In 1964, the Afghan King Zahir Shah was hunting in the marshlands by the Oxus river, close to the Soviet border.
One of the local villagers showed him a carved stone. This turned out to be a fortuitous move.
You see, the King was a passionate antiquities expert. He immediately recognised its significance and got a team of French archaeologists based in Kabul on the case.
It turns out that sitting at the confluence of two rivers, in a broadly triangular shape with sides a mile long, was a Greek city.
A Greek city complete with gymnasium, palace, theatre and 60 metre-high tabular acropolis. It is know today as Aï Khanum after a local medieval princess but its original name is lost to us.
Now, 1964 is comparatively late in the day when it comes to building a mental picture of how -for want of a better term- the history of magical belief developed.
It’s certainly much too late to have had an impact on how we see western magic’s key contributors as this view was largely formed in the nineteenth century (along with much of our ideas about ‘energy’).
But it very much has something to add, especially considering the endless debate surrounding the original Mount Olympus, whether Dionysus was an import, the extent to which Eastern ideas influenced Alexandrian Gnosticism and so on.
Regarding that last one, Aï Khanum indicates Hindu/Buddhist ideas probably influenced -or at least contributed to- the Gnostic soup more than we think as Alexandrian glassware is found all through Begram and its surrounds. (The reincarnation/strict behavioural codes to minimise karmic impact/sexual taboos line up too neatly. With no evidence to support me on this, my current best guess is that broadly Gnostic worldviews evolved in Alexandria but there was awareness among its adherents of a ‘technique’ from the east -Buddhism- that could also be used to avoid rebirth.)
Regardless, the sustained contact with Alexandria was there. In fact, a drinking glass found at Begram is the world’s only reliable contemporaneous images of the great Pharos of Alexandria.
The glassware, along with other trade items, would arrive by sea at the mouth of the Indus and then head upriver and inland, indicating sustained mercantile -but not political- contact.
Historians of the classical age were aware of Bactrian civilisation, with its “thousand cities” and its fertile land but they were always more interested in what was going on in the Mediterranean than further east. In fact, Afghanistan has been referred to as part of ‘The Orient’ since Alexander conquered it.
So it was sort of this great, amorphous blob on the map of classical civilisation.
The thing is, though, something substantial must have been happening there, and something worthwhile, because Alexander left more Greek and Macedonian military outposts and colonies in Bactria than anywhere else in his vast empire.
It could have been any number of things. The land was the location of the first ever world trade in precious commodities (Lapis Lazuli), the Oxus River civilisation sat adjacent to the Indus/Kush culture, it provided control of overland trade routes to India and also, perhaps most simply, because you could “grow anything there but olives”.
Lesson 1: Impermanence
Yesterday was one of my semi-regular ‘art date’ Saturdays. After coffee, it began at the Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World exhibit at the British Museum. (It’s been extended till July 17 if you’re around and haven’t seen it.)
As you enter the exhibit, there is a recording on a loop where various curators talk about the objects they consider the most important. Here is where I received my first lesson on impermanence.
Even our mental pictures of Afghanistan are wrong. In the two centuries before Christ the whole northern area was green and fecund. You could grow anything there but olives (for some reason). And what they grew was grapes. Right across northern Afghanistan were hundreds of vineyards dedicated to Dionysus. He and Silenus show up repeatedly on glassware and objects from across the region. (The Dionysian glassware in the exhibit is more stunning than the gold, if you ask me.)
And I can guarantee those ancient viticulturalists, as they poured out their offerings, ever thought that one day their bounteous Dionysian land would be occupied by a god you could reasonably consider his exact opposite. Everything even looks opposite.
It’s the same lesson we find in the contemporaneous Warren Cup. With a long enough timeframe, your ideas about how god and the universe works are shown to be ridiculously small and tribal. There is something almost infantile in the hubristic notion of holding opinions about How Things Work.
The city was abandoned in phases ending ultimately in 140BC. Nomads, displaced from China, sacked the city on the way through Bactria but the Greeks had already left. The locals (non-Greeks) had re-occupied and re-used the buildings but these were all sacked and burnt down.
However, by this time, Greeks and educated locals had already moved to the latest power in the region, Begram, bringing Cybele, karma, Pythagorus and marijuana with them.
Once it’s made, you can’t un-combine ingredients in a soup. Watch this video about the Greek legacy.
Lesson 2: Syncretism is the norm
Aï Khanum was Greek in layout and purpose but not in makeup. It was a city of locals and foreigners, all occupying various levels of society, all bringing their gods with them.
And the gods liked to mix just as much as the people. One of the Greek rulers of the Bactrian Empire converted to Buddhism. Aï Khanum, Begram, these were cities where ivory chairs carved with Hindu dancing girls were installed in temples to Hermes, where Buddha was discussed in the same breath as Plato.
There is an important difference between continuity and persistence. Continuity is mostly a cognitive error that arises from thinking some things are ‘pure’ or ‘core’ to a tradition and other elements are ‘foreign’.
Do you know that the French (particularly Les Provençales) and the Italians (particularly the Genoese and Piedmontese) have been arguing for centuries over which country invented macaroons, bouillabaise, pesto, solid chocolate, bon bons and all manner of foods? As if deliciousness somehow recognised something so flimsy as national boundaries. Especially European ones!
Continuity says that an idea or a food or a god continues in an unbroken line from its origin down to you. Persistence says that an idea good enough or a food delicious enough or a god useful enough will persist over time -it does not need to be continuous, it does not need to be unbroken and it is certainly never ‘pure’.
Pizza is syncretically persistent. Putting things on top of bread is as old as agriculture. Flash-baked flatbread with herb and dairy topping originated in the Levant two thousand years ago. The introduction of tomato to Europe did wondrous things for the dish served to Queen Margherita. Deep dish pizza originated in Chicago (probably) because Italian migrants only had access to metal pie dishes rather than baking stones.
Pizza isn’t a ‘tradition’. It’s the best food in the world. That’s why it’s still around.
Lesson 3: Magicians should steal from the Kabul museum
The motto of the Kabul museum would be instantly understood by magicians…
A Nation stays alive when its culture stays alive
It’s almost Hermetic. It speaks to the conscious building of sacred space by installing magical objects in a specific area. It says you can build anew an identity and history by taking physical objects imbued with magic and setting them in a propitious place. It is talismanic magic on a national scale.
Around half of the items in the exhibit have been touring the world for a few years on their way back to Kabul. London is apparently their last stop.
I like the idea, because again it’s a magical one, that these divine likenesses and holy objects have been travelling the planet, challenging us to look again, to look with wonder on probably the most misunderstood corner of the earth.
It seems somehow fitting that they are emblems of shared wisdom and cultural harmony (coming in the wake of invasion). And now they are on their way back to build a better, clearer story of their own home. How wonderful.
By reinstalling important objects, by reclaiming their meaning, you can reclaim a current, reclaim a story.
This is probably something we should do with magic’s own story.