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From Prehistory to the Medes
Achaemenid Rule
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Parthian, Indo-Greek, Indo-Parthian, Yuezhi Rule
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Rediscovering the Past
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The Graeco-Bactrian Kingdom — the easternmost region of the Hellenistic world covering Bactria (northern Afghanistan) and lands to the north (known in ancient times as Sogdiana, in present-day Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) — was one consequence of the sojourn through Afghanistan by Alexander the Great, whose army built fortresses and assigned Greek and Macedonian troops and all manner of support staff — from architects and doctors to administrators, artisans, tradesmen, even prostitutes — to remain behind in Bactria and begin to settle in that region during the late 4th century BC while Alexander continued his invasion east to India.

For at least two centuries prior to Alexander's arrival in 330 BC, Bactria had been a prized part of the Achaemenid Empire (559-330 BC) and, before that, the Median Empire (728-559 BC).

The wide fertile plains that stretched between the northern slopes of the Hindu Kush and the Oxus River during ancient times, the valuable Silk Road trading centers and rich gold, silver and lapis deposits in the nearby mountains made Bactria a highly prized satrapy (regional governorship) for the Achaemenid Persians.

Among the Tribute Processions that survive along the eastern stairway of the Apadana Palace at Persepolis (early 5th century BC), the Bactrian procession is shown giving the emperor golden bowls as tribute. This is very different from the other processions from other provinces, which are shown paying tribute with hides, ceramic vessels or livestock.


Since Greek prisoners captured in the many wars that took place between the Achaemenids and Greeks during the 5th and 4th centuries BC were often exiled to Bactria, the indigenous population of Bactria already included a high percentage of Greeks when Alexander's army arrived there in 329-328 BC.

These battle-hardened Bactrian Greeks, frequently employed by the Acheamenids in major battles and conscripted by Alexander for his own campaigns in the East, formed the backbone of a force that dominated Bactria from the mid-3rd to the second half of the 2nd century BC.

Under the leadership of Alexander's former soldiers and their descendents, the Bactrian Greeks created a Hellenic-inspired kingdom in the heart of Central Asia.

The Greeks' capitol at Bactra (present-day Balkh) included a huge Seleucid-era fortress and Hellenistic-style architecture. Corinthian capitals that once adorned large multi-columned palaces, discovered at Balkh, date from this early period.

Seizing an opportunity provided by the Seleucid dynasty, which asserted nominal dominion over Bactria but was too distracted by wars in Egypt to defend its territories in the East, the Bactrian Greeks achieved independence under Diodotus, the Seleucid satrap (regional governor) of Bactria.

Diodotus renounced the Seleucid emperor Antiochus II in 256 BC and declared himself king after hearing that his ally Andragoras, the Seleucid satrap of the province of Partahia (Parthia) had just done the same. Very soon, however, Andragoras was toppled by the Parthian chieftain Arsaces, who established the Parthian Empire in Iran, which undermined Bactrian control of overland trade along the Silk Road and effectively cut off Greeks in Bactria from the Greek world in the Mediterranean.

Diodotus was succeeded by his son Diodotus II, who was overthrown by the Seleucid satrap of Sogdia, a Greek named Euthydemus (ruled: 230-200/195 BC).


Ancient sources tell us that after seizing the Graeco Bactrian throne, Euthydemus gathered a force of some 100,000 horsemen and engaged the mighty Seleucid army in northwestern Afghanistan. Retreating back to his fortress capital Bactra, Euthydemus survived a three-year-long siege (208-205 BC) mounted by the Seleucid emperor Antiochus III. Hostilities ended with a peace agreement that confirmed Graeco-Bactrian independence.

The final years of Euthydemus's reign, circa 200–195 BC, roughly coincides with the beginning of the Bactrian invasion of India under his son and successor, Demetrius I. Still floundering in discord since the death of Ashoka the Great (ruled: 272-232 BC), India was a rich prize for the ambitious Bactrian Greeks.

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Demetrius was the first Bactrian Greek king to breach the Hindu Kush, the traditional barrier that had long separated the Bactrians in the North and the Indian Maurya rulers to the South. The move across the Hindu Kush occurred around 185 BC, allowing Demetrius to march south through Kabul and Kandahar, battling the Mauryas into Pakistan (where he established a capital at Taxila, where many of Demetrius coins have been found) and onward into India. According to the seventeen-line Hathigumpha ("Elephant Cave") inscription, at Udayagiri, India, purportedly carved circa 157 BC, a Yavana (Greek) king named Demetrius marched his troops into eastern India, possibly as far as the city of Rajagriha before retreating back to the West. Undefeated in battle, Demetrius was given the posthumous title Aniketos ("Invincible") on coins minted by one of his Indo-Greek successors Agathokoles.

In the process, Demetrius carved out an Indo-Greek kingdom at the far eastern edge of the Hellenistic world, which later Greek kings would govern for the next two centuries. [The Indo Greek presence in NW India, N Pakistan and E Afghanistan continued until the last petty principality was absorbed by Scythian nomads around 20 BC.]


Unable to govern all the lands he had conquered, Demetrius left the conquered lands in the Kabul Valley and Kandahar region (including towns called Demetriapolis and Alexandropolis, which is probably modern-day Kandahar) to his brother Antimachus I, who was deposed circa 171 BC in a coup d'etat by the tyrant Eucratides.

After seizing the Graeco-Bactrian throne, Eucratides declared himself Megas ("the Great") on his coinage, which included some of the largest specimens ever minted in the ancient world. Not content with Bactria alone, Eucratides battled eastward into India, jostling for position amid the realms of various Indo-Greek kings: Apollodotus I, Antimachus II and Menander I. Eucratides' advances into India are confirmed by his abundant bilingual (Greek- and Pali-inscribed) coinage.

According to the 3rd century Roman chronicler Justin (Marcus Junianus Justinus), Eucratides was murdered by his own son (either Eucratides II or Heliocles I), who reportedly "ran with his chariot over the blood of his father." The murder caused a civil war to erupt, which weakened the Graeco-Bactrians. Eucratides' successors — Eucratides II and Heliocles I (145-130 BC) — were the last Greek kings to reign in Bactria, unable to stop the advance of the Yuezhi tribes who swept in from the north.


Perhaps the greatest of the "thousand cities of Bactria", known to us today as Ai Khanoum ("Lady Moon" in Uzbeki), was built at a notch where the Oxus (present-day Amu Darya) and Kokcha Rivers meet in northern Afghanistan.

Initially the site of a fortress known as Alexandria on the Oxus built in 329-328 BC by the troops of Alexander the Great, the site later became a Greek colony where soldiers and a part of Alexander's vast entrourage remained behind to settle and carve out a Greek kingdom in the wilds of Central Asia while Alexander continued his military campaign.

Over the next 150 years, the fortress expanded to include a series of terrace structures along the south bank of the Oxus. The ground plan included a royal palace, a treasury, pools and fountains, a Propylaea (monumental gateway or processional with 118 columns with Corinthian capitals), a royal library, a gymnasium dedicated to Herakles (Hercules), storerooms to accommodate gold and gemstones mined from the nearby mountains and luxury goods acquired through trade or conquest, as well as a necropolis or mausoleum for attending to the dead.

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The riverside terrace structures were backed by a Greek-style acropolis (the "upper city") and a massive Greek theater (the largest in the East, even larger than the theater at Babylon).

There was also a "lower city" protected by a fearsome defensive wall (with ramparts more than 30 feet high and twenty to twenty-six feet thick) and an elite residentical district with 50 or more mansions (Greek in style with mosaic floors and many amenities, including heated water systems).

Housing (apparently segregating Greeks and non-Greeks in separate areas) were scattered up the hillside to the south for thousands of settlers, soldiers, administrators, artisans and every occupation and trade one would find in a prosperous town in Greece itself. It was the eastern-most Greek city in the Hellenistic world, which under the Graeco-Bactrian king Eucratides was probably named Eucratidia.

A main gateway through the ramparts at Ai Khanoum opened onto a grand avenue running the length of the lower city. To the left, the Greek theater could accommodate 5000 patrons with seating 35 tiers high. Fountains near the theater included theatrically-inspired motifs such as gargoyle masks. In the library, archaeologists have found remnants of texts by Sophocles imported from Greece. Farther down the main street was an aresenal large enough to equip thousands of soliders — the guard force for a large swath of the Bactrian frontier.


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On the north side of the Oxus (present-day Amu Darya) River a few miles north of the Tajikistan/Afghanistan border and a day's ride west of Ai Khanoum, archaeologists have found a smaller, but no less interesting, 3rd - 2nd century BC Hellenistic-era site: a temple structure known locally as Takht-i-Sangin.

The site appeared to be a combination Greek temple and Zoroastian fire temple, reflecting the dual traditions that existed in Bactria during the Hellenistic era.

A multitude of coins (temple offerings) were discovered as well as strikingly realistic sculptures: locally made painted heads of men and priests, a locally-made marble sculpture of a man bearing a close resemblance to Alexander the Great (wearing Alexander's lion's head helmet) and a Greek bronze figure of Marsyas, probably the object of a local cult, which was found inside the temple.


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Internal dissension and external pressure were the ultimate undoing of the Greek kings in Bactria.

While Eucratides spent precious blood and treasure battling Indo-Greek kings in Pakistan and India, the force that would crush his successors in Central Asia swelled into an overwhelming force.

Circa 176 BC the first Yuezhi expansion began: nomadic tribes of the Yuezhi confederation fled from the Tarim Basin of Western China southward to Transoxiana, the region north the Oxus River in present-day Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

The Yuezhi expansion, in turn, forced the Scythians (known as Saka, or Sacaraucae from Greek sources) to also migrate southward, circa 145 BC, and invade both Parthia and Bactria. Scythian attacks on the cities of Merv, Hecatompolis and Ectabana killed both the Parthian king Phraates II and his successor Artabanus II. And the Scythians' attack on Bactria included the sacking of Ai Khanoum circa 140 BC.

As the Scythians attacked southward and southeast-ward into Afghanistan and India, they were repeatedly displaced by pressure from the much larger Yuezhi invasion immediately to the north. According to contemporary sources, the Yuezhi army at various times consisted of between 100,000 and 200,000 mounted archers.

The culture and vast wealth these nomadic warriors accumulated during their advance was documented by the jewelry, ceremonial weapons and other treasure found at the Scythian-era site, Tillia Tepe, in northwestern Afghanistan, where five princely graves yielded some 20,000 pieces of gold.

In 126 BC the Chinese chronicler Zhang Qian visited Bactria (known as Daxia in Chinese) and described a kingdom that had collapsed while its large population and urban infrastructure remained:

   "Daxia (Bactria) is located ... south of the Gui (Oxus) river.
    Its people cultivate the land and have cities and houses.
    It has no great ruler but only a number of petty chiefs
    ruling the various cities. The people are poor in the use
    of arms and afraid of battle, but they are clever at
    commerce. After the Great Yuezhi moved west and
    attacked Daxia, the entire country came under their
    sway. The population of the country is large, numbering
    some 1,000,000 or more persons. The capital is called
    the city of Lanshi (Bactra) and has a market where
    all sorts of goods are bought and sold."

By this time, the last Graeco-Bactrian king, Heliocles (ruled 150-125 BC), had moved his capital to the Kabul Valley. His successors would ally themselves with Greek kings in the East and become the western edge of the Indo-Greek kingdom until the last "western" Indo-Greek kings, Hermaeus, was routed by the Yuezhi around 70 BC.

Gradually, the Yuezhi ended their nomadic ways, settled in villages and small cities, and adopted Graeco-Bactrian customs (imitating their coins, adopting their dieties, trading practices — even using the Greek alphabet to write in a language that was a mixture of Iranian and Scythian). Eventually, the Yuezhi transitioned completely into a culture and society known as the Kushans.

Overall, the Yuezhi remained in Bactria for more than a century. They became Hellenized to some degree, as suggested by their adoption of the Greek alphabet to write their Iranian language, and by numerous remaining coins, minted in the style of the Greco-Bactrian kings, with the text in Greek.

Around 12 BC the Yuezhi were then to move further to northern India where they established the Kushan Empire.


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