ARE you keen to help finance the activities of warlords and insurgents across Afghanistan?

As I write, eBay is inviting bids on no fewer than 128 ancient Bactrian and Indo-Greek silver and bronze coins, from sellers in Pakistan, Singapore, Thailand and the United States.

Probably every one of them is the product of looting over the past 20 years. With luck, you might even pick up one of the tens of thousands of items plundered from the collections of the old National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul between 1992 and 2001.

For those with deep pockets, I can particularly recommend the eBay seller “The Precious Art from Past”, who is currently offering 289 looted AfPak objects for sale, including an extraordinary ancient Gandharan sculpture of a seated Heracles in near-perfect condition, yours for GBP18,950 plus postage and packing.

Such are the hazards of living at a “crossroads of civilisations”. It must be said that this kind of briskly utilitarian attitude towards Afghanistan's pre-Islamic heritage is nothing new. In 1999, the leader of the Taliban government, Mullah Omar, issued a decree forbidding any damage to the monumental Buddhas of Bamiyan, on the grounds that the Taliban considered the Bamiyan statues “as an example of a potential major source of income for Afghanistan from international visitors”.

Aside from their potential economic value, no obvious benefits derived from the existence of the Bamiyan Buddhas: as Omar rightly noted “In Afghanistan there are no Buddhists to worship the statues.”

Why should a Pashtun Muslim feel any sense of responsibility for the culture of Gandharan Buddhists? Dozens of times over the past 3,000 years, the plains and valleys around the foothills of the Hindu Kush have changed hands between Iranians, Greeks, Chinese, Scythians, Turks and Indians. An oft-photographed plaque outside the National Museum in Kabul reads: “A Nation Stays Alive When Its Culture Stays Alive”. No one should be taken in by the bland phrasing — this is as provocative as it gets. Which culture? Whose nation?

In March 2001, Omar gave one answer, by revoking his decision of two years earlier and ordering the dynamiting of the Bamiyan Buddhas. Simultaneously, most of the few remaining pre-Islamic objects in the Kabul museum were also smashed or sold off. It would be quite wrong to see the events of March 2001 as merely an act of barbarous vandalism (though they certainly were that too).

They also represented a particular claim about which bits of Afghanistan's history were worth preserving: for the Taliban, the only “national culture” that mattered was the one that began in AD622.

For an alternative account of Afghanistan's bloody history — one, as it were, with the Buddhists left in — we can look to a spectacular exhibition which opens at the British Museum next month. Neil MacGregor, director of the museum, hopes to show that “We are at a historically anomalous moment when the country is seen as remote and isolated . . . Afghanistan's relationships are long and deep.”

At the heart of the exhibition is the miracle of Tillya Tepe, the “hill of gold”, a huge earthen barrow 80 miles west of Mazar-i-Sharif, between the Hindu Kush mountains and the streams of the Amu Darya. Some time in the mid-first century AD, this mound was chosen by a nomadic prince as his burial kurghan.

The prince himself was interred at the peak of the hill, and a horse was sacrificed and buried alongside him. In a ring around the prince's tomb were the graves of five women, probably his five wives, all of them clad in gorgeous textiles and jewellery of extraordinary splendour. — The Guardian, London

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