Situated along the Silk Road — a tangle of Eurasian trade routes stretching back to the days of the Roman Empire — Afghanistan and its people have long served as a place of connection between Mediterranean, Persian, Indian and Chinese civilisations.
It has been home to Hellenistic cities populated by the successors of Alexander the Great, glittering Buddhist monasteries that served to transmit early Buddhism from India to far away China and Japan, and a series of Medieval Islamic kingdoms at the forefront of the literature and science of their day.
This dazzlingly diverse heritage is preserved in over 2,600 archaeological sites scattered across its rugged terrain, numerous regional museums and galleries, and, most famously, the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul. Refurbished in 2007, the museum holds a collection of over 80,000 artefacts from throughout the region.
While remaining focused on the plight of the Afghan people, countries such as the US, UK, and Australia need to also start planning how they can reduce the coming assault on Afghanistan’s art, history and material culture.
A history of destruction
Afghanistan’s archaeological sites were previously systematically looted and destroyed during the period of Soviet occupation and warlordism that followed.
In the 1980s, whole ancient sites were illegally excavated with artifacts sold off under cover of war. The Hellenistic Greek city of Ai-Khanoum, dating from the 4th century BCE to the mid-2nd century CE and discovered in the 1830s, was destroyed, including its Greek theatre, gymnasium and temple to Zeus.
During Afghanistan’s civil war in the early 1990s, items from the 12th century palace of Mas’ud III were looted and distributed through international black markets.
The National Museum in Kabul, established in 1919, was extensively damaged and looted in the period immediately following the end of communist rule in 1992.
The “Dead Seas Scrolls of Buddhism” — thousands of scrolls and fragments written on leaves, bark, parchment and copper containing Buddhist sermons and treatises from as early as the 2nd century AD — were smuggled out of Afghanistan and dispersed among various manuscript collections from 1994 to 2001. Some were looted from the Kabul museum, but most were found in caves in the region of Bamiyan in the 1990s.
The Taliban were ruthless in their destruction, but also strategic. They saw Afghanistan’s pre-Islamic art and culture as a resource to be used and abused where possible to aid their international objectives.
Most infamously, during their final year in power they glorified in the demolition of the 6th century Bamiyan Buddhas while also decimating the already weakened collections of the National Museum.
Just two years earlier, in 1999, the Taliban Minister of Culture had assured the international community Afghanistan’s Buddhist heritage would be safe under his custodianship. In 2001, the Bayiman Buddhas were held hostage — and ultimately destroyed — while the Taliban demanded international recognition.
The Taliban are again claiming Afghanistan’s heritage will be safe under their rule.
Statements have been released instructing fighters to protect and preserve historical sites, halt the plundering of archaeological digs, and forbid the selling of antiquities on the black market. Guards have been posted at the National Museum to prevent looting.
However, this initial charm offensive could just be the opening move in a longer strategy in which Afghanistan’s history and heritage will be once again held hostage. Priceless cultural treasures may be threatened with destruction.
The loss of these experts and custodians of Afghanistan’s rich heritage will mean there is nobody to protect its material past from neglect or looting. Nor will future generations of young Afghans be able to learn about their past from fellow citizens who have dedicated their lives to preserving it.
Australia’s part to play in stopping illegal trade
It’s simply not possible to do justice to the value of Iran’s cultural heritage – it’s a rich and noble history that has had a fundamental impact on the world through art, architecture, poetry, in science and technology, medicine, philosophy and engineering.
The Iranian people are intensely aware – and rightly proud of – their Persian heritage. The archaeological legacy left by the civilisations of ancient and medieval Iran extend from the Mediterranean Sea to India and ranges across four millennia from the Bronze age (3rd millennium BC) to the glorious age of classical Islam and the magnificent medieval cities of Isfahan and Shiraz that thrived in the 9th-12th centuries AD, and beyond.
The direct legacy of the ancient Iranians can be found across the Middle East, the Caucasus and Turkey, the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt and Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan.
In the 6th century BC, Iran was home to the first world empire. The Achaemenids ruled a multicultural superpower that stretched to Egypt and Asia Minor in the west and India and Pakistan in the east. They were the power by which all other ancient empires measured themselves. Their cultural homeland was in the Fars province of modern Iran. The word Persian is the name for the Iranian people based on the home region of the Achaemenids – Pars.
Some of the richest and most beautiful of the archaeological and historical heritage in Iran remains there. This includes Parsgardae, the first Achaemenid dynastic capital where King Cyrus(c. 590-529BC) laid down the foundations of law and the first declaration of universal rights while ruling over a vast array of citizens and cultures.
Nearby is the magnificent site of Persepolis, the great palace of the Achaemenid kings and hub of government and administration. Architecturally stunning, it is decorated with relief sculptures that still today leave a visitor in awe.
Seleucid and Parthian Iran
When the Achaemenids fell to the armies of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC, what followed was great upheaval and also one of the most extraordinary moments in human history. The mixing of Persian and eastern Mediterranean cultures created the Hellenistic Age. The Macedonian King Seleucus (died 281BC) and his Persian wife Apame ruled a hybrid kingdom that mixed Greek, Persian, Jewish, Bactrian, Armenian, Sogdian and Aramaean cultures and religions.
With new cities, religions and cultures, this melting pot encouraged the rise of a thriving connectivity that linked urban centres in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Syria (where many of the Hellenistic sites (such as Apamea) have been devastated in recent years by war and looting). The great city of Seleucia-on-Tigris/Ctesiphon, just south of Baghdad on the Tigris river in modern Iraq, became the western capital and centre for learning, culture and power for a thousand years.
Hellenistic rulers gave way to Parthian kings in the 2nd century BC and the region was ruled by the Arsacid dynasty whose homeland, around Nisa, was the northern region of the Iranian world. The Parthian Empire witnessed growing connectivity between east and west and increasing traffic along the silk routes. Their control of this trade led to conflict with the Romans who reached east to grasp some of the resulting spoils.
It was also a time of religious transition that not only witnessed the rise of Buddhism, but also a thriving Zoroastrian religion that intersected with Judaism and developing Christianity. In the biblical story of the birth of Christ, who were the three kings – the Magi with their gifts for Jesus – but Persian priests from Iran coming to the side of child messiah, astronomers following the comet.
The last great ancient kingdom of the Iranians was the Sasanian empire based around a dynasty that rose out of the final years of the Arsacid rule in the 3rd century AD. The Sasanians ruled a massive geopolitical entity from 224-751AD. They were builders of cities and frontiers across the empire including the enormous Gorgan wall. This frontier wall stretched 195km from the Caspian Sea to the mountains in Turkmenistan and was built in the 5th century AD to protect the Iranian agricultural heartland from northern invaders like the Huns.
The wall is a fired-brick engineering marvel with a complex network of water canals running the whole length. It once stood across the plain with more than 30 forts manned by tens of thousands of soldiers.
The Sasanians were the final pre-Islamic dynasty of Iran. In the 7th century AD the armies of the Rashidun caliphs conquered the Sasanian empire, bringing with them Islam and absorbing much of the culture and ideas of the ancient Iranian world. This fusion led to a flowering of early medieval Islam and, of the 22 cultural heritage sites in Iran that are recognised by UNESCO, the 9th century Masjed-e Jāmé in Isfahan is one of the most stunningly beautiful and stylistically influential mosques ever built.
This was a thriving period of scientific, artistic and literary output. Rich with poetry that told of the ancient Iranian past in medieval courts where bards sang of great deeds. These are stories that we now believe reached the far west of Europe in the early medieval period possibly through the crusades and can only emphasise the long reach of the cultures of ancient and medieval Iran.
Iranian cultural heritage has no one geographic or cultural home, its roots belong to all of us and speak of the vast influence that the Iranians have had on the creation of the world we live in today. Iran’s past could never be wiped off the cultural map of the world for it is embedded in our very humanity.
In traditional Aboriginal society, women travelled with canine companions draped around their waists like garments of clothing. Dingoes played an important role in the protection and mobility of the women and children, and are believed to have greatly extended women’s contribution to the traditional economy and food supply.
Dingo pups were taken from the wild when very young. The pups were a highly valued ritual food source, while others were adopted into human society. They grew up in the company of women and children, providing an effective hunting aid, a living blanket and guarding against intruders.
Nursing young dingo pups was also deeply embedded in traditional customs. Interspecies breastfeeding of mammalian young was common in most human societies pre-industrialisation, historically providing the only safe way to ensure the survival of motherless mammalian young. Technological advances in milk pasteurisation made artificial feeding a viable alternative by the late 1800s.
Cohabitation with human society represented a transient phase of the dingo’s lifecycle: the pups generally returned to the wild once mature (at one or two years of age) to breed. As such, dingoes maintained the dual roles of human companion and top-order predator – retaining their independent and essentially wild nature over thousands of years.
Post-colonisation, it became too dangerous to keep the semi-wild canines in the Aboriginal camps. Dingoes were targeted for eradication as livestock holdings spread across the country. Their removal would have had a profound impact on the women, resulting in a great loss of traditional knowledge and status.
DNA studies estimate that the dingo arrived on the Australian continent between 4,700 and 18,000 years ago, representing perhaps the earliest example of human-assisted oceanic migration. They were adopted into Aboriginal society, maintaining a symbiotic partnership that lasted thousands of years, and for this reason have been celebrated as a cultural keystone species.
The dingo’s ability to locate water above and below ground was perhaps its most indispensable skill. Written records, artworks and photographs in museum archives reveal dingo water knowledge as recorded by European explorers. Records reveal a number of accounts of wild/semi-wild dingoes leading Europeans to lifesaving water springs.
In Australian cartography, a “Dingo Soak” refers to a waterhole dug by a mythical or live canine. There are other freshwater landmarks across the continent – “Dingo Springs”, “Dingo Rock”, “Dingo Gap”.
In Aboriginal mythology, the travels of ancestral dingoes map out songlines, graphemic maps tracing pathways across the continent from one water source to the next. Their stories tell of the formation of mountains, waterholes and star constellations. In some accounts, dingoes emerged from the ground as rainbows; in others they dug the waterholes and made waterfalls as they travelled through the landscape.
Human-dingo heritage is preserved in ethnographic collections in Paris, London and Washington DC. Artefacts include talismans and ornaments made of canine teeth, bones and fur; rain incarnations and love charms. Funerary containers were decorated with dingo teeth, providing protection for the spirit in the afterlife.
In one portrait from the Smithsonian collection, an Aboriginal woman wears a dingo tail headdress – a talisman believed to hold great power and worn by warriors going to battle.
The Smithsonian Institutional Archives also reveal a wealth of information about the post-colonial social history of the dingo. Many semi-wild dingoes were kept in early Euro-Australian settlements, then transported live to England, France and later to America as diplomatic gifts or exotic animal displays.
It was noted that the dingoes remained essentially wild despite numerous attempts to domesticate them – they failed to respond to any amount of discipline, kindness, bribery or coercion. Despite 230 years of surviving on the fringes of human settlements, travelling in menageries and circus troupes, living in zoos and semi-domestic arrangements, this remains true today. The dingo has retained its independent character and irreversible prey drive.
However, they did breed quite well in captivity and zoos often had excess pups to trade. Occasionally these pups went to private homes. Affectionate and tractable when young, eventually their carnivorous nature would get the better of them. The majority soon ended up in difficult circumstances and back in the hands of officials.
A Roosevelt connection
The Smithsonian holds records of the first live dingoes to arrive in Washington DC in 1901, a gift from the US consul to New South Wales. A number of pups were later born at the National Zoo and documented in the daybooks and records of births, deaths, sales and exchange.
One file contains a curious letter, offering a home to one of the dingo pups on display, dated May 14 1908. The request for the pup was signed by Theodore Roosevelt junior. At the time, Theodore’s father was in office as the 26th president of the United States, and the Roosevelt family were in residence at the White House.
The Roosevelt children were well known for their eclectic pet collection. Many arrived as diplomatic gifts and ended up at the National Zoo, or were traded through the local Schmid’s Bird and Pet Animal Emporium at 712 12th Street NW. The list included snakes (which ended up, uninvited, in the Oval Office) and a pig, smuggled into the presidential residence under the care of a young Quentin Roosevelt.
The pig, once discovered, ended up in Schmid’s Emporium for sale under a sign stating: “this pig slept last night in the White House”. No records have surfaced about the Roosevelts’ dingo. However, five months later – around the time that the pup would have been challenging all boundaries of domestication – a sale notice appeared in The Washington Post, dated October 16 1908, under: DOGS, PETS, ETC.
“JUST RECEIVED, Dingo, Australian wild dog … SCHMID’S BIRD STORE 712 12TH.”
The first live exhibit of dingoes in an international display appeared in the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes in Paris in 1803. The pair, a male and female, had been collected by Captain Nicholas Baudin in Port Jackson, and transported to France on Le Naturalist in the care of François Péron (zoologist) and Charles-Alexandre Lesueur (artist).
Frederick Cuvier, naturalist and zookeeper, was assigned to care for the dingoes in Paris. In 1924, he wrote:
This dog, who was female, was about eighteen months when she arrived in Europe. She lived in freedom in the vessel where she was embarked, and despite the corrections inflicted on her, as well as a young male that died as a result of a punishment too harsh, she continued to evade punishment and consume all that suited her appetite.
The female lived for seven years in the gardens, the male survived just two months after arrival.
Eventually the bodies of both were transferred to the stores of the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle and preserved for perpetuity. Notes in the museum state that early on in the voyage of Le Naturalist, before departing King Island for France, the male dingo had “been too brutally castrated because of his independent character” and these injuries eventually killed him.
The taxidermy specimens remain in the vaults of the museum today.
NASA’s dingo encounter
In 2006, a team of NASA scientists from the Smithsonian’s Centre for Earth and Planetary Studies were in Australia’s Simpson Desert studying the formation of parallel desert dunes similar to those found on Mars.
Senior scientist Ted Maxwell took a photo of a wild dingo casually observing the scientists while they were staking out a dune on the Colson Track. Maxwell recorded the co-ordinates of their location, noting that it was a 60-kilometre journey across the desert to Dalhousie Springs, the nearest known permanent water source. The dingo appears completely at ease.
Another reference to a dingo appears in the Smithsonian records in 2014, this time as the NASA Curiosity Rover crossed the Martian landscape. The vehicle passed an ancient dried freshwater lake on Mars, before travelling up through “Dingo Gap” in the sand dunes.
The NASA scientists had mapped the surface of Mars into quadrangles, and named the locations after sites on Earth with a similar ancient geology or rock formations. Dingo Gap is named after a location near the remote Kimberly quadrangle in Western Australia.
So, in contemporary celestial narrative, a valley on the Martian landscape is named after the Australian wild dog, the dingo, that thrived for thousands of years in one of the most extreme environments on Earth.