New York Times on the National Museum of Afghanistan

The New York Times has a very interesting article about the National Museum of Afghanistan, which mentions the steam engines (and links to this website; *waves* to the sudden spike in visitors).

While the emphasis is on the ancient, there are more modern artifacts as well — including several rusting steam locomotives in the gardens. “We have them to remind people that at the end of the 19th century, Afghanistan had railroads, while at the end of the 20th, it did not,” Mr. [museum director Omara Khan] Masoudi said.

Source: Saving Relics, Afghans Defy the Taliban. Rod Nordlandjan, New York Times, 12 January 2014

While there were almost certainly no operational railways in the closing days of the 20th century, were there any at the end of the 19th century? It is possible there was something in a factory in Kabul, but I’m not sure whether there were any others. The steam locomotives in the National Museum of Afghanistan date from the 1920s.

Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World

This afternoon I was at the British Museum (along with what seemed to be half of London and a significant proportion of Europe) for the newly-opened exhibition Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World.

Enamelled glass goblet from Begram, 1st century AD
Enamelled glass goblet from Begram, 1st century AD (© Trustees of the British Museum)

The exhibition offers an impressive display of shiny things from the National Museum of Afghanistan’s archaeological collections, ranging from Classical sculptures, polychrome ivory inlays originally attached to imported Indian furniture, enamelled Roman glass and polished stone tableware brought from Egypt, to delicate inlaid gold personal ornaments worn by the nomadic elite.

These showcase the trading and cultural connections of Afghanistan and how it benefited from being on an important crossroads of the ancient world.

The highlight for many visitors seemed to be a gold crown, though I was impressed by the enamelled glass (above).

All of these objects were found between 1937 and 1978 and were feared to have been lost following the Soviet invasion in 1979 and the civil war which followed, when the National Museum was rocketed and figural displays were later destroyed by the Taliban. Their survival is due to a handful of Afghan officials who deliberately concealed them and they are now exhibited here in a travelling exhibition designed to highlight to the international community the importance of the cultural heritage of Afghanistan and the remarkable achievements and trading connections of these past civilisations.

The earliest objects in the exhibition are part of a treasure found at the site of Tepe Fullol which dates to 2000 BC, representing the earliest gold objects found in Afghanistan and how already it was connected by trade with urban civilisations in ancient Iran and Iraq. The later finds come from three additional sites, all in northern Afghanistan, and dating between the 3rd century BC and 1st century AD. These are Ai Khanum, a Hellenistic Greek city on the Oxus river and on the modern border with Tajikistan; Begram, a capical of the local Kushan dynasty whose rule extended from Afghanistan into India; and Tillya Tepe, (“Hill of Gold”), the find spot of an elite nomadic cemetery.
Source: British Museum, November 2010

The exhibition was very busy on a Sunday afternoon, but I manged to get a ticket for timed admission within 40 min of arrival (you can pre-book online) and spent a bit over an hour inside. It isn’t heavy on detailed labels, just impressive exhibits. The exhibition is on from 3 March to 3 July 2011.

Some reviews

  • BBC
  • Guardian
  • Independent
  • Londonist
  • Telegraph
  • And the trains…?

    At risk of stating the blindingly obvious, this exhibition of ancient artefacts contains nothing about railways. Having said that, flicking through the catalogue I found a description of the problems the Kabul museum has suffered. In 1995,

    In the no-man’s-land behind the museum, one locomotive from King Amanullah’s railway stood rusting, the second one was stripped down for scrap metal.
    Source: Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World, Fredik Hiebert and Pierre Cambon (editors)

    This again suggests that there was once two locomotives at the museum, which agrees with some other past news reports. Photos show three locomotives now, so where did the third one come from?

    (© Trustees of the British Museum)
    Indian ivory furniture support from Begram, 1st century AD (© Trustees of the British Museum)

    The Road to Kabul: British Armies in Afghanistan, 1838–1919

    At present there is a temporary exhibition at the National Army Museum in London, The Road to Kabul: British Armies in Afghanistan, 1838–1919. It is open until “spring 2011”, and I went along on 9 January 2011.

    It is quite interesting (and free), although I think it probably helps to go armed with at least some background knowledge on the three Anglo-Afghan wars. It is a very traditional exhibition, with medals, photographs and objects “associated with” various people involved in the wars. There are some interactive touch-screens, and while I am of the view that such things are the work of the devil, these ones were actually functional and do provide access to some interesting photographs.

    The only railway content is, unsurprisingly, in the photographs forming part of the display on the Third Afghan War. There is an interesting picture of a narrow gauge troop train in [what was then] India on show in the museum, but not on the website (as far as I can tell).

    There is also a photo showing the “Ropeway transit system at Landi Kotal c.1919” (Photo NAM 1963-09-633-12). This is the first photo I have seen of the Khyber Pass ropeway, which is mentioned in passing in PSA Berridge’s book Couplings to the Khyber, which says “Two roads and an aerial ropeway preceded the inflexible iron road” in the Khyber Pass.

    Finally, the exhibition highlights this quote:

    In Kabul in 2001 I was sent with a unit to meet with an Afghan government minister. We had to explain that we weren’t Russian, we were British. As soon as we did he rounded on us and shouted: ‘British? You burned down the covered market!’ My first thought was s***, what have the Paras done now? I apologised and we got on with the meeting. Back at base I asked who had burned down the market. Blank faces all round, until someone at the back said he thought we had burned down the covered market. In 1842.
    Warrant Officer, 1 Mechanised Brigade

    Also coming up this year is an exhibition at the British Museum called Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World, which is open from 3 March to 3 July 2011.

    Golra Sharif Railway Museum

    In 2003 Pakistan’s Dawb newspaper published A journey into the past by Amer Sial, describing the Pakistan Railways heritage museum at Golra Sharif near Islamabad (there is a similar document here). The article says A few historic pictures hanging on the outside walls of the platform included one of Afghan King Amir Abdur Rehman at the Rawalpindi Railway Station in 1886. Another one shows the passing of a steam train through the Khyber Pass in the late nineteenth century.

    While I haven’t been to check(!), it seems unlikely there is a C19th photo of a train through the Khyber Pass, as the metre-gauge railway along the Kabul River was extant c.1905-1909, and the more famous broad-gauge Khyber Pass railway opened on 3 November 1925.

    I’ve never seen any pictures of the short-lived metre-gauge line – if anyone has one, or knows where I might find one, please let me know.