Monuments of Ancient Rome. It is always worth bearing in mind that the reconstruction of Roman topography, as it was at any specific time in Roman history especially, can be highly speculative, and that is particularly the case in this area at the edge of the Forum. But I’ve checked The Atlas of Ancient Rome edited by Andrea Carandini (a truly beautiful thing: my birthday is in June, a few days after the festival of Vesta…), and in any respects that matter it agrees with Platner. We can make out here the circular Temple of Vesta (“T. Vestae” in red), one of the most sacred locations in the city, from which it is natural to assume that Ovid was returning, and beside it the Atrium Vestae in which the Vestal Virgins who served Vesta’s cult lived. Along the other side of the Atrium Vestae runs the Nova Via, New Way. Below the Temple of Vesta is the Temple of Castor (“T. Castoris”), where the official weights and measures were kept and the Senate occasionally met, and below that the Basilica Iulia built by Julius Caesar with the spoils of the Gallic War. To the left of the Basilica is the Lake of Curtius (“Lacus Curtius”) mentioned by Ovid; the statue of Vertumnus that he also mentions seemed to have stood a little back from the top righthand corner of the Basilica.**
It seems to me that qua makes good sense of this cityscape. What Ovid is describing, the route linking the Form and the New Way, is something like what is represented by the grey band leading from beside the Temple of Vesta up to and then beyond the Nova Via. This was a staircase that allowed access from the lower-lying Forum up to the Palatine Hill. It is shown also on a piece of the Marble Plan, above the edge of the Temple of Castor,*** and it seems to be what Frazer means by “a cross-road, joining the Sacred Way and the Forum down on the flat with the New Way up on the hill” that he personally inspected in the winter of 1900-1901 and identified with Ovid’s route (The Fasti of Ovidius Vol. 4, p. 238). From the upper level of it you could, I think, see the statue of Vertumnus (iste in 409 seems to me to suggest it is visible as Ovid and the old woman converse), and it answers to what qua requires, a route connecting the Nova Via and the Forum in a way convenient for someone walking home (Ovid lived near the Capitol, Tristia 1.3.29-30) from the Temple of Vesta. It also gives a little more force to the verb used for the bare-footed woman who piqued Ovid’s interest in the first place: she is “descending” the staircase towards the Forum as Ovid climbs out of it, or that seems a natural reading. Ovid describes a recent development, it should be noted (“by that way which now joins the New Way to the Roman Forum”), so we would have to assume some work on the staircase by Augustus. Lawrence Richardson, in Ernest Nash’s Pictorial Dictionary of Ancient Rome (1962) Vol. 2, 123-124, knits all the various threads together very satisfactorily, using Ovid as evidence for developments in the late Republican or Augustan period.
Now, Richardson assumes that Ovid means what I think he means, and Ovid is part and parcel of his reconstruction of the topography of this part of ancient Rome, so my argument could very easily get as circular as Vesta’s temple. (Barney Taylor comes to my defence, pointing out that, quae or qua, the connection between New Way and Forum mentioned should be that staircase, so Richardson’s reconstruction looks like the only one compatible with any interpretation of Ovid.) The truth remains that any reconstruction of this area of Rome in Ovid’s day is bound to be nine parts guesswork. Furthermore, Bömer’s defence of quae is much more detailed than I have given him credit for, and he has counterarguments to a number of the points I (or Frazer) might want to make in favour of qua. I’m still pretty convinced the transmitted text qua is the right one, but the most important point, whether it’s qua or quae, whether Bömer’s right or Sir James, is what this all tells us about Ovid’s Fasti, a poem embedded in the physical city of Rome, in which preferring qua to quae is all that stands between a monumental staircase and oblivion. Does it get any better than this, a poem from “the sweet witty soul of Ovid” that takes you on a tour of ancient Rome, its religious festivals and its physical monuments? And I haven’t even mentioned the stars and constellations that also feature prominently in Ovid’s calendar…
In the unlikely event you can stand any more, I wrote a short article about Ovid using Jupiter as an explanation of Rome’s topography that’s on open access here. For more geography there is another blog here (you will note I have shamefully all-but-reused a blog title), and for more calendrical stuff in Roman poetry a very succinct blog here.
*F. Bömer, “Zu Ovid, Fasti VI 396,” Bonner Jahrbücher 154 (1954), 29-31;
**M. C. J. Putnam, “The Shrine of Vortumnus,” American Journal of Archaeology 71 (1967), 177-179;
***O. Marruchi, “Recent Excavations in Rome,” American Journal of Archaeology 2 (1886), 334-341, at 335-336.
The last time I gave much thought to St George, I think, was in Afghanistan. I was researching Bamiyan, and visited a valley, Darre-ye Azhdaha, a few miles to the west of Bamiyan town. At its mouth there is now a housing development for refugees returned from Iran; but if you follow the narrow, steep-sided valley further up, it’s blocked by a high volcanic ridge associated with some interesting folklore.
According to tradition, the ridge is a dragon (azhdaha) slain by Hazrat-e Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, and a figure of special importance to the predominantly Shi’i population of Bamiyan. A crevice running along the top of the ridge was made by the sweep of Ali’s sword, reddish mineral deposits around it are the dragon’s blood, the sound of subterranean water the dying creature’s groans, and the milky mineral waters that flow out from the end of the ridge its penitential tears.
This dragon, the story goes, was terrorizing Bamiyan, extorting food from the townspeople—600lb of food, two camels, and one girl per day, according to a version collected by the archaeologists Ahmad Ali Kohzad and Ria Hackin in the 1930s. Eventually salvation arrived in the form of Ali ibn Abi Talib, riding his horse Doldol and brandishing his sword Zulfiqar. Ali slew the dragon, rescued the girl, and converted the hitherto pagan people of Bamiyan to Islam, so impressed were they by his self-evidently divinely-sanctioned success.
A similar story is to be found attached to many rock formations across Afghanistan, in fact. My immediate reaction when I heard it was of course to be struck by its remarkable similarity to the tales told of St George, who also killed a dragon, rescued a girl, and converted the people, though in his case to Christianity. I wasn’t apparently the first to make the connection: British officers in the First Afghan War in 1840 were disconcerted to hear stories they associated with their national saint told of features of the landscape around Kabul.
But how do we explain more or less identical folk stories in Afghanistan and in England?
The myth of the dragon fighter is as ancient as can be, already well established in the earliest Persian and Indians texts we possess, and with parallels also in Greco-Roman myth and other ancient middle-eastern cultures. How to Kill a Dragon is the title of a book by Calvert Watkins in which he attempts to identify echoes of the poetic language of the original Indo-Europeans: it was evidently a story that was already being told, in some form, when the Indo-European ancestors were in their homeland on the steppe.
To explain the similarity of St George and Hazrat-e Ali, though, we probably don’t have to peer quite so far back in time. The dragon slayer was a particularly important image for the Sasanians, the pre-Islamic rulers of Iran. What the story of the dragon slayer has always essentially been about is the triumph of order and civilization over the forces of chaos. A key element of the story was often the securing of water, the essential commodity for agriculture, essential in turn for settled and civilized existence. In St George folklore water is often being hoarded by the dragon until released by the hero, and this is a common feature also of the story told in the East: in the Rigveda the divine hero Indra made the world when he slew the dragon and “let loose to flow the Seven Rivers,” for example, while the two ancient Iranian festivals of Nowruz and Mehragan were both associated with stories of dragon slaying that restored and maintained fertility. (Water flows through and out of the Azhdaha at Bamiyan, too.) But in pre-Islamic Iran the popularity of stories of dragon slayers, whether Garshasp or Feridun or many others, also reflected more profound doctrines of the Sasanian state religion, Zoroastrianism, which understood world history as a perpetual battle between sharply defined realms of Good and Evil: the story of hero destroying monster encapsulated that perennial duel.
(On all of this the article “Azdaha” in the wonderful online Encyclopaedia Iranica is extremely interesting.)
When Zoroastrianism was superseded by Islam, the thinking goes, the folklore persisted, only with Ali taking the role of the Persian hero, and the dragon assuming an Islamic rather than Zoroastrian religious significance.
Meanwhile, far to the west, St George was very much a product of Middle-Eastern Christianity. Jewish and Christian imagery and doctrine had long borrowed from their Zoroastrian neighbours, but the specific story of St George’s conquest of the dragon is quite a late development, first attested in the eleventh century AD. It seems to have enjoyed a particular popularity in Georgia and the Caucasus—territories that lay on the borders of the Iranian world and were profoundly influenced by Persian traditions of art and thought (cf. Sara Kuehn in her detailed study The Dragon in East Christian and Islamic Art).
So when Hazrat-e Ali in Bamiyan reminded me of St George, killing the dragon, rescuing the girl and converting the kingdom, what I may well have been seeing was the same essentially Persian myth, an expression of the Zoroastrian conflict between Light and Dark so powerfully definitive that it survived the eclipse of Zoroastrianism, and fed into both Islamic and Christian folklore at opposite edges of the Iranian plateau.
It’s still a fair distance from the Caucasus to England. But St George’s transformation into England’s patron saint was apparently an indirect consequence of the Crusades. The warrior saint’s tomb and cult centre was at Lydda in the Holy Land, and the town, known as St George by the Crusaders, remained under Christian control for most of the following two centuries. This brought him a growing following in Western Europe, and he slowly rose to prominence in England, although it was not until Edward III established the Order of the Garter in 1348, with St George as its patron and St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle as its home, that the association of “England and St George” was fixed for good.
Back in Bamiyan, that geothermal dragon has in the past received a lot of attention from archaeologists trying to reconstruct the Buddhist history of the valley. One popular theory was that this roughly 1,000-foot long geological formation was the very same as the fabled 1,000-foot “Parinirvana” Buddha (the Buddha lying on his deathbed, at the point of achieving ultimate release) mentioned by our best witness to Bamiyan in its Buddhist period, the seventh-century Chinese monk and traveller Xuanzang. It’s a tempting idea, but also unlikely: as a rule Xuanzang is impressively accurate in his topographical detail, and he locates the 1,000-foot Buddha a couple of miles to the east of Bamiyan, not five miles to the west. As for the gigantic size of the Buddha he saw, it’s probably nothing more dramatic than a corruption that has crept into the text of Xuanzang’s account.
But this doesn’t necessarily mean that the Azhdaha wasn’t also a cult site when Bamiyan was Buddhist. So deep were the roots of this myth that when Buddhism came to what are now Afghanistan and Pakistan even the peaceable Buddha turned into a dragon fighter. Later in his journey Xuanzang visits Udyana (Swat), and recounts how a dragon had prevented the water of the river Swat reaching the crops of the valley people until the Buddha split the mountain with his diamond mace, the Vajra, cowed the dragon, and released the waters. It’s not impossible that a similar story was once told of the Dragon Valley in Bamiyan.
So are Hazrat-e Ali and St George so similar because they’re both really Feridun? I can’t personally think of a better explanation of such a striking coincidence. And while it’s easy to be disheartened by the way the tribes and religions of our world all line up behind their separate banners and champions, it’s perhaps quite heartening to ponder that those various competing heroes may all, basically, be one and the same
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:
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.
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.]
So I’ve been reading Graeme Wood on supporters of ISIS, and after that Penelope Wilson on hieroglyphs, rather different kinds of book but I recommend both. What caught my attention in each of them was a linguistic phenomenon I find intriguing, the impulse people can feel to take language, this practical tool we use to navigate around our world, and transmute it into something more exalted: a medium for addressing the divine.
I didn’t know until I read Wood’s book that Salafi Muslims cultivate an archaic style of spoken Arabic, a form of the language reflecting their desire to emulate the very earliest generations of Islam, al salaf al salih, the pious forefathers. Rejecting contemporary forms of Arabic brings them closer to the Prophet and the Quran, closer to God’s revelation. Wood describes having his colloquial Arabic corrected by an Egyptian Salafist (p.33):
Ahmad took me to lunch at a chicken restaurant where we ate well and he, over my objection, paid the bill out of his student stipend. He corrected my Arabic over and over, studiously transposing the street dialect that came most easily to me with the high register favored by Salafis. Chicken was not firakh, but dajaj. Any time I pronounced the letter jim with a hard g, in the Egyptian way, he corrected it to the more classical j as in “Juliet”: “Jamal,” not “Gamal,” was the name of the dead Egyptian strongman Nasser. The letter qaf, instead of vanishing without a trace as in normal Egyptian speech, had to be pronounced deep in the throat, where the soft palate meets the tongue: qalam [pen], not alam. My language was getting purer, word by word and bite by bite.
Qalam is the Greek word kalamos in fact, but never mind.
Still in Egypt, albeit a few centuries earlier, another thing I didn’t appreciate was how significant the “hiero-” (“sacred”) bit of “hieroglyphs” was. From Wilson (p.18) I learned that the Ancient Egyptian word for this pictorial writing was medu-netjer, meaning “words of god,” and that the primary function of hieroglyphic script was to enable communication between Egyptians and their gods. This wasn’t a different form of language, of course, so much as an esoteric way of representing that language (though if I understand rightly, hieroglyphs were also associated with an archaic and ossified form of the Egyptian language).
By way of illustration, Wilson memorably describes the different audiences targeted by the three texts on the Rosetta Stone (p.31):
Greek (for the ruling administration of the day), hieroglyphs (for the gods), and Demotic (for everyone else).
She also rather beautifully encourages us to imagine that the hieroglyphs accompanying images of human activity and speech covering tombs might become audible: “the tombs would be full of noise, and the chatter of hundreds of people” (p.46). Again, if I understand correctly, the things depicted are summoned into existence by being named in hieroglyphic form. The hieroglyphs secure from the gods an Afterlife for the dead person as rich as the life they have departed. For the dead, I suppose, the tomb with its images and hieroglyphs in effect is that wonderful new life.
I hope I’ve got that right, because a) I find it frankly and gloriously mind-blowing, and b) it’s the main motivation for this blog. And while the whole idea was to be reading stuff at bedtime that was unrelated to work, I couldn’t help thinking about Greco-Roman things, too.
If the Greeks and Romans had anything like hieroglyphics or Quranic Arabic, linguistic ways of communing with God, it might be the dactylic hexameter. This is a verse form, and as Paul Fussell wrote in his classic book on the matter, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, one of the essential effects of couching language in verse, making prose poetry, is to raise its register (p.12):
meter, by distinguishing rhythmic from ordinary statement, objectifies that statement and impels it toward a significant formality and even ritualism.
But if all metre is a “ritual frame”, as Fussell calls it, for the language it encloses, there are more and less elevated kinds of metre, and in antiquity the highest form of communication was that done in dactylic hexameters. That included conveying the utterances of the gods. In fact it was believed that the hexameter was invented by the Pythian priestess at Delphi (Pausanias 10.5.7), to be the vehicle for the oracles that the god Apollo shared with humanity.
A more familiar function of the hexameter, though, is as the medium for another kind of divine narrative, epic poetry. This is poetry describing, typically, a heroic world of superior humans, but represents divine speech in at least two ways. First, part of the greatness of the heroes of epic was the ease with which they communed with gods, who aided them and appeared and spoke to them. The epic world is one governed by the gods, and in Homer and Virgil and other epic poets we often see the gods discussing among themselves how events on earth should unfold. Secondly, though, this made the task of the epic poet a daunting one, since they needed inspiration sufficient to be able to relate the deeds and words of the very highest beings. Conventionally epic poets would claim that their poem was itself divine speech. “Tell me of the man of many wiles, Muse,” is how Homer’s Odyssey begins, and “Sing of the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, goddess,” the Iliad.
“Speeches of the gods” could even be shorthand for epic poetry. In Odes 3.3 Horace closely imitated the epic poet Quintus Ennius, Virgil’s great predecessor at Rome, and a speech that Ennius gave to Juno in a Council of the Gods in the first book of his epic poem Annales. At the end of his poem Horace admits that in formal terms he’s seriously broken the rules, putting this epic material in one of his own lyric poems:
Non hoc iocosae conveniet lyrae;
quo, Musa, tendis? Desine pervicax
referre sermones deorum et
magna modis tenuare parvis.
This will not suit the light-hearted lyre!
Where are you heading, Muse? Cease in your wilfulness
to report the speeches of gods and
diminish great matters in small measures!
Why? Because the only proper habitat for gods and their awe-inspiring utterances is the heroic measure, the hexameter.
More to my godless taste, I have to admit, is Juvenal’s take on this whole issue. In his fourth satire Juvenal lays into the emperor Domitian, describing the measures taken by the tyrant to get a huge turbot cooked. The poem is a parody of an epic (which doesn’t survive) by Statius on Domitian’s military exploits in Germany; like almost all Roman satire it is written, like epic, in hexameters, an outrageous act of misappropriation by satire which established it once and for all as epic’s disreputable twin.
At 34-6 Juvenal parodies the conventional epic evocation of the Muse, the plea for access to divine knowledge.
incipe, Calliope. licet et considere: non est
cantandum, res uera agitur. narrate, puellae
Pierides, prosit mihi uos dixisse puellas.
Begin, Calliope! And do please sit down: there’s no call
for singing, these are real events were dealing with. Tell the story, maidens
of Pieria, and may I profit from having called you maidens.
Brutal stuff, but that’s satire. He summons the Muse Calliope (the Muse of epic, the grandest of them all), then makes a nasty joke about the Muses’ sexual morality. I’m more interested in the first line and a half, because in them Juvenal carries out an expert demolition of this divine medium. Incipe, Calliope is authentically epic, but as he tells Calliope to stop taking it so seriously the verse form collapses, too. Some brilliantly shabby versification follows: non est is a useless, unemphatic cadence to the line, and res uera agitur deliberately obscures by elision another important structural element of the heroic hexameter, its central caesura.
A less technical way of putting it is that Juvenal starts line 34 in epic mode, as he should when a god is being addressed, but then collapses into all-too-human prose. I find the aspiration that we feel to speak the language of the gods fascinating, but I find Juvenal’s utter refusal to respect it most refreshing, too.
I’m finally finished with a project I’ve been working at, off and on, for–well, longer than I care to calculate. It is an annotated bibliography of Roman poetic metre, not an awfully thrilling task. But once in a while it reawakened the interest that made me write this book, and to celebrate its conclusion I offer one such moment.
Here is a poem by Martial (2.7), followed by a translation indebted to Shackleton Bailey in the Loeb.
Declamas belle, causas agis, Attice, belle;
historias bellas, carmina bella facis;
componis belle mimos, epigrammata belle;
bellus grammaticus, bellus es astrologus,
et belle cantas et saltas, Attice, belle; 5
bellus es arte lyrae, bellus es arte pilae.
Nil bene cum facias, facias tamen omnia belle,
uis dicam quid sis? Magnus es ardalio.
You’re a nice declaimer, Attalus, a nice pleader,
you write nice histories and nice poems,
you compose mimes nicely, and epigrams nicely,
you’re a nice grammarian and a nice astronomer,
and you sing nicely, Atticus, and dance nicely; 5
you’re nicely versed in the art of the lyre, nicely versed in the ball.
Seeing that you do nothing well, but do everything nicely,
would you like me to say what you are? A total trifler.
Martial appears to be flattering Atticus for his stunning panoply of talents, in public speaking, writing, scholarship, music and sport, but actually exposes him as a talentless dabbler, an ardalio.
A lot of the work of the poem is done by the word bellus, superficially complimentary (“pretty, handsome, fine”; I go with “nice”, which isn’t perfect) but “freq. iron.”, according to the Oxford Latin Dictionary. We’re not too far into the poem before we realise that bellus is indeed ironic: Atticus is only superficially talented, in fact a jack of all trades, master of none.
The metre of the poem is elegiac couplets, which combine a dactylic hexameter, the metre of epic, with a pentameter. The pentameters goes like this (where u is a short syllable, _ a long, and || a word break or caesura): _ u u _ u u _|| _ u u _ u u _. In the first half of the line either of the double shorts, u u, can be replaced by a long _. But the second half of the line is always _ u u _ u u _.
There’s a mnemonic for the pentameter that I inflict on my students: “strawberry strawberry jam; strawberry strawberry jam”. This is a pentameter, but in the first half either strawberry can be a “strawb’ry”, two long syllables, whereas in the second half each strawberry must be a “strawberry”, three syllables (a long and two shorts).
It’s clear enough that the pentameter, a repetition of _ u u _ u u _, is a form tending toward symmetry. But elegiac poets, Greek and Latin, felt an aesthetic imperative to resist this impulse. In particular they avoided a type of line represented by Ovid’s notorious description of the Minotaur at Ars Amatoria 2.24, semibouemque uirum, semiuirumque bouem (“half-bull man and half-man bull”). There is a great story about this line of Ovid recorded by Seneca the Elder, but one problem with it was probably that its two halves are completely interchangeable, identical both in metre and word shape: semiuirumque bouem, semibouemque uirum would scan just as well.
Now this interchangeability (I can never remember which way round the line goes) makes it a brilliant verbal evocation of the hybrid character of the Minotaur (nothing less than we’d expect from Ovid), but also a line shape that was felt to be too neat and tidy. Trying to capture the character of this kind of line, Platnauer calls it “a jingle”, and Luque Moreno “llamativo”, “showy”. That ancient poets felt the same is proved by how how rarely they produce lines like this, and what effects they’re clearly after when they do. (Ovid’s line was evidence for Seneca that Ovid was a slave to his own poetic licentia, lack of decorum, and “was not unaware of his literary faults, but in love with them.”)
Well, there’s another example of a perfectly symmetrical pentameter in line 7 of Martial’s epigram, the climax of his catalogue of Atticus’ accomplishments, bellus es arte lyrae, bellus es arte pilae. I find it fascinating when metre communicates as much as any other element of the poetic composition, and here is a case in point.
For what is the Latin for a symmetrical pentameter, superficially deft but actually rather vulgar?
annuus exactis completur mensibus orbis
the cycle of the year, with the conclusion of the months, is completed
Virgil, Aeneid 5.46: Aeneas, in Sicily, is informing his men that he will stage games in honour of his dead father Anchises, and that exactly a year has passed since his father’s death, also in Sicily. That year has been taken up by the action described in Books 1 and 4, the Trojans’ stay in Carthage, and Aeneas’s affair with the Queen of Carthage, Dido.
Some individual lines of Virgil’s 10,000-line epic are themselves tiny works of art. Here the poet sets out to embody the character of a year in the shape of his metrical line, the key idea in play being that the year is circular, a cycle, orbis. Aeneid 5.46 is a linear disposition of Latin words, a poetic line, but also, by virtue of the disposition of those words, as close as a line of verse can get to a circle.
Here it is again with the relations between the words of the line highlighted: this being an inflected language, the words are connected by their form, not proximity.
(((annuus ((exactis (completur) mensibus)) orbis)))
The verb expressing the fulfilment of the year, completur, sits at the centre of the line, while the two words at its far extremes, annuus and orbis, are in agreement: “the yearly cycle”, “the cycle of the year.” Immediately bracketing completur are exactis and mensibus, and they too are in agreement: an ablative absolute, “with the conclusion of the months.”
The line is thus a sense unit organized into a perfectly concentric shape; like a hailstone, its components arranged around its central element. If the cycle of the year can be expressed in the form of a verse, this is it.
Faustum annum nouum!
(July 2016)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.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.