Some Aspects of the Classical Heritage in Afghanistan

By: Elfriede R. Knauer

Originally Published in 1976

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Afghanistan is a landlocked country, very mountainous and dominated by the Hin­dukush range which springs from the Pamir knot and reaches heights up to 7500 meters. It swings to the southwest to merge eventually in the chains of western Asia. The Hindukush, the ‘Indian Caucasus’ or the Paropamisades of the Greeks, forms the watershed between the Aral Sea and the Indian Ocean. The Kunduz River drains the northern slopes and flows through the Bactrian plain into the Amu Darja, the Oxus of old; the Kabul River and its tributaries south of the chain irrigate ancient Gandhara to end up in the Indus system. Afghanistan’s main river, the Helmand, an­cient Etymandros, peters out in the marshy salt lakes of Seistan at the Iranian frontier. Fed by glaciers and thaw, the rivers are subject to quick evaporation.

Extending between 29 and 39 degrees north latitude, Afghanistan belongs to the specific semidesert zone affecting, for in­stance, Iraq, Tunisia, or Arizona and New Mexico. Only small parts of the country are thus arable. Yet 95% of the population work the soil, frequently still with archaic methods and means. In spite of an elevation of 5000 feet, fruit trees and vineyards abound north of Kabul. The place name Istalif in the vicinity of the city may be a corruption of the Greek word for grapes, staphylia. The vines either climb pergola-like wooden props or they are wound around their own thick old stems in a nestlike arrangement which I cannot recall ever seeing except on a North African mosaic of the mid 4th century in Cherchel where both ways occur. K M. White, in his book Roman Farming, states that this system, which Columella calls vitis characata’, was still to be found in parts of the Moselle and Chablis areas at the beginning of this century.

The peasants live in fortress-like farmsteads of mud brick in the plains and in terraced clusters of rubblestone houses in the mountains. Others pursue the seasonal nomadic pasture farming characteristic of large parts of Western and Central Asia. These nomads pass the winters in the milder lowlands and move to the mountain pastures in the spring, living in black goat-hair tents. Dromedaries or camels are their pack animals, goats and sheep their livestock. The few towns and cities have their centers in the bazaars, again age-old institutions.

What we learn from the sadly scarce Classical sources, from precious Chinese reports of the Han Dynasty, and from Islamic historians, is that northern Afghanistan, or Bactria, must have been one of the most fertile and densely populated areas of the ancient world, studded with well-to-do walled cities and ingeniously irrigated fields. Trade between China and the West was its other main source of wealth. Most of this economy came to an end with the Mongol invasion early in the 13th century. Though crafts, commerce and art recovered quickly, the irrigation system did not. Thus much of the arable land was reconquered by steppe and desert, helped by overpasturing and destruction of the woods for fuel.

Throughout the 19th century Afghanistan was all but closed to visitors because it was the object of political schemes of Russians and Britons alike, who regarded the country as a vital glacis. Travel and serious archaeological investigation got started only in the nineteen-twenties, when the French School became the most active. Great efforts have been made with much outside help—Russian, American, German—to bring the country into modern times. It has skipped the railway age. Cars and aircraft today still follow the conventional caravan routes.

The population is of mixed stock, reflect­ing the countless waves of nomadic incur­sions from the steppe of Central Asia. Mainly Indo-European, that is Iranian and Caucasian, it is sprinkled with Turkish and Mongol elements. The official religion is Islam. The main language, Dari, is a form of Persian; the second, Pashtu, is also an Iranian dialect.

We must here disregard the interesting prehistory of Afghanistan which just now begins to emerge, linking the country with the cradle of civilization in Iran and Mesopotamia and with the Indus Valley cultures. Since time immemorial, lapis lazuli has been quarried in the northeastern province of Badakshan, ancient Sogdiana, and traded to the West.

The country appears on the horizon of the Classical scholar with Cyrus and Darius conquering it through satraps, though with difficulty not only because of its remote and forbidding character but mostly because of the constant threat of the mounted nomads, excellent horse breeders and cunning warriors whose forays and tactics have dominated the history of the country. Of related ethnic stock, the Medes had at that time carved their realm out of the Assyrian Empire. They in turn were defeated by the great Scythian incursion of the Near East in the 7th century B.C. The Medes recovered but were unseated by their ‘cousins’, the Persians, who now had to defend the eastern provinces of their immense empire against the Iranian Saca and their kin.

One has seen a link between the periodic appearances of the nomads and known periods of prolonged drought which necessitated their search for new pastures. But the raids must also have been incited by the inviting wealth of the Bactrian plain. The specific dualism of Zarathustra’s religion, which took shape there at that time and which was to be adopted by the Persian court, does reflect the antagonism between the peaceful sedentary way of the peasants and the relentless aggressiveness of the nomads.

When Alexander appeared on the scene in 330 after Gaugamela. in pursuit of the satrap Bessos who had murdered Darius III and had made himself King of Kings, he encountered settlements of Greeks in Bactria, sent there into exile by the Achaemenids. The more than three years Alexander spent fighting in present-day Afghanistan, Soviet Turkestan and Pakistan, proved to be the most difficult in his whole campaign. Not all of the military outposts and cities, mostly called Alexan­dreia, which he founded can be located with certainty. Alexandreia Eschate, near modern Kodschent/Leninabad, on the banks of the Syr-Darya, the faxartes, was meant as a bulwark against the nomads who had routed him in several skirmishes. He was to reorganize part of his cavalry according to their superior tactics. Alexandreia in Arachosia seems to be modern Kandahar. Alexandreia Caucasus, north of Kabul, near modern Charikar, we shall hear more of presently.

The Greek outposts, certainly at first not more than modest villages fortified by mud-brick walls, had a rough start, but they became the nuclei of flourishing Hellenistic cities under the Seleucids, who had inherited the eastern part of Alexander’s empire. About the middle of the 3rd century, the Greek satrap of Bactria wrenched independence from the Seleucids. With Bactria/Balkh near modern Mazar-i-Sharif as capital, the new kingdom of Bactria reached its height under Euthydemos and his successors after 200 B.C. They benefited from the weakening of Seleucid power caused by Rome’s intervention in Asia Minor.

The silver tetradrachms of those Bactrian kings are among the most beautiful portraits ever minted. We show some of them here: Demetrios, son of Euthydemos, wears the elephant scalp to commemorate his Indian campaign which reached the Ganges; An­timachos, who may have been his brother, wears the Macedonian cousin (a broad-brimmed hat); the coins of one Heliokles and one Archebios belong to the end of the Bactrian greatness, around 130 B.C., when a new wave of Saca tribes reduced the Bactrian holdings to the region around Kabul. The Iranian territories lost by the Seleucids had meanwhile solidified in yet another empire, that of the former nomad tribes of the Parthians—formidable soldiers and politicians who were to become the most feared, almost archetypal enemies of Rome, and who would remain so for a century.

Mithridates H of Parthia, who reigned from 123 to 88 B.C., and is truly the greatest of the early Parthian kings, succeeded in sub­duing the Iranian Sacas and resettled them in southern Afghanistan where they established short-lived Hellenized kingdoms of their own. The region still bears their name: Seistan.

Mithridates’ portrait, created by an able artist who was probably not a Greek, is impressive. A curious change has taken place, though there is not much difference in time between it and that of one of his predecessors, Mithridates I, from about 150 B.C., which is still purely Greek. Not only does he face left, contrary to the portraits on the vast majority of Greek coins, he wears the sleeved kaftan of the mounted nomads and his beard and hair-do recall those of the Achaemenids—certainly a conscious rejection of the Hellenic tradition of which he retains only the regal diadem. There is a change in style too—the lively and subtle modulation of the facial features of the Bactrian kings has given way to a ‘frozen’, almost rigid, surface. We shall encounter more of this presently.

But we must look back for a moment to recall that Alexander had been forced to turn back by his troops in the Punjab when he tried to push on into the Ganges plain. He only grudgingly consented. Taxila was one of the military colonies founded there. But already his successor, Seleukos Nikator, had been unable to retain the Indian territories of the empire comprising eastern and southern Afghanistan. He ceded them to the able ruler of the Indian Maurya dynasty, Chandragup­ta/Sandrakottos, in exchange for 500 war elephants. These were to decide the battle of Ipsos in Phrygia in 301 against Antigonos in Seleukos’ favor.

Chandragupta’s grandson, Ashoka, was a convert to Buddhism and, like many converts, eager to proselyte. Through him, the ruler over almost all of India, Buddhism was to spread in Afghanistan and Parthia and eventually to reach China. One of Ashoka’s impressive rock ‘edicts’ recommending the non-violence of the Buddhist creed to his realm at large has recently come to light in a Greek and an Aramaic version near Kandahar. Previously, his edicts had been known from a series of sandstone columns in various parts of India. One from Old Delhi bears an inscription in Brahmi, a script derived from Aramaic, which had been the lingua franca of the Persian Empire. The new Kandahar inscription proves how deeply Hellenized the region had already become in the 3rd century B.C. The most grandiose monuments of the new religion are the colossal Buddha statues hewn out of the soft rock of the Bamiyan valley in central Afghanistan.

The great Seca invasion of the late 2nd century B.C., already referred to, put an end to the Bactrian kingdoms but did not obliterate Greek civilization, which was firmly es­tablished in the towns and villages with their mixed Greek and Iranian population. This, at least, seems to have been the impression of the roving Chinese ambassador, Chang k’ien, who established a direct commercial link between Han China and the West about 128 B.C. It was actually in western China, in mountainous Kansu, that the latest Seca invasion had started in 165 B.C. The tribes of the Hsiung­nu, old foes of Han China, unsettled a group of Iranian tribes called Yueh-chih (jade peddlers) by the Chinese. They were driven west, pushing the Sacas into Bactria, Parthia and even northern India. After a period spent in Transoxania, one of the five Yueh-chih tribes, the Kushans, invaded Afghanistan about the end of the 1st century B.C. A succession of able kings, Kanishka being the greatest among them, secured for the Kushans an empire which reached from Khotan at the border of China to Iran, and from the Aral Sea to the Indian Ocean. As yet we have no clue to the about 150 dated monuments of the main Kushan era—which spanned almost a century—because we do not know when it started. The most likely date for Kanishka’s floruit seems to be the first half of the 2nd century A.D . His was apparently an enlightened reign characterized by religious tolerance, active trade and artistic creativity.

Whereas until very recently coins seemed to be the only survivors of the Greek period in Bactria, a wealth of objects from Kushan have, since the early 19th century, come to light in northwest India. This ‘Graeco-Buddhist’ art, or Gandhara art as it is called, owed its existence to the spread of Buddhism which Kanishka seems to have furthered. Indian art proper had not dared so far to represent the Buddha in person when depicting the legends of his earthly career. There he appears only under the guise of symbols: a turban, a wheel, footsteps. Under the Kushans he comes to life not only in the countless narrative schist and stucco reliefs found in the ruins of Buddhist monasteries in northern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan—the Kushan stupa of Guldara south of Kabul is an example—but also in sometimes almost lifesize statues—an orien­talized Greek god.

This art has a very special flavor and elegance related to and yet distinct from contemporary Indian art and deeply influ­enced in style and secondary subject matter by Hellenistic art. Its very existence seemed a miracle. How could it have developed as there were seemingly no Greek prototypes to draw from in all of Iran, Central Asia and India? Scholarly battles have raged over the problem for almost half a century. The ‘Roman school’, with quite a following in this country, tried to explain the fertilization by the intense trade with the Roman Empire which not only moved across the silk road in the north—though often endangered there by the Parthian arch-enemy—but also braved the Indian Ocean after about 100 B.C. Whole fleets regularly set out from ports at the mouth of the Red Sea and from the Persian Gulf—Myos Hormos and Charax—during the monsoon season to reach ports in western India. Glass, tableware, silver and gold went to India in exchange for silk, cotton, furs, precious stones, spices. Pliny laments Rome’s unreciprocal balance; 100 million sesterces a year were spent on luxury goods. The Roman gold allowed the Kushan rulers a splendid gold coinage, something the Greek kings had never dreamed of. The merchandise found its way deep into Central Asia, the stations being Mathura on the jumna, Taxila and Kapi6a/Begram (north of Kabul)—Alexander’s city at the Caucasus.

When the French discovered at Begram a hoard of such luxury goods in the late thirties while excavating this major Kushan trade and strategic settlement, the scope and sophistica­tion of that culture at once became apparent. Hidden about the middle of the 3rd century A.D., probably under the threat of an invasion by the Sassanians under Shapur I (A.D. 241-273), the hoard contained objects datable to the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. They are the main attraction of the Kabul Museum—Han Chinese lacquer bowls next to exquisite ivory carvings from India, statuettes, parts of an elaborate throne, a casket for jewelry, porphyry vessels, a local alabaster imitation of a Roman bronze trulla, delicate glass vessels of Syrian manufacture decorated with gold leaf (the outstanding piece is the glass beaker depicting the harbor of Alexandria with its Pharos), painted glass which has strong affinities in style and subject matter with East Roman illustrated manuscripts of the mid 3rd century, and finally, plaster-cast medallions with well known Graeco-Roman iconographic types of the 1st century A.D. probably taken from the circular medallions of Alexandrian metal vessels.

But were these objects of minor art enough to explain the rise of Gandhara art? It didn’t really help to look south to the astonishing contemporary finds at Mathura, the age-old city on the holy Jumna and traditional birthplace of the god Krishna. The art of Mathura is as composite as that of Gandhara, but the Indian element prevails. A rich supply of fine speckled red sandstone nearby served the local sculptors who catered to all creeds-Jains, Buddhists, Brahmans, Hindus—and to the dynastic ambitions of the ruling Kushans.

About 1910, excavations near Mathura in what must have been a family sanctuary of the Kushans yielded the over-lifesize—sadly headless—statues of Kushan kings, stylistically quite distinct from the rest of the local output. One representing Kanishka is identified by an inscription. A metal halo seems to have been attached to his head. He stands in his ancestral outfit: the girded riding kaftan and the coat of the Scythian or Saca nomads, the baggy trousers tucked into the huge felt boots. His right hand rests on a mighty club, the left holds a sword, the belt carefully wrapped around the sheath. This impressive statue has little to do stylistically with the supple grace of the contemporary Gandhara art.

The answer to the question of the roots of this art seemed within reach when the brilliant French archaeologist, the late Daniel Schlumberger, discovered another dynastic sanctuary of the Kushans at Surkh Kotal at the edge of the Bactrian plain. Perched on a hilltop, approached by enormous terraced stairs and surrounded by brick walls with battlements, is a square building of apparently Persian design which seems to have housed a fire altar. The architectural members in limestone were clearly of Greek descent: Attic bases, Corin­thian pilasters and capitals. And so were the letters of the recovered inscriptions: Greek, used to spell out an Iranian dialect. The fragments of stone sculpture—portrait statues again—vividly recall the finds from Mathura. Scraps of clay sculpture are stylistically very close to Gandhara sculpture.

It was an additional windfall when the remains of a Buddhist sanctuary came to light, built concurrently in the plain below and displaying Gandharan iconography. It not only proved that Buddhism had spread north of the Hindukush at the time but, more important still, that what had so far been known as Gandhara art could not have risen alone in the neatly circumscribed area hither­to believed, but must have had forerunners farther north in the Bactrian realm. Schlumberger, much encouraged, predicted that the ‘missing link’, the real Graeco-Iranian settlements which had so far eluded the archaeologist, would be discovered in Bactria one day. just those Greek cities through which—if not the syntax at least some of the accidence—of Greek art had been handed on to the Kushans. It was Schlumberger himself who, in the sixties, proved the correctness of his theory by discovering just such a Greek settlement at Ai Khanum on the Oxus at the Russian border. Well placed strategically and supplied with all the amenities of a Greek city or polis—acropolis, walls, gymnasium, civic center, with the hero shrine or heroon of the founder, Kineas, a Thessalian cavalry officer of the Seleucids—Ai Khanum is an excellent example of the adaptation of Greek forms to local traditions and circumstances—mud or brick walls on stone foundations, as well as the ground plan and elements of a hypostyle hall adjoining the market place, have strong Persian affinities; also, some of the architec­tural members in stone display a strangely orientalizing flavor, foreshadowing, for in­stance, the leafy Gandhara capitals.

It was again Schlumberger who brilliantly and cogently drew up the pedigree of Kushan art by placing it alongside the other great non-Mediterranean descendant of Greek art—the Parthian art of Palmyra. Though both owe much to the direct encounter with Hellenistic art, he has shown how the Iranian element doubly influences both: 1, in its older Achaemenid form reflected mainly in architec­ture; 2, in its late Hellenistic Graeco-Iranian version determining the architectural orna­ment and the sculpture. Apart from sartorial affinities—both Parthians and Kushans were of Iranian nomad stock and wore nomad costume—he lists many parallel features in Palmyrene and Kushan art: frontality in reliefs and sculpture; a very limited concept of plastic values—sculpture has in both cases a tenden­cy towards flat stela-like formulae; typical are graphically or ornamentally conceived folds and hair.

For the idea of a dynastic sanctuary like Surkh Kotal, Schlumberger convincingly refers to the gigantic funerary monuments of Antiochos I, ruler of the petty kingdom of Kommagene in the Taurus mountains, which dates from the mid 1st century B.C. There a Graeco-Persian pantheon and ancestry are being emphasized to lend legitimacy to a local dynasty which had carved out for itself a precarious existence between Parthians and Romans. We do encounter again the im­pressive, almost idol-like rigid classicism we referred to already when looking at the coin portrait of Mithridates II of Parthia. It is the trade mark of much of the 1st and 2nd century A.D. art of Palmyra and Hatra in Mesopo­tamia and of the court art of the Kushans.

Kushan Gandhara art is more lively as it has a story to tell—the life of the Buddha—and is not unlike early Christian art, where we can also speak of a narrative mode applied to the life of Christ and a court mode applied to Christ in majesty. That Gandhara art should seem more Greek than any Parthian monu­ment (though both are offsprings of one Hellenistic Graeco-Iranian realm) is due to the fact that Afghanistan was definitely more deeply Hellenized than Parthian Persia. The pax kushanica thus offered Buddhist art a unique chance. There is nothing comparable in Parthian Persia at the time. The Parthian monuments we have looked at come from the Semitic centers at the western fringes of the empire, from Hatra, Dura and Palmyra, where gods and the deceased have been revered and honored since time immemorial. The Iranians knew no religious art proper; theirs was—since the Achaemenids—an art of the court, of the King of Kings, his courtiers and vassals performing ceremonies as seen in the sculp­tures at Persepolis. Whereas the Parthian art of those west Semitic centers we just men­tioned was to play a vital part in the formula­tion of early Christian art, Kushan art paved the way for the glorious development of Buddhist art in east Asia.

Cite This Article

Knauer, Elfriede R.. "Some Aspects of the Classical Heritage in Afghanistan." Expedition Magazine 18, no. 3 (May, 1976): -. Accessed February 28, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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