Bactria: Recovering the Ancient Civilization of Afghanistan


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Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief

From a lecture by Dr. Frank Holt, Professor of Ancient History, University of Houston (10.24.2013)

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Eucratides I Coin, Gold Stater, c.171-145 BCE / Wikimedia Commons

Discovering Bactria, that portion of ancient Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, as well as portions of India, was not an easy task.  A discovery led the way to uncovering this ancient kingdom conquered by Alexander the Great.  Numismatics is the study of coins, and the money trail led us there.  Coins are durable and survive under certain conditions better than papyrus.  Many were minted, providing even more to increase the survival of so many.  They were the only means of mass communication in the ancient world – ancient disks of information technology.  On the coin above, King Eucratides I, like others, stamped his image with his helmet and regalia and as much information on the coin as possible.  This is how he told subjects all over that he was king.  On his helmet is the horn indicating divinity.  The helmet was cavalry-crested as well to show his cavalry command.  The diadem indicates his royalty.  His name and title are on the back, the title being amplified by “the Great.”  He then provides images of his favored deities as twin horsemen, the sons of Zeus (the “divine boys”).  They were savior gods to the ancient Greeks, protectors who came to the rescue in times of trouble.  The fact that they are on horses connects to his cavalry service, and they carry a sarissa.  The stars on their caps represent their divinity.  The coin also contains a monogram called a “mint mark” or “control mark” by putting two Greek letters together, and we haven’t figured all these out yet and what they tell us.  Coins changed during a king’s reign.  They were not as consistent as they are today.  We get our information in other ways today, and our coins are not nearly as important in this regard as ancient coins were.  We learn a great deal about civilizations by viewing and studying their coins.

An amalgam of civilizations were produced by Alexander’s conquests.  Tens of thousands left Greece and settled in these conquered areas, assimilating the culture, science, religion, etc.  There are seven recorded kings of Bactria:

  1. Diodotus I
  2. Diodotus II
  3. Euthydemus
  4. Demetrius
  5. Menander
  6. Apollodotus
  7. Eucratides

Imagine having only seven pages of books from early America and being asked to write the entire history of the United States from those seven pages alone.  This is what we have in the Hellenistic world in terms of Bactria.  All of the literature we have records only the names of those seven kings.  Euthydemus killed Diodotus II and took over Bactria.  His son Demetrius allegedly invaded India.  Menander is recorded not only in ancient Greek literature but also in Indian history, noted in Indian texts as the first Greek to become a Buddhist.  We also have coins from all seven of these kings as well as many other kings and queens who are not in literary sources.  We would know nothing of them were it not for the coins they minted.  Only their coins tell us they ever existed at all.

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Coins of Euthydemus c.230-200 BCE

The coins of Euthydemus show his aging, here from left to right.  Ancient Greeks saw coins as a constant contemporary record.  He was a young man when he became king and these coins show him at different stages of life, allowing us to know that he had a long reign.  This differed from sculptures in Classical Greece which were ideal in their representation as well as the later Roman Empire, whose coins would continue to represent the ideal.  But here in the Hellenistic world, veracity had become the trend.

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Demetrius (left) and Eucratides (right)

The coin of Demetrius replicates closely those of Alexander the Great with the horn, snakes, and diadem.  The coin shown here of Eucratides now shows him from behind hurling a spear – a much more dynamic pose packed with information for Greeks who saw it.  He is shown as heroic and divinely nude, and the diadem represents him as king.  Greeks believed one’s worthiness to be king was shown by conquest, hence the spear he holds on this coin.  He represented himself as divine and hurling a spear to conquer new territories.

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Menander (left) and Agathocles (center and right)

Menander was the first Greek we know of to embrace Buddhism.  He calls himself the “savior king” on the coin.  We only know the name of Agathocles from his coins.  The square coin is from the Indian tradition as opposed to round Greek coins, and he is unrealistically represented on it, not naturalistic and not as royalty).  The only thing that is Greek on the square coin is his name.  Brahmi script is used on the reverse, which is the Indian translation of “King Agathocles” on the front.  He was literally Greek in name only, embracing the traditions of the local Indians he ruled.  On the Greek coin he calls himself “the Just.”

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Coin Depicting Alexander the Great, Minted Under Agathocles, c.185-170 BCE

Agathocles did something no other ancient king anywhere in the ancient world ever did.  While he was king, he issued commemorative coins honoring his Greek predecessors in the East.  This coin commemorated Alexander and says, “Issued during the reign of Agathocles the Just.”  He appeals simultaneously to both Greek and Indian subjects on these coins.  We know that all of the kings he commemorated ruled before him, and this helps us to place him in the correct chronological time period.

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Eucratides and His Parents (left) and Eucratides Gold Coin (right)

We don’t know where Eucratides came from or how he got started in his ambition to become king.  On the reverse side of the above coin we are told that his parents were Heliocles (father) and Laodice (mother).  No source other than this coin tells us this.  We are able to tell that only his mother was of royal descent as she wears a diadem, not his father.  This suggests that his ambitions were from his mother’s side of the family.  His gold coin was the largest gold coin ever minted in the ancient world – twenty times the size of a normal Greek coin.  This is the only one that survives.  Ancient minters used engraving tools for hardened metal and had to carve a mirror image of the design (negative) so that it would come out positive when stamped on the coin.  This gold coin was found in Uzbekistan in the 1800s.  Seven men found it and fought over it and five were killed.  The remaining two smuggled it and sold it in London to a French agent of Louis Napoleon, and it is in a French museum today.  We can see the dots on the top back letters that the engraver connected to form the letters.  But there are faint dots at the top not connected to anything.  He messed up while engraving, realizing that the lettering would need to be arched instead of straight across the top.  Most people didn’t handle gold coins then because they were too valuable.  This may have been so large as a form of tribute to barbarian invaders, but we don’t know.

When did the Greeks left behind by Alexander leave Bactria?  When did they go, and why?  What became of these kings and people?  When we find this many coins in a place from a lost civilization, it means there had to be all of the things there necessary for them – trade, commerce, temples, sanctuaries, tombs – the superstructure of a civilization requiring their manufacture.  The problem was that scholars couldn’t find it.  They knew such cities had to be in Afghanistan, but they didn’t know where.  We knew Greek civilization was in Afghanistan because of these coin hoards.  People actually died trying to find one monument, tomb, temple – something, anything to go along with these coins.  But nothing could be found other than the coins to signify that Greeks were there.

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Archaeological Sites in Afghanistan (Click Image to Enlarge)

In 1961, when Afghanistan still had a king – Muhammad Zahir, he was out on a hunting trip.  He went to the border between his country and the Soviet Union and had lunch on a hillside.  He looked down a strip of land between the river and a village called Ai Khanoum.  He realized he was looking at the remains of an ancient city.  This turned out to be the ancient Greek city that people had been searching for over the past 200 years.

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Ai Khanoum Ruins (left) and Theatre Reconstruction (right)

The ruins above are what the king saw.  He called in French archaeologist Paul Bernard to excavate the site.  Bernard was told not to wade into the river because the Russians would shoot him.  He excavated until 1978, when the Soviet Invasion caused his team to leave.  The layout the king saw was obviously not naturally created with straight rectangular forms and Greek columns appearing to be protruding from the soil.  No other city had been built atop this since ancient times, and it was thus only a few inches below the soil.  This was the largest Greek theater ever built in the East and could hold more than 5,000 spectators to watch plays.  There were streets and other buildings, including a courtyard of a palace in a large rectangular area.  This was larger than the Athens Acropolis, surrounded by 116 columns.  The palace was located along a river.  A wall was also built to protect the city, and there was a natural acropolis on a hill here as well.  It was a very defensive site perhaps chosen by Alexander himself and then populated by the Greek soldiers he left behind.  It is still used as a military base for gun emplacements in modern times.  Archaeologist of course had no doubt they were sitting atop an ancient city’s acropolis.

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Ai Khanoum Wall Illustration (left), Holes Left from Looting (center), and Temple Illustration (right)

The French archaeological team was allowed back in after 2001.  The site had been heavily looted between 1978 and 2001.  Ancient Greeks wanted certain things in their cities such astheaters, temples, gymnasiums, olive oil (imported and stockpiled in the treasury), etc.  Looking at the palace, remember that this was the Hellenistic world and not everything looked entirely Greek.  They had a cult statue of Zeus, a Greek god, inside a Persian temple.  However, the city couldn’t hold 5,000 people to fill the theater.  The city was probably built larger than necessary for a show of force to indigenous people, over whom a relatively small group of Greeks had to maintain control.

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Ai Khanoum Statue and Coin of Demetrius

The back of the coin of Demetrius has Hercules crowning himself in victory.  It is very similar to and may have been inspired by the above statue excavated at Ai Khanoum.  We can’t tell if there was an agora in the city.  We do know the city was abandoned and destroyed.  The Greeks living there packed and quickly left, even leaving things behind in the treasury.  We assume the city was burned down by northern invaders.  There was also a house excavated outside of the city wall.  Why would the Greeks lose their nerve and leave when barbarians attacked?  These barbarians were nomads who didn’t have equipment with them for siege warfare.  The reason is probably because there were actually not many Greeks in the city but instead a large size for a show of force.  They likely left when these barbarians called their bluff.  We do know the last king to sit on the throne in this city was Eucratides.  His coins were the latest found at the location.  His son, Heliocles, minted many coins as well, but none were found in this excavation.  The Greeks left in between he and his son.

Jars full of coins were found in the treasury, indicating their quick exodus from the city.  We know from a metal blank discovered that there was a royal mint here.  Chinese primary sources tell us that nomads overran the area, the same nomads the Chinese themselves had beaten back from the Great Wall.  Those nomads ended up here in Bactria.  They destroyed this city but did not build a new one upon its ruins, which is why these ruins were very near the soil.  The nomads would normally have had no chance of breaching the wall surrounding the city, but there were so many that they probably far outnumbered the Greeks.  We think a second wave of nomads came in behind them as well.

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Into the Land of Bones:  Alexander the Great in Afghanistan / Frank L. Holt

Archaeologists found a mass of disarticulated human bones piled up on the orchestra floor of the theater.  We don’t know if these were from the Greeks or the first wave of nomads.  The Greeks called this area of Afghanistan the “land of bones.”  They encountered a culture that did not cremate bodies as they did.  The Persian Zoroastrian religion saw cremation as an abomination, while the Greeks saw leaving the bodies to be gnawed by animals the same way.  The Persians had devourer dogs that were allowed to eat dead bodies in the streets and the remains gathered.  After the Greeks were driven out, those who died were likely fed to devourer dogs.  The Greeks probably never eliminated this local custom.

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Afghan Teahouse

After the Soviets, a civil war gave rise to the Taliban.  Places like Ai Khanoum were completely unprotected and looted.  This teahouse uses Greek columns taken from Ai Khanoum, placed upside-down here.  Bulldozers were brought in to scour the land of treasures, which were hauled away, destroying the site systematically between 1979 and 2001.  Some items allegedly from Ai Khanoum have shown up on the antiquities black market.  Our connection to the past is often thin because it is vulnerable to this kind of destruction.  Even items properly excavated by the French team were sent to the Afghan Kabul Museum that was itself bombed and looted of ninety percent of its holdings.

The nomads who looted the ancient city were called the Yueh-Chi.  They attacked China and then moved south to occupy Bactria, we presume driving the Greeks out of places like Ai Khanoum.  They settled to create sedentary civilizations and then became known as the Kushana.  Remains of these cities have been excavated.  The Kushana absorbed what was left of Greek Hellenism.  The tomb of a Kushana princess contained a ring with Athena’s named on it spelled correctly in Greek.  They were using the Greek language and Greek images of gods and goddesses.  The Greeks had left behind enough that a veneer of Hellenism remained.

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Ai Khanoum Shrine Inscription

One inscription found on a shrine in the middle of Ai Khanoum said:

These wise commandments of men of old –
Words of well-known thinkers – stand dedicated
In the most holy Pythian shrine

From there Klearchos, having copied them carefully, set them up, shining from afar, in the sanctuary of Kineas

A Greek philosopher named Clearchus, a disciple of Aristotle, copied several inscriptions down from Delphi and carried them all the way to Ai Khanoum, having them inscribed there, so that these Greeks 3,000 miles from the mainland could have Apollo’s teachings.  They were attempting to maintain their “Greek-ness” (Hellenism).

Another inscription describes how the Greeks viewed the five stages of life:

As a child, be well-behaved.
As a youth, be self-controlled.
As an adult, be just.
As an elder be wise.
As dying, don’t regret.

The Greek inscription is carved in stone with lines of poetry.  The left margin takes the first letter of each line and spells out the authorship of the monument.  One was a stele of a man named Sophytos – an Indian name.  Thus an Indian set an inscription in Greek in Kandahar in a stone monument.  The inscription alluded to the Fates, Apollo, and the Muses – all Greek elements.  The patron or scribe (perhaps one in the same) had a good Greek education and could afford this monument, a man of two worlds – East and West.  This shows us the cosmopolitan world it had become.

Were it not for these coins and other artifacts and ruins left behind and almost accidentally discovered, Bactria and Ai Khanoum would perhaps still lay beneath the soil and the fate of the Greeks left behind there by Alexander the Great still unknown.

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