Amid war, ancient art is timely reminder of ‘dignity’

Why We Wrote This

For a society going through trying times, recovering lost ancient art holds out the promise of more than just reconnecting with the past, but finding the pride – and strength – to persevere in the present.

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Michael Barry, a historian of the Islamic world and professor at the American University of Afghanistan, teaches students about the significance of medieval Afghan art, May 16, 2019, in Kabul, Afghanistan.

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Michael Barry, a historian of the Islamic world at the American University of Afghanistan, has spent years retrieving the past glories of Afghanistan’s Islamic art. The delicate works – painted on small manuscript pages for royalty in medieval Afghan palaces – had been cut from their bindings and sold, dispersed in collections around the world.

But today that art, expertly reproduced into images 4 feet tall, is on display in Kabul and Herat, in their day both centers of Islamic artistry. And it is reminding Afghans of a more distinguished past.

The public reaction has been powerful, says Omar Sharifi, a social anthropologist, noting that the visitor’s book at the permanent exhibit in Herat Castle exudes surprise and fascination. For a lot of Afghans, he says, “it is a sense of return to normalcy, despite the war, something that is bringing a level of peace that is very elusive in this country.”

“The challenge is to pierce this pall of miserable-ism,” says Dr. Barry. “To bring to light the petals of the rose, and not just the thorns, is part of a balanced appreciation for a human community.”

For centuries, the past glories of Afghanistan’s Islamic art – delicate works meticulously painted in bold hues on small manuscript pages – had been scattered. Sliced from their bindings and sold, they landed in collections around the world.

Amid the nation’s gruesome modern history of war, the meaning and significance of the art – created for royalty in medieval Afghan palaces as reflections of mystic poetry and meditations on love, power, and the divine – were lost and largely forgotten.

But today that art is finding new illumination, reminding Afghans of a more distinguished past as they view high-quality, large reproductions of the originals on display in Kabul and Herat, in their day both centers of Islamic artistry.

“It is no exaggeration to say that in Herat people have literally wept at recovering this glory, this jolt of dignity recovered, this notion that, ‘We, too, have given to the world,’” says Michael Barry, a historian of the Islamic world at the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF).

“The effort has been to restore the fundamental dignity, the cultural dignity of the Afghan people, by making available to them for the first time, in practically half a thousand years, the works of art created by their ancestors,” says Dr. Barry, who taught for years at Princeton and has been instrumental in locating more than 1,000 artworks and interpreting them anew.

“The challenge is to pierce this pall of miserable-ism. ... Everything in Afghanistan is associated with war, crime, corruption, violations of human rights, poverty, what have you,” he says. “To bring to light the petals of the rose, and not just the thorns, is part of a balanced appreciation for a human community.”

The public reaction has been powerful, says Omar Sharifi, a social anthropologist and country director of Boston University’s American Institute of Afghanistan Studies (AIAS). The visitor’s book at the permanent exhibit in Herat Citadel, where many of the paintings were first created in northwest Afghanistan, exudes surprise and fascination, he says.

“Oh, we do exist”

“A lot of [Afghans] put it in the context of post-2001, [as] a process of rebirth, after years of war and a lot of things lost,” says Dr. Sharifi, who is also a Kabul-trained physician. “For a lot of them, it is a sense of return to normalcy, despite the war, something that is bringing a level of peace that is very elusive in this country.”

For many it was also an affirmation, says Dr. Sharifi, quoting one visitor’s book entry: “Oh, we do exist, we’re not just always a blank space in the life of the region, in the cultural history of the region.”

Dr. Barry spent years locating the dispersed pages of the ancient manuscripts, recovering them from nearly 30 collections and institutions from Los Angeles to Kuwait City to Bombay.

Working closely with the AIAS, which secured funding from the U.S. and French Embassies in Kabul, Dr. Barry was able to have the intricate paintings – each one just 6 by 8 inches in size – expertly photographed and reproduced with no loss of resolution into images 4 feet tall.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
Michael Barry, lecturing at the American University of Afghanistan, Sept. 11, 2019, in Kabul, has identified more than 1,000 artworks in 30 collections around the world, all painted in the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries in Afghanistan, when the kingdoms of Herat and Kabul had a far-reaching cultural impact.

More than 100 of the paintings are today on permanent display in Herat, and another set lines the halls of the AUAF campus in Kabul. Yet another may soon be shown in the recently renovated Darulaman Palace in Kabul.

“It is completely forgotten today that the Kingdom of Herat in the 15th century was the most important center of Islamic art, literature, and science in the entire Islamic community,” says Dr. Barry.

Islamic sultanates from Spain to Turkey, Egypt, and India all looked toward the art of Herat “as their fountainhead and as their Florence. ... It was the school, that’s where the masters came from,” he says.

For Afghans, a revelation

The result has been a revelation that has captivated ordinary Afghans.

“I was surprised when I received an e-mail saying we have lectures on Islamic art, and I said, ‘Is there any Islamic art that exists on this earth? Is that possible?’” recalls Shafiqa Khpalwak, a fourth-year political science student at AUAF.

“I never had any idea of that,” she says. “We live in an Islamic country. ... We have been taught Islamic knowledge since grade one, but they never talked to us about these things.”

Dr. Sharifi, the anthropologist who is currently teaching at AUAF, recalls how emotions welled up during one tour he gave of the art on campus to a member of President Ashraf Ghani’s office.

“Why? Because the way the message of the painting was deeply woven, both in an Islamic way [that] life is seen, and the larger context of what love and faith mean,” recalls Dr. Sharifi. “So when I explained that, I saw the tears coming to this man, and he said: ‘I feel like I am awakened after a long sleep.’”

Dr. Barry’s love of Afghanistan dates back to his first childhood visits in the early 1960s. After the Soviet invasion of the country in 1979, he helped bring medicine to mujahideen fighters by pack train, dodging helicopter attacks and living perilously with Afghans of all backgrounds.

His scholarship has been key to interpreting the art he has gathered back together on Afghan soil for the first time since it disappeared from here in the 16th century.

“These books were cut to pieces; the paintings were extracted from them. Their connection to any body of literature [was] practically abolished,” says Dr. Barry. “The curators of this art ... purposely ignored the literary context that these paintings are actually meditations upon.

“This language had become as mute as Egyptian hieroglyphs at the beginning of the 19th century,” he says. His work has aimed to recover that symbolic language, in which “every human gesture ... every horse, every fox, every bird, corresponds to a specific allegory” in Islamic mysticism.

Afghanistan’s gifts

As he walks among the images at AUAF, Dr. Barry describes them with enthusiasm, connecting dots between the words of poetry – rendered in exquisite calligraphy, and read with theatrical gravitas – and the symbolism that played with time-honored narratives that celebrate love, the power of the “unseen world,” and gardens of Paradise.

One measure of the Kingdom of Herat’s wealth was a description by the first Portuguese agent to reach Hormuz, on the Persian Gulf, who in 1504 said that “every day” 4,000 camels arrived from Herat, laden with silk.

Centuries later, the French painter Henri Matisse was heavily influenced by exhibitions he saw of the Afghan art, and their use of rich pigments, displayed with other Islamic arts in Paris in 1903, and Munich in 1910.

With the regathering of that artwork now in Afghanistan itself, for the first time, it is the turn of the Afghans to be impressed with their own legacy, beyond their current headlines about war.

“To recognize the high civilization of the people you help is to tell people: ‘Right now you are going through hard times. ... But to recognize what you have created, the beautiful things you have contributed to the civilization of all humanity, is to appreciate your gifts to us, and not just our gifts to you,’” says Dr. Barry.

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