Early in May 1833, a Western explorer set out south from Kabul. Although Afghanistan was breaking apart around him and teetering on the verge of foreign invasion, he thought little of the dangers. His objective was a small and inconspicuous mound which had earlier attracted his attention. Here, when he had dug for several days, he unearthed some astonishing treasures: two ten-foot statues, covered in gold leaf and vivid lapis lazuli, perfectly preserved after 1,500 years concealment, and a cache of manuscripts in an unknown language. It was the beginning of a pioneering voyage of discovery which would bring to light Afghanistan’s forgotten Buddhist heritage, uncover its place on the ancient Silk Road, and reveal the first traces of the disappeared Afghan kingdoms of Alexander the Great.
The explorer, Charles Masson, was no dry archaeologist. He was an intrepid traveller, happy to wander penniless and in rags through the hazardous tribal regions on the Afghan frontier, braving robbery, slavery and murder to see the real life of the region. As he scoured Afghanistan for lost treasures, he was also on the run. He had deserted from the Indian Army, and faced execution by the British if he should fall again into their hands. Hunted down in Kabul by an Indian agent of the Raj, he was given a choice: use his knowledge of Afghanistan to spy for the British, or face the gallows if he were ever captured. Forced to be a secret agent, he had a first-hand view of the country’s slide towards British occupation in the First Afghan War of 1839. His disgust at the debacle led him to become the first outspoken critic of western military intervention in Afghanistan. Charles Masson’s adventurous life and experience not only unravels great mysteries of Afghan history, but tells us much about the problems it faces today.
Bijan Omrani is an historian and classicist specialising in the history of Afghanistan and Central Asia. He was educated at Wellington, and then read Classics and English at Lincoln College Oxford, where he contributed to the Spectator as an undergraduate.
He produced his first major publication, Afghanistan: A Companion and Guide, in collaboration with the seasoned Afghan traveller Matthew Leeming in 2005, and since then has edited and published numerous works, articles and book reviews on Afghan and Central Asian history. A special area of research has been the controversial area of the ...
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