Greek influence on art and religion along the Silk Road started with the Macedonian invasion in the 4thcentury BC and lasted until around the 7th century AD with the Islamic conquest of the region. During this period, Greeks inspired the art of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom (250 BC-130 BC), the Indo-Greek Kingdom (180 BC-10 BC) and the Kushan Empire (30 AD-375 AD). Prior to Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Indus Valley, Buddhist art was aniconic and Buddha was symbolised in different ways such as an empty throne, the Bodhi tree, or by his footprint. However, the Greek inspiration in the region is slightly distinguishable with the first depictions of anthropomorphic Buddha sculptures and syncretic deities such as the Sun God Apollo.
Goddess of Victory: Toprak Kala, Chorasmia, High Palace ‘hall of Victories’ 3rd – 4th century AD
The representation of Buddha sculptures are often clothed uniquely with Greco-Roman togas and in some cases the sculptures stance with contrapposto position. After continuous raids in Afghanistan by various different cultures such as Umayyads, Abbasids and Mongolians, the approach to Buddhist culture changed. This approach consisted of cultural changes by destruction and assimilation which continued until today.
Prior to the Macedonian invasion over the Central Asia, artists were unenthusiastic on depicting the Buddha with anthropomorphic features. Rather, he was mostly represented with various symbols such as;
Veneration of the Empty Throne: North India (Mathura, Uttar Pradesh) 100-200 AD Sandstone, carved relief
Empty throne, Buddha’s footprint, the wheel or in other words dharmachakra that we can observe on the Indian flag and the Bodhi tree. The most probable reasons could be the concerns of misinterpretation or Buddha’s bequeath which is stated in the Digha Nikaya, which are the Buddhist scriptures about Buddha’s regarding discouragement for his anthropomorphic depictions, after his body dissolves.
Kasyapa, Pupil of Buddha: Dunhuang 8th – 9th century AD Loess, clay, wood, paint
Standing Buddha carries all the Greek features that are mentioned above including the hand gestures and realistic view. Moreover, there are other diverse Buddha depictions which can be observed mostly in the Gandhara region during the Kushan period (30 AD-375 AD). Among these sculptures that are influenced highly by Greeks are the sitting Buddha located in the Hermitage Museum in the Silk Road Exhibition, Amsterdam.
Small Buddha: Khotan 4th – 6th century AD Carved Stone
Similar to standing example of the Buddha, he is wearing himation including realistic features as well. It is clear that the Silk Road facilitated the expansion of Greco-Roman influence upon Buddhist art and sculpture.