Ancient marvels in fabled lands
J. Eva Meharry is in the second year of her PhD on the role of archaeology in nation-building. Her case study is Afghanistan. She offers us a taste of what she has found on her wider travels.
On a warm day in January, I stood in southern Iran at the Gate of All Nations. The monument, flanked by giant Lamassus—bull statues with the heads of men—marked the entrance to ancient Persepolis. Iranians call it Takht-i Jamshid (Throne of Jamshid), a mythological figure in Persian epic poetry. Founded by Darius the Great (522-486 BCE), this was the cultural capital of the Achaemenid Empire (550-330 BCE), a vast, centralised state celebrated as the first Persian Empire.
In the palace grounds I descried beautifully preserved carvings on the surrounding stone staircases that depicted gift-bearing dignitaries ascending the monumental steps and passing through the gates of Persepolis. Looted and burned by Alexander the Great in 330 BCE, the city subsequently remained largely uninhabited.
With the advent of the archaeological discipline in Iran in the early 20th century, foreign archaeologists unearthed its well-preserved remains. In 1971, the last Shah lavishly hosted foreign delegations at Persepolis to mark the Persian Empire’s 2,500th anniversary. A source of national pride since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, sightseers now flock there. As I watched groups of international visitors pass through the palace gates, the ruined city appeared once more to be a hub of cultural interaction.
The politicisation of archaeology, past and present, was not unique to Iran. The phenomenon was common across nascent Middle Eastern states after the break-up of the Ottoman Empire. A second wave of nation-building occurred in the wake of 9/11: western countries strategically employed cultural initiatives to build bridges with the Muslim world. Funds were funnelled into Iraqi archaeological projects after the National Museum in Baghdad, founded by the renowned British archaeologist and diplomat Gertrude Bell, was infamously looted during the US-led invasion of 2003.
Though lesser known, Afghanistan’s archaeology has played a pivotal role in nation-building since the overthrow of the extreme Islamist Taliban by NATO forces in November 2001. After Iran, I travelled to Afghanistan in early spring to try to uncover details of this period for my fieldwork.
Modern archaeological exploration started in Afghanistan in 1922 when, by diplomatic agreement, French archaeologists began excavating at pre-Islamic sites across the country. King Amanullah Khan (r.1919-29) used the rich discoveries, symbolising the country’s glorious past and right to territorial sovereignty, to assert independence from imperialist intervention and promote his progressive nation-building agenda.
By mid-century, work in Afghanistan had netted an extraordinary array of antiquities spanning the prehistoric, pre-Islamic and Islamic pasts. These continued to be used in nationalist agendas. In the 1960s, the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul was thought of as the most opulent small museum in the world, since its entire collection originated from within the country’s modern borders.
Archaeological activities plummeted following the Soviet invasion in 1979, when militants plunged into protracted civil strife and the landscape was laid waste. For two decades the country’s archaeological sites and museums were looted and burned by warring factions. Rampant heritage destruction culminated in March 2001 when the Taliban blew up Bamiyan’s two colossal Buddha statues, in part to protest against international sanctions.
From 2002, archaeological initiatives resumed, focusing on preservation efforts and excavations at Bamiyan. Then in 2009 the US-led nation-builders’ attention to archaeological activities in Afghanistan significantly expanded as part of the Obama administration’s diplomatic outreach. The US began to support rescue excavations at Mes Aynak—a Buddhist monastic complex about an hour south of Kabul, set to be razed by a Chinese mining company—as well as development of new facilities at the National Museum of Afghanistan. Though international efforts tended to prioritise the pre-Islamic past, preservation of Islamic monuments in the cities of Herat and Ghazni also began.
My preliminary fieldwork in Afghanistan makes clear that archaeology continues to play a valuable role in 21st-century nation-building. It even has the potential to serve, like Persepolis, as a gateway to building diplomatic relations with regional nations.