Uncovering Afghanistan’s Pre-Islamic Past



Just outside the city of Ghazni in Afghanistan is the Buddhist site of Tapa Sardar overlooking the Dasht-i Manara plain along the ancient ‘Southern Route’. On a hillock are the remains of a Kushana-era (2-3rd century CE) monastery complex that was once known as ‘Kanika maharaja vihara or ‘the temple of the Great King Kanishka’. Also found here was a colossal clay image of Goddess Durga, which shone an interesting spotlight on the pre-Islamic, Hindu heritage of Afghanistan.

For centuries, Afghanistan was at the crossroads between India, Persia and China, and this created a unique confluence of rich material culture. While Buddhism thrived under the Kushana Empire, the ‘Hindu Shahi’ rulers of Kabul and Ghazni were great patrons of Hinduism. The ‘Hindu Shahis’ (850–1026 CE) were two dynasties that held sway over the Kabul Valley (Northeastern Afghanistan) and Gandhara (modern-day Pakistan), during the early medieval period. While these kings referred to themselves as ‘Shahis’, the Arabs and Turks referred to them as ‘Hindu Shahis’ as they practised Hinduism. The Hindu Shahis built a large number of temples and religious monuments in the Kabul valley and in the Gandharan region. Sadly, decades of wars and religious fanaticism has meant that this heritage has all but been destroyed. Even today, we know very little of the Hindu Shahis, the last Hindu rulers of Afghanistan.

Braving wars and terrorist threats, one organisation that has been at the forefront in studying Afghanistan’s pre-Islamic and early Islamic history is the Italian Archaeological Mission to Afghanistan, currently administrated by the ISMEO (International Mediterranean and Oriental Studies Association) and closely associated with the University of Naples “L’Orientale”. It was the Mission which first excavated Tapa Sardar in the 1960s and ‘70s, briefly resuming it work in 2003. Facing grave threats, the Mission even contributed to the establishment of a new Museum in Ghazni in 2013, which was sadly destroyed in a bomb attack the following years.

I spoke to Dr Anna Filigenzi, the head of the Italian Archaeological Mission to Afghanistan and a member of the Italian Archaeological Mission to Pakistan. Dr Filigenzi spoke about the significance of the Tapa Sardar site, the forgotten Hindu Shahi dynasty, as well as the important role played by the Mission in the region since the 1960s.

The site of Tapa Sardar as seen from the plains
The site of Tapa Sardar as seen from the plains|Italian Archaeological Mission

What does the site of Tapa Sardar reveal to us about the pre-Islamic history of Afghanistan?

Dr Filigenzi: Tapa Sardar seems to have enjoyed great prestige throughout its entire lifespan. This is clearly and unmistakably evidenced by its exceptionally prominent position with respect to a vast landscape, the high level of its architectures and decorations and by certain features of its iconographic programmes, as the one mentioned above.

According to an inscription found on a pot at the site, Tapa Sardar was a royal Kushan foundation known as the ‘Kanika maharaja vihara’ (the temple of the Great King Kanishka). No doubt, the site remained a reference point for the ruling élites which followed one another and was probably used for ceremonies of great political relevance. The large-scale and grandiose renovation in the 7th/8th century CE following a devastating fire (we have no direct evidence that it was caused by an Arab incursion in the second half of the 7th century, although this might be possible) bear witness to the vital role that Buddhism continued to play in the area long after Islam started advancing.

The site certainly benefited from generous political patronage, which made it possible for it to avail the services of skilled and creative workshops. Thus, we may say that the site gives us the double opportunity to observe the development and changes of artistic trends from a privileged and long-lasting centre of activity and, at the same time, to reconsider outdated narratives about the post-Kushan period.

Although the history of the Huns and their Shahi successors is still a matter of debate, it is clear that it did not mark a period of cultural regression. As archaeology tells us, Buddhist art enjoyed under post-Kushan dynasties a period of renovated vigour and splendour. We start perceiving now the legacy left by artistic forms created during this period to Himalayan art, for instance. I am sure that future research will shed more light on such important phenomena of cultural continuity, opening new windows into the late pre-Islamic period and its innovative contribution to trans-regional histories.

The topographic plan of the site
The topographic plan of the site|Italian Archaeological Mission

Have there been discoveries at Tapa Sardar that tell us about its connections with other Kushana period sites such as Mes Aynak, Begram and sites in South Asia?

Dr Filigenzi: Actually, at Tapa Sardar (as elsewhere) the Kushan period is only partially documented due to later renovations which obliterated the earliest phases. However, with regard to later periods, several points of contacts have been detected among different sites such as Tapa Sardar, Tepe Narenj, Mes Aynak, just to speak of newly excavated sites.

Leaving apart generic (and expectable) affinities, resulting from shared cultural and visual codes, mention can be made of precise and significant coincidences. For instance, at both Tapa Sardar and Tepe Narenj, in the 8th century ca., there were fire altars in secluded rooms, and traces of a colossal image of Durga killing the buffalo were also found at Mes Aynak. Furthermore, Mes Aynak yielded specimens of exactly the same moulded decorations as Tapa Sardar. Hopefully, these first pieces of evidence will lay the groundwork for new research agendas about the circulation of artistic models and the mobility of artisans.

Detail of the main cultic image
Detail of the main cultic image|Italian Archaeological Mission

While the spread of Buddhism in Afghanistan has been studied and is well known, what do we know of the worship of Hindu deities such as Durga, Ganesha and Vishnu in pre-Islamic Afghanistan?

Dr Filigenzi: Buddhism seems to have been not only the hegemonic religious culture in pre-Islamic Afghanistan, but also in the history of our field, a major focus of attention. Under such circumstances, we risk to underrate other realities, especially with regard to the period that, by and large, we can define ‘Shahi’. The Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang, who visited Afghanistan in the early 7th century CE, while speaking of Kapisa in the north-eastern part of the country, mentions the existence of a number of non-Buddhist temples and describes various types of ascetics: naked (most probably Jaina) and smeared with ashes, or wearing a chaplet of skulls on the head (most probably Shaiva).

Material evidence is still scarce and scattered but of such a nature that dedicated investigations would certainly reveal much more. For the time being, we only know a few marble sculptures representing Hindu gods from Afghanistan (Surya, Umamaheshvara, Ganesha, Durga) but also a Surya temple at Khair Khana. Hindu iconography was well known in pre-Islamic Afghanistan and it was adopted by Buddhism as well. The Durga from Tapa Sardar is a telling case in point. Interestingly, although with differences imposed by the use of different media, the colossal clay image of Durga from Tapa Sardar follows the same model as the more or less coeval marble Durga from Gardez.

Obviously, individual marble statues could come from any context, but the recent discovery of a Hindu temple at Barikot (Swat, Pakistan) makes us realistically expect similar discoveries in future in both areas. Unfortunately, the present situation in Afghanistan does not allow intensive archaeological activities, but, while waiting a better future for Afghanistan (for the country and its people first, and not only for archaeology), we can meanwhile refine our plans and methods and re-formulate our research questions in a more inclusive way.

Head of bejewelled Buddha from chapel
Head of bejewelled Buddha from chapel|Italian Archaeological Mission

Based on the available archaeological evidence, what do we know of the Shahi dynasty of Kabulistan and Zabulistan? Why is there so little material available on them?

Dr Filigenzi: Actually, we should start assembling all available evidence from the Shahi levels of excavated sites across Afghanistan and Pakistan. We might discover neglected information and, in any case, a clearer picture would probably emerge. For the time being, let’s say that material evidence supports the vague notions provided by the scarce (and later) written sources about the presence of ‘Shahi’ dynasties (and connected local rulers) across Kabulistan, Zabulistan and areas of modern-day Pakistan. We are progressing slowly, but significantly.

As mentioned before, we know for sure, by now, that the period between the fall of the Kushan Empire and the establishment of Islam was not a ‘dark age’. The archaeological evidence speaks quite clearly. However, one may say that our historical knowledge is under construction. As for the scarcity of available material, I will try to explain this in more detail below.

The Great Stupa at the south-east corner
The Great Stupa at the south-east corner|Italian Archaeological Mission

In your opinion, which is the most important archaeological site with respect to the Shahi dynasty and why?

Dr Filigenzi: I cannot mention a site which is the most important in absolute terms. If we expect to find something ‘purely’ or ‘unmistakably’ Shahi, in most cases our attempts will predictably remain frustrated. Several sites yielded evidence that is chronologically and culturally related to the Shahi period (coins especially, but also architectural remains and art pieces). Let’s start from this, and let’s forget, for the time being, labels such as absolutely Buddhist or absolutely Brahmanical to define this or that period and dynastic line.

Real life was certainly more complicated and nuanced. I would just mention two sites in Swat (i.e. the ancient Uddiyana, celebrated as one of the holiest lands of Buddhism, in modern-day Pakistan): Barikot and Tindo Dag. At Barikot, an imposing and most visible Brahmanical temple was built in the 7th century CE on the hilltop, in the period corresponding to the Turki Shahi’s rule. On the slope of the same hill, the remains of enigmatic buildings, dated to the Hindu Shahi period, were discovered. Most probably, they were religious in nature, but until further comparable evidence surfaces we will not be able to identify their specific function and affiliation. If one day we will discover that they were neither Buddhist nor Brahmanical, I would not be so much disconcerted. Let’s keep an open mind about what we do not know or recognise yet.

As for Tindo Dag, a small and deep cave with a relief (to be dated to the 7th/8th century CE) depicting Surya and his retinue at the entrance, echoes a tale reported by al-Biruni about the new birth from the rock simulated in Kabul by the Turki Shahi Barhatakin, which we can interpret as a ritual act suggesting a homology between the king and the rising sun.

But what about Buddhism in Swat at that time? Was it declining? Maybe, or maybe not. Probably, its hegemony was challenged like never before by a raise of Brahmanism, and still, in the same period, the region witnessed the blooming of new and much influential trends of proto-Vajrayanic Buddhist art. That is to say that the Shahi political and cultural presence could hardly be attested by radical changes but has to be carefully sought within apparently unbroken continuity.

Restoration of the Durga head at the Kabul Museum; deconstruction of the Durga image
Restoration of the Durga head at the Kabul Museum; deconstruction of the Durga image|Italian Archaeological Mission

What do you think of the current research on the Shahi dynasty? Do you think we shall discover more in the next few years?

Dr Filigenzi: Fortunately, the last decades marked substantial progress thanks to the combined efforts of archaeologists, art historians, numismatists and historiographers. With regard to Kabulistan and Zabulistan, I would like to mention the works by Shoshin Kuwayama, Giovanni Verardi, Michael Alram and Minoru Inaba, which started sharpening the focus, leading to ever clearer research questions.

Thanks to the discoveries made by the Italian Archaeological Mission to Pakistan, a more defined picture of the Shahi period began to emerge in Pakistan as well. The Austrian FWF research project ‘Cultural Formation and Transformation: Shahi Buddhist Art and Architecture from Afghanistan to the West Tibetan Frontier at the Dawn of the Islamic Era’ (2018-2021), led by Deborah Klimburg-Salter, with Michael Alram as National Research Partner, is a positive sign of how things are moving forward.

Very often, the problem is the lack of direct written sources, which not only deprives studies of a useful tool of investigation but, a widespread academic bias towards literacy also it makes difficult for non-text-based histories to get recognition. This makes it all the more important to increase the collection of material evidence and apply to it network analysis. However, archaeological data relevant to the study of this period, for their part, are not easy to acquire, due to different reasons.

As for Buddhist settlements, for instance, we have a better picture of the phases prior to the 9th century CE. The very last phases are instead insufficiently witnessed, either because of a general impoverishment of the Buddhist foundations or because they were directly affected by abandonment and decay. Besides, early Islamic buildings of great symbolic value might have willingly obliterated Shahi buildings of equivalent importance.

This seems to be the case, for instance, with the Ghaznavid mosque at Rajagira, the earliest mosque in Northern Pakistan and one of the earliest in the whole country. As for civil settlements, our knowledge is even more limited, often because of phenomena of continuity. In urban centres such as Kabul, the old town is obliterated by the modern one and archaeological excavations are virtually impossible. Besides, the urban segment must have constituted a low – although influential – percentage of the ancient population, but we know practically nothing about rural settlements and their economic and cultural contribution to the history of the country.

However, as I said before, to prepare future advancements, we must start formulating new and original research questions based on a thorough assessment of what we have. As experience teaches, what we have can say much of what we lack and of how should we proceed.

Sculptures of a donor couple discovered at Tepe Narenj
Sculptures of a donor couple discovered at Tepe Narenj| Italian Archaeological Mission

Can you tell us about the Italian Archaeological Mission to Afghanistan, its work and its aims?

Dr Filigenzi: The Italian Archaeological Mission has been operating in the country since 1957. It was founded by Giuseppe Tucci, the then president of IsMEO (Italian Institute for Middle and Far Eastern Studies), in the framework of a broader research programme which encompassed different areas, periods and cultures of Asia and converged in the IsMEO Centre for Studies and Archaeological Excavations in Asia.

Since the very beginning, the Mission’s activities were thus framed within a comprehensive scientific pursuit and were fully committed to a compliance with principles far ahead of the times. These were aimed, as stated in the official IsMEO bulletin, at ‘the solution of historical, philological, epigraphical, religious and artistic nature in a unitary conception of the culture of a people’ and at establishing correct practices, such as application of rigorous stratigraphic criteria, scrupulous documentation, use of the most appropriate technical aids, technological approach to the analysis and study of all types of finds, precise sense of responsibility for the preservation of monuments and artefacts discovered, and commitment towards processing and publishing the results of the Mission’s excavation reports and studies.

In accordance with these principles, the Mission started excavating and surveying both pre-Islamic and Islamic sites in the area of Ghazni, shedding light on previously unknown aspects of Afghanistan’s cultural history and its central role in creating and spreading artistic models throughout Asia.

Due to political events, the Mission suspended its field activities at the end of the 1970s and returned to Afghanistan in 2002. It soon resumed field work in Ghazni, its traditional area of activity, but in 2005, due to the continuing deterioration of the overall security situation, field work had to be suspended once again. However, thanks to specific agreements with the Archaeology Institute of Afghanistan and in a concerted effort with the Italian Foreign Ministry and the Italian Embassy in Kabul, we are presently supporting local excavation programmes.

In particular, two important Buddhist sites in the area of Kabul, Tepe Narenj and Qol-e Tut, were excavated in recent years under the aegis of the Archaeology Institute of Afghanistan and the field direction of Dr Zafar Paiman, with the financial and scientific assistance of the Mission.

In spite of the vicissitudes of history, studies went ahead uninterrupted and resulted in scientific publications based on both pre-conflict documentations and the data acquired from newly excavated sites.

Dr Anna Filigenzi
Dr Anna Filigenzi

I would like to stress here the importance of correct documentation procedures. Professor Roberta Giunta (the deputy director of the Mission and responsible for the Islamic sector) and I can be said to represent a new generation of scholars who first visited Afghanistan on the occasion of the post-conflict return to the country. However, our training could benefit from the careful documentation collected and filed by our predecessors, which, even after a long break in field activities, could take the form of scientific publications.

In this respect, worth mentioning are the volumes about the Islamic funerary inscription from Ghazni and the Buddhist caves of Jaghuri, by R Giunta and G Verardi, respectively, both published in the early 2000s and based exactly on the documentation collected during the 1950s through the late 1970s.

Thanks to the rigorous application of the principles mentioned above, it has also been possible, in recent years, to transfer the old analogue documentation onto digital support and build an online archive which fosters knowledge creation and sharing: http://ghazni.bradypus.net/

To sum up, I would say that the Mission’s efforts have always been invested not only in the discovery and physical conservation of artefacts, but also in the preservation and interpretation of their intangible value, through documentation, study and dissemination. The difficult post-conflict situation in Afghanistan and the consequent risk of cultural isolation of the country make these efforts more crucial than ever.

All images are courtesy of Italian Archeological Mission to Afghanistan

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