BERLIN (Reuters Life!) - Sculpted figures from Greek myth line up alongside seated statues of Buddha and images of ancient Indian deities in a new Berlin exhibition of artworks from one of the world's biggest Muslim nations, Pakistan.
Tracing the far-reaching cultural legacy of Alexander the Great's conquests in South Asia, the collection in the Martin Gropius Bau from the historic region of Gandhara is the biggest of its kind ever to be shown outside Pakistan.
"The exhibition shows a very different side of Pakistan to what the media tends to present," said Christian Luczanits, a curator of the exhibition. "The multi-cultural links to the West that Gandhara reveals are simply fascinating."
Centred on modern Peshawar, Gandhara became a nexus for the fusion of western and eastern culture after it successively fell under the control of Persia, Macedon, the Mauryans, Greeks from neighboring Bactria and the Buddhist empire of the Kushans.
Alexander died in 323 B.C., just a few years after invading the region, and the Hellenistic influence emerged only through his Macedonian and Greek successors in the area.
The ensuing cross-fertilization of Greek art forms with local traditions proved so successful it endured for nearly a millennium, bringing a classical naturalism to sculpture in Buddhism, whose origins lay in the Indian subcontinent.
At a time when international news coverage of Pakistan has been filled with reports of civil unrest and religious strife, the exhibition is an important reminder of the positive achievements of the region's historic diversity, Luczanits said.
"This exhibition has global resonance, and it will hopefully have major resonance in Pakistan too that the country's cultural legacy is getting international recognition," he said.
"We had great support from the Pakistanis who helped us organize it. Apart from anything else, they've had enough of their country just being associated with terror attacks."
Set at times against Greek-style columns and porticos, scenes from the life of Buddha form the heart of the exhibition, a collection of around 300 works drawn largely from museums in Karachi, Taxila, Lahore, Peshawar and the Swat valley.
Elsewhere, sculptures of the Titan Atlas, a grinning satyr's head and deities said to be the goddesses Athena and Aphrodite offset eastern iconography with a dose of Greek legend.
At a cost of over 1 million euros ($1.32 million), organizers had to transport the art through the Swat valley as battles raged between Islamist insurgents and government forces.
"We just hope everything will be calm when the works go back," said Maja Majer-Wallat, a spokeswoman for the federal Art and Exhibition Hall in Bonn, which first staged the exhibition.
Predominantly cut from schist, the detailed sculptures cover a period focusing on the opening five centuries of the first millennium, though older gold coins and ornaments also feature.
Gandhara also included parts of modern Afghanistan and the exhibition, which is due to move on to Zurich and Paris, was due to feature Afghan works, but they were ultimately withheld.
Greco-Bhuddist art was thrust back onto the international stage in 2001 when the Islamist Taliban declared the two massive standing Buddhas hewn into a cliff face in Afghanistan's Bamyan valley to be profane idols and blew them up.
Scheduled to run until August 10, the Berlin exhibition features a 3-D video reconstruction of one of the 6th Century Bamyan Buddhas, which were on UNESCO's World Heritage List.
Editing by Steve Addison