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Ancient civilizations of Afghanistan. History and culture

Geography and cultural diversity of Afghanistan

Located in the heart of Asia, Afghanistan has long attracted the attention of experts with its antiquities, but only after the Second World War did extensive archaeological work begin here.

They revealed many monuments of the past and allowed us to outline the evolution of ancient civilizations on the territory of Afghanistan. The peculiarities of the geographical location of this country made it in ancient times a link between many civilizations: Central Asian, Iranian, Indian, and Chinese.

At the same time, the local cultures retained their unique identity. One of the features of the ancient history of Afghanistan is the presence of different cultures.

  • In the north of it there was Southern Bactria (the left bank of the Amu Darya), culturally close to Northern Bactria (the right bank of the Amu Darya), but it also had its own specifics.
  • In the north-west was the Areya (Herat oasis), which seemed to connect two cultures: Bactrian and Parthian.
  • The steppe regions of the west gave birth to the civilization of Sakastan, where the cultures of ancient farmers and nomads who came from the north merged in an organic unity.
  • A peculiar area was the southwest-around present-day Kandahar and Ghazni.
  • A special culture existed in the mountainous regions of Central Afghanistan (in ancient authors, the region of Paropamisada).
  • Finally, the districts of Kabul and Jalalabad tended towards the Indus Basin cultures.

Another important feature was the uneven pace of the historical development of the regions, which put one or the other of them in the “leaders”. However, over time, the levels of development converged, and cultures were syncretized and unified. Of course, by the end of the ancient era, this process was not yet complete, but a certain degree of unity of many cultures was already achieved.

Bactria before the arrival of the Hellenes

A cameo in a gold frame. Afghanistan. 2-1 century BC

Cameo in a gold frame Tillya-Tepe. Afghanistan. II-I centuries BC.

In the second millennium BC, the most tangible progress was observed in the north of Afghanistan. Here, on the Bactrian plain, a new center of ancient Eastern culture is being formed. Since the beginning of the second millennium BC, dozens and hundreds of settlements of ancient farmers have been founded on the fertile lands, generously irrigated by the waters of rivers flowing from the foothills of the Hindu Kush. The settlements consisted of houses of the correct layout, built of standard mud bricks and characterized by a high culture of house-building technology. So the Bactrians, arranging in their homes intra-wall hearths, were among the first to resort to a technique that allows you to direct the smoke from the room through special chimneys. In the villages there was a developed drainage system that took the waste water out of their borders. Although most of the settlements have not yet been fortified, there are already individual fortresses, rectangular in plan and surrounded by powerful (up to 4 m wide) defensive walls, reinforced at the corners with round towers.

Presumably, such fortresses served as the residence of rich families. This indicates the social division of the Bactrian society of the Bronze Age. On the outskirts of the villages there were pottery workshops, the products of which were distinguished by a variety and pretentiousness of forms. Especially impressive are the elegant slender vases and goblets on high legs, “saucers” and “teapots”, bowls, crinkles, pitchers.

Before the discoveries of Soviet archaeologists in Afghanistan, none of the scientists did not assume that there was a developed and peculiar center of ancient metalworking in Bactria. Hundreds of copper and bronze products came out of the hands of the masters: tools and all kinds of jewelry. Heavy, massive axes, mostly ceremonial, with sculptural images of birds, animals and people are the prototype of the so-called Luristan bronzes of Western Iran. A true masterpiece of Bactrian art is a unique silver axe in the form of a bird-headed demon with a boar and a winged dragon. Among the many dozens of simple copper pins, there are examples with figured finials, including those in the form of mountain goats, wild boars, birds, and people, made with great expression and realism. The gold and silver vessels have preserved chased, engraved scenes that have analogies in Iranian Khorasan.

A unique collection of copper cosmetic bottles with sculptural figures represents an exceptionally bright phenomenon in the artistic traditions of the Bronze Age of the Near East. Individual metal products, and primarily the so-called harpoons, of ancient graves of Bactria echo the finds in the Elamo-Mesopotamian world, making us think about their common Western origin.

Gold bracelet with lion heads. Tillya-Tepe. II-I centuries BC.

Gold bracelet with lion heads. Tillya-Tepe. II-I centuries BC.

The stone-cutting business in Bactria also achieved notable success. Vessels of various shapes were made from light marble-like rocks of stone, and dark soft steatite served as a fertile material for making miniature bottles and perfume boxes, which had a cosmetic purpose and were often decorated with engraved ornaments, including in the form of writhing dragons. A high level of stone carving art is demonstrated by composite figurines carved from black steatite with prefixes in the form of heads made of white stone. As a rule, they depict matrons dressed in sumptuous robes of the Sumerian type, decorated with carved “tongues”.

A special place in the Anteroasian glyptic is occupied by stone amulets and copper seals of Bactria. Among them, amulets with engraved images of the struggle of dragons and snakes, personifying the struggle of good and evil, attract attention. In turn, the copper cloisonne seals reveal a hitherto unknown pantheon of ancient Bactrian deities, the main place among which is occupied by anthropomorphic winged deities with bird heads.


The high level of development of ancient Bactrian society is evidenced by the secular and religious monumental architecture. Palaces and temples allow us to speak about the existence of a special school of ancient Bactrian architecture. In general, ancient Afghanistan, already in the era of stone and bronze, acts as a highly cultural center of the Near-Asian world.

The level of development of the Iron age society is best traced in the monumental architecture. In Southern Bactria, Soviet archaeologists have explored a number of monuments that gave information about this previously unknown art form of ancient Afghanistan. One of them is Kutlug-Tepe. the layout of which is based on a system of circular corridors. Its cult purpose is undeniable. The monumental complex was also explored in the Dashli oasis. It is called Altyn-10 and consists of a number of independent objects. One of them is a rectangular building measuring 80×55 m., at the four corners of which there is one square room with a support post in the center; the outer corners of these rooms are decorated with wide pilasters. The entire structure is delimited in the middle by a series of elongated rooms, which in turn divide it in half. On either side of this central row of rooms are two vast courtyards. Each of them has a colonnaded portico-ayvan on three sides. Obviously, this structure played the role of a summer palace.

Earrings in the form of cupids. 2-1 centuries BC.

Earrings in the form of cupids. Tillya-Tepe. II-I centuries BC.

The second structure is a small building, the organizing center of which is the courtyard with a swimming pool. The enfilade of strikingly similar rooms, running along three directions, is bounded on the side of the courtyard by a bypass corridor. The entrance, which was located on the eastern facade, had gatekeepers on both sides. Corner rooms of the same facade could have domed ceilings. Apparently, the building was a winter palace of the local ruler, which served both a religious purpose.

The campaign of Alexander the Great and the formation of Hellenistic states

A significant milestone in the history of the ancient peoples of Afghanistan falls on the 20s of the IV century BC. The army of Alexander the Great captured all these areas, and soon the Greeks founded a number of large cities here — such as Alexandria Oxiana (Ai-Khanum settlement), Alexandria Kapisa (Begram settlement), Alexandria in Arachosia (Kandahar) and a number of others. Soon after the death of the great Macedonian, the historical destinies of the two parts of Afghanistan went in different ways. The areas north of the Hindu Kush became part of the empire that Seleucus I, one of Alexander’s diadochi, created. This state occupied a huge territory-from Asia Minor to Bactria.

The golden phial. Afghanistan. 2-1 centuries BC

Golden phial. Tillya-Tepe. II-I centuries BC.

Those parts of Afghanistan that were located south of the Hindu Kush became part of the Indian Maurya state. The Paropamisadas (the district of Kabul — Jalalabad) and Arachosia (the area around Kandahar) fell to King Chandragupta. The Greeks, who were already quite firmly settled here, apparently retained their privileged position. It is no accident that when King Ashoka preached to them, his edicts were translated into Greek.

It is not until about 180 B.C. that the fortunes of the two parts of the country converge again: the Greeks of Bactria begin their conquests on the Hindustan peninsula; as a result of these campaigns, both Paropamisades and Arachosia are under their power, which the later Mauryas can no longer hold. However, the fate of Greco-Bactria itself was predetermined: in the 140s, it perished under the blows of the Tochar nomads.


The culture of Greco-Bactria was very peculiar. This state formation continued the traditions of Hellenistic statehood: the power in it belonged to the conquerors-the Greeks.

Its political history has not yet been sufficiently studied, and the nature of its culture has only come to light in recent years thanks to the excavations of the Ai-Khanum settlement.

Alexandria Oxiana, after Bactra, was one of the two largest cities in Bactria at that time. Greco-Bactria also included Sogdiana with its capital Marakand (Samarkand) and Margiana with its capital Antioch Margiana (Merv). In addition to these centers, the Greco-Bactrian kingdom included many medium-sized and small towns and settlements. In the later literary tradition, one of the Greco-Bactrian kings, Eucratides, was even called “the lord of a thousand cities”.

City of Alexandria Oxiana

The ring with Athena. Afghanistan. 2-1 century BC

Ring with the image of Athena. Tillya-Tepe. II-I centuries BC.

Alexandria Oxiana is probably the most typical example of a large Greco-Bactrian city. A very good location was chosen for its construction. It was located at the confluence of the Kokcha River with the Amu Darya. There was also a high natural hill with steep steep slopes, which served as the location of the city citadel. The entire territory of the city was surrounded by a powerful wall made of mud bricks, and reinforced with towers. The upper city was practically not built up, apparently due to the fact that there was no water supply.

The territory of the lower city was occupied by residential and public buildings. Some of them had a typical Greek character: a theater on the hillside, which could accommodate up to 6 thousand spectators, and a huge gymnasium, which included rooms for sports exercises and for school classes. There was also a swimming pool. On the territory of the gymnasium, a Greek inscription was found with a dedication to the Greek deities Hermes and Hercules, who were the patrons of the gymnasium in Hellas. Ayhanum Gymnasium was a real center of intellectual and physical training of young Greeks, a place where they were introduced to Hellenic culture.

Intaglio with a griffin Intaglio with a griffin. Tillya-Tepe. II-I centuries BC.

Intaglio with a griffin Intaglio with a griffin. Tillya-Tepe. II-I centuries BC.

Evidence that the Greek culture here retained its role is, for example, the inscription, which says that a certain Clearchus (as scientists have found out, Clearchus from Sol — a scientist of early Hellenistic time) copied in Delphi the famous “maxims” (aphorisms in which the basic rules of the Hellenic hostel are given in a concise form) and brought to Ai-Khanum. Some of these “maxims”were also carved on the stone slab here. Even more interesting was the discovery of prints in the clay of some vanished Greek text written on papyrus or parchment. The analysis of the few surviving lines nevertheless proved irrefutably that it was a fragment of a philosophical treatise of the peripatetic school.

Almost a third of the city’s territory was occupied by a huge palace, which included ceremonial, residential and office premises. In front of the palace was a vast courtyard surrounded by a Doric colonnade. In the architecture of the palace, purely Greek features (the use of the Corinthian order with columns of exquisite proportions and magnificent capitals) were combined with features inherited from the ancient East (the general principle of the structure of the palace and the desire for grandiosity). The palace was adjacent to the building of the treasury, which was looted in ancient times. However, archaeologists found there a small number of coins that miraculously survived the pogrom, and several financial statements written in ink on clay shards. In addition to the palace, the remains of the arsenal were also explored, where, judging by the numerous finds, weapons for many hundreds of soldiers were stored, the residences of the highest city magistrates, temples and residential buildings.

Golden argali statuette. Afghanistan. 2-1 centuries BC

Golden statuette of argali. II-I centuries BC.

Especially interesting are the temples. In a city where the power belonged to the Greeks, where the majority of the population was Greek, the architecture of the temples had nothing in common with the architecture of ordinary Hellenic sanctuaries. In addition, as the research of archaeologists has shown, the rituals performed here were also not similar to the Greek ones. However, these temples had typically Greek statues of deities. This is the first step in a long process of cultural interaction between Hellas and the East, which began with religious syncretism. This was a natural phenomenon: the Greeks were polytheists, convinced that each country is protected by its own gods, and therefore, coming to a foreign country, it is necessary to worship them. The result of this understanding of the nature of deities was religious syncretism, which became the initial stage of the general cultural synthesis.

However, there was another, completely unexpected aspect to this phenomenon in Ai-Khanum. The architecture of the temples built by the Greeks in Bactria was not Bactrian, but Mesopotamian. The process of cultural synthesis, therefore, looks much more complex than one might expect. During the excavations of Ai-Khanum, a sculpture was discovered — purely Greek in nature. One of the statues is unfinished. This clearly indicates that professional sculptors worked here. Remarkable examples of medallion art are the coins of the Greco-Bactrian kings.

The nomadic movement that crushed Greco-Bactria led to a dramatic change in the overall political situation. In some places, small Greek kings who ruled under the control of the conquerors were preserved. In Bactria there were five separate nomadic possessions, in the territory of Arachosia and in Northern India there were their own small nomadic rulers.

The conquest of Bactria by nomads and the deepening of the synthesis of cultures

In the 80s of the XX century, Soviet archaeologists discovered a remarkable necropolis in the north of Afghanistan, which belonged to the family of one of these minor rulers, a nomad by origin. The burials are striking in their splendor: more than 20 thousand objects made of precious metals were found in six graves. However, special attention is drawn to the fact that here are presented things made in a wide variety of artistic traditions, and it is noticeable that Greek art still retains, although in a fading form, its vitality. Magnificent, for example, are two buckles with the image of a Greek warrior, most likely the god Ares, standing in the full panoply of a Macedonian “officer”. There are works that are already made in the spirit of the Greco-Eastern synthesis, for example, a belt with images of the goddess Cybele on a lion or Dionysus and Ariadne on some monster that vaguely resembles a griffin. A number of products are clearly the work of artisans who know the tastes of nomads well. “Siberian animal style” finds its brightest expression here. The influence of the art of Ancient India is also noticeable.

A statue of a praying man. Hadda. Afghanistan. 5th century AD.

A statue of a worshipper from a Buddhist temple. Hadda. V century AD.

The outstanding monument of the Kushan era in Bactria is the above-mentioned dynasty shrine of Surkh-Kotal in the very south of the region, built by ancient builders on a high hill. On the side of the hill, three huge platforms were cut out, one above the other. In the middle was a staircase leading to a temple built on the very top of the hill. The facade of the temple was turned to the east-to the rays of the rising sun. The building stood in the middle of a vast esplanade flanked by porticos. In the niches were statues and sculptural groups, apparently depicting members of the ruling dynasty. The temple itself was also surrounded by a colonnade around the perimeter, but its cella was a typical “temple of fire” with four columns and a platform in the center between them. There was an altar on the platform.

This was indeed a dynastic sanctuary, where the most powerful king of the Kushan dynasty, Kanishka, was primarily worshipped. The inscription is written in the Bactrian language, for which a modified Greek alphabet was used.

The idea of planning, coming from the Iranian tradition, the widespread use of Greek architectural techniques, a certain influence of Indian religious ideas-this is how we see Surkh-Kotal, the most expressive monument of the Kushan era in the territory of Bactria, a real symbol of cultural synthesis.

The same phenomenon can be traced in the example of another major cultural center — Bagram. Here, a building was excavated near the city wall, the exact purpose of which remains a mystery. In it was discovered a huge warehouse of works of art received from different parts of the then world. A great impression is made by a number of panels made of ivory of Indian origin, lacquer boxes from China, a huge number of things that once came from the borders of the Roman Empire: bronze statuettes, glass vessels with paintings, silver dishes. But the most interesting part of the collection is the plaster matrices with various, mainly mythological, plots, intended for copying.

Magnificent examples of Buddhist art have been found by archaeologists in all regions of Afghanistan. The importance of the ancient civilizations of Afghanistan lies in their role as a “connecting link”: experiencing external influences, they themselves gave powerful impulses to the development of neighboring cultures. In the convergence of various cultural traditions, their interrelation and mutual enrichment, cultural synthesis — this is the most important process of human development in ancient times — a huge role belongs to the civilizations created by the peoples who inhabited Afghanistan in ancient times.

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