A caravanserai is a place of sanctuary and rest along the Silk Road, an ancient trading route from China to Rome, which went through the heart of Afghanistan. The National Gallery of Art in DC currently has an exhibition of artifacts from the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul, and it looks extraordinary.

Dating back 2,000 years and more, the works belong to the National Museum of Afghanistan, Kabul, whose motto is "A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive."…

Ranging in date from 2200 BC to AD 200, the objects present a rich mosaic of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage and are drawn from four archaeological sites. The works include gold bowls with artistic links to Mesopotamia from Tepe Fullol in northern Afghanistan; bronze and stone sculptures from the site of the former Greek city of Aï Khanum; bronzes, ivories, and painted glassware imported from Roman and Indian markets discovered in Begram; and more than 100 gold ornaments from among the 20,000 pieces known as the "Bactrian Hoard," found in 1978 in Tillya Tepe, the site of six nomad graves.

Maps will illustrate the locations of some 1500 archaeological sites, ancient cities, the routes known as the Silk Road, and regions that relate to the artifacts….

The people of Afghanistan have survived multiple wars and invasions over the years. They have a rich cultural heritage dating back many, many centuries, that was influenced, in part, by traders from the outside who traversed its landscape on the path of riches trading silks and other commodities along the way.

When you think about the breadth of this historical and philosophical crossroads, it is an amazing amalgam of some of the richest civilizations that the world has ever seen. And then, you glimpse what they are facing in the present:

The grim facts: Instability and an expanding insurgency in the south is keeping 40,000 children out of school in Kandahar province. Out of 360 existing schools, most built since the Taliban were overthrown in 2001, only 232 were open as of last month; the rest were either put to the flame by anti-education, anti-government militants, shut down because parents fear exposing their children to violence, or closed due to the absence of teachers, themselves routinely threatened with death, often enough slain to make the bloody point.

The situation is particularly wretched for girls: only 35 per cent of enrolled students in Afghanistan are female. Currently, one-third of schools operated by the Ministry of Education are boys-only. Further, many parents don’t want their daughters being educated by male teachers, yet only 28 per cent of teachers are women.

With fighting now a daily occurrence in the five southern provinces – bombings and improvised explosive devices on the roads and gun battles – it is simply not safe to attend school, though many districts struggle on, holding class for hundreds of students at a time under outdoor tents.

"It has been very hard, but we are trying to give ourselves a future,” says Sadia Rochi, who has been teaching English at the centre for the last 18 months. "You have to be very brave to be a teacher in Kandahar these days.”

Ehsan, centre director, adds that it’s not just the Taliban who thwart educational objectives in Afghanistan. "The warlords, including some in the government, don’t like the idea of enlightenment either. For them, it’s better to keep Afghans in the dark.”

That the Afghan people struggle to continue to learn, to reach for something better, that these people are still yearning for sanctuary and light in a land so crisscrossed by war, so mired in intimidation and fear, is a testament to the strength of the human spirit.

(YouTube — Loreena McKennitt — Caravanserai.)