Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World

Surviving treasures from the National Museum of Afghanistan

3 March – 17 July 2011

Supported by
 Bank of America Merrill Lynch

Exhibition closed

The hidden treasures of Afghanistan

At the heart of the Silk Road, Afghanistan linked the great trading routes of ancient Iran, Central Asia, India and China, and the more distant cultures of Greece and Rome.

The country’s unique location resulted in a legacy of extraordinarily rare objects, which reveal its rich and diverse past.

Nearly lost during the years of civil war and later Taliban rule, these precious objects were bravely hidden in 1989 by officials from the National Museum of Afghanistan to save them from destruction.

The surviving treasures date from 2000 BC to the 1st century AD and include opulent gold ornaments found at a burial site of a nomadic tribe, to limestone sculptures of a Greek city set up by a former commander of Alexander the Great.

The first exhibition of its kind to be seen in the UK in 40 years, this is a unique opportunity to discover the story of Afghanistan’s ancient culture, its immense fragility, and the remarkable dedication shown to its survival and protection.

Press release

For further information or images please contact the Press Office on 020 7323 8583 / 8394.

Read the exhibition press release

Gold crown from Tillya Tepe

Explore the objects

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    1: Gold crown from Tillya Tepe, 1st century AD

    This astonishing object was found in the tomb of a nomadic woman. It was designed and assembled from different pieces which allowed it to be folded when not in use. It is the ultimate example of portable nomadic wealth.

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    2: Gold bowl from Tepe Fullol, 2200–1900 BC

    This fragment was part of a large group of gold and silver vessels found at Tepe Fullol in northern Afghanistan. Its discovery in 1965 suddenly revealed new evidence for the early antiquity of the region. The design on it resembles that of bulls shown in ancient Mesopotamian art – the two regions were connected by trade.

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    3: Corinthian capital found at Ai Khanum, before 145 BC

    Ai Khanum is the modern name of a Hellenistic Greek city built on the banks of the river Oxus (Amu darya) in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. Extensively excavated by French archaeologists in the 1960s and 1970s, it gives an almost complete city plan. The architecture is a combination of local tradition and imported Classical styles.

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    4: Enamelled glass goblet from Begram, 1st century AD

    This was made in Roman Egypt and exported by sea via the Red Sea and Indian Ocean to India. It was then brought overland to Begram which was the summer capital of the Kushan Kingdom. It was found in a storeroom at the heart of a palace. The decoration shows a scene of people harvesting dates.

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    5: Indian ivory furniture support from Begram, 1st century AD

    A large number of heavily decorated pieces of furniture were found in the palace storerooms at Begram. The wood had disintegrated but the ivory and bone inlays survived. These were originally heavily painted. The style of carving suggests they were imported from India.

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    6: Inlaid gold pendant from Tillya Tepe, 1st century AD

    This is one of a pair of identical pendants found in a tomb. It shows a figure subduing a pair of mythical beasts. It is heavily inlaid with different coloured materials, including turquoise, garnet, lapis lazuli, carnelian, and pearl, some of which are long-distance imports. This underlines the position of Afghanistan on the crossroads of the world.

Images in slideshow: National Museum of Afghanistan © Thierry Ollivier / Musée Guimet

Video playlist

These seven videos were made to accompany the exhibition Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World. They include ‘How to make a glass fish replica’ – the British Museum's most popular YouTube video.

Audio: The Guardian debate

What makes a nation? Jon Snow chairs a panel discussion on Afghanistan, with an introduction by Neil MacGregor. 

Listen now

Exhibition blog


Buddha on display in Room 1

The remarkable story of an outstanding sculpture of the Buddha which is due to be returned to Afghanistan.

Read more

Music of Afghanistan

An introduction to the regional music of Afghanistan

Afghanistan is home to a variety of regional music characteristic of the ethnic groups inhabiting the different parts of the country. The various regions have close relationships with the music of adjacent countries: Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Pashtun regional music is of particular importance, forming the basis of popular urban music style.

Professor John Baily and Veronica Doubleday lived in Herat during the 1970s in order to research and record the music of the city and surrounding rural areas. The following four examples come from the audio recording that accompanies Baily’s book Music of Afghanistan: Professional musicians in the city of Herat (CUP 1988). John Baily is Head of the Afghanistan Music Unit, Goldsmiths, University of London.

Top left: Mahmud Khushnawaz, vocal and harmonium, and his brother Naim Khushnawaz on tabla. Photo by John Baily 1998.
Top right: Ustad Amir Mohammad, vocal and harmonium, Rahim Khushnawaz on rubab, Gada Mohammad on dutar, and Naim Khushnawaz on tabla. Photo by Veronica Doubleday 1974.
Bottom left: Rahim Khushnawaz playing rubab. Photo by Veronica Doubleday 1994.
Bottom right: Ustad Amir Jan Khushnawaz playing rubab. Photo by John Baily in 1977.


Filmi song Chal Chal Chal mere Sathi

The films of India and Pakistan were an important source of songs. These were shown in the cinemas of Kabul and other cities. Over the years many filmi songs were adopted by Afghan singers and entered the popular music repertory. This was sung by Mahmud Khushnawaz at a wedding party in 1977. The text is in Urdu (a language partly comprehensible to Heratis). The song is addressed to an elephant.

Mahmud Khushnawaz (vocal and harmonium), Amir Jan Khushnaswaz (rubab), Ghulam Nebi (dutar) and Naim Khushnawaz (tabla).

3.36 minutes


Chaharbeiti Shomali

Ustad Amir Mohammad was from the Kucheh Kharabat, the musicians’ quarter in Kabul and was a very popular singer in Herat, where he was much in demand. Shomali refers to a densely populated region to the north of Kabul, in Parwan Province inhabited by both Dari and Pashto speakers. Chaharbeiti is a type of Persian language quatrain much used in the folk music of Afghanistan.

Ustad Amir Mohammad (vocal and harmonium), Rahim Khusnawaz (rubab), Gada Mohammad (dutar) and Fazal Ahmad (tabla).

4.21 minutes

Herati song tune Mui Talai

Mui Talai belongs to the repertoire of traditional Herati music . The songbirds that can be heard in the recording were brought along to the recording session at a Herati hotel by the musicians.

Rahim Khushnawaz (rubab), Naim Khushnawaz (tabla).

3.56 minutes


Nagmeh–ye Klasik in Rag Des

Nagmeh-ye klasik is a ‘classical instrumental piece’ closely related to the alap and gat of North Indian music and is typical of the instrumnental art music of Kabul. The rubab is the national instrument of Afghanistan. The tabla drum pair comes originally from India but has been played in Afghanistan for the last 150 years or so.

Rahim Khushnawaz (rubab) and Naim Khushnawaz (tabla).

4.55 minutes