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An Annotated & Illustrated Collection of Worldwide Links to Mythologies,
Fairy Tales & Folklore, Sacred Arts & Sacred Traditions
by Kathleen Jenks, Ph.D.




~~~ PART TWO ~~~


Map showing the Persian Empire of the Achaemenid kings in the 6th century BCE
(including locations of Bactria, Oxus River, Gandhara, Scythians, etc.)
Scanned from Time/Life's Emergence of Man: The Persians (13:1975)

Overview of Ancient
Afghan Civilizations
c. 50,000 BCE - 1350 BCE

11 March 2010
Author's Note:

For millennia the boundaries of today's Afghanistan and Pakistan have been flowing, shifting like the sands of time.  The map above shows a moment in time from the 6th century BCE when the Persians (today's Iran) ruled a huge kingdom from Turkey on the Mediterranean Sea to the Indus River, which marked the border with India. Today's Afghanistan includes what was then called Bactria and other regions near the Oxus River, an area rich in resources and art from a civilization already ancient when the Persians took over.  I'm now adding data on Afghanistan's Oxus Civilization because of my own growing interest in it.  [Note: new or expanded links will be indicated;  all others date from autumn 2001.]
[Expanded 11 March 2010]: From Gandhara Galleries (a gallery in Australia with often museum-quality pieces), comes a lengthy historical chronology from 50,000 BCE - 2001 CE.  The page begins with this:
Below is a table outlining the turbulent and troubled history of Afghanistan, once the cradle of Gandharan civilisation, who's [sic] influence stretched from the shores of the Mediterranean to the deserts of Serindia.
[Note: there is more on the Kushan/Gandharan civilisation further down my page.]
Here are the chart's first few intriguing entries:
50,000 BC - 20,000 BC -- Archaeologists have identified evidence of stone age technology in Aq Kupruk, and Hazar Sum.  Plant remains at the foothill of the Hindu Kush mountains indicate, that North Afghanistan was one of the earliest places to domestic plants and animals together with Iraq.

3000 BC - 2000 BC --  First true urban centres rise in two main sites in Afghanistan, Mundigak, and Deh Morasi Ghundai. Mundigak near modern day Kandahar, had an economic base of wheat, barley, sheep and goats. Evidence indicates that Mudigak could have been a provincial capital of the Indus valley civilization. Ancient Afghanistan emerges as a crossroads between Mesopotamia, and other ancient civilizations.

2000 BC - 1500 BC -- The City of Kabul is thought to have been established during this time. Evidence of early nomadic iron age in Aq Kapruk IV.

Moving forward a few thousand years, the thoughtless brutality and far-reaching consequences of this item struck me:
1219-1221 AD -- Invasion of Afghanistan by Genghis Khan and the destruction of Irrigation systems, which turned fertile soil into permanent deserts.

[Map added 11 March 2010]: This map gives a good sense of the terrain from the Caspian Sea (and Teheran) on the far left to Afghanistan's Herat & Kabul, Pakistan's Peshawar on the far lower-right, and the high mountains of the Hindu Kush.  It's a detail from Wikipedia's huge German-language map of the Silk Road.   Note especially the unnamed (on this map) Amu Darya (aka Oxus River) -- it's the lower river that comes down out of the Hindu Kush in Bactria, flows northwest,  and empties into the southern end of Aral Sea.  The discovery of the famous 2000 year old hoard of "Bactrian Gold" comes from that region, as do recent discoveries of the Oxus civilization (aka Bactria-Margiana).  For more on this 4000 year old civilization, see section focused on it further down my page.
Here, for a general sweep of Afghan history, you'll find excellent e-text chapters from Louis Dupree's book, Afghanistan (1980).  More recent history isn't included online, but the earlier chapters are impressive.  The site is trapped in frames so, unfortuately, I can't give you specific URLs to the pages that most attracted me.  Here, however, is a list of online chapter headings -- this is a great place in which to browse:  The Land: Introduction; Geographic Zones; Water; Domesticated Plants; Domesticated Animals; Fauna; Medicinal Plants; Calenders used; The People: Introduction; Ethnic Groups; Languages; Religious non-literacy; Folklore & folk music [Note: I did find a direct link to this category -- it's in my "Folklore & Proverbs" section]; Folk music & instruments; Settlement patterns: City, Town, Village; Life cycle: Birth & Childhood, Marriage, Death & Inheritance, Sports & Games, Diet, Dress & Ornaments; The Past: Pre-historic sequence....

[Updated with brief, bracketed notes and greatly expanded 11 March 2010]:  Since 2001, this site has been updated and now has direct links (i.e., no longer trapped in frames) to many historical periods, biographies, etc. It covers recent history right up to the present, so at least the more contemporary material isn't from Louis Dupree's 1980 book.  Unfortunately, however, no author for any of the material is currently acknowledged, just this copyright notice at the bottom of every page: © 2005  Afghanan Dot Net.  Nevertheless, in comparing the section on "Prehistory" that I read in 2001 (at another link from the same organization -- see below) with the current one, they seem identical.  At this point, it looks as if all these history sections were actually written by one or more authors, using Dupree and other experts as references within the text (but not providing fuller data on the works cited).  Here are selected passages that caught my eye on the earliest periods from this page on Prehistory:

Early man in Afghanistan lived on river terraces and inhabited caves and rock shelters. Countless stone tools scattered about the countryside attest to this and each year archaeological excavations add substance to the picture of life in the Afghan area during the distant past.

Lower Palaeolithic tools made more than 100,000 years ago were collected from terraces to the east of the perennial brackish lake called Dasht-i-Nawur west of Ghazni (L. Dupree, 1974). They consist mainly of quartzite tools of the following types: large flake cores, cleavers, side scrapers, choppers, adzes, hand axes and "proto-hand axes". These are the first Lower Palaeolithic tools to be identified in Afghanistan....

As man ceased to be an animal chasing other animals, he began to manufacture a greater variety of more sophisticated stone tools. Upper Palaeolithic sites in Afghanistan dating from about 34,000 to 12,000 years ago illustrate this. Kara Kamar, a rock shelter 23 kin; 14 mi. north of Samangan, the first Stone Age site to be scientifically excavated in Afghanistan, produced tools dating ca. 30,000 B.c. (C. Coon, 1954).

Evidence of Upper Palaeolithic man was subsequently expanded when other American archaeologists excavated over 20,000 stone tools from several rock shelters beside the Balkh River at Aq Kupruk in the hills some 120 kin; 75 mi. south of Balkh (Dupree, 1962, 1965). The tools in this assemblage are so beautifully worked that one eminent specialist in palaeolithic technology has dubbed the tool makers of Aq Kupruk "the Michelangelos of the Upper Palaeolithic." They represent a cultural phase which endured for about 5000 years at Aq Kupruk, from ca. 20,000 to 15,000 years ago, during which someone, a man or a woman, carved the face of a man, or is it a woman?, on a small limestone pebble. This work of art is one of the earliest representations of man by man....  It was found in a hearth. (On display, National Museum, Kabul).[FYI: grainy B&W photo of this is on the website]

North of Balkh, Russian archaeologists found an extremely rich concentration of high quality Mesolithic implements on the sand dunes south of the Amu Darya (classical Oxus River) dating Ca. 10,000 B.C. (A. Vinegradov, 1969-present). Here the basic industry is microlithic with geometrics. From dunes north of Khulm, a French archaeologist collected flints including microburins characteristic of the Epipalaeolithic, Ca. 7-6500 B.C. (Ph. Gouin, 1968)....

The great revolution which launched man onto the path of civilization-and eventually into the Atomic Age took place during the Neolithic period when he learned to plant crops and domesticate animals and thus began to control his food supply.

This revolution took place at Aq Kupruk about 9000 years ago which indicates that northern Afghanistan may indeed have been one of the early centers for the domestication of plants and animals. The evidence also supports another Dupree theory that the revolutionary ideas of agriculture and herding germinated within a zone bordered by the 34th and 40th parallels of north latitude, at an altitude of about 750 m; 2461 ft. extending from Central Afghanistan through Anatolia to mainland Greece. Most Middle East Neolithic sites are found within this zone and Aq Kupruk is now added to the list....

...The Dupree Line, following the 76th longitude through Afghanistan, divides the mixed farming-herding Neolithic of the Middle East from the highland semi-nomadic Neolithic of South Siberia and Northeast Afghanistan, and emphasizes again the pre-historic significance of northern Afghanistan....
[Note: I do not know if the Dupree Line is accepted by current scientists so use that data with care.  What follows next is a passage on goats buried with children "in the Darra-i-Kur Neolithic," which I already quoted further down in 2001, so will not repeat it here....]

As man gained proficiency in agriculture, he moved down from mountain caves onto the plains where planting was easier and water more plentiful. Villages emerged; cities followed....

[Added 11 March 2010]: Silk Road Merchants in Central Asia
Catalan Atlas of 1375

I find these next passages on the far-flung network of trade and cultural contacts quite fascinating. We are so accustomed to our trains and planes that the degree to which the ancients, using relays of carts and/or pack animals, nevertheless managed to get around from one end of the "civilized" world to another never fails to astonish:
Stylistically the finds from Deh Morasi and Said Qala tie in with those of pre-Indus Valley sites and with those of comparable age on the Iranian Plateau and in Central Asia, indicating cultural contacts during this very early age....

As the great cities of the Indus Valley, such as Mohenjo-daro and Harrapa, grew, specialization necessitated the development of a complex economic base to supply them. The villages supplied the towns and the towns supplied the cities. The excavations at Deh Morasi, Said Qala and Mundigak [near today's Kandahar] provide much needed information regarding early economic supply networks and the beginnings of an urban civilization in the Afghan area.

Evidence that trade was not limited regionally, but extended as far afield as Ur (in modern Iraq), was recovered accidently in 1966 from the valley of Sai Hazara in northern Afghanistan. The Khosh Tapa (Happy Mound) Hoard consists of several gold and silver goblets, now broken into 19 fragments weighing a total of almost eight pounds, stunningly ornamented with raised geometrical designs and vigorous figures of bulls, boars and snakes. These animal motifs bear tantalizing similarities stylistically with dominant Mesopotamian, Iranian, Indus Valley and Central Asian styles. Khosh Tapa lies in Baghlan Province, north of the Khawak Pass, on a once popular route linking the Middle East with Central Asia and Central Asia with the southern provinces in India. One of the more popular luxury items carried along this route was lapis lazuli from the mines of Badakhshan which are still being worked today. The two main periods of intensive lapis trade date from ca. 2300 B.c. and 1350 B.c.; the probable date of the hoard is ca. 2300 B.c. (on display, National Museum, Kabul)....

[Note: A photo and more on lapis lazuli will be found in links further down.]

Ancient Goddess Figures from Baluchistan in Southern Afghanistan
[Undated, but probably prehistoric as these resemble Indus Valley work]
("These figurines are made out of baked clay.
The one on the left is 6 cm tall and the one on the right is 5.5 cm. ")
Kabul Museum: Gallery B, #1 -- Note: I tinted the B&W photo.
20 October 2001Addendum: in annotating a page on Afghan prehistory today, I came across more goddess images closely resembling these and dated to the 3rd millennium BCE; it seems likely that these two also date from that same prehistoric period.  See:, where the caption reads:
Mother goddess figurines, right, from Mundigak, left, from Deh Morasi Ghundai, 3rd Millennium B.C. (h. 5cm)

Meanwhile, here is how this chapter concludes -- Mundigak, as noted earlier, is near present-day Kandahar, which, considering the temple and mother-goddess figures described below, is ironic since it is now a major Taliban center:

Deh Morasi and Mundigak also provide tantalizing evidence regarding early religious developments. Casal suggests a religious use for a large white-washed, pillared building, its doorway outlined with red, dating from the 3rd Millennium B.C. at Mundigak. At Deh Morasi there is evidence of a possible altar. Built of fire-burned bricks, the shrine complex contained several objects suggesting religious ritual: goat horns, goat scapula, a goblet, a copper seal, hollow copper tubing, a small alabaster cup, and a pottery figurine of classic Zhob Valley style. These pottery figurines are generally considered to represent the mother-goddess, being at once voluptous in form, to symbolize her power over life and fertility, and, terrifyingly ugly, to symbolize equal power over death and the horrors of the dark, mysterious unknown. (On display, National Museum, Kabul [FYI: similar to the two goddess figures above -- possibly even the same ones, but from different angles -- there is a good B&W photo of two more mother-goddesses, one from each site, on the Prehistory page -- but why they should be called "terrifyingly ugly" makes no sense to me.] )

Deh Morasi was abandoned about 1500 B.C., perhaps because of the westward shift of the river. Mundigak continued to survive and to suffer two invasions before it was abandoned about 500 years later after an existence of 2000 years. The caves of Aq Kupruk and Darra-i-Kur, however, contain evidence of continuous occupation. Indeed, retaining walls and hearths belonging to modern nomadic groups occupy the attention of the excavators as each prehistoric cave site is opened. Some men never took to a sedentary life, and still don't. Nomads have always been a part of the Afghan scene.
This is an excellent look at Afghanistan's prehistoric human species, tools, domestication of plants, habitation, and much more.  Using the work of Louis Dupree and others, a tantilizing picture is created of many aspects of prehistoric life: for example, after discussing finds at one site, the author adds:
...Another extremely interesting phenomenon was encountered in the Darra-i-Kur Neolithic. Three intentional burials of domesticated goats, one in association with fragments from two or three children's skulls, were uncovered. Here must be evidence of ritual; of a concern for the mysteries of death and what follows. It was not a unique find for Darra-i-Kur. The Neanderthal child of Teshik Tash in the Soviet Union only 150 miles to the north was encircled by seven pairs of goat horns. Nor is it a phenomenon related solely to the prehistoric. Countless shrines and graves in Afghanistan today are adorned with goat horns, symbols of strength, virility and grace....

[Note from 12 March 2010: The blood-sport of Buzkashi, or "goat killing," is a shocking reversal of the once-sacred respect given the goat.  The sport is said to be "ancient" but that's much too vague and could mean only a few centuries old.]

There are many other fascinating details (and several images) on this page as well.  Let me give one more example from a later period because it ties in so well to my following link -- it's about ancient trade routes connecting Afghanistan with the Near East:
...One of the more popular luxury items carried along this route was lapis lazuli from the mines of Badakhshan [province in far northeast of Afghanistan] which are still being worked today. The two main periods of intensive lapis trade date from ca. 2300 B.c. and 1350 B.c.....

Lapis Lazuli
[See "Rocks & Co." below]
 [11 March 2010: the page from Afghan Network vanished c. 2008-2009 but is still available at this Web Archive link.]
Whenever you see lapis-lazuli in Egyptian or Mesopotamian art, you can be certain that the prized blue stones originated in Afghanistan and reached the ancient jewelers of the Near East through complex trade routes along what we now call the Silk Road.  This page looks briefly at the fabled stone:
Lapis lazuli is named from the Persian 'lashward' meaning blue, and its uniquely intense colour has been a source of delight for over 6000 years. For many centuries the only known deposits were those at Sar-i-Sang, in a remote mountain valley in Badakhshan, Afghanistan. From here it was exported to the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Sumer (Ira), and later traded throughout the East and into Europe....
[Added 11 March 2010]: This Jewelry Blog has minimal data but many really fine photos of lapis lazuli, both raw and in jewelry.  Here is what it says about the stone itself:
Lapis Lazuli is known in everyday life as the dark blue stone with “gold” inclusions. It is a semi-precious stone used ever since antiquity in jewelry, ornaments and decorations, for its amazing intense blue.  As a matter of fact the “gold” inclusions are not actually gold but pyrite. Lapis lazuli is a rock and not a mineral because it has a mixed composition: lazurite up to 40% and most of them contain also calcite (white inclusions), sodalite (blue) and pyrite (metallic yellow)....
[Added 11 March 2010]: This Rocks & Co. site is much more interesting and in-depth.  The author, Gavin
Linsell, an Australian gemstone writer based in Thailand, writes with literate ease and flair.  Here is how he opens his essay:
"I will have harnessed for you a chariot of Lapis Lazuli and gold, with wheels of gold and
   horns of Amber." Epic of Gilgamesh (2650 BC)

Dating back to 2650 BC, the 'Epic of Gilgamesh' is a celebrated poem from Ancient Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) and is one of the earliest works of literary fiction. It is the story of the adventures of the king who 'surpasses all other kings', Gilgamesh and his 'wild man' sidekick, Enkidu. Apart from being a cracking yarn, Lapis Lazuli scores a mention in the poem, illustrating its importance and value to the people of the time.

More than any gemstone, one deposit has defined Lapis Lazuli. In the rugged Kokcha Valley of northern Afghanistan's remote Badakhshan district lays the famous Sar-e-Sang deposit. Producing continuously for over 7,000 years, this deposit is home to some of the world's oldest gemstone mines. Sure, there are other Lapis Lazuli deposits, but Afghanistan by reputation and experience remains the finest. During antiquity, Afghani Lapis Lazuli was exported along ancient trade routes to Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, India, China and even Japan. The medieval Persian geographer Estakhri visited the Afghani Lapis Lazuli mines in the 10th century and when Marco Polo visited them in the 13th century, he wrote: "There is a mountain in that region where the finest Lapis Lazuli in the world is found".

Not used until the middle ages, the name 'Lapis Lazuli' is from the Latin 'lapis' (stone) and 'lazulum' (blue or heaven, which was probably derived from the Persian 'lazhuward', their name for the Afghani deposit and also the origin of the word 'azure'). While in ancient Greece and Rome Lapis Lazuli was called 'sapphirus' (blue), today this name refers to the blue variety of Corundum, Sapphire....

...The ancient Sumerian city of Ur had a thriving trade in Lapis Lazuli and its royal tombs, excavated in the late nineteen twenties, contained more than 6,000 exquisite Lapis Lazuli statuettes, dishes, beads and seals. From around 3000 BC, it was the darling of Egypt and used in religious ceremonies, for personal adornment (inlaid jewellery as well as amulets and talismans), and even as an eye shadow cosmetic. The Greeks and Romans weren't far behind and in the 1st century the Roman historian Pliny the Elder described Lapis Lazuli as, "a fragment of the starry vault of heaven"....

For those interested, at the bottom of the page is an index to more essays on a wide number of other gemstones.

Wikipedia: "The Silk Road extending from Southern Europe through Arabia, Somalia, Egypt, Persia, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Java, and Vietnam until it reaches China.  Land routes are red, water routes blue."
[Added 11 March 2010]: This is Wikipedia's lengthy article on the Silk Road, a name first used by German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877, who called it Seidenstraße (literally "Silk Road"). Of specific interest to the topic of lapis lazuli is this short passage:
By the second half of the 4th millennium BCE, the gemstone lapis lazuli was being traded from its only known source in the ancient world — Badakshan, in what is now northeastern Afghanistan — as far as Mesopotamia and Egypt. By the 3rd millennium BCE, the lapis lazuli trade was extended to Harappa, Lothal and Mohenjo-daro in the Indus Valley Civilization (Ancient India) of modern day Pakistan and northwestern India....
[Added 11 March 2010]: Finally, this is "Lapis Lazuli from Afghanistan" by Dr. Peter Bancroft -- a selection from his 1984 book, Gem and Crystal Treasures, about the famous Sar-e-Sang deposits in Afghanistan. There is a map (not very detailed) and many grainy B&W photos of the site along with some lovely color photos of raw and polished lapis.  Here is an evocative passage about the area:
The lapis is mined on the steep sides of a long narrow defile sometimes only 200 meters wide and backed by jagged peaks that rise above 6000 meters. Sparsely populated and covered with snow for much of the year the barren region is inhabited by wild hogs and wolves. The summer sun is scorching, but temperatures drop below freezing at night. British Army Lieutenant John Wood reached the lapis mines for the East India Company in 1837, and wrote in his Journey to the Source of the River Oxus, “If you do not wish to die, avoid the Valley of Kokcha.” This is surely not one of the world’s better sites for a field trip!...

Oxus Civilization
c. 2000 BCE
[Entire section added 11March 2010]
"The ancient Oxus culture may have arisen at sites like Anau, a settlement at the base of the Kopet-Dag mountains, which dates back to 6500 B.C. Later settlements like Gonur, roughly 4,000 years old, may have been founded by people from the Kopet-Dag cultures."    [From Discover Online Magazine, November 30, 2006, by Andrew Lawler / map courtesy of NASA.]
[Added 11 March 2010]: This November 2006 link goes to Andrew Lawler's engrossing, richly illustrated 4-page article on the Oxus Civilization (named for the Oxus River), also known by the Russian archaeologists initially working in the area by the more cumbersome name of "Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex."  The article's focus is on the work of controversial Soviet-trained Greek archaeologist, Viktor Sarianidi:
...Where others see only sand and scrub, Sarianidi has turned up the remnants of a wealthy town protected by high walls and battlements. This barren place, a site called Gonur, was once the heart of a vast archipelago of settlements that stretched across 1,000 square miles of Central Asian plains. Although unknown to most Western scholars, this ancient civilization dates back 4,000 years—to the time when the first great societies along the Nile, Tigris-Euphrates, Indus, and Yellow rivers were flourishing.

Thousands of people lived in towns like Gonur with carefully designed streets, drains, temples, and homes. To water their orchards and fields, they dug lengthy canals to channel glacier-fed rivers that were impervious to drought. They traded with distant cities for ivory, gold, and silver, creating what may have been the first commercial link between the East and the West. They buried their dead in elaborate graves filled with fine jewelry, wheeled carts, and animal sacrifices. Then, within a few centuries, they vanished.

News of this lost civilization began leaking out in the 1970s, when archaeologists came to dig in the southern reaches of the Soviet Union and in Afghanistan. Their findings, which were published only in obscure Russian-language journals, described a culture with the tongue-twisting name Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex. Bactria is the old Greek name for northern Afghanistan and the northeast corner of Iran, while Margiana is further north, in what is today Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Through the region runs the Amu Dar'ya River, which was known in Greek history as the Oxus River. Western scholars subsequently used that landmark to dub the newly found culture the Oxus civilization....

...Because of what they have found, scholars can no longer regard ancient Central Asia as a wasteland notable primarily as the origin of nomads like Genghis Khan. In Sarianidi's view, this harsh land of desert, marsh, and steppe may instead have served as a center in a broad, early trading network, the hub of a wheel connecting goods, ideas, and technologies among the earliest of urban peoples.

Harvard University archaeologist Carl Lamberg-Karlovsky believes the excavation at Gonur is "a major event of the late 20th century," adding that Sarianidi deserves credit for discovering the lost Oxus culture and for his "30 consecutive years of indefatigable excavations." To some other researchers, however, Sarianidi seems more desert eccentric than dispassionate scholar. For starters, his techniques strike many colleagues as brutish and old-fashioned. These days Western archaeologists typically unearth sites with dental instruments and mesh screens, meticulously sifting soil for traces of pollen, seeds, and ceramics. Sarianidi uses bulldozers to expose old foundations, largely ignores botanical finds, and publishes few details on layers, ceramics, and other mainstays of modern archaeology....

From Discover Online Magazine:
"Figurines with elongated bodies are
common artifacts of the Oxus culture."
Photo by Kenneth Garrett.

...[T]he region's mysterious Bronze Age sites, dating to the second and third millennia B.C., intrigued Sarianidi.... His excavations revealed thick-walled structures built with regular proportions and a distinctive style of art. Most scholars had thought that such sophisticated settlements had not taken root in the region until more than 1,000 years later....

What he has uncovered at Gonur is a central citadel—nearly 350 by 600 feet—surrounded by a high wall and towers, set within another vast wall with square bastions, which in turn is surrounded by an oval wall enclosing large water basins and many buildings. Canals from the Murgab River, which once flowed nearby, provided water for drinking and irrigation. The scale and organization of this construction was unmatched in Central Asia until the Persians' arrival in the sixth century B.C.

Sarianidi's team has also turned up intricate jewelry incorporating gold, silver, lapis lazuli, and carnelian. The prowess of the Oxus metalworkers—who used tin alloys and delicate combinations of gold and silver—were on par with the skills of their more famous contemporaries in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Indus Valley, Lamberg-Karlovsky says. Their creations display a rich repertoire of geometric designs, mythic monsters, and other creatures. Among them are striking humanoid statues with small heads and wide skirts, as well as horses, lions, snakes, and scorpions.

Wares in this distinctive style had long been found in regions as distant as Mesopotamia to the west, the shores of the Persian Gulf to the south, the Russian steppes to the north, and the great cities of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro, which once flourished to the east—on the banks of the Indus River of today's Pakistan. Archaeologists had puzzled over their origin. Sarianidi's excavations seem to solve the puzzle: These items originated in the region around Gonur.

FYI: archaeologist Fredrik Hiebert, mentioned in this next part, has most recently been the curator of the magnificent exhibition of ancient art from the Kabul Museum, a joint venture of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and National Geographic.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, a handful of Western researchers got word of Sarianidi's finds and began to investigate for themselves. Fredrik Hiebert, a young American graduate student, learned Russian, visited Gonur in 1988, and then a few years later returned with his Harvard adviser, Lamberg-Karlovksy. A team of Italians followed to dig at nearby sites and to examine Gonur's extensive cemetery. The Westerners brought an array of modern archaeological techniques, from radiocarbon dating to archaeobotany. U.S. labs determined that the early phase of the Gonur settlement dated to 2000 B.C.—five centuries earlier than Sarianidi had initially postulated—and that the people grew a wide variety of crops, including wheat, barley, lentils, grapes, and fleshy fruits.

The archaeological record shows that the site was inhabited for only a few centuries. The people of Gonur may simply have followed the shifting course of the Murgab River to found new towns located to the south and west. Their descendants may have built the fabled city of Merv to the south, for millennia a key stop along the Silk Road. Warfare among the Oxus people could have undermined the fragile system of oasis farming, or nomads from the steppes may have attacked the rich settlements. Sarianidi has found evidence that extensive fires destroyed some of Gonur's central buildings and that they were never rebuilt. Whatever the cause, within a short period Oxus settlements declined in number and size, and the Oxus pottery and jewelry styles vanished from the archaeological record. The large and square mud-brick architecture of the Gonur people may live on, however, in the clan compounds of Afghanistan and in the old caravansaries—rest stops for caravans—that dot the landscape from Syria to China.

From Discover Online Magazine:
"These tiny figures show not only the craftmanship of the Oxus people,
but also the importance of animals in their culture."
Photo of fingertip and animals by Kenneth Garrett.

Why the Oxus culture vanished may never be known. But researchers think they have pinned down the origin of these mysterious people. The answers are turning up in traces of mound settlements bordering the rugged Kopet-Dag mountains to the south, which rise up to form the vast Iranian plateau. The most prominent settlement there lies a grueling 225-mile drive from Gonur. At this site, called Anau, three ancient mounds poke up from the plains. Volunteer Lisa Pumpelli is working there in a trench at the top of a large mound with a spectacular view of the Kopet-Dag mountains. She is helping Hiebert, who is now an archaeologist with the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., track down the precursors to the Oxus culture....

...Soviet archaeologists working along the mountain foothills confirmed that as early as 6500 B.C., small bands of people were living in the Kopet-Dag, raising wheat and barley and grazing their sheep and goats on the mountains' foothills and slopes. That's a few thousand years after these grains were domesticated in the Near East but much earlier than most researchers had thought likely....

By 3000 B.C., the people of the Kopet-Dag had organized into walled towns. They used carts drawn by domesticated animals, and their pottery resembles the kind later found in Gonur. Many Soviet and Western archaeologists suspect that the Oxus civilization—at least in Margiana, the region in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan—evolved from this Kopet-Dag culture.

What prompted the settlers to abandon the Kopet-Dag and migrate into the area around Gonur? One possibility is drought, says Yale University archaeologist Harvey Weiss. He theorizes that the same drought that he claims destroyed the world's first empire—the Akkadians in Mesopotamia—around 2100 B.C. also drove the Kopet-Dag peoples from their homes. If the small streams that poured out of the mountains stopped flowing, life in the arid climate would have been impossible. That would have forced the people of Kopet-Dag to head toward Gonur and settle by the Murgab River, the only reliable source of water in the Kara-Kum. With its headwaters in distant Hindu Kush glaciers, the river would have continued flowing even in the hottest summers or longest droughts.

Another possibility is that population growth forced people down from the mountain slopes and onto the plains, where the Murgab then flowed lazily into a delta, creating an oasis of dense brush teeming with game, fish, and birds. That could explain why so many Oxus sites are built on virgin soil, as if carefully planned in advance. "The people came from the foothills of the Kopet-Dag with baggage, a knowledge of agriculture, irrigation systems, metal, ceramics, and jewelry making," says Iminjan Masimov, a retired Russian archaeologist who once excavated Oxus sites in Margiana.

Indeed, many Kopet-Dag sites appear to have been abandoned about 2000 B.C., just around the time Gonur and nearby sites took root. Hiebert's excavation at Anau, however, shows that it at least remained inhabited even as Gonur flourished.

While scholars debate the relationship between the Oxus culture and other early urban settlements, there is no dispute about the importance of the Kopet-Dag as a natural highway for nomads, traders, and armies between the Central Asian steppes and the Iranian highlands. The evidence is unmistakable when Hiebert shows me around the ruins of a medieval mosque on the summit of one of Anau's mounds. Damaged by time and earthquakes, the edifice is still famous for the two serpent-dragon mosaics—showing more the influence of China than of Mecca—that once guarded its facade. Around us are hundreds of mysterious little constructions, Stonehenge-like, each made of three small bricks. Hairpins and bits of cloth—probably linked to Central Asian shamanism—are scattered about the hilltop. Women come here to pray for children. One family, three generations of women, sits silently in a row by a tomb. Hiebert casually picks up glazed Iranian ware and a bit of Chinese blue pottery. "Here is your Silk Road," he says.

From Discover Online Magazine:
"Small seals bearing this type of design, which originated in the Indus Valley
of today's Pakistan, demonstrate the extent of the Oxus trading network."
Photo by Kenneth Garrett.

The find dovetails with Sarianidi's work at Gonur, where he has found a Mesopotamian cuneiform seal not far from an Indus Valley stamp bearing symbols above an etched elephant. Both lay near small stone boxes similar to those manufactured in southeastern Iran. These items provide tantalizing hints of commercial traffic on a Silk Road predating by two millennia the trading route that eventually linked China to Europe in the early centuries A.D. Hiebert likens the Oxus civilization to Polynesia—a scattered but common culture held together by camels rather than canoes....

Andrew Lawler has written this 4-page article with eloquence and a sharp eye for detail.  What I have excerpted is only about 25% of the total article, so there's much more for you to enjoy at this site. (Note: he also writes on Afghanistan for the National Geographic.)
[Added 26 March 2010]:  From Viktor Sarianidi's work at Gonur, and Fredrik Hiebert and Lisa Pumpelli's work at Anau in the Kopet-Dag mountains, we turn now to Dr. Irene Good, an archaeologist of Central and Western Asia and the Indo-Iranian borderlands who since 2001 has been an Associate of the Peabody Museum at Harvard University.  Her Harvard profile page provides information about her interest in ancient cloth, which I found very exciting because, as a cultural mythologist, the "romance," if you will, of cloth, weaving, spinning, and goddesses who weave creation itself into existence have long fascinated me:
... Her specific research interests concern cloth in all its aspects, from labour, technology and materials, to social uses, semiotics, iconography and the symbolic uses of cloth as a major component of material culture. As a Guggenheim Fellow, Good embarked on a major study entitled A Social Archaeology of Textiles, and is now completing a book entitled Cloth and Carpet in Early Inner Asia to be published through Brill’s Inner Asia Series.... Dr. Good’s current research is focused on the later Bronze period of Western China, Afghanistan and the Indo-Iranian borderlands. She is currently directing a new archaeological survey in southern Tajikistan.
The above link for "New Evidence for Early Silk in the Indus Civilization" goes to a ten-page 2009 paper, including many silk-strand photos derived from scanning electron microscopy, in the University of Oxford's Archeometry. The paper was written by Good (with contributions from colleagues Kenoyer and Meadow), who did an analysis and identification of silk-threads used in stringing jewelry from Harappa and Chanhu-daro.  The full paper is available either in PDF or Scribd format, neither of which allows for copying and pasting.  Thus, toggling between their page and mine, I slowly and carefully two-finger-typed the following passage from pp. 7-8:
... The formal exportation of silk from China took place around 119-115 BC during the reign of Han Emperor Wu-ti, who sought the fabulous blood-sweating 'celestial horses' of Ferghana (in modern day Uzbekistan). Yet archaeologists have puzzled over the early presence of silk in a late prehistoric Celtic site in Germany c. 700 BC, as well as silk finds from several other sites in Europe, the Mediterranean, Egypt and Central Asia.... For decades, archaeologists have cited these findings as evidence for early contact between China and the West....  What has not been adequately considered in the literature, however, is the possibility that a non-Chinese (and de facto wild) species of silkworm that produced workable silk was known and used in antiquity, and that the rare instances of silk that have been discovered far outside of China, and that date to before Wu-ti's trade relationship with the West began, may have, in fact, been produced indigenously or imported from regions other than China. The evidence presented here now suggests that early sericulture did in fact exist in South Asia and was roughly contemporaneous with the earliest known silk use in China.

... This knowledge helps to explain other early instances of silk in Eurasia outside of China, specifically from the mid-second millennium BC Deccan Peninsula of India (Gulati 1961) and contemporaneously in Bactria (Askarov 1973)....  The discoveries described here demonstrate that silk was being used over a wide region of South Asia for more than 2000 years before the introduction of domesticated silk from China....

Knowing about this early use of silk from South Asia, not China, in stringing beads and other ornaments, sets the stage for further work on their spread through ancient trade networks.......
[Added 26 March 2010]: This is from Irene Good's beautifully illustrated Research Profile. She writes:
The prehistoric archaeology of Iran and Central Asia, particularly within the Indo-Iranian borderlands during the fourth through the second millennia BC,  has a culture history not yet well known. This region is of great interest because of its very different development of the urban form when compared with ancient Mesopotamia or Egypt. Greater Iran, from the southwestern parts of ancient Persia (Fars) to the rugged northeastern Pamir Range in Tajikistan, is a region that for millennia has been very much bound up in the long distance exchange of materials, particularly of precious stone such as lapis lazuli. This exchange is a critical factor in the material cultural manifestations and transformations through time, particularly exemplified by the phenomenon known as 'Intercultural Style'....
The Oxus Civilization falls within this larger region of "Intercultural Style," sharing in and contributing to technology and artistic motifs.  What catches my attention here is Good's implication that a web of far-flung, interconnected, urban trading centers functions very differently from the regal single-center urban form found in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.  I had never thought of urban development in such terms before, but I have now been thinking about this with growing excitement ever since reading about it last night.  For me, it's about dynamics.  In a sense, urban centers in Egypt and Mesopotamia created wealth from within -- usually produced from what could be irrigated, controlled, grown, and stored on their fertile lands.  They could then attract trade from elsewhere because they had the wealth to pay for luxury goods like amber from the Baltic region and lapis lazuli from Afghanistan.  Of course, they also traded some local goods but the primary dynamic seems to have been one of "sucking in" goods from everwhere else -- forgive my inelegant analogy but their focus was more on the digestive system, not the circulatory system.  If I am understanding Good correctly, that is very different from what she is describing in Iran and Central Asia, where each urban center contributes to a long distance "flow," a dynamic circulatory system, equal, perhaps to a giant, single-focus digestive system but spread out among countless interconnecting canals, along which complex trade flowed.

Good then shifts to a consideration of issues connected with cloth, providing some lovely passages on wild silk (which are more accessible to a general reader than the important, but often too technical data of the earlier Oxford University paper).  She also discusses an intriguing new research project on the origins of wool in Near Eastern and Central Asian regions.  Then she explains her personal approach to cloth in general:

Finally, a more theoretical aspect of my research interests lies in the union of what are traditionally treated as separate, even opposing approaches to the study of the past through material remains: that of materials science and of social archaeology, a more semiotic approach....

... Cloth, as well as its production and exchange, are topics of central cultural importance, and have been noted as such in ethnographies from the very beginnings of anthropology, such as in Malinowski's study of the kula. This is because it is universal practice that social groups and social stations within groups are marked by cloth, clothing and modes of dress. The way we live and how we identify ourselves are most intimately connected with what we wear. How cloth is made and of what it is made each contribute to the symbolic potency of the material; thus our ability to recognize these factors in degraded archaeological cloth fragments is of utmost value in interpreting their social meanings. The outcome of this effort will be a volume addressing the archaeology of textile arts in the later prehistory of Central Asia, specifically during the transition to iron-using economies. This work will not only bring archaeological textiles more visibly into the mainstream of archaeological materials science, but also to bring their contextual study into current discussion of material culture, semiotics and the formation of identity.

I appreciate the balanced common sense of that approach.
[Added 26 March 2010]:Continuing with Good's work, this link will take you to six additional papers, which I look forward to exploring in the future and leave to those who are interested to enjoy now. (Note: like the paper on "New Evidence for Early Silk in the Indus Civilization," each comes with an opening paragraph but the rest is only available in PDF or Scribd format. The one I plan to read next is a story: Invisible Exports in Aratta: Enmerkar and the Three Tasks.)

Shaft-hole Axhead (reduced in size from the photo on the Met's page)
Late 3rd–early 2nd millennium b.c.
Central Asia (Bactria-Margiana / Oxus Civilization)
Silver, gold foil
Metropolitan Museum of Art
[See directly below]
[Added 11-12 March 2010]: From New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art comes this astonishingly handsome Oxus civilization shaft-hole axhead depicting a bird-headed male, boar, and dragon. Excerpts from the museum's page:
...Artifacts from the region indicate that there were contacts with Iran to the southwest. Tools and weapons, especially axes, comprise a large portion of the metal objects from this region.

This shaft-hole axhead is a masterpiece of three-dimensional and relief sculpture. Expertly cast in silver and gilded with gold foil, it depicts a bird-headed hero grappling with a wild boar and a winged dragon.... The hero's muscular body is human except for the bird talons that replace the hands and feet. He is represented twice, once on each side of the ax, and consequently appears to have two heads. On one side, he grasps the boar by the belly and on the other, by the tusks. The posture of the boar is contorted so that its bristly back forms the shape of the blade. With his other talon, the bird-headed hero grasps the winged dragon by the neck....

Overview: Bactria / Balkh
c. 1500 BCE - 330 BCE
[Edited 14 March 2010]: This is a brief but interesting 1972 overview of a very long period involving the migrations of early Aryans and extending to their much later descendents, the Persian Achaemenid kings.  The article, "Aryans & Achaemenids (c. 1500 B.C. - 330 B.C.)," focuses on the region known as Balkh (Bactria), a region where Zoroaster once lived (and where he died in a nomadic attack)
A pastoral, cityless, people led by heroic warriors riding two-horsed chariots came out of the north to shatter the great Cities of the Indus Valley.  In the sacerdotal writings of the Vedic Aryans, the Rigveda, we read of the Kubha (Kabul) River and know of their passage through Afghanistan sometime around 1500 B.C. In the related Persian hymns of the Avesta, we read of Bakhdi (Balkh) "the beautiful, crowned with banners" and of Zarathustra Spitama (Zoroaster), the great politico-religious leader who lived in Balkh sometime between 1000 and 600 B.C.

...Zoroaster...advised his followers to develop agriculture in addition to herding if they wished to remain independent and grow strong. The fertile plains of Bactria blossomed and the land prospered....

[Autumn 2001: If you're interested in a more scholarly approach to early Zoroastrianism, this site from the University of London looks good:
--link now only on Web Archive: updated 3/12/10]
[***17March 2010: an even better site on Zoroaster, based on the work of Dr. Mary Boyce (1920-2006), is here (also includes a great PIE linguistic chart and maps):].
[Addition, 12 March 2010]:  FYI: this time in reading this, I noticed an author's name: V. Sarianidi -- having just grokked the Discover Magazine's 4-page report on the Oxus civilization, I immediately recognized the name of the Russian/Greek archaeologist who, I knew from passages on the 4th page (not cited in my above selections), has a romanticized view of Zoraster and his followers with which few scholars would agree. The rest of the brief data seems fine, however.
[Added 17 March 2010]: From Japan's Miho Museum comes a wonderful series of pages on Persia's pre-Achaemenid rhyta (ritual pouring vessels).  The art as well as descriptive texts are remarkable.

~~~ See map at the top of my page ~~~
Persia's Achaemenid Empire
550–330 BCE
[Section added 13-14 March 2010]

Fluted bowl, Achaemenid,
reign of Darius I or II, 522–486 B.C. or 432–405 B.C.,
Iran, Gold
[See directly below]
[Added 13-14 March 2010]: First of all, as an introduction to a series of links I'll be using in these historical period sections, I am indebted to New York City's Metropolitan Museum for its fabulous series of pages on ancient history and art.  During the 15 years I lived on Allen Street in NYC (1961-1976), I often spent days in that museum.  Back then, the medieval Europe, ancient Greek, and ancient Egyptian collections were what captured my attention -- Egypt especially because for ten of those years I was researching and writing a historical novel on the early years of Moses, Miriam and Aaron in Egypt (The River and the Stone, Dutton 1977).  I can't remember ever going into the Persian or Central Asian galleries back then.  Now, all these years later, those would be the areas that would capture my attention if I still lived close enough to explore the museum in person.

Instead, technology I'd never heard of back then now lets me explore these pages -- it's not the same as being there but it's still a marvelous resource. Just the above page, for example, includes images of three works of art (skip the "slideshow" and just click directly on each image -- it's less distracting & you'll get more data); 20 thematic essays on a wide variety of relevant topics; suggested readings; related art exhibitions; and a slew of related Museum Bulletin or Journal articles available either as PDF files or on JSTOR (if you're fortunate enough to have library access to JSTOR).  Never having gone online until I was teaching in a S. Calilfornia graduate institute in my 50's, I'm still awed by the scope of what's available on the internet.

Now to Persia's Achaemenid Empire: in reading this page from the Met, all I can think of are dominoes, one falling after another, as the ancient world fell apart. How could Persia have gained the inexorable power to defeat one famous, well established kingdom after another? -- and so quickly! What was going on back then that allowed all this to take place? I don't know.  If I ever learned about this in school, I forgot it long ago -- so to read about this sudden trajectory of Persian victories comes as a shock:

The Achaemenid Persian empire was the largest that the ancient world had seen, extending from Anatolia and Egypt across western Asia to northern India and Central Asia. Its formation began in 550 B.C., when King Astyages of Media, who dominated much of Iran and eastern Anatolia (Turkey), was defeated by his southern neighbor Cyrus II ("the Great"), king of Persia (r. 559–530 B.C.). This upset the balance of power in the Near East. The Lydians of western Anatolia under King Croesus took advantage of the fall of Media to push east and clashed with Persian forces. The Lydian army withdrew for the winter but the Persians advanced to the Lydian capital at Sardis, which fell after a two-week siege. The Lydians had been allied with the Babylonians and Egyptians and Cyrus now had to confront these major powers. The Babylonian empire controlled Mesopotamia and the eastern Mediterranean. In 539 B.C., Persian forces defeated the Babylonian army at the site of Opis, east of the Tigris. Cyrus entered Babylon and presented himself as a traditional Mesopotamian monarch, restoring temples and releasing political prisoners. The one western power that remained unconquered in Cyrus' lightning campaigns was Egypt. It was left to his son Cambyses to rout the Egyptian forces in the eastern Nile Delta in 525 B.C. After a ten-day siege, Egypt's ancient capital Memphis fell to the Persians.

A crisis at court forced Cambyses to return to Persia but he died en route and Darius I ("the Great") emerged as king (r. 521–486 B.C.), claiming in his inscriptions that a certain "Achaemenes" was his ancestor. Under Darius the empire was stabilized, with roads for communication and a system of governors (satraps) established. He added northwestern India to the Achaemenid realm.... The impression is of a harmonious empire supported by its numerous peoples. Darius also consolidated Persia's western conquests in the Aegean. However, in 498 B.C., the eastern Greek Ionian cities, supported in part by Athens, revolted. It took the Persians four years to crush the rebellion, although an attack against mainland Greece was repulsed at Marathon in 490 B.C.

Darius' son Xerxes (r. 486–465 B.C.) attempted to force the mainland Greeks to acknowledge Persian power, but Sparta and Athens refused to give way. Xerxes led his sea and land forces against Greece in 480 B.C., defeating the Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae and sacking Athens. However, the Greeks won a victory against the Persian navy in the straits of Salamis in 479 B.C. It is possible that at this point a serious revolt broke out in the strategically crucial province of Babylonia. Xerxes quickly left Greece and successfully crushed the Babylonian rebellion. However, the Persian army he left behind was defeated by the Greeks at the Battle of Plataea in 479 B.C.

.Much of our evidence for Persian history is dependent on contemporary Greek sources and later classical writers, whose main focus is the relations between Persia and the Greek states, as well as tales of Persian court intrigues, moral decadence, and unrestrained luxury. From these we learn that Xerxes was assassinated and was succeeded by one of his sons, who took the name Artaxerxes I (r. 465–424 B.C)....  The empire remained largely intact under Darius II (r. 423–405 B.C)....  Artaxerxes II had the longest reign of all the Persian kings, [but] we know very little about him. Writing in the early second century A.D., Plutarch describes him as a sympathetic ruler and courageous warrior. With his successor, Artaxerxes III (r. 358–338 B.C), Egypt was reconquered, but the king was assassinated and his son was crowned as Artaxerxes IV (r. 338–336 B.C.). He too was murdered and replaced by Darius III (r. 336–330 B.C.), a second cousin, who faced the armies of Alexander III of Macedon ("the Great"). Ultimately Darius III was murdered by one of his own generals and Alexander claimed the Persian empire. However, the fact that Alexander had to fight every inch of the way, taking every province by force, demonstrates the extraordinary solidarity of the Persian empire and that, despite the repeated court intrigues, it was certainly not in a state of decay.

That endless list of takeovers is like a reversal of all the begats in the Old Testament -- a wearying saga of violence and conquest, interspersed with times of stability and cultural advances, only to be interrupted by repeated assassinations. And this went on for two centuries -- that's almost as long as the Unites States' entire history.

Alexander the Great
Reigned 336–323 B.C.

Map of Alexander in Afghanistan
[Added from my files 20 March 2010:  Source not noted]
[Added 14 March 2010]: As we have seen in the above section, after two centuries of Persian rule by Achaemenid kings, Greece began clawing and forcing its own way to the top, that process culminating in the military skills of Alexander the Great.  Again from NYC's Metropolitan Museum, this is "The Rise of Macedonia and the Conquests of Alexander the Great." The page provides 7 images of art and 25 thematic essays, along with the museum's usual additional supporting material.

The text opens with a useful summary of Alexander's father, Philip II, who came to power in 360 BCE and within a decade "had defeated most of Macedonia's neighboring enemies." He also "instituted far-reaching reforms at home and abroad... [and] improved catapults and siege machinery, as well as a new kind of infantry...." By 338 BCE:

...he became the undisputed ruler of Greece. His plans for war against Asia were cut short when he was assassinated in 336 B.C. Excavations of the royal tombs at Vergina in northern Greece give a glimpse of the vibrant wall paintings and rich decorative arts produced for the Macedonian royal court (37.11.8-.17), which had become the leading center of Greek culture.

The reign of Alexander the Great (336–323 B.C.) would change the face of Europe and Asia forever (10.132.1; 55.11.11). As crown prince, he received the finest education in the Macedonian court under his celebrated tutor Aristotle. At the age of twenty, already a charismatic and decisive leader, Alexander quickly harnessed the Macedonian forces that his father's reforms had made into the premier military power in the region. In 334 B.C., he led a grand army across the Hellespont in Asia. With some 43,000 infantry and 5,500 cavalry, it was the most formidable military expedition ever to leave Greece. The first to reach Asiatic soil, Alexander leapt ashore, cast a spear into the land, and dramatically claimed the continent as "spear won." In a remarkable campaign that lasted eleven years, he went on to fulfill his claim and more by conquering the Persian empire of western Asia and Egypt, and by continuing into Central Asia as far as the Indus Valley. In the end, he was defeated by his own army, which insisted on returning to Greece. On the way back, he died of fever in Babylon at the age of thirty-three. All the lands that he had conquered were divided up among his generals (52.127.4), and it was these political divisions that comprised the many kingdoms of the Hellenistic period (323–31 B.C.).

Forest God Pan, crafted in the likeness of Alexander the Great
(as were many Greek deities after Alexander's death in 323 BCE)
Bronze Box-mirror, late 4th century BCE
Metropolitan Museum of Art
[Added 18 March 2010]:"Alexander in Afghanistan" from California's prestigious Claremont Institute is a spring 2007 book review by Ronald Cluett, Assistant Professor of Classics and History at Pomona College. The book is The Afghan Campaign: A Novel, by Steven Pressfield, but what makes this useful for my own page are Dr. Cluett's opening, pre-review historical comments.  Here are some passages:
Alexander the Great ran one of the shrewdest media operations in history. His entourage included men whose job it was to chronicle his exploits, both for dissemination among his contemporaries and for posterity. While their works have not survived the passage of time, their influence has. Alexander is one of the select figures from classical antiquity who continues to excite the popular imagination, not just in the West but in Central Asia and India as well.
Spin control thus has an ancient pedigree. In antiquity as in the present, broadcasting a preferred interpretation of a leader's prowess involved the suppression of inconvenient perspectives, whether dissents from Alexander's strategic vision or the enormous suffering and sacrifice exacted by that vision's implementation. Each perspective—the strategic vision and the human toll—sheds light on Alexander's boldest gamble, the invasion of Afghanistan....

Alexander's strategic rationale for conquering Persia had been clear, defensible, and popular: by leading a Greek army to victory in the heart of Persia, he would avenge the Persian defeat of the Greeks on Greek soil over a century earlier. Conquering Afghanistan, however, was another matter entirely. The rationale was never clearly or persuasively articulated... —he failed to rally his increasingly polyglot troops to fight with the unwavering dedication they had displayed during the Persian campaign.

Moreover, those troops faced in Afghanistan conditions that would test invading armies for the next two millennia. The harsh mountainous terrain and brutal weather were only part of the challenge. The Afghans themselves were no less formidable than their environment. Riven by internal divisions and tribal loyalties, they nonetheless proved more than capable of rallying to resist the designs of a foreign invader. As a result, Alexander spent more time conquering Afghanistan than he did Persia, and with less to show for it: not only did Afghanistan offer no comparable symbolic and strategic victory, but constant revolts undermined whatever glory he could claim for his defeat of Spitamenes, his primary Afghan foe....
[Added 13-14 March 2010]:This page backtracks briefly to the Achaemenians, providing old and modern names of Afghan provinces under their control and continuing with their overthrow by Alexander. Then, moving to Afghanistan, here is a passage on the Greek city founded during Alexander's passage through that land (also see references below on the Afghan exhibition of ancient art, since this city is one of four sources for those treasures).
...Ruins of an outpost Greek city founded about 325 BC were discovered at Ay Khanom, at the confluence of the Amu [Oxus] and Kowkcheh rivers. Excavations there produced inscriptions and transcriptions of Delphic precepts written in a script influenced by cursive Greek. Greek decorative elements dominate the architecture, including an immense administrative center, a theatre, and a gymnasium. A nomadic raid about 130 BC ended the Greek era at Ay Khanom.
The page ends with a sneak peak at how jumbled up Afghanistan will soon become:
After Alexander's death in 323 BC, the eastern satrapies passed to the Seleucid dynasty, which ruled from Babylon. In about 304 BC the territory south of the Hindu Kush was ceded to the Maurya dynasty of northern India. Bilingual rock inscriptions in Greek and Aramaic (the official language of the Achaemenians) found at Qandahar and Laghman (in eastern Afghanistan) date from the reign of Ashoka (c. 265-238 BC, or c. 273-232 BC), the Maurya dynasty's most renowned emperor. Diodotus, a local Greco-Bactrian governor, declared the Afghan plain of the Amu River independent about 250 BC; Greco-Bactrian conquerors moved south about 180 BC and established their rule at Kabul and in the Punjab. The Parthians of eastern Iran also broke away from the Seleucids, establishing control over Seistan and Qandahar in the south.
..[Added 17 March 2010]:  This brief page on Alexander's young Bactrian wife is "Roxana -- Luminous Beauty."  The art is a modern interpretation (artist unfortunately not named) that well expresses the "luminosity" implied by her name.  Here is a passage:
Roxana (Bactrian, Persian: Roshanak; literally "luminous beauty", loosely "the dawn"), sometimes Roxane, was a Bactrian noble and a wife of Alexander the Great. She was born earlier than the year 343 BC, though the precise date remains uncertain. She was the daughter of a Bactrian named Oxyartes of Balkh in Bactria (then eastern Iran, now northern Afghanistan and Tajikistan), and married Alexander at the age of 16 after he visited the fortress of Sogdian Rock. Balkh was the last of the Persian Empire's provinces to fall to Alexander, and the marriage was an attempt to reconcile the Bactrian satrapies to Alexander's rule, although ancient sources describe Alexander's professed love for her....
There is more on the site about her fate.
[Added 17 March 2010]:This is "Roxana from Amu Darya region," an interesting, lengthy, dramatic page from Sairam Tourism in Uzbekistan.  The author is unnamed and there is no referencing, but the account, albeit romanticized, is nevertheless worth reading as the overall framework is sound.  Here is an excerpt (note: the English translation is a bit awkward at times) about Alexander's difficult conquest of the mountainous stronghold in which he would eventually meet Roxana:
The first fortress that stood in the way of the Greek-Macedonian army was "Sogdian Rock" or the "Rock of Oxus" - a mountain fortress the fate of which could predestined the further course of the rebellion. Alexander with his troops reached the fortress when the mountains were still covered with heavy snow. They faced a steep stone rock; and high above them thousands of helmets of Sogdian warriors shone in the sun. Suddenly the Sogdians rained down a shower of arrows and darts, thus inflicting heavy casualty on the enemy. The rock was inapproachable and on the demand of Alexander to surrender the Sogdians responded with laugh saying that if the warriors of the king of Hellenes and Macedonians had wings they could have tried to reach them, otherwise it was better for them to leave because they could never reach the fortress.

Alexander took three hundred best warriors skilled in mountaineering and offered them to climb the rock, promising a great reward. Equipped with iron spikes and linen ropes, three hundred brave men waited till the fall of darkness and then started their climbing. It was a difficult ascent: people sank in deep snow, fell down from the steep rocks. Thirty warriors died, but the rest reached the top of the rock at dawn. They found themselves above the rebellious fortress and Alexander ordered his heralds to declare that "winged warriors" proved to be among the Macedonians. The defenders of the fortress were stunned by this news and surrendered.

Among the captives there was also a Bactrian noble man, Oxiart by name, with his family. When Alexander, at the head of his army, went up the narrow path and entered Oxiart's yard, he saw a door of the house open and a girl of medium height appear on the threshold. It was Roxana, a daughter of the nobleman. Her luxuriant hair was glittering with gold, her beautiful eyes were sparkling; it seemed that goddess of beauty Aphrodite herself was standing right in front of the young king. Their looks met and Alexander at first sight fell in love with beautiful Roxana. And though she was a captive, he decided to marry her....

The ancient wedding ceremony was simple: a loaf of bread was split with a sword and given to the bride and bridegroom to taste it....  But the wedding party was arranged with grandeur peculiar to kings especially since on that very day along with Alexander ten thousand warriors from his army also got married to the local girls.....  Such mass weddings between the local and Hellenic people enabled these units to join the Graeco-Macedonian army on equal terms....

Introducing such a policy Alexander reckoned for certain results. He realized that by the sword one could create a huge empire but 'sword' was not enough to keep it from disintegration. He wanted as far as possible to mix all tribes and nations subjected to him in order to create the common eastern nation. Thus the love of Alexander and Roxana contributed to the alliance between Greece and the Orient, which had a beneficial impact on the development of science, culture and art of Central Asia and the world civilization as a whole....

The mountain-dwellers of Boysun are most likely the descendants of the Greeks and Macedonians, whose colonies were spread along the Oxus (Amu Darya) and its tributaries. It is known that sixty years after the death of Alexander the Great on the banks of the Oxus there was formed Graeco-Bactrian kingdom, which existed for one hundred and twenty years....

There is much more on this site, including Roxana's fate and that of her son.
[Added 17 March 2010]:This is the bare bones data about Roxana from the Encyclopedia Britannica on Roxana (died c. 310 BC in Amphipolis, Thrace):
[W]ife of Alexander the Great. The daughter of the Bactrian chief Oxyartes, she was captured and married by Alexander in 327, during his conquest of Asia. After Alexander’s death (323) she had his second wife, Stateira (Barsine), killed, and she gave birth at Babylon to a son (Alexander IV), who was accepted by the Macedonian generals as joint king with the idiot Philip III Arrhidaeus (half brother of Alexander the Great). In 319 Roxana joined Alexander’s mother, Olympias, in Epirus, but she was captured in 316 in Macedonia....

[FYI: This little map introduces Japan's Miho Museum's 2002/2003
two-page exhibition of gorgeous art from Bactria] [3/14/10: now only on Web Archive]
[Expanded 3/14/10 -- this gives an interesting, useful overview -- it's the September 9, 2001 version, which is the one I first saw -- the most recent version has been removed.  Lest this one also vanish, I'm pasting in the entire text]:
From Jean Elsen's numismatics firm in Brussels comes a page on the tangled and bloody history of Bactria, starting from the period around Alexander's conquests:
Bactria is geographically located in the north of the actual Afghanistan and in the South of the modern republics of Uzbekistan and Tadjikistan. It corresponds to the North-East part of Alexander the Great's empire.

Bactria entered quite late in the world of sedentary civilisations. Indeed, it was only during the second millenium that a proto-urban civilization appeared in the river Amu-darya area. Bactria was integrated during the middle of the first millenium into the Achaemenid empire. It was then mentioned in the Avesta, the Persian sacred book, and included in the lists of the imperial Achaemenid satrapies. Alexander the Great's conquest of Bactria in 329-328 B.C. gave it the status of a Macedonian province and a few years later it became a Seleucid province. In the middle of the third cenrury B.C., Bactria became an independant Indo-Greek kingdom. In 145 B.C. nomadic tribes crossed the river Oxus and made an end to the Greek domination of Bactria.

Defeated by Alexander the Great at Arbeles in 331 BC, the last Achaemenid king Darios III Kodoman tried to reach the oriental part of his empire, only to be murdered by the order of his brother-in-law, the Bactrian Bassos, who became king in his turn. He organized the resistance against the progression of Alexander the Great's troops to the East but without any results. Even burning the ground could not prevent the fall of Bactres and the occupation of southern Bactria.

Alexander crossed the river Oxus (Amu-darya) and started the conquest of Sogdiana. Bassos was then captured by his partisans and handed over to Alexander who ordered his execution and proclamed himself the heir of Darios. After a war that lasted two years and caused the death of 100.000 people in Sogdiana, Alexander took the north of Bactria. He established several garrisons and incorporated 30.000 hostages in his army, and then started the conquest of India (327 B.C.).

The Macedonian domination in Bactria and Sogdiana remained fragile and the Greek settlers tried twice to leave the country. In fact, the establishment of a strong organisation did only took place in 312, when Seleucos I, a general of Alexander the Great, inherited the Asian part of the empire. To face the progression of the Mauryan empire, which was just founded in India and occupied the regions in the South-East, Seleucos I entrusted the defence of the Eastern satrapies to his son Antiochos I, who installed his headquarters at Bactres. He reorganized the region and restored several foundations of Alexander that were destroyed by the Greek settlers or by the nomadic tribes.

Due to the lack of ancient texts, our knowledge of the history of Bactria is rather poor for that period. However, the coinage of Bactria, by its quantity as well as its high artistic qualities proves the power and the wealth of the region. That coinage also allows the modern collector and the historians to have an idea what the different rulers looked like.

About 250 B.C., Diodotos, satrap of Bactria proclaimed the independance of Bactria and took the title of king. His son, Diodotos II, was overthrown by Euthydemos I who founded a new dynasty. When the Seleucid king Antiochos III started the reconquest of the lost territories, Euthydemos I could not prevent him to take Bactria and he took refuge in Bactres. After a long siege of two years and since he was a defender of Hellenism against the pressure of the nomads from the North, Euthydemos I obtained his recognition as king.

Demetrios I succeeded his fater ca. 200 B.C. and started the conquest of the Indo-Kush and North-East India. Starting from 190, Demetrios' sons governed together the new kingdom which expanded progressively to all the Punjab. In 170, Eucratides overthrew Demetrios II and Antimachos II in the name of the Seleucids and controled the kingdom. He was murdered about 145 BC by his son Eucratides II and at the same time, nomadic tribes, which occupied Southern Bactria, crossed the river Oxus and made an end to the Greek domination in Bactria.

At the bottom of the page, the site includes face and reverse sides of two silver Indo-Greek coins.  In between are 4 large, somewhat blurry, bitmap images.
This handsomely presented site also explores ancient coins -- huge numbers of them, with access to enlarged images of both sides.  The author writes:
Containing information and scans of over 1500 coins, these pages are to be a resource for students of Near Eastern, Persian, Indian, Central Asian and Chinese history from 600 BC to 1600 AD.  Permanent exhibits with emphasis on Sasanian, Hunnic, Indian and Islamic coinages....
If you love looking at ancient coins and imagining their history (as I do), don't miss this one. [3/14/10: now on Web Archive]
Finally, on the topic of ancient coins, this is a far more modest but nice little site offering several coins (see front and back of one of them at the top of this section) and artifacts found in Afghanistan. [Note: 3/14/10: about the last artifact on the page: "This tiny golden model of a Persian chariot is part of the "Oxus treasure."]

The Seleucid Empire
323–64 BCE
[Section added 14 March 2010]

Tetradrachm of Seleucus I, 300–280 b.c.; Seleucid
Iran, excavated at Pasargadae
(See directly below)
[Added 14 March 2010]:The Seleucids have already been mentioned several times in the previous section within the context of Alexander's death.  This Metropolitan Museum page focuses on the Seleucids themselves.  In addition to the usual supporting data, there are two images and nine thematic essays.  Here are excerpts from the page:
After the death of Alexander III of Macedon in 323 B.C., the territories he had conquered were divided between his generals, the so-called Diadochi. Alexander's friend Seleucus Nicator (r. 312–280 B.C.) became king of the eastern provinces—approximately modern Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, together with parts of Turkey, Armenia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.... Seleucus established a dynasty that lasted for two centuries, during which time Hellenistic art, a fusion of Greek and Near Eastern artistic traditions, developed and flourished.

Around 246 B.C., the Seleucids lost substantial territory in the east, as a nomadic group called the Parni settled in the satrapy (administrative district) of Parthia in northern Iran. In the same period, the satrapy of Bactria (Afghanistan) claimed independence. However, the Seleucid king Antiochus III "the Great" reconquered much of these regions between 209 and 204 B.C. when he campaigned in the east as far as India....

... [Circa 168 B.C.], the Parni were establishing their power across Iran and Mesopotamia, forming the Parthian empire: Seleucia was captured in 141 B.C. By the first century B.C., Seleucid power was further undermined when King Tigranes of Armenia expanded his kingdom into Syria. This brought Roman forces back to Asia and in 64 B.C. the Roman general Pompey arrived in Antioch, having established Syria as a Roman province and bringing to an end the remnants of the Seleucid kingdom.

& Graeco-Bactrians
c. 323 BCE - 48 BCE

Ring stone with four goddesses and four date palms,
Mauryan period (ca. 323–185 b.c.)
[Added 13-14 March 2010]: The Mauryans and their Maurya dynasty have also been mentioned in earlier sections. Now we visit the Metropolitan's page, "Mauryan Empire (ca. 323–185 B.C.)," with one image (see above) and eight thematic essays, in addition to the usual supporting material:
The expansion of two kingdoms in the northeast laid the groundwork for the emergence of India's first empire, ruled by the Mauryan dynasty (ca. 321–185 B.C.)....  By 303 B.C., Chandragupta Maurya (known to the Greeks as Sandracotta) had gained control of an immense area ranging from Bengal in the east to Afghanistan in the west and as far south as the Narmada River. Much of his success is attributed to his prime minister and mentor, Kautilya (also known as Chanakya), author of the Arthashastra, a cold-blooded treatise on the acquisition and maintenance of power. His son, Bindusara, extended the empire into central and parts of southern India. The third Mauryan emperor, Ashoka (r. ca. 273–232 B.C.), is one of the most famous rulers in Indian history. His conversion to and support of Buddhism is often likened to the impact of the Roman emperor Constantine the Great's acceptance of Christianity in 313 A.D. Beginning in 254 B.C., Ashoka had monumental edicts on Buddhism carved into rocks and caves throughout his empire....
[Expanded 16 March 2010]: Immediately after Alexander's death, his kingdom was divided among his own successors and then split further when India's Buddhist Mauryans traded elephants and a princess for the southern provinces of Afghanistan (what happens to the bartered princess isn't mentioned).  This website, "Mauryans & Graeco-Bactrians: c. 305 B.C. - 48 B.C.," looks at this period:
...Seleucus, inheritor of Alexander's eastern conquests, came to establish his authority in Bactria (305 B.C.), but south of the Hindu Kush he lost the Kabul-Kandahar area to the Indian Mauryan Dynasty, which had united the plethora of petty kingdoms in India under their strong and able rule after Alexander left. Having received the southern provinces of Afghanistan from Seleucus in return for 500 elephants and a princess, the Mauryans confirmed local chieftains in their satrapies but continued to regard them with a keen sense of benevolent responsibility, especially during the rule of King Ashoka, the dynasty's renowned ruler who reigned from 268-233 B.C....

...[King Ashoka's] Ashokan Rock and Pillar Edicts which spell out his precepts for a life devoted to charity and compassion toward both man and beast, are well known in India, but these Kandahar Edicts [discovered in 1967 -- the page offers a translation] are the western-most Edicts to have been found and they are the only ones to use Greek. As such they are an exciting additional illustration of Afghanistan's traditional role in bringing together east and west....

Because of Ashoka's humanitarian reforms in Afghan regions south of the Hindu Kush, that region now tastes a rare period of serenity.  Bactria, on the other hand, remains stormy.  The author comments that prior to Alexander --
... the Achaemenids [Persians]are known to have deported politically dissident Greeks to Bactria....
Many more Greeks arrived during and after Alexander's time.  These Graeco-Bactrians soon chaffed under Seleucid rule:
In the north, Bactria also prospered but here the cultural orientation was toward the west and the times were turbulent instead of tranquil. A local Bactrian governor eventually declared complete independence from Seleucid rule in 250 B.C. and his successors ultimately expanded Bactrian authority below the Hindu Kush to Kabul and to the cities of the Punjab where Mauryan power had steadily declined since the death of Ashoka.

The search in Afghanistan for a genuine Bactrian city, begun in the 1920s, finally ended in 1965 when French archaeologists began excavations, now under the direction of Paul Bernard, at the mile long mound of Ai Khanoum (Moon Lady, in Uzbaki), at the confluence of the Kokcha and Oxus Rivers, northeast of Kunduz. The 627 magnificent Bactrian coins contained in the Kunduz Treasure recovered (1946) from Khist Tapa at Qala-i-Zal, northwest of Kunduz (now in the National Museum, Kabul), are masterful monuments to the strength of those they portray; they speak of a highly sophisticated culture.

Superbly rich Ai Khanoum yearly adds substance to our knowledge of life in Bactria during the rule of the Bactrians. The lower levels of the city mound site of Emchi Tepe near Shibarghan excavated by Soviet archaeologists produced many human figurines in Bactrian style, sherds inscribed with Greek characters, plates with central ornamental medallions in relief and other artifacts permitting a dating from the end of the 4th to the end of the 2nd centuries B.C. (I. Kruglikova, 1969-70).

The Bactrian dynasties were beset in later years by internal weaknesses brought on by overextension, personal rivalries, murder and fratricide. Charred beams and great quantities of charcoal through-out the upper levels of Ai Khanoum provide mute evidence of a succession of nomadic invasions at the end of the Second Century A.D.

It is hard to imagine the imperious kings of the Bactrian coins in this account of what the nomads saw as they gazed across the Oxus and considered the invasion: "They (the Bactrians) were sedentary, and had walled cities and houses. They had no great kings or chiefs, but some cities and towns had small chiefs. Their soldiers were weak and feared fighting. They were skillful in trade." (Chinese source, Shih Chi, Book 123).

The invading nomads crossed the Oxus and submerged Bactria about 135 B.C.; in 48 B.C. the last Greek king, Hermaeus, confined to the valley of Kabul, signed an alliance with the nomad chief, now a king, and peaceful]y ended Greek rule in the Afghan area.

Although full documentation isn't provided, I like the fact that this page touches on various archaeological discoveries made in these regions.  Overall, the page is well done.

Persian Empire of Parthia
c. 247 BCE - 224 A.D.

Plate with Ketos, the Whale
Parthia, 2nd century BCE
"The Greek sea monster ketos came to be adopted as a creature
that led souls to the paradise in the early Buddhism of Central Asia."
Japan's Miho Museum
[Added 16 March 2010]:  This Metropolitan Museum page on Parthia has 8 images and 14 thematic essays, in addition to the rest of its usual supportive data. From the text:
...While in the west the Seleucids faced the Ptolemies, Alexander's successors in Egypt, in the east, a seminomadic [Iranian] confederacy, the Parni, were on the move. From the northeast of Iran they advanced toward the frontier of the Seleucid satrapy (administrative district) of Parthia, near the Caspian Sea. In about 250 B.C., they launched an invasion under their leader Arsaces. Known as the Parthians after their successful conquest of the land, they made their own imperial aspirations clear by instituting a dynastic era in 247 B.C., and subsequent rulers assumed the name Arsaces as a royal title. Under Mithradates I (r. ca. 171–139 B.C.) and his successors, the Parthians grew into the dominant power in the Near East through a series of campaigns against the Seleucids, the Romans, the Greco-Bactrian kingdoms, and the nomads of Central Asia. The Romans, who were ambitious to dominate the Near East in the style of Alexander, underestimated the capabilities of the Parthian kings and had to negotiate peace under Augustus.

Establishing a primary residence at Ctesiphon, on the Tigris River in southern Mesopotamia, Parthian kings ruled for nearly half a millennium and influenced politics from Asia Minor to northern India, until they were overthrown by Sasanian armies from southwest Iran in the early third century A.D.
As already noted, many changes took place as Alexander's empire crumbled.  Portions of Afghanistan and many other lands in this region now became part of the Persian empire of Parthia:
...The Parthian Empire is a fascinating period of Persian history closely connected to Greece and Rome. Ruling from 247 B.C. to A.D. 228 in ancient Persia (Iran), the Parthians defeated Alexander the Great's successors, the Seleucids, conquered most of the Middle East and southwest Asia, and built Parthia into an Eastern superpower. The Parthian empire revived the greatness of the Achaemenid empire and counterbalanced Rome's hegemony in the West. Parthia at one time occupied areas now in Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaidzhan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel....
This site looks at the region as a whole and doesn't devote any space to the region of Afghanistan, per se.  Nevertheless, the site gives fascinating data on a much earlier historical layer.  In today's terms, Afghanistan and many of her neighbors once belonged to Iran, still obviously a major power in the region.

Kushan Empire / Gandhara
c. 2nd century B.C.–3rd century A.D.

New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art
[Expanded 12 March 2010]: From New York City's Metropolitan Museum comes this page on the Kushan Empire's history and art.  It's a fine little site, offering clickable images, maps, good overviews, and hypertext to related pages (e.g., the Silk Road).  Here are two excerpts:
Under the rule of the Kushans, northwest India and adjoining regions participated both in seagoing trade and in commerce along the Silk Road to China. The name Kushan derives from the Chinese term Guishang, used in historical writings to describe one branch of the Yuezhi—a loose confederation of Indo-European people who had been living in northwestern China until they were driven west by another group, the Xiongnu, in 176–160 B.C. The Yuezhi reached Bactria (northwest Afghanistan and Tajikistan) around 135 B.C. Kujula Kadphises united the disparate tribes in the first century B.C. Gradually wresting control of the area from the Scytho-Parthians, the Yuezhi moved south into the northwest Indian region traditionally known as Gandhara (now parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan) and established a capital near Kabul.....
The Gandhara region at the core of the Kushan empire was home to a multiethnic society tolerant of religious differences. Desirable for its strategic location, with direct access to the overland silk routes and links to the ports on the Arabian Sea, Gandhara had suffered many conquests and had been ruled by the Mauryans, Alexander the Great (327/26–325/24 B.C.), his Indo-Greek successors (third–second centuries B.C.), and a combination of Scythians and Parthians (second–first centuries B.C.). The melding of peoples produced an eclectic culture, vividly expressed in the visual arts produced during the Kushan period. Themes derived from Greek and Roman mythologies were common initially, while later, Buddhist imagery dominated....
This site is more specific on Kushan dates: c. 135 B.C. - 241 A.D.  This is when trade along the Silk Road was at its height and the ancient world basked in exotic luxuries from India and the Far East.  Afghanistan was at the hub of this far-flung traderoute -- and nomadic Kushans were now her rulers:
Restless nomadic tribes living in Central Asia had long been of concern to the rulers of Bactria and their relentless encroachments into the settled areas fill the pages of the area's early history. Real nomadic political power in Afghanistan was, however, first established by the Yueh-chih who, forced from their grazing lands on the Chinese border, enter this story as a loose confederation of five clans.  United under the banner of one, the Kushan, they wrote one of history's most brilliant and exciting chapters in Afghanistan.

 ...The rise to world prominence had wrought great changes on the nomadic Kushans. Having no traditions on which to build a settled way of life, they adapted what they found in ways best suited to their own personality. What emerged was a vibrant and indigenous culture born of the fusion of western-oriented Bactrian ideals with those from eastern-oriented India, interpreted by the forceful, free character born on the steppes of Central Asia. The result was vital and dynamic....

Of special interest in this period is the emergence of a new hybrid art under the leadership of Kanishka (c. 130 A.D.), a powerful and eclectic Kushan king.  The art is known as Gandhara, a merger of Hellenistic and Indian elements:
The revival of the ancient religion of Buddhism by Kanishka and the attendant emergence of Gandhara art are enduring manifestations of Kushan culture. A new school of Buddhist thought stressing the miraculous life and personality of the Buddha was officially sanctioned at a great council called by Kanishka. This humanization of the Buddha led directly to a desire for a representative figure of the Buddha who had, until this time, been depicted by such symbols as a wheel, an empty throne, a riderless horse, or a foot print. East and West joined in the creation of the familiar Buddha figure and adapted it to fit Indian philosophical ideals.
This is a fine page about a lively, rich, hopeful period in Afghanistan's often tragic history.

Terracotta head of a female figure
Pre-Gandharian, Silk Road region
(From Gandhara Galleries -- see below)
......Continuing with Kushan and Gandhara art, the Gandhara Galleries in Australia has created a handsome series of pages filled with rich art from this period in Afghanistan.  The collection's emphasis, not surprisingly, is on heads of the Buddha, since Gandhara art is famous for being the first to depict the Buddha in human form.  The collection also includes a few sculptures of merchants, women, and Hindu deities (see above for pre-Gandhara head of a European-featured woman).
[Added 13/16 March 2010]: This is a brief page that adds a few more useful details:
Kushan Dynasty, also spelled KUSANA, ruling line descended from the Yüeh-chih (q.v.), a people that ruled over most of the northern Indian subcontinent, Afghanistan, and parts of Central Asia during the first three centuries of the Christian era. The Yüeh-chih conquered Bactria in the 2nd century BC and divided the country into five chiefdoms, one of which was that of the Kushans (Kuei-shuang)....

Under Kaniska I (fl. 1st century AD) and his successors, the Kushan kingdom reached its height. It was acknowledged as one of the four great Eurasian powers of its time (the others being China, Rome, and Parthia). The Kushans were instrumental in spreading Buddhism in Central Asia and China and in developing Mahayana Buddhism and the Gandhara and Mathura schools of art.

The Kushans became affluent through trade, particularly with Rome, as their large issues of gold coins show. These coins, which exhibit the figures of Greek, Roman, Iranian, Hindu, and Buddhist deities and bear inscriptions in adapted Greek letters, are witness to the toleration and to the syncretism in religion and art that prevailed in the Kushan empire. After the rise of the Sasanian dynasty in Iran and of local powers in northern India, Kushan rule declined.

Persian Sasanians
and Nomadic Hephthalites
(3rd - 7th centuries AD)
[Section added 13 March 2010]

Faceted Glass Bowl
Sasanian, 5th-7th centuries AD
[Added 16 March 2010]: This is a very brief page -- here is how it opens:
The Kushan Empire did not long survive Kaniska, though for centuries Kushan princes continued to rule in various provinces. Persian Sasanians established control over parts of Afghanistan, including Bagram, in AD 241. In AD 400 a new wave of Central Asian nomads under the Hephthalites took control, only to be defeated in AD 565 by a coalition of Sasanians and Western Turks....
[Added 16 March 2010]: The Metropolitan Museum's page (with 5 artworks and 10 thematic essays) goes into somewhat more depth:
Around 224 A.D., Ardashir I, a descendant of Sasan who gave his name to the new Sasanian dynasty, defeated the Parthians. The Sasanians saw themselves as the successors of the Achaemenid Persians. One of the most energetic and able Sasanian rulers was Shapur I (r. 241–72 A.D.). During his reign, the central government was strengthened, the coinage was reformed, and Zoroastrianism was made the state religion....
It might be noted here that on page 150 in Time/Life's 1975 Emergence of Man: The Persians, there is the following brief, but significant, passage: "...unlike the Achaemenids, who were tolerant of other faiths, the Sasanians were zealous Zoroastrian missionaries, imposing the prophet's creed forcibly upon all their subjects."
By the end of Shapur I’s reign, the Sasanian empire stretched from the River Euphrates to the River Indus and included modern-day Armenia and Georgia. After a short period during which much territory was lost, Sasanian fortunes were restored during the long reign of Shapur II (r. 310–79 A.D.). He reestablished control over the Kushans in the east and campaigned in the desert against the Arabs....  During the fifth century, tribal movements in Central Asia resulted in Hephthalite Huns creating an extensive empire centered on Afghanistan. After a disastrous campaign, the Sasanians were forced to pay tribute to their new eastern neighbors. Iran recovered her glory during the reign of Khosrow I (r. 531–79 A.D), who defeated the Hephthalites. However, in the years following Khosrow's death, there were internal revolts and wars with the Byzantine empire. This weakened Iran, and Arab forces, united under Islam, defeated the Sasanian armies in 642. The last Sasanian ruler, Yazdegerd III, died in 651.
[Added 17 March 2010]:  This site offers an even more in-depth look at this period, including the Taliban-like destruction of Buddhist shrines by the nomadic Hephthalites:
Decadence sapped the power of both China and Rome and gravely disrupted the trade upon which Kushan prosperity depended. At the same time, civil wars following Kanishka's death so weakened the Kushans that they fell under the sway of the recently established Sasanian Empire of Persia. Reduced to provincial status by the middle of the 3rd Century A.D. (241 A.D.) they were subsequently swamped by a new wave of nomadic invasions from Central Asia. The Hephthalites (White Huns) came into Afghanistan about 400 A.D. and ruled for almost 200 years but little outside their ruthless destruction of Buddhist shrines is known of their Afghan sojourn....

Just 24 kin; 15 mi. southwest of Kandahar, not far from Deh Morasi Ghundai, a large cave called Shamshir Ghar, excavated by Dupree in 1950, provides a tantalizing footnote to this confused era. Occupied from the 1st century B.C. to the 13th century A.D., a particularly thick occupation level relates to the Kushano-Sasanian period from 300-700 A.D. It seems unreasonable that people would choose to live in a cave at a time when several large cities like Bost and Zaranj, numerous towns, and countless villages provided more comfortable conditions. Nor could periodic stops by nomads have contributed such a thick level of material. It would seem rather that this was a place of refuge used by the inhabitants of the area while the Hephthalites and Sasanians battled for supremacy and during the early plundering raids by the Arabs which followed. Continuous political upheavals culminating in a Mongol invasion in the middle of the 13th century, the last significant occupation level at Shamshir Ghar, are amply documented by historical accounts.

Arab armies carrying the banner of Islam came out of the west to defeat the Sasanians in 642 A.D. and then they marched with confidence to the east. On the western periphery of the Afghan area the princes of Herat and Seistan gave way to rule by Arab governors but in the east, in the mountains, cities submitted only to rise in revolt and the hastily converted returned to their old beliefs once the armies passed.

The harshness and avariciousness of Arab rule produced such unrest, however, that once the waning power of the Caliphate became apparent, native rulers once again established themselves independent. Among these the Saffarids of Seistan [also see below under "Early Islamic Dynasties"] shone briefly in the Afghan area. The fanatic founder of this dynasty, the coppersmith's apprentice Yaqub ibn Layth Saffari, came forth from his capital at Zaranj in 870 A.D. and marched through Bost, Kandahar, Ghazni, Kabul, Bamiyan, Balkh and Herat, conquering in the name of Islam. He then marched on Baghdad (873) to chastise the Caliph for failing to adequately confirm his authority but in this he was defeated and he returned to northern Afghanistan where another local Islamic dynasty, the Samanids ruling from Bokhara (872-999), contested his authority.

Yaqub succeeded in keeping his rivals north of the Oxus River but immediately after his death in 879 the Samanids moved to take Balkh from his brother. Succeeding in 900 A.D., they moved south of the Hindu Kush and extended their enlightened rule throughout the Afghan area. Unlike the dashing, opportunistic soldier-of-fortune Yaqub, the Samanids stood for law and order, orthodoxy in Islam, and a return to cultural traditions. Balkh was a prominent Samanid town, the home of numerous poets including the beautiful but tragic poetess Rabia Balkhi whose tomb was discovered in 1964. The richly decorated remains of the mosque called No Gumbad, Nine Domes, also at Balkh, is an unique and very beautiful example of the highly sophisticated, exuberant Samanid culture.

South of the Hindu Kush, however, allegiance to Samanid authority was vague and constantly contested by revolt, especially in Seistan where a rapid succession of Yaqub's descendants ceaselessly jockeyed for position and power which they miraculously maintained, albeit tenuously, as provincial officials until 1163....

Pre-Islamic Medieval Period
 (7th - 18th centuries AD)
[Section added 13 March 2010]
[Added 13 March 2010]: Depending upon the region, from the 7th to the 18th centuries, Islam had not yet penetrated into major areas of Afghanistan. Instead, Hinduism and Buddhism played major roles, as this brief passage indicates:
Under the Hephthalites and Sasanians, many of the Afghan princedoms were influenced by Hinduism. The Hindu kings (Shahi) were concentrated in the Kabul and Ghazni areas. Excavated sites of the period include a major Hindu Shahi temple north of Kabul and a chapel in Ghazni that contains both Buddhist and Hindu statuary, indicating that there was a mingling of these two religions.

Early Islamic Dynasties
 (7th - 13th centuries AD)
[Section added 13 March 2010]

Bowl, 12th–13th century; Ghaznavid
Metropolitan Museum: "The design on this bowl, with its bold central six-pointed star
and pseudo-vegetal elements all around, is especially successful and refined."
[Added 16 March 2010]: This page provides brief but useful overviews (also see above under "Persian Sasanians and Nomadic Hephthalites"):
The First Muslim Dynasty: Islamic armies defeated the Sasanians in AD 642 at Nahavand (near modern Hamadan, Iran) and moved on to the Afghan area, but they were unable to hold the territory; cities submitted, only to rise in revolt, and the hastily converted returned to their old beliefs once the armies had passed. The 9th and 10th centuries witnessed the rise of numerous local Islamic dynasties. One of the earliest was the Tahirids of Khorasan, whose kingdom included Balkh and Herat....  The Tahirids were succeeded in 867-869 by a native dynasty from Seistan, the Saffarids. Local princes in the north soon became feudatories of the powerful Samanids, who ruled from Bukhara. From 872 to 999 Bukhara, Samarkand, and Balkh enjoyed a golden age under Samanid rule.

The Ghaznavids:  In the middle of the 10th century a former Turkish slave named Alptegin seized Ghazna (Ghazni). He was succeeded by another former slave, Subüktigin, who extended the conquests to Kabul and the Indus. His son was the great Mahmud of Ghazna, who came to the throne in 998. Mahmud conquered the Punjab and Multan and carried his raids into the heart of India. The hitherto obscure town of Ghazna became a splendid city, as did the second capital at Bust (Lashkar Gah).

The Ghurids: Mahmud's descendants continued to rule over a gradually diminishing empire until 1150, when 'Ala`-ud-Din Husayn of Ghur, a mountain-locked region in central Afghanistan, sacked Ghazna and drove the last Ghaznavid out to India. 'Ala`-ud-Din's nephew, Mu'izz-ud-Din Muhammad, known as Muhammad of Ghur, first invaded India in 1175....

The Khwarezm-Shahs: Shortly after Muhammad of Ghur's death, the Ghurid Empire fell apart, and Afghanistan was occupied by Sultan 'Ala` ad-Din Muhammad, the Khwarezm-Shah. The territories of the Khwarezm-Shah dynasty extended from Chinese Turkistan in the east to the borders of Iraq in the west.,6.htm
...[Added 16 March 2010]:  From the Metropolitan Museum: one of two simple tiles, dating from the "second half of 12th–early 13th century, Afghanistan, earthenware, molded and glazed: these two tiles belong to a series found in Ghazni, the capital of the Ghaznavid dynasty (977–1186), in a house destroyed during the Mongol invasion of 1221. Most of the tiles in the series are square, some are polygonal, and are molded in relief with animals, plants, or occasionally inscriptions. Even though these tiles are unique in style, their decoration shows affinities with classical pre-Islamic motifs from Iran, such as the 'pearl' borders and the animals in profile within a frame."
[Added 17 March 2010]: This page focuses on the Islamic Ghaznavids (962 - 1186). Here are some excerpts:
The right of these local rulers to rule rested solely upon their personal strength and charisma; seats of power were fair game for anyone strong enough to take them. Taking advantage of this situation, Alptigin, a Turkish slave deposed as Commander-in-Chief of Samanid forces in Khurasan, marched south and established himself as master of the fort of Ghazni in 962 A.D. Alptigin died soon after taking Ghazni, but his successors, particularly his slave, Sebuktigin (977-997), and Sebuktigin's son, Sultan Mahmud (998-1030), moved out to annex Kabul (977), Bost (977-8), Balkh (994), Herat (1000) and parts of western Persia. Thus established, they then carried the banner of Islam on to India during numerous iconoclastic campaigns from which they returned laden with rich booty. Ghazni, until then an insignificant fort-town, became one of the most brilliant capitals of the Islamic world.

Great mosques and sumptuous palaces, surrounded by carefully rended gardens, rose to be adorned with the gold and gems of India. Here the era's most illustrious poets, artists, architects, philosophers, musicians, historians, artisans and craftsmen gathered under the keen patronage of the court....

 In the winter the court moved from chilly Ghazni to the friendly warmth of Bost, as much for the comfort and well-being of their elephants as for their own.... On the banks of the Hilmand River at Lashkari Bazaar nobles vied with one another in building pleasure villas. The monumental walls of these villas stretch for miles along the Hilmand today. They stand tall, and from a distance one anticipates the sound of music signalling the start of gay, convivial festivities. On drawing near, however, they prove but empty shells, stripped of their opulent furnishings by mountain men from Ghor, maddened by insult.

The emptiness and ruin is even more apparent at Ghazni, victim of successive onslaughts, where only two minarets and the tomb of the great conqueror Sultan Mahmud still remain. From mounds of rubble at the feet of the minarets, however, Italian archaeologists, under the direction of Umberto Scerrato, have rescued impressive evidence of the splendor and glory that once radiated throughout the world from this great capital city.
[Added 17 March 2010]:This page focuses on the next dynasty, the Islamic Ghorids (1148 - 1202). Here are some excerpts:
The Ghorids who delivered the death blow to the Ghaznavids are a classic example of the sometimes independent, sometimes semi-independent local chieftains to which this discussion has referred so often. Living in the high mountains east of Herat where the rugged terrain discouraged outsiders from all but periodic raids for plunder, slaves or tribute, these chieftains dwelt in heavily fortified villages happily engaging in their personal contests. Fortune was a highly mecurial commodity, however, and the rise or fall of an individual was often determined by the vagaries of mere chance....

...By the beginning of the 12th century the Shansabani had extended their authority over the other Ghorid chiefs and their power was such that they stood almost as equals with the Ghaznavids on their southern border and the Seljuks on their northern border.... Malik Qutubuddin [however]... was forced to leave for Ghazni where he was well received and well respected until Sultan Bahram Shah (1118-1152), jealous of his increasing popularity, served him with a glass of poisoned sherbet (1146). Fratricidal bickerings at home in Ghor were immediately set aside once this heinous insult became known and a relentless enmity between Ghor and Ghazni began, to end in the obliteration of the Ghaznavids.

One by one the brothers left their mountain capital with their armies to engage in a complicated series of maneuvers for revenge and counter-revenge: the first brother captured Ghazni and disdainfully sent his army back to Ghor whereupon the Sultan returned to torture the Ghorid to death; the second brother died on his way to revenge the new death (1149); the third, Alauddin, defeated the Sultan Bahram Shah in the vicinity of modern Kandahar (1151). The Sultan fell back in retreat upon Ghazni which "Alauddin took by storm, and during seven nights and days fired the place, and burnt it with obstinacy and wantonness. . . During these seven days, the air, from the blackness of the smoke, continued as black as night; and those nights, from the flames raging in the burning city, were lighted up as light as day. During these seven days likewise, rapine, plunder and massacre were carried out with the utmost pertinacity and vindictiveness." (Juzjani) ...

Turbulent warfare marks the early years of this dynasty and continued until Alauddin's nephew, Ghiyasuddin (1157-1202), was raised to the throne by the Ghorid army. Under his enlightened direction the House of Ghor and the Afghan area at last knew peace and prosperity, at least for a few years... At its height the Ghorid Dynasty claimed suzerainty from India to Iraq, from Kashghar to the Persian Gulf....

Rivals to the north, the Khwarizm from south of the Aral Sea, enviously coveted the power and the riches of their Ghorid neighbors. As soon as death removed the strong personality of Sultan Ghiyasuddin (1202) they moved. Muizuddin tried valiantly to stem their advance but Balkh (1205) and then Herat (1206) fell before the Khwarizm Shah. Deserted by his followers, Muizuddin fled first to Ghazni, where his officers denied him entrance, and then into India where he was assassinated on the banks of the Indus. Only at Bamiyan, in the heart of the mountains, did the dynasty survive for a short while and then it too succumbed and the last of the Shansabani rulers was taken north to the Khwarizm capital and there put to death in 1215.

Mongol Invasion:1219 AD
Mongol Empire: 1220-1332 AD
[Section added 14 March 2010]

Genghis Khan, Mongol Conqueror
[Added 17 March 2010]: "The Legacy of Genghis Khan" is yet another fine page from the Metropolitan Museum (with 3 images and 18 thematic essays).  A few excerpts:
Genghis Khan (ca. 1162–1227) and the Mongols are invariably associated with terrible tales of conquest, destruction, and bloodshed. This famed clan leader and his immediate successors created the largest empire ever to exist, spanning the entire Asian continent from the Pacific Ocean to modern-day Hungary in Europe. Such an empire could not have been shaped without visionary leadership, superior organizational skills, the swiftest and most resilient cavalry ever known, an army of superb archers (the "devil's horsemen" in Western sources), the existence of politically weakened states across Asia, and, of course, havoc and devastation.

Yet, the legacy of Genghis Khan, his sons, and grandsons is also one of cultural development, artistic achievement, a courtly way of life, and an entire continent united under the so-called Pax Mongolica ("Mongolian Peace")....

The Mongols were remarkably quick in transforming themselves from a purely nomadic tribal people into rulers of cities and states and in learning how to administer their vast empire. They readily adopted the system of administration of the conquered states, placing a handful of Mongols in the top positions but allowing former local officials to run everyday affairs. This clever system allowed them to control each city and province but also to be in touch with the population through their administrators.... Horses, once a reliable instrument of war and conquest, now made swift communication possible, carrying written messages through a relay system of stations. A letter sent by the emperor in Beijing and carried by an envoy wearing his paiza, or passport, could reach the Ilkhanid capital Tabriz, some 5,000 miles away, in about a month.

The political unification of Asia under the Mongols resulted in active trade and the transfer and resettlement of artists and craftsmen along the main routes. New influences were thus integrated with established local artistic traditions. By the middle of the thirteenth century, the Mongols had formed the largest contiguous empire in the world, uniting Chinese, Islamic, Iranian, Central Asian, and nomadic cultures within an overarching Mongol sensibility....

...However, the new rulers were greatly impressed by the long-established traditions of Iran, with its prosperous urban centers and thriving economy, and they quickly assimilated the local culture. The Mongol influence on Iranian and Islamic culture gave birth to an extraordinary period in Islamic art that combined well-established traditions with the new visual language transmitted from eastern Asia.
[Added 17 March 2010]:This gives a capsule-sized view of the Mongol period:
Genghis Khan invaded the eastern part of 'Ala` ad-Din's empire in 1219. Avoiding a battle, 'Ala` ad-Din retreated to a small island in the Caspian Sea, where he died in 1220. Soon after 'Ala` ad-Din's death, his energetic son Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu rallied the Afghan highlanders at Parwan (modern Jabal os Saraj), near Kabul, and inflicted a crushing defeat on the Mongols under Kutikonian. Genghis Khan, who was then at Herat, hastened to avenge the defeat and laid siege to Bamian. There Mutugen, the Khan's grandson, was killed, an event so infuriating to Genghis Khan that when he captured the citadel he ordered that no living being be spared. Bamian was utterly destroyed....
[Added 17-18 March 2010]:As usual, this site goes into much more depth.  This is period with which I have no familiarity.  My only connection with Mongol warlords was a film I loved as a child in 1950, The Black Rose with Tyrone Power. As an adult, I associated only violence and brutality with Genghis Khan and saw little reason to look further.  In reading this page, however, I was surprised to learn that he first respectfully wrote the region's current ruler, the Khwarizm Shah, and asked for a treaty of friendship and trade.  With his request, he sent enormous riches.  That's hardly the action of a greedy despot.  The villain here was the Khwarizm Shah's own border commander, who betrayed his leader, stole the treasure, and murdered Genghis Khan's emissaries.  From there, arrogance and vengeful fury kept matters escalating beyond control.  It's a story of senseless tragedy:
On the eastern borders of the Khwarizm Empire a Mongol chieftain by the name of Temujin, later entitled Genghis Khan, was busily consolidating his power. From him the Khwarizm Shah received the following note: "I am the sovereign of the sunrise, and thou the sovereign of the sunset. Let there be between us a firm treaty of friendship, amity, and peace and let traders and caravans on both sides come and go, and let the precious products and ordinary commodities which may be in my territory be conveyed by them into thine, and those in thine into mine." With the notebearer he sent five hundred camels laden with gold, including a nugget of pure gold as big as a camel's neck, silver, silks, furs, sable and other "elegant and ingenious" rarities (Juzjani).

Such riches were just too tempting for the Shah's avaricious border commander. He seized the treasure and, in an attempt to prevent news of his perfidious act from reaching the ears of the Khan, killed all those accompanying the caravan. Or so he thought. He had in fact missed one young camel boy who, taking a steam bath, succeeded in escaping through the chimney to return with the fateful news to his master. Furious, Genghis Khan demanded that the Shah turn over the border commander for punishment but the Shah, sublimely confident of his supreme power, answered by returning the Khan's messengers with singed beards. Insult having thus been added to theft and murder, the flood gates opened for one of the most catastrophic episodes recorded in the annals of mankind.

Two hundred thousand Mongols marched west to chastise the Khwarizm Shah in the year 1219. By 1221 Balkh, Herat, the Seistan, Ghazni, Bamiyan and all points in between had fallen before the onslaught and " . . . with one stroke a world which billowed with fertility was laid desolate, and the regions thereof became a desert and the greater part of the living dead and their skins and bones crumbling dust; and the mighty were humbled and immersed in the calamities of perdition." So says Juvaini, an eloquent eye-witness chronicler writing only thirty years later. The ruined citadel of the Shansabani capital in Bamiyan is a poignant, visual monument to the presence of Genghis Khan in Afghanistan. Its name, Shahr-i-Gholghola, "City of Noise," refers to the tumult of that final massacre during which the conqueror fulfilled a vow to kill every man, woman and child, every animal and plant in the valley of Bamiyan.

Recovery was slow. The great irrigation works which had enabled this land to produce an abundance lay broken and useless, purposely destroyed by Genghis Khan; anarchy so frightened traders that they turned to the sea, and the great cities of the desert and the plain, robbed of their livelihood, became mounds of sand. Only in the rich province of Khurasan was there a return to law and order under an extremely skillful local family, known as the Karts. Appointed Governors by the Mongol Il-Khans of Persia in 1245, they expanded from their capital at Herat to include Kandahar (1281)....  When, therefore, they declared their independence in 1332 they seemed well on their way toward a long and prosperous reign....  A new storm was, however, already brewing in Central Asia.'s_trip_three.html
[Added 17-18 March 2010]: This is "Ibn Battuta's Trip: Part Three - Persia and Iraq (1326 - 1327): A Land Conquered by the Mongols," part of a splendid series of pages created for students in 1999 by their teacher, Nick Bartel, at the Horace Mann Middle School in San Francisco.  The pages are handsome, well written, and illustrated with art and maps (click here for the home page/site map). This Mongol page opens with a chilling quote from Genghis Khan, which, now that I know something of the background for his vengeance, I can better understand:
"The greatest happiness is to vanquish your enemies, to chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth, to see those dear to them bathed in tears, to clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters."
The page then provides "aftermath" data not given by previous sites:
...The Mongols wreaked death and devastation wherever they rode from China to the plains of Hungary, but nowhere more so than in Persia, where most of the great cities were demolished and their inhabitants annihilated. "The total population of this area may have dropped temporarily from 2,500,000 to 250,000 as a result of mass extermination and famine." [J.M Smith in Dunn, p. 83]  In 1256, Hulagu (1217-1265), Genghis Khan's grandson, subdued the whole of Persia. In 1258, Baghdad was captured and the caliph put to death, bringing the Abbasid Caliphate rule to an end.

Such a strategy of destruction by the Mongols was designed to crush the possibility of resistance to Mongol rule and cause whole cities to surrender without a fight. Therefore, some cities were destroyed, while others which surrendered (like Tabriz) were spared.

Once the armies had overrun Persia and set up governments, the destruction came to an end. After about 1260, trade resumed, fields were planted, and towns were rebuilt. Mongol leaders and their Turkish soldiers learned much about Islam and Persian culture, and the leaders had no choice but to put the administration and finance of this region in the hands of native Muslim scribes and officials who had been running Persia before the invasion. In fact, the Mongols and Turks were transformed into Persians. Genghis had a policy of toleration of all religions within the empire, and the promoters of Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam competed like salesmen for the leaders' attention. The Mongols swung from one religious preference to another, depending upon which could gain them the most influence at court. Ghazan was the first ruler to make Islam the state religion (1295 - 1304). He required the entire court to convert, he built mosques throughout the country and gave money for the building of hospitals and schools. [Dunn, p. 86.] His successor was erratic in his religious demands for the empire. He was born Nestorian, then adopted Buddhism, next converted to Islam, and then became a Shi'ia Muslim who persecuted Sunni Muslims. His son, Abu Sa'id brought the court quickly back to Sunni and that is when Ibn Battuta (of a strong Sunni Muslim faith) arrived. Both Persian and Arabic were spoken here by the educated in this part of Dar al-Islam.

When the Mongols converted to Islam, they also became patrons of Persian art and culture. Persian culture came back to life quickly after the holocaust it had suffered....

Finally, near the end of the page, there's an unsettling comment on the next dynasty, the Timurids:
...[But the future destruction by another Mongol leader, Timur the Lame (or Tamerlane) would be much worse. Tamerlane dominated all of Persia from 1387. His invasion of Isfahan alone, led to more than 70,000 deaths where the heads of his victims were heaped up into pyramids]....

Timurid Period
C. 1369–1506 AD
[Section added 15-16 March 2010]

Haft Paikar of the Khamsa of Nizami,
Illustrated detached folios, ca. 1430; Timurid Period
Made in Herat, Afghanistan
Metropolitan Museum  (see directly below)

[Added 17 March 2010]:This page from the Metropolitan Museum has 14 art pieces and 10 thematic essays.  Here are excerpts from the opening text:
The Timurids were the final great dynasty to emerge from the Central Asian steppe. In 1370, the eponymous founder, Timur (Tamerlane), who belonged to a Turko-Mongol tribe settled in Transoxiana, became master of this province and established Samarqand as his capital. Within thirty-five years, he subjugated all of Central Asia, greater Iran, and Iraq, as well as parts of southern Russia and the Indian subcontinent. To the west, Timurid forces defeated the Mamluk army in Syria and that of the Ottomans at Ankara (1400–2). In 1405, while preparing to invade China, Timur died. The vast empire he carved proved to be difficult to keep; his son and successor, Shahrukh (r. 1405–47), barely managed to maintain the empire's boundaries, and subsequent Timurid princes sought to establish their own kingdoms, weakening the empire with internal strife. Eventually only Khorasan and Transoxiana remained Timurid, and during the remaining years of the dynasty, these were ruled by separate branches of the Timurid family.

By bringing craftsmen from different conquered lands to his capital in Samarqand, Timur initiated one of the most brilliant periods in Islamic art. Timurid art and architecture provided inspiration to lands stretching from Anatolia to India. Though Timur's extensive empire itself was relatively short-lived, his descendants continued to rule over Transoxiana as leading patrons of Islamic art. Through their patronage, the eastern Islamic world became a prominent cultural center, with Herat, the new Timurid capital, as its focal point. Timurid rulers were sympathetic to Persian culture and lured artists, architects, and men of letters who would contribute to their high court culture....

...Trademarks of the Timurid style were monumental scale, multiple minarets, polychromy tilework, and large bulbous double domes. The Timurid period also witnessed women as active patrons of architecture. Along with their immediate successors, the Shaibanids [also see below under the Mugals], the Timurid cultural tradition was also partly carried on by the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal empires.
[Added 17 March 2010]: This page, with a good map of relevant sites, goes into more depth on Timur/Tamerlane himself:
...Having lost out in the game of playing one chieftain against the other in his homeland just south of Samarkand, Timur, the young adventurer, turned fugitive and fled into the protective mountains of Afghanistan. Passing stealthily past Kabul he journeyed on to Zaranj, capital of Seistan, where he took service with the city's chief, as head of a rather unsavory lot of 100 similarly outlawed companions. Fighting with legendary daring, Timur distinguished himself in battles with various rebel bands....

Timur soon tired of the petty rebellions in Seistan and returned to the grander contests of the north where fortune favored him. Word of his prowess spread and one by one the tribes rallied to his cause; in 1369, at Balkh, he proclaimed himself supreme sovereign from Kabul to the Aral Sea and turned to conquer an empire. The Karts resisted without success and their capital city of Herat was destroyed in 1381. Following this, Timur moved on to subdue his former master in Zaranj (1383)....

Genghis Khan abhorred cities and cultivated fields for he said they robbed him of grazing lands for his mounted army which he likened to a "roaring ocean". Timur, on the other hand, often rebuilt what he had once, or twice, destroyed. Herat is an example; Balkh another. From these cities the glory of the Timurids was to shine.

The familiar series of rival family claims erupted on Timur's death in 1405. One of the major contestants was his grandson, Pir Mohammad, who held Kandahar, seat of government in the south after the destruction of Zaranj. Setting out with a large army, Pir Mohammad marched toward Samarkand, Timur's capital, sending ahead a letter outlining his reasons for believing the throne was rightfully his. The reply, written by the court's leading statesman, is perhaps one of the more candid dispatches ever penned by a diplomat: "Certainly you are the lawful heir and successor of Amir Timur, but fortune does not favour you, for if it did, you would be near the capital."

Exactly. By the time Pir Mohammad arrived in Samarkand his rival was well established and "the sea of destruction flowed over his head."

Several years, many exiles and numerous murders later, Shah Rukh (Timur's youngest son) and his remarkable wife, Gawhar Shad, emerged as undisputed masters of an empire stretching from the Tigris River to the borders of China. From their capital at Herat they led a cultural renaissance by their lavish patronage of the arts, attracting to their court artists, architects and philosophers and poets acknowledged today among the world's most illustrious....

Fratricidal quarrels resumed on Shah Rukh's death in 1447 and intensified after Gawhar Shad was murdered in 1457. She was well past the age of 80! Herat itself experienced its Golden Age under Sultan Husain Baiqara (1468-1506) but the nobles of his court, too intent upon their precious pursuit of luxury, could not be bothered with the drab responsibilities of government. Ambitious local leaders, some from within the Timurid family, some from without, seized the opportunity thus offered them and the age-old games for power began anew....

The Mughals
(Before 1600)
The Mughals and Safavids
(1504 - 1709)
[Section added 15-16 March 2010]

The Bagh-e Vafa (Garden of Fidelity) in Kabul:
Mughal leader Babur's first garden
(See further below)
[Added 17-18 March 2010]:  This is the Metropolitan Museum's "The Art of the Mughals before 1600" (with 8 works of art and 22 thematic essays). Here are passages of special interest:
The dynasty founded by Babur, the Mughal dynasty, ruled over the greatest Islamic state of the Indian subcontinent. As a youth, Babur, a prince of the house of Timur, was unable to maintain his sovereignty over the small Central Asian state bequeathed to him by his father. Instead, he turned his attention to the southeast, where he occupied Kabul in 1504, and almost immediately thereafter embarked on his conquest of India.... However, at the time of his death, in 1530, he had not yet transformed his territorial acquisitions into an empire. This task was left to Humayun, Babur's son and successor, who unfortunately lacked the military genius of his father and soon forfeited the Mughal foothold in India.... [I]t is Humayun's son Akbar who can be credited with the real foundation of the Mughal empire.

During his reign, which lasted nearly fifty years (1556–1605), Akbar established dominion over northern and central India, as far east as Bengal. He secured the northwestern frontier, gateway to India for so many previous invasions, through his control of Kabul....  Unlike his grandfather, Akbar succeeded in consolidating the empire and establishing a strong administrative system. He was deeply interested in spiritual and religious issues, and in 1582 formulated a new code of religious behavior. Weekly discussions at court included not only representatives of various Muslim religious communities but also non-Muslim theologians including Hindus, Jains, Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians....

Although he is said to have been illiterate, Akbar assembled a royal atelier, first at Fatehpur Sikri, then at Lahore, from which he commissioned numerous illustrated manuscripts that incorporate Persian, Indian, and even European elements. In fact, the artists who worked for Akbar, the first great Mughal patron of the arts of the book, included Persians as well as Indian Muslims and Hindus. This collaborative process helped to foster the development of a specifically Mughal style, which was initiated under Akbar and is demonstrated by pages from diverse late-sixteenth-century manuscripts....

Babur Shah
(See Afghanland site directly below)
[Added 24 March 2010]:This page from Afghanland provides a lengthy, lively, and sometimes quite graphic history of Babur, including passages from Baburnama (his memoirs) and an intriguing account of a modern (c. 2004) retracing of his path through Afghanistan.  Here is an account of his birth:
. . . In the mid-winter of 1483 AD, when snow had closed the passes leading out of Farghana Valley in Central Asia, the first baby-boy was born in the house of Omer Sheikh. It was a moment to rejoice; women hung carpets from the windows of the ramshackle castle of Andijan. A soothsayer was called to predict good fortune for the child. Younis Khan, the Mongol maternal grandfather, who came to witness the shaving of the boy's head, could not pronounce the child's given name. To him, the boy was a little tiger, hence Babur (tiger in Turkish).

From the mother's side, the boy was a remote descendant of the dreaded Genghis Khan, whose savage hordes had captured and destroyed most of the known world. From the father's side he was a direct descendant of Taimur Lane, the Turkish conqueror who made Samarkand his citadel and enriched it with the spoils of his campaigns. The boy picked up the three languages spoken around him. He mastered the old Turkish of the countryside, the Persian dialect of the town and some Arabic of learned men....
[Added 18 March 2010]:This page looks at "Moghuls & Safavids (1504 - 1709)."  It begins with Shaibani Khan (1451-1510) [see mention of the Shaibanids in the above Timurid section], an orphaned Uzbak youngster --
[an] energetic contender in these games for power.... whose early life mirrors to some extent the early life of Timur.... [Shaibani] had spent his youth as a soldier-of-fortune helping his grandfather keep rebellious chiefs in line, had, for services rendered, been given the governorship of a few outlying provinces far to the north of the Oxus. Thus established, the erstwhile adventurer began to dream dreams of empire, and these dreams assumed reality after he captured Samarkand in 1500. Sultan Husain Baiqara [a Timurid ruler] and his nobles in Herat turned deaf ears to pleas made by their kinsmen in the Samarkand area, and one by one these tiny kingdoms fell to the Uzbak and his riders.

One such [rider] was Zahiruddin Mohammad, known to history as Babur, through whose veins coursed the blood of both Genghis Khan and Timur. Only 17, but already ruler of the Kingdom of Ferghana, east of Samarkand, and sometime holder of Samarkand itself, he fought furiously and valiantly for his kingdom, but, with no assistance forthcoming, he was forced to flee, as others had before him, to the safety of the southern mountains in Afghanistan. In October 1504, he encamped outside Kabul, a city suffering under the rule of an usurper, whose citizenry offered him the city, if he could take it. The invitation was all Babur needed.

Victorious, he immediately began to secure what was still an extremely precarious position by deposing of rivals from within his own family and wooing the surrounding tribes. While he was so engaged Shaibani Khan continued to eat away at the Timurid empire by subduing Balkh and Kunduz. Then he struck out toward the heart, Herat. Babur responded to a hurried call for help from Sultan Husain but by the time he reached Herat he found Sultan Husain dead, the Timurid troops returned from a decisive defeat west of Maimana, and the nobles, according to Babur's own account, unconcernedly vying with one another in lavish wining and dining.

The House of Timur crumpled before the Uzbak, and Herat, easily taken in 1507, was deprived of a huge treasure but not destroyed. Babur was not in Herat when it fell. His visit had shown him clearly that it must fall, which left Kandahar the last defense between himself and his old enemy to whom he had already lost one kingdom. He hurried to Kabul to make preparations for its defense and, incidentally, to put down a rebellious step-grandmother. Then he captured Kandahar....

...[Meanwhile], Shaibani Khan received news that his harem in Herat was being threatened by the advance of the King of Persia who, after numerous battles, finally trapped and killed Shaibani Khan (1510) in the vicinity of Merv, downstream from Bala Murghab.

On hearing the news of Shaibani's death, Babur put all interest in Kandahar behind him and immediately marched north hoping to regain his homeland. The Uzbaks, however, though they had lost their great leader [Shaibani], were still strong, and Babur had reluctantly to shift his dreams from a kingdom in the north to conquest in the south. This decision earned him an empire.

Babur left Kabul for India in 1525 and from that time on Delhi and Agra formed the center of his activities. He never lost his love for Kabul, however, and asked that he be brought back to that city for burial. His favorite garden where he was buried is today known simply as Babur's Gardens.

For over 150 years after the death of Babur (1530) the Afghan area swung on the periphery of two magnificent empires: the Moghuls of India and the Safavids of Persia. On the borders, the division was quite clear: Herat was held by the Persians; Kabul zealously maintained by the Moghuls. To the north, however, Turkic Khans pushed their authority south of the Oxus River at the expense of both empires.... For this period the most outstanding monuments in Afghanistan are Uzbak, such as the Shrine of Khwaja Abu Nasr and the monumental arch from the madrassa built by Sayyid Subhan Quli, dating from the end of the 15th and 17th centuries respectively. They speak clearly of a continuance of Timurid Culture in the north without showing any Moghul influence.

One other remarkable Moghul monument does exist in Afghanistan. This is the Chihlzina, "Forty Steps," a stone chamber sitting at the top of some 40 steps hewn from the rock of a craggy cliff outside Kandahar. Inside it an exquisitely carved Persian inscription records the conquests of Babur. It remains unfinished, interrupted by the interminable game of see-saw which the Persians and the Moghuls played with Kandahar; taking it from one another through conquest or by intrigue they contested its ownership down through the 17th century.

It is perhaps fitting to pause a moment to reflect on the fact that the unfinished Moghul record of conquests sits directly above the Ashokan edict, inscribed some two thousand years before, beseeching man to live in peace. But man is not beloved of peace as the years of turmoil which follow attest.
[Added 17 March 2010]:  This is a little page from "Garden Visit" about Babur's first garden, the Bagh-e Vafa (or Wafa), or "Garden of Fidelity," in Kabul.  Quoting from his memoirs:
"In 1508-09, I had constructed a charbagh garden called Bagh-i-Wafa on a rise to the south of the Adianapur fortress. It overlooks the river, which flows between the fortress and the garden. It yields many oranges, citroens and pomegranates."
...What is known about its design also comes from Babur's memoirs:
"There oranges, citrons and pomegranates grow in abundance....I had plantains brought and planted there; they did vedry well.  The year before I had had sugar cane planted there; it also did well.....The garden lies high, has running water close at hand, and a mild winter climate.  In the middle of it, a one-mill stream flows constantly past the little hill on which are the four garden plots.  In the southwest part of it there is a reservoir ten by ten, round which are orange-trees and a few pomegranates, the whole encircled by a trefoil meadow.  This is the best part of the garden, a most beautiful sight when the oranges take color."

'Babur supervising the construction of the Garden of Fidelity' in Kabul
Illustration from a Mughal book of manuscripts, about 1590:
The Victoria & Albert Museum
[Added 17-18 March 2010]:   This is also on "Babur's Gardens" with many photos as well as descriptions of the gardens, including this touching passage:
...Babur died in Agra in 1530 but he so loved this garden that he asked to be brought here for burial. Unrest throughout the empire, much of it occasioned struggles for the throne between sons holding Kabul and Kandahar, prevented the immediate fulfillment of this request. At length it was his loyal Afghan wife, Bibi Mubarika (Blessed Dasel) Yusufzai, who brought him back to his beloved Kabul....
[Added 17-18 March 2010]:    From a Buddhist website comes this lovely and leisurely look at "Water and Gardens in Islamic Desert Culture," based on an interview with Penelope Hobhouse.  Here are a few passages that especially caught my eye:
Water is the spirit and essence of life, particularly for the desert-dweller. Gardens in ancient Persia were based on the availability of water. The manipulation of water was the key to a settled way of life in the desert, fundamental to a non-nomadic way of life. Without water, people could only live by a natural spring or where they could sink a well. Originally the nomad tribes were dependent on natural oases....

...In the Qur'an (written around the seventh century CE), there are many descriptions of "paradise," which literally means "a wall around," based on ancient Persian gardens which became the symbols of paradise and spiritual inspiration.

A paradise garden was based on the classic chahar bagh design by which the garden was divided into four by water channels. In Islam this represented the four rivers of Paradise. The plantations of fruit trees, roses and other flowers lay in geometrically arranged beds below the level of the flanking pathways, so making irrigation simple and giving a sensation of walking on a carpet of flowers. The shapes of these gardens are recognizable from Persian and Mughal miniatures and in garden carpets dating from the 15th century....

Islamic people expanded and exported their gardening techniques all over the world. Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire that covered most of the Asian subcontinent from the early 16th to the mid-19th centuries, made gardens in Afghanistan and India....
[Added 17-18 March 2010]:   "Mughal Miniature Painting - An Alternative Source of History" / Article of the Month - July 2004, written by Professor P.C. Jain.  The text explores the nature of art, is it realistic or fanciful? what are its limits? can it sometimes serve as "an alternate source of history" by showing us period-dress, flora and fauna, and other aspects of a world long vanished?  Many of the ideas and aesthetic connections I found convincing and enjoyable, but mostly I simply relished the beautiful Mughal/Persian miniatures.

The Islamic World
in General

Herat's Friday Mosque: the beauty of the tile-work leaves me speechless
Islamic Arts & Architecture Organization  [see directly below]
Note: since many of the sites I've already annotated offer pages on the later Arab, Mongol, Turk, etc conquests and history, I'm not going to continue looking at each period individually.  TIP: if you've found pages on specific periods whose content you like, try clicking on their home page link (if it's offered) -- from there you can look for their index.  If there isn't a home page link, try peeling back their URL from right to left, stripping away the finely-tuned address (a / marks when one part ends and another begins) until you get back to the basic URL (or until you reach a site map or index).  Sometimes as you peel, access will be denied to a particular page -- just ignore this and keep peeling back.  This strategy doesn't always work but I've found some great pages this way.
Although, as just noted, I'm not annoting all the specific Islamic history sites, I do wish to offer a site with a great overview of the Islamic world in general.  This is from the Islamic Arts & Architecture Organization -- a stunning site focused on Islamic architecture, calligraphy, coins, and rugs.  Each section offers well-written, thoughtful historical articles as well as lovely galleries of art.  In looking at the "Decor" page under Architecture, I discovered that if one runs one's mouse over each image, a description will appear; the images are clickable for stunning enlargements (see above for Herat's famous "Friday Mosque"). Note: these pages cover the entire Islamic world, not just Afghanistan.
Back to: Afghanistan: Page 1
Forward to:Afghanistan, 18th century & Beyond: Page 3
Forward to:Afghanistan, Pre- & Post-9/11: Page 4

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Related Myth*ing Links Pages:
New York City, 11 September 2001
New York City, 11 September 2001: Many Voices
Letter from an Afghan-American
Letter from a Star Wars Expert:What Can We Do About Terrorism?
The Crone Papers: Notes on the Mideast
Wars, Weapons, and Lies: The Dehumanizing Impulse

Up to: Asia's Opening Page
Eurasian / Central Asian Portal Page
     [Note: most regions are forthcoming]
Afghanistan I
Afghanistan II
Afghanistan III
Afghanistan IV
Down to: Europe's Opening Page

My complete Site Map and e-mail address will be found on my Home Page.

This page created with Netscape Gold 3.01
Technical assistance: William Weeks
Text and Design:
Copyright © 2001-2010 by Kathleen Jenks, Ph.D.

Designed during the wee hours of 15-16 September 2001;
16 September 2001, 4:25am:  still under construction and not yet "officially" on line;
some 13 hours later: 16 September 2001, 5:22pm: it's now online "officially"
but it's still a work-in-progress for at least another week.
Updates: 17-21 September 2001; 22/23 September 2001;
1-2 October 2001 (annotated 3 more links); 4-5 October 2001 (annotated more links);
9-10 & 10-11 October 2001 (added & annotated more links); 12 & 13 October 2001 (ditto);
16-17 October 2001 (ditto); 18 October 2001 (split into 2 pages);
19 October 2001 (finally finished p. 1, now need more grokking on p.2);
20 October 2001 (finished).

10 March 2010: added link to "new" page 3 (actually the first pre-/post-9/11 war-focused half of page one, which felt too dismal a way to start these pages); also added larger version of opening map plus Wayback Machine link (below) as I have no time for a links-check and probably many are broken.
11 March 2010: started re-arranging everything and adding new material on the Oxus civilization, lapis lazuli trade, and more.
12 March 2010: to make room for all the new material and art, shifted the entire last 4 sections on contemporary art and culture to first page, which then went from 145KB to 296KB.  Doing links check for everything on p.2.
13 March 2010: working on links for historical periods and on the Afghan Exhibit.
14 March 2010, 5:30am: finished the Afghan exhibit links. Only historical links remain to be grokked. //// Later, 10pm: did many history links after I got up today, c. 2pm .
15 March 2010: added more art and finished more history sections.  /// 16-17 March 2010: ditto.
17 March 2010: added still more thumbnails, links on Roxana, and continued grokking more history sections.
17-18 March 2010, 3:45am (EDT) -- with the completion of the Mughal section, I think I'm done <smile>.
18 March 2010: I spoke too soon in the wee hours -- I'd forgotten a few links in my Netscape 7.2 bookmarks.  I also decided I needed to write "Concluding Comments."
20 March 2010: This page has become way too long so I'm splitting off the last portions so that it covers only up to the 18th century.  A new page 3 will continue from there and also cover the recent exhibitions of ancient Afghan art from the Kabul Museum.  The pre- & post-9/11 page is now p.4.
24 March 2010: added Hellenistic Pan image to Alexander section and Afghanland's Babur  page and portrait.
26 March 2010: found some terrific links on Dr. Irene Good's work last night; last year, I couldn't get any of her Harvard links to work but now they do!

Note: if you find broken links, try pasting the desired link into the Wayback Machine (aka Web Archive) at: