Bactria (thousand Cities ) is the current exhibition at the National Museum of Afghanistan
Wednesday, 05 March 2014
The region of Bactria, considered by many to be the original habitation of the Arians which always been very famous for its beauty. Bactria or the present-day northern Afghanistan is located between the Hindu Kush and the Oxus River (Amu Darya). On its southern and eastern flanks the Hindu Kush mountain range divides the region from Tibet and India; on its western side lays the grassy downs of Aria and Marginal, today also known as Herat and Marv.
Classical historians speak of the famous wealth of Bactria, its thousand cities, and the outstanding fertility of the soil. The ancient inhabitants are usually depicted to be of brave nature and in order to defend the fertile land of Bactria they were often in confect with the people of the surrounding regions such as the Scythians.
Balkh, the capital of Bactria, played a crucial role as cultural and political center of the famous Pishdadian, Cyanides and Aspa dynasties. It was also known to be the trade centre and crossroads of western and eastern cultures during the Achaemenid period and later. Balkh’s rolls as the trade centre of Bactria would persevere for a long time, as it became the capital of great Greco-Bactrian, Kushan, and Hephtalite Kingdoms.
During the Achaemenid period, Bactria was a semi-autonomous Satrapy (province) and to a large extent preserved its autonomy from the central government .At the same time, it served as a great support for the central government by defending against Scythians and Indians, which were a threat to the eastern part of the Achaemenid Empire in Bactria.
Religious life in Bactria was characterized by a number of religious beliefs and cults of different origin. The Zoroastrian religion emerged in Bactria in the 6th century BC and was founded by Zoroaster, who started the religion by preaching in the Gusshtasp court in Balkh. Buddhism has been also practiced there, until the sacred religion of Islam started flourishing and most of the population became Muslim.
During the last century, several archaeological teams performed excavation work in Bactria and shed more light upon the very little known history of the region.
The archaeological sites date to different periods:
- Stone Age: Qara Kamar,Aq Kupruk,Darra-i-Kor,Darra-i-Dadil
- Bronze Age: Dashli,Tepe Fullol,Hazar Som
- First periods of Arians and Achaemenid period: Citedal of Balkh, Chashma-i-Shafa
- Greco-Bactria and Scythian period: Ai Khanum, Tela Tepe, Dilberjin Tepe
- Kushan and later periods: Surkh Kotal, Chamn Qala, Chaqalaq Tepe, Qala Ahngaran
The numerous Archaeological sites discovered in the region of Bactria only support the statements of the Classical historians who speak about the thousand cities of Bactria.
The exhibition includes many artifacts dating from different periods and that were found in different locations in the region Of Bactria.
Stone Age of Bactria
Foreign teams of archaeologist, especially Americans, have led excavations and research on the Stone Age in Bactria. During these excavations many archaeological sites were found and important artifacts belonging to the Stone Age were discovered. The Stone Age is divided into three different periods, based on the sophistication and methods of tool design, namely the Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic.
Excavated artifacts from archaeological sites as Qara Kamar, Aq Kupurk, Zistgah Zadyan, Chinar Ginjishkan, and Darra-i-Kor in Bactria belonged to the Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic periods. The identifiable material of these artifacts consists mainly of quartz and flint stones. They were mostly used as tools or weapons.
In the Paleolithic period, human life was very simple. During this time people started using tools. Human mostly lived in caves near rivers, lakes, and streams, locations that could easily be defended against predators and rivals. The people subsisted by hunting wild animals for meat but they also gathered food.
During the Mesolithic period gradual domestication of plants and animals started, as well as formation of settled communities. New and more developed stone tools, seen in the development of chipping techniques, characterize the Mesolithic material culture. Sites in Bactria belonging to this period areGharMordaGosfand, Ghar Mar, Darra-i-Kor, Darra-i-Dadil, and Aq Kupurk.
During the Neolithic period, which is also known as the new Stone Age, dependence on domesticated animals and plants increased. Hereby, Human settlements became more permanent.
The technical development of the Neolithic period is characterized by stone tools which are shaped by polishing and grinding. Traces of crafts such as pottery and weaving are also found in this period.
Bactrian sites dating from the Neolithic period are: Darra-i- Kor, Darra-i-Dadil, Aq Kupruk, and Ghar Mar. Artifacts that were discovered include stone circles, Knife-shaped tools, arrowheads, etc.
Bronze Age of Bactria
The Bronze Age in Bactria heralded the emergence of civilization. During the Bronze Age, people started making tools and weapons out of metal. In the Beginning, only pure copper and stone tools were used. Later, by mixing tin with copper humans discovered the copper alloy, Bronze, which was widely used until the discovery of iron around 1000 BCE.
During the Bronze Age, a large Arian ethnic group inhabited Bactria. They established their own Kingdom with an organized system of governance. The Arians introduced irrigation systems that led with several civilized centers of the ancient world. Besides the productivity of the agricultural lands, Bactria was also known for having large mineral resources such as Lapis Lazuli. The semi-precious stone Lapis Lazuli has been found in jewelry of Egyptian pharos and in royal burials of Ur (Iraq), dating back to 2600 BCE which indicate the foreign trade relations of ancient Arianna, when lapis Lazuli was exported from Badakhshan to the major cities of Mesopotamia and further west to Syria and Egypt. Another indication of trade relations are the grave goods from Tepe Fullol and their artistic similarity with artifacts in the Mesopotamian and Indus civilizations. Finds of ceramic, stone, and metal object indicate the presence of adroit craftsmen in the region. Archaeological sites in Bactria dating from the Bronze Age are Dashli, Shortughai, Hazar Som, and others that have not yet been excavated.
Expedition of Alexander and the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom
After the defeat of king of the Persian Achaemenid Empire, Darius-III, Alexander entered Afghanistan through the city of Aria (Herat) and after crossing the Hindu Kush, reached Bactria.
Around that time Basses was the Satrap (governor) of Bactria who also fought together with Darius’ army against Alexander. Unfortunately, he was defeated and Alexander conquered Bactria. However, it took several years for Alexander to establish control in Bactria and suppress the strong insurgency campaign.
In order to secure safe settlements for the many Macedonian and Greek soldiers he left behind, Alexander initiated a massive building campaign and built a series of fortresses. Thus in the 4th century BC one of the first Greek cities in Bactria was formed, called Alexandria of the Oxus. In order to strengthen his relationship with the people of Bactria, Alexander also married Roxana, daughter of Bactrian chief.
After the death of Alexander and the division of his empire, Bactria came under control of the Seleucid dynasty which was founded by Seleucids. Dioditus I rebelled against the Seleucid dynasty and created and independent kingdom. In the 3rd century BC he became known as the governor of Bactria. Thus the Greco-Bactrian numismatic evidence, 41 kings and queens from this Greco-Bactrian dynasty ruled Bactria and the region south of the Hindu Kush. Greek historians described Bactria as an extraordinary combination of wealth. According to Strabo; everything was produced in Bactria except for olive oil.
Naturally, with the rule of the Greek and Macedonians in the Greco-Bactrian kingdom, Hellenistic culture also flourished. Thus, Greek script was used for the Bactrian language, and buildings were built according to the Greek architectural styles by suing elements such as Corinthian, Ionic, and Doric column types.
The excavation of the city of Ai Khanum in Bactria represents a clear evidence of Greeks in the region. While Greek art and the city plan with a gymnasium and temple of gods were made according to the Greek city plans, some native building techniques were also preserved in plans of corridors of the palace, temples, and houses. The ivory pieces found in Ai Khanum are similar to the ivory pieces of Nyssa in Mary and were most probably imported from India to these regions. They show the highly developed trade network of the ancient Scythians, and later the Yuezhis (Kushan), invaded the region.
In recent years the evidence for Corinthian and Ionic capitals has also been discovered in Tepe Zargaran, which may be another important city of the Greco-Bactrian period.
Kushan in Bactria
Greek rule ended with the invasion of yuezhis (Kushan). According to the Chinese sources, Kush an were nomads that consisted of five tribes. After their emergence in Bactria, the Kushan tribes unified and the Kushan Empire was formed under the leadership of Kujula Kadphises. The Kushan Empire grew strong and with time it also extended its control into North India and established an extensive empire.
During the rule of the Kushan, trade with both eastern and western parts of the world improved via the Silk Road. Balkh, the capital of Bactria, becomes an important city for the exchange of products and a connection for Chine, Central Asia, India, and other countries from the West.
Kanishka the Great was the most powerful King of this dynasty and is known for being a liberal king who gave freedom to his people. The coins of his time depict 20 different gods and deities, proving the religious freedom that people enjoyed at his time. The Greek influence on art and literature was still visible in this period and the Greek script was used in the reverse of Kushan coins until the mid-second century AD. Bactrian language written in the Greek script was also used in official papers.
Surkh Kotal is the most famous archaeological site from the Kush an period. Other sites, such as Cham Qala, ChaqalaqTepe, and QalaAhangaran, have also been excavated. At Surkh Kotal inscriptions in the Greek script and Bactrian language have been found as well as statues of theKushan Kings.After the Kushan, Bactria was ruled by Sasanians, Kushano-Sasanians, Kidarites, Hephthalites, and Turk-Shahis. Thereafter, the sacred religion of Islam flourished in the region.
Buddhism in Bactria
In the third century BC, three centuries after the emergence of Buddhism in India, Buddhism spread south of the Hindu Kush. In the second century BC it also spread north of the Hindu Kush into Bactria. It was spread by missionaries sent by Asoka, the Maryann emperor of India who, after embracing Buddhism and committed himself to spread Buddhism in other countries. During this time, Bactria was ruled by Euthydemus of the Greco-Bactrian dynasty. Euthydemus had planned to conquer India and it was in his interest not to prevent the spread of Buddhism in the region of Bactria. However, neither Euthydemus nor any other Greek kings of Bactria, except for Menander, the under-lord in Punjab, ever embraced Buddhism.Therefore, during the 200 years of Greco -Bactrian rule Buddhism remained an unofficial religion that was able spread among the people due to religious freedom.
The most glorious stage of Buddhism in North and Central Afghanistan was during the Kushan period. In this period Kushan Kings, especially Kanishka the Great, was a high patron of this religion.
Hsuan-tsang, the famous Chinese pilgrim who visited Afghanistan in 7th century AD, mentioned that Kunduz in Bactria had more than 10 monasteries and hundreds of monks. He also refers to Balkh, the capital of Bactria, as having 100 Buddhist monasteries and 3000 monks. Buddhist monasteries have been found in excavations conducted in Cham Qala, Chaqalaq Tepa, and Qala Ahngaran. Another Buddhist site in Bactria is the Monastic stupa complex of Takht- e Rustam with sites in Samangan and New Bahar in Balkh.