Antediluvian Afghan fortresses - caravanserais
Antediluvian Afghan fortresses - caravanserais

In Afghanistan, despite all the complexity of the military-political situation, scientists continue to work. Afghans try not only to preserve and tell the world about the past achievements of their science, but also conduct research and even make new discoveries.

Oddly enough, but thanks to the war, or rather, the foreign military presence, archaeologists got a new opportunity to explore Afghanistan. Previously unknown ancient settlements, architectural monuments and other important objects of historical heritage are found using data from spy satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) belonging to the US Army. Thus, more than 4,500 such objects have already been discovered, according to one of the leading English-language scientific publications, the journal Science. The American military, receiving sufficiently detailed information about the most inaccessible territories thanks to their intelligence apparatus, began to share it with scientists from Afghanistan and the United States.

From orbit - into the depths of centuries

Due to the intense fighting, the mountainous and desert regions of Afghanistan are the most difficult for scientists to access. However, they are the most interesting from the point of view of history: in these areas the routes of the Great Silk Road ran, once rich settlements of kingdoms and empires that had ceased to exist were located. And then drones came to the aid of the researchers.

With financial support from the US State Department, archaeologists are analyzing data from American spy satellites, UAVs, and commercial satellites that take images of objects as close as possible. In November 2017, a team of researchers reported the discovery of 119 caravanserais that were previously unknown. They were built approximately in the XVI-XVII centuries and served as transshipment points for merchants traveling with their goods along the Silk Road. The caravanserais are located 20 km from each other - at a distance that the travelers of that time traveled on average per day. They ensured the stable and safe movement of goods between East and West. Each caravanserai is about the size of a football field. It could accommodate hundreds of people and camels carrying goods. This find makes it possible to concretize information about the part of the Great Silk Road that passed through Afghanistan and connected India with Persia.

Archaeologist David Thomas of the University of La Trobe in Melbourne, Australia believes that the photographs will be able to find tens of thousands of new historical and cultural sites in Afghan territory. “When they are recorded, they can be studied and protected,” he told Science magazine.


Satellite photo of a 17th century caravanserai. Photo by DigitalGlobe Inc.

Joint work on mapping Afghanistan based on information received from the military began in 2015. It was led by archaeologist Jill Stein of the University of Chicago. In the first year, scientists received a grant of $ 2 million from the US government for their work.

Not far from the border with Uzbekistan, in the area of ​​the Balkh oasis, thousands of previously unknown ancient settlements that appeared before our era were discovered. This was done thanks to aerial photographs from unmanned aerial vehicles of the US Army engineering units. Such images can distinguish objects 50 centimeters high and 10 centimeters in diameter. Scientists have analyzed about 15 thousand images.

Ancient settlements were located along the Balkhab River. They arose over the millennium: the earliest - BC, the latest - in the Middle Ages.Soviet scientists at one time managed to find only 77 ancient settlements in that area. It is now clear that the area was much more populated than previously thought. The Great Silk Road played an important role for the growth of settlements and the number of their inhabitants.

Among the objects that were supposedly built during the Parthian kingdom (it flourished simultaneously with the Roman Empire in the last centuries BC), irrigation canal systems and religious buildings have been identified. Buddhist stupas (structures symbolizing the nature of mind and enlightenment in Buddhism. - Approx. "Fergana"), shrines with inscriptions in the ancient Greek and Aramaic languages, Zoroastrian temples of fire worship. The border of Parthia at that time passed through the north of present-day Afghanistan and the southern regions of Uzbekistan. The findings indicate that the Parthians, who professed Zoroastrianism for the most part, were quite supportive of other religions.

Based on the data obtained, a team at the University of Chicago, led by Jill Stein, is developing a geographic information system for the Kabul Institute of Archeology and the Kabul Polytechnic Institute, which will subsequently allow local and foreign scientists to engage in detailed scientific research, as well as help researchers from neighboring regions in their work.


Satellite photo of the walled city of Sar-O-Tar, now covered in sand. Photo by DigitalGlobe Inc.

Science and war

In the face of ongoing fighting in Afghanistan between the government and various anti-government groups, it is extremely difficult to make fundamental discoveries, but it is possible to systematize and preserve the knowledge that has already been obtained. One of the most important institutions in this work is the National Museum in Kabul.

In the late 1990s, when the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, the museum was robbed. With the exception of a rich collection of coins (it contained coins that were issued from the middle of the first millennium BC to the end of the Islamic period), the rest of the important exhibits disappeared. Among them are many statues of Buddha of the 1st-3rd centuries AD, "Behram" products made of carved ivory in the Indian style, metal products of the Ghaznavid dynasty (the capital of their state in the 10th-11th centuries was located 90 kilometers south-west of the modern Kabul) and other valuable monuments of history and culture of the country. Later, many of them were found in the antique markets of Islamabad, New York, London and Tokyo.

And yet, some of the most valuable artifacts were saved thanks to the timely evacuation. According to researcher Olga Tkachenko, after the overthrow of the Taliban regime by the US army and the forces of the Northern Alliance, Hamid Karzai, acting head of the Afghan transitional government, announced in 2003 about the exhibits preserved in the central bank's shelters. At the same time, a number of states raised $ 350,000 for the restoration of the main Kabul museum. In September 2004, renovations were completed and the museum reopened.

“One of the greatest successes was the rescue of the Bactrian Gold, which was secretly placed in the vaults of the Central Bank by decree of President Mohammad Najibullah. By the time the safes were opened, the archaeologist Victor Sarianidi, the discoverer of the treasure, was invited to Afghanistan, who confirmed the authenticity of the treasure. The gold, however, was not returned to the museum's funds due to the poor security situation. The Afghan government has agreed with the United States on the temporary storage of the treasure until the situation in Afghanistan stabilizes,”Tkachenko said.

Subsequently, various artifacts that surfaced abroad were returned to the museum. Several exhibits were returned from Germany in 2007. In the same year, Switzerland donated the finds collected by the so-called Museum of Afghan Culture in Exile. In 2012, 843 artifacts were returned from England.

In 2011, the restoration of the main building of the museum and its archive was completed. The reconstruction was sponsored by the German government. It allocated a total of about a million dollars. Two years later, work on the new entrance was completed, the wall around the museum grounds and the tower were completed. A grant was allocated by the US government for these works. Now anyone can visit the museum - it works like a museum in any peaceful country.

Difficulties in the work of the museum are created by the neighborhood with the famous Palace of Dar-ul-Aman and the building of the Afghan parliament, where terrorist attacks periodically take place. The curators of the museum are amazing people who remained sincerely devoted to science (as the author of the material was personally convinced of), despite the experienced and continuing troubles of his native country.

The situation in Afghanistan does not allow for large-scale excavations in rural areas - especially in areas poorly controlled by government forces. However, archaeologists manage to carry out limited work. For example, in 2012-2013, with the support of the French Embassy, ​​excavations took place in the Kabul district of Naringj Tapa. The finds were transferred to the exposition of the National Museum.

Wandering gold

Since 2006, the world's leading museums have hosted the traveling exhibition "Afghanistan: The Hidden Treasures of the National Museum of Kabul." The exhibition presents over 230 exhibits, some of which are over 2 thousand years old. Today, according to scientists, the exhibition of treasures of the National Museum of Kabul is one of the most important reasons for attracting scientific attention to the history of the country torn apart by the military conflict and the ancient culture of the peoples inhabiting it. It is within the framework of this exhibition that the famous collection of "Bactrian gold" is exhibited.

The first venue for the exhibition was Paris, where the most valuable artifacts of Afghan history were exhibited from December 2006 to April 2007. Further, the exhibition traveled to Italy, Holland, USA, Canada, Great Britain, Sweden and Norway. In 2013, the treasures of Afghanistan reached Melbourne, Australia. The proceeds from the exposition over the years have added $ 3 million to the Afghan budget.

"Bactrian gold" is a unique collection of gold items found by a Soviet archaeological expedition led by the well-known scientist Viktor Sarianidi in 1978 near the city of Shebergan, in the northern Afghan province of Dzauzjan. It was located under the layers of the soil of a hill, which the locals called Tillya-Tepe ("golden hill"), because they sometimes found gold items there. First, archaeologists dug up the ruins of a Zoroastrian temple, whose age was estimated at 2 thousand years. A bookmark of gold coins was found within its walls. Further, it was possible to find seven royal tombs of the period of the Kushan kingdom, which flourished in the 1st-2nd centuries A.D. They contained about 20 thousand gold items. "Bactrian gold" has become the largest and richest treasure ever discovered in the world.


Gold crown from the Bactrian treasure

It is noteworthy that the exhibition has not yet visited Afghanistan and Russia itself. But if in the case of Afghanistan the reason is obvious - the lack of security guarantees, then why the "Bactrian Gold" in any way will not reach Moscow, so far we can only guess. In an interview with National Geographic magazine in 2014, the French nomad art historian Veronica Schiltz said about this: “I'm sorry that Russia is on the sidelines. Objects from Tillya Tepe deserve serious research at the international level and with the obligatory participation of Russia, where the tradition of studying the culture of nomads is strong. And an exhibition in your country [in Russia] would also be a wonderful occasion to present the Sarianidi archive to the public."

And while Russia remains "on the sidelines", American drones will help the world to discover the previously unexplored Afghanistan.

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