The recent American withdrawal from Afghanistan and its subsequent takeover by Taliban forces has once again focused the world’s attention on the Central Asian country.
When Chinese people picture Afghanistan, they often think of mountains and valleys, young shepherds and bearded zealots. It is the “graveyard of empires,” a place hollowed out by decades of war, suffering, and geopolitical power plays.
Yet, situated as it is at the crossroads of Eurasia, between the Siberian steppe, China, and India, Afghanistan has always been far more than a battleground. For millennia, it was a cultural hub, a link between the great civilizations of Greece, India, Persia, China, and the steppe nomads. It was also an artistic center in its own right, one that had a profound influence on the development of what we now think of as Chinese art and culture.
The best evidence of these exchanges can be seen from the region’s influence on Buddhist statuary. In the fourth century BC, Alexander the Great met and married Princess Roxana of Bactria — modern-day Afghanistan — while campaigning in the region. After Alexander’s death, Afghanistan fell under the control of the Hellenic Seleucid (312-246 BC), and later, the Bactrian (246-129 BC) empires. These states settled colonists from the Hellenic world, spread the Greek alphabet, and promoted the worship of Greek deities. Many cities in the region built Greek-style theaters, stadiums, squares, and temples, and leaders patronized Hellenistic artistic styles, including sculpture.
During the reign of the Kushan Empire (58-375 AD), Buddhism flourished in what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan, giving birth to Gandharan art, which fused Grecian and Buddhist styles. Gandharan artists depicted the Buddha and Bodhisattvas with Greek features and wearing Greek robes, and their work would prove influential as it spread east along the Silk Road, as can be seen from the Kizil caves in Xinjiang, the Mogao grottoes in Dunhuang, the Yungang grottoes in Datong, and the Longmen grottoes in Luoyang.
Left: A gold ornament uncovered at the Tillya Tepe site shows Eros riding a dolphin; Right: A gilt-bronze stem cup decorated with figures and a grapevine discovered in Datong and dating to the Northern Wei dynasty (385-484 AD). Courtesy of the author
Less well known, however, is how ancient Afghanistan acted as a conduit through which direct depictions of Greek deities made their way into northern China. For example, gold ornaments of Eros — the Greek god of love — riding a dolphin, atop a griffin, or embracing the goddess Psyche, have been uncovered at the Tillya Tepe site in Afghanistan. Part of the famous “Bactrian gold” trove, these depictions belong to the same Hellenized culture as a red brocade robe with yellow pomegranate motifs unearthed from the Yingpan burial site in what is now Xinjiang and a gilt-bronze stem cup decorated with figures and grapevines discovered in Datong, in North China.
Batik cotton fabric from the Eastern Han dynasty, excavated from the ancient city of Niya in Xinjiang, depicts the Kushan river goddess Ardochsho holding a cornucopia, with startling similarities to images carved on the Begram ivories excavated in Afghanistan. The Russian archaeologist Boris Marshak has argued that a silver plate featuring a depiction of Dionysus dating to between 384-534 AD and unearthed in the northwestern Gansu province, as well as a gilded silver vase depicting the Epic of Troy found in the tomb of Li Xian (buried 569 AD) in the northwestern Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, were not created in Greece or China, but by artisans in Central Asia.
Left: Details of Hermes and the caduceus as depicted on the Loulan tapestry, 3rd century AD. Wikimedia Commons; Right: The logo of China’s General Administration of Customs. From the website of the General Administration of Customs
Even today, the emblem of China’s General Administration of Customs includes the caduceus — a staff entwined by two snakes carried by Hermes, the Greek god of commerce. The origins of the symbol can be traced to the large-eyed Hermes and caduceus featured on brocade trousers unearthed at Loulan, Xinjiang province, and which have been identified by archaeologists as woven by Bactrian artisans.
Much of this history was lost or forgotten over the centuries, but it was not that long ago that many Chinese got the opportunity to reacquaint themselves with Afghanistan’s cultural treasures. From 2017 to 2020, a group of Afghan relics toured Beijing, the southwestern city of Chengdu, and the silk road entrepot of Dunhuang, where they attracted more than 1.4 million visitors. Among them, a decorative gold crown, also from Tillya Tepe, garnered the most attention: the slightest tap from the finger of a visitor on the piece’s glass display case would cause the golden leaves on the 2,000-year-old coronet to vibrate. The relic, which once belonged to a queen of the Yuezhi tribes of Central Asia, bore a striking resemblance to a headdress belonging to the famed beauty and concubine Yang Guifei, as described by Tang dynasty (618-907) poet Bai Juyi.
As a scholar of Central Asia, I have a personal interest in the history and culture of Afghanistan. Although I have never participated in a dig inside the country, I have been lucky enough to participate in archaeological fieldwork in neighboring states. In June 2003, I was part of a team of archaeologists organized by the National Academy of Sciences of Uzbekistan and led by academician Edvard Rtveladze which excavated Buddhist temples in the ancient city of Termez at the southernmost tip of the country — just across the border from Afghanistan. Termez, home to a complex of Buddhist monasteries visited by the Chinese monk Xuanzang on his journey to bring Buddhist scriptures from India back to China, was a center of religious activity for much of the first millennium AD.
Left: Fayaz Tepe Buddha with Monks, 2nd century AD. From the State Museum of History of Uzbekistan; Right: A statue at Longmen grottoes in Luoyang, Henan province, 2019. People Visual
The dig was an unforgettable experience. We worked with our backs to the barbed wire demarcating the line between the two countries, sweating as we dug, surrounded by guns, tanks, radar, and armor. The temperature soared as high as 52 degrees Celsius that summer, with people, cattle, and sheep alike falling victim to fainting spells. I inserted balls of cotton wool soaked in water into my nostrils to prevent myself from inhaling dust that itself had laid buried for thousands of years. Even in my thick-soled boots, walking on the sand was torture.
But I remember fondly the clear, shallow waters of the Amu Darya River, across which lay the cliffs of Afghanistan. Sometimes, shepherd boys on the other side would wave and call out to us in Farsi: “Sehati shooma chetor ast?” (“How are you?”) To this, we always replied, “Man khoob hastam!” (“All is well!”)
At the time, I looked forward to the day my work would take me to the other side of that river. Perhaps that day will still come. Regardless, the artistic legacy of Afghanistan will endure, as it has for millennia.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: A royal crown found at the Tillya Tepe site, on display in the exhibition “Afghanistan: Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul,” in Beijing, 2017. From The Palace Museum)