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History & Culture
From Prehistory to the Medes
Achaemenid Rule
Alexander the Great
Seleucid-Mauryan Rule
Graeco-Bactrian Kings
Parthian, Indo-Greek, Indo-Parthian, Yuezhi Rule
Kushan Empire
Sassanian, Kushano-Sassanian, Hephthalite, Hindu Shahi Rule
Islamic Period
Rediscovering the Past
Afghanistan Cultural Property Law
The Impact of War on Afghan Cultural Heritage

The distance of time blurs our view of the first people in Afghanistan, who appear to have lived on river terraces and inhabited caves and rock shelters in the north and east of the present-day country.

Hundreds of stone tools scattered at numerous sites about the countryside — such as Lower Palaeolithic quartz tools (hand axes, choppers and scrapers) more than 100,000 years old — attest to the presence of organized human activity at a very early date.

Neanderthal skeletons have been found at Darra-i Kul during the mid 1970s, as well as a massive temporal bone that experts pronounced to be essentially modern with Neanderthaloid characteristics.

"North Afghanistan may well be the zone where modern Homo sapiens, or at least a variety of modern man, developed physically and began to revolutionize Stone Age technology,” said University of Pennsylvania archaeologist Louis Dupree of the Darra-i Kul discovery. But the 1979 Soviet invasion ended the excavation that might have confirmed this startling hypothesis.

Across northern Afghanistan, from Balkh to the Pakistan border, lay the evidence of vibrant Stone Age, Neolithic and early Bronze Age cultures. A rock shelter at Kara Kamar, 14 miles north of Samangan yielded Stone Age tools dating circa 30,000 BC. More than 20,000 stone tools excavated from Aq Kupruk are of such sophistication that archaeologists often refer to the tool makers of Aq Kupruk as "the Michelangelos of the Upper Palaeolithic."

Aq Kupruk artifacts belong to a cultural phase that lasted some 5,000 years, from circa 20,000 to 15,000 years ago, during which some unknown artist carved the face of a man (or is it a woman?) on a small limestone pebble — giving us one of the earliest representations of a human face made by human hand.

While other representations made from bone and pottery found in Czechoslovakia and France are of comparable age, the Aq Kupruk carving remains one of the oldest known human likenesses ever discovered. Why was it carved? We may never know.

Early peasant farms dating circa 30,000 – 20,000 BC, found at Hazar Sum and in the foothills of the Hindu Kush, confirm that North Afghanistan was one of the earliest places to domestic plants and animals. Later still, farming villages, dating 7,000-5,000 BC, near Deh Morasi Ghundai, show the transition that allowed faming villages to emerge and small cities to follow. By this time, evidence of Bronze Age culture abounds.

While much has been looted and is forever lost, much has been discovered, and much more awaits excavation, at sites such as the Dashli Oasis.

In the long march toward civilization, we find at Mundigak (near modern-day Kandahar) evidence of a true city, perhaps a provincial capital of the Indus valley civilization, and evidence of the type of structures and objects that true cities produce: religious structures and carved or painted works of art.

At Mundigak, archaeologists have discovered a large 3rd millennium BC pillared terrace structure with a doorway outlined in red, which probably had a religious purpose. At Deh Morasi Gundai, archaeologists found evidence of a shrine complex containing various ritual items such as goat horns, a goblet, a copper seal, hollow copper tubing, a small alabaster cup, and a carved and hand-molded pottery figurine of a mother goddess or fertility figure similar to figurines that were also found at Mundigak.

Deh Morasi Gundai was eventually abandoned about 1500 BC, perhaps because of the westward shift of the river on which it was built. Mundigak continued another 500 years. Two successive invasions by a nomadic tribe from the north forced the inhabitants to abandon the city after more than 2,000 years of continuous occupation.

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While archaeologists in Afghanistan were uncovering the ancient civilizations at Mundigak and Deh Morasi, nearly three thousand kilometers to the west to the west, at Ur in southern Iraq, another team of archaeologists made a startling discovery while studying the jewelery and other artifacts unearthed from the Royal Tombs (circa 2400 BC).

More than twenty thousand beads and other objects made of lapis lazuli retrieved from the Royal Tombs all had the same exact mineral compostition; hence all all originated from the same mine. Indeed, after extensive cross-checking, it was found that virtually every piece of lapis lazuli used in the ancient Near East — many tons of material — all came from the same mountain range, the Sar-i Sang, deep in the Hindu Kush of Afghanistan.

To carry so much lapis from Afghanistan all the way to Mesopotamia, as well as to Egypt (where the blue stone was considered the height of fashion), must have required sophisticated logistics and a series of trading posts and oasis settlements along an established route on which other precious goods (such as gold, copper, precious stones, woods, exotic animals) could also be shipped.

As archaeological evidence reveals, civilization during the fourth and third millennium BC left no vacuum in the vastness that linked Mesopotamia with India and China.

By 4000 BC, incipient forms of urban life with distinct cultures flourished at regular intervals, like stepping stones, across the Central Asian landmass. Thus the lapis lazuli that arrived from the Sar-i Sang mines in Afghanistan to the great cities at Ur about 2400 BC travelled along routes or exchange that had already been active for thousands of years.

Unlike Bronze Age civilizations in Mesopotamia, Egypt or the Indus Valley, Central Asian civilizations had no dominant rivers to focus people, resources, and communications along a corridor from mountain to ocean. Nevertheless a vast and diversified tapestry of peoples and independent polities did arise in these isolated lands — a discontinuous urbanization where scarcity and climatic extremes were the norm.

Aryan Migration

After 2400 BC, throughout Central Asia the growth of urban societies was severely challenged. Within a span of some three hundred years, none of the major centers that developed during the first half of the 3rd millennium were still occupied. The precise reasons for this "urban collapse" remain a mystery. Yet toward the end of 3rd millennium, across northern Afghanistan and southern Turkemenistan and Uzbekistan, a series of events fueled the rise of cities and settlements that was to have a major impact.

Large numbers of nomadic invaders or migrants, pastoral citiless people travelling on horseback and by chariot, long known (conveniently, perhaps wrongly) as Aryans (derived from the Sanskrit word for "nobles"), migrated south from the Caspian Sea region across the Oxus (present-day Amu Darya) River to present-day Afghanistan during the late early 2nd millennium (by circa 1700 BC).

No contemporaneous record exists of the Aryans' journey. But according to legend, they sang hymns as they travelled that were passed on by word of mouth from one generation of priests to another until c. 1200 BC, when the hymns were added to a collection of volumes known as the Rig Veda (1700-1100 BC).

In these texts, we read about a tribe, centuries earlier, emerging from the Hindy Kush and crossing the Kubha, or Kabul, River around 1,500 BC, and can almost visualize these nomadic wanderers putting the Central Asian vastness behind them.

Though evidence remains slim, some of the Aryan migrants appear to have stopped their wandering and settled in Afghanistan, while others continued south toward the India subcontinent. Meanwhile, a third branch of the Aryan Migration turned westward and settled on the Iranian plateau, in a place called Ariana, where an unknown scribe, or scribes, around 1800 BC produced the Persian hymns known as the Avesta, which mentions a city in northern Afghanistan termed Bakhdi (Balkh) "beautiful, crowned with banners.”

Physical proof of an advanced civilization in northern Afghanistan around 2100-1800 BC has come from more than a dozen exacavations conducted during the 1970s in the region that archaeologists refer to as the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC).

While we can still only glimpse at the constellation of cities that existed in ancient times, findings made at BMAC already reveal a series of cities and settlements, each with a distinctive and exceptionally large architectural footprint, with temple structure, administrative quarters and defensive walls. At Gonur Depe (present-day Turkmenistan), for example, the outer wall of the square temple measures 125 meters on each side (enormous!) and is embellished with rectangular or semi-circular bastions with dozens of rooms inside, where evidence was found of metal, ceramic and other decorative craft work.

The material culture of BMAC is distinctive both in style and quality of its production. Exceptionally fine silver and gold vessels, ceremonial shaft-hole axes adorned with figures of animals in combat, alabaster jars, and chlorite or calcite female figures abound in a variety of shapes with a wealth of incised and appliquéd designs and decorative motifs.

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All known cities in the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex contained monumental structures with heavy defensive walls, each located aproximately 30 to 50 kilometers (roughly a day's march) from each other. The temples in these ancient cities contain fire altars, sacrificial areas and architectural features described in passages of the Rig-Veda and the Avesta — the holy texts of the Indo-Aryans and the Zoroastrians.

It's worth remembering that the city in northern Afghanistan named Baktra (present-day Balkh) is recorded in the Avesta as the birthplace of Zarathustra Spitama (Zoroaster), the founder of Zoroastianism, one of the first great world religions that is continually practiced to this day.

We do not know why the cities of the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex were suddenly abandoned (around 1000 BC).

Did the calamity known as the Bronze Age Collapse (which decimated the palace economies of the Aegean and Anatolia during the late 2nd millennium) impact trade with settlements in Central Asia? Dis a severe drought or other envionmental catastrophe force the BMAC settlers in Central Asia to flee? We may never know.

This much is certain: the cultural transformation that ended the BMAC, like the objects it left behind, was unique — an enduring puzzle still awaiting an answer.

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The Median Empire (early 7th century to 551 BC)

Around the time that the BMAC civilization disintegrated in Central Asia (northern Afghanistan, southern Turkmenistan, southern Uzbekistan), in the wake of the Bronze Age Collapse, two major groups of Iranians suddenly appeared in Mesopotamian cuneiform sources — the Medes and the Persians. Of the two, the Medes were the more widespread and important group.

First written evidence of the Median Empire comes from Herodotus, who described a group that appeared in Mesopotamia in 836 BC paying tribute to the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III. While they referred to themselves as Aryan, others called them the Medes ("people of the Mada", a region in the northwestern portions of present-day Iran, roughly the areas of present day Kurdistan, Hamedan and Tehran, which ancient Greek sources referred to as Media or Mede).

The Medes excelled in battle and formed a dynasty during the second half of the 7th century BC under their founder Daiaukku (known to Greeks as Deiocres, who according to Herodotus reigned from 728 to 675 BC), his successor
Phraortes (675-653 BC, who united the Iranians, including the Persians, under a single banner, and lost his life in a premature attack against the Assyrians), followed by his son Cyaxares (625-585 BC).


Meanwhile, beginning as early as the 9th century, and with increasing impact in the late 8th and early 7th centuries, nomadic warriors of Iranian stock, dominated by a group known as the Scythians, entered western Iran, probably from across the Caucasus.

Dominant among these groups were the Scythians, and their entrance into the affairs of the western plateau during the 7th century may perhaps mark one of the important turning points in Iron Age history.

Herodotus wrote in some detail of a period of Scythian domination, (the so-called "Scythian interregnum" in Median dynasty history). Precise dating of this event remains uncertain, but traditionally it is seen as falling between the reigns of Phraortes and Cyaxares — circa 653 to 625 BC — a period during which a great many Scythians had descended on western Iran, who, along with the Medes and other Iranian groups, expanded their control from Central Asia to Mesopotamia and posed a serious threat to Assyria (in present-day Iraq).

Herodotus also describes how Cyaxares overthrew the Scythians by inducing them at a supper party to get so drunk that they were then easily slain. It is also possible that, about this time, either the Scythians withdrew voluntarily or were simply absorbed into a rapidly developing confederation under Median hegemony.

By 600 BC, the Medes under Cyaxares had carved out an empire that stretched from the southern shore of the Black Sea in Asia Minor to present-day Afghanistan.

Cyaxares's successor, Astyages, sat on the Median throne (585-550 BC) during a period of rapid Median decline, during which he was overthrown circa 551 BC by the rise his grandson, Cyrus II the Great who prepared the foundation for a second Iranian dynasty, achieved even greater heights, and soon controlled an even larger realm — the Achaemenid Empire — which would shape the emerging region of Afghanistan as never before.


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