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Afghanistan
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From Prehistory to the Medes
Achaemenid Rule
Alexander the Great
Seleucid-Mauryan Rule
Graeco-Bactrian Kings
Parthian, Indo-Greek, Indo-Parthian, Yuezhi Rule
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Islamic Period
Rediscovering the Past
Afghanistan Cultural Property Law
The Impact of War on Afghan Cultural Heritage
 

 






 


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Founded by a powerful Persian clan that descended from the Median kings and united the tribes of the Iranian plateau under a single banner during the sixth century BC, the Achaemenid Dynasty unseated the Medes formed a dynasty and, through military conquest, built an empire (559–330 BC) which, at its peak, spanned three continents:

      - from Libya, Egypt and Saudi Arabia in the South,
      - to Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) in the West,
      - to the Balkans and Black Sea in the North,
      - to present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan in the East.

In sheer land mass, the Achaemenid Empire was the largest empire the ancient world had ever seen until 331-330 BC, when Alexander the Great toppled the Persian regime on his eastward march from the Mediterranean through Afghanistan to India.

The main Achaemenid city in the north of Afghanistan was Bactria or Baktra (present-day Balkh), a truly ancient settlement and presumed birthplace of the philosopher-mystic Zoraster, which makes Afghanistan the birthplace of Zoroastrianism, the oldest continuously-practiced religion in the world and the principal faith from Achaemenid times until the advent of Islam more than twelve centuries later.

How the Achaemenids conquered Afghanistan is less well understood than the legacy they left behind. Most important among these was the establishment of five semi-autonomous states, known as satraps

   - Bactria (northern Afghanistan and southern Uzbekistan,
     Turkmenistan and Tajikistan);
   - Gandhara (northeast Afghanistan and northern Pakistan);
   - Aryana (western Afghanistan);
   - Arachosia (southeastern Afghanistan); and
   - Drangiana (southern and southwestern Afghanistan)

— each with its own governorship and system of taxation. The annual tribute these satraps paid to the Achaemenid emperor is illustrated in a series of bas-relief sculptures, created during the early 6th century BC, for the eastern stairway of the Apadana Palace at Persepolis.

Most of the Apadana Palace was destroyed by Alexander's troops in 300 BC. Yet as the building toppled, it fell to the north and to the west, allowing the massive stairway on the eastern side to survive.

On this ancient stairway, a magnificent series of bas-relief depictions, known as the Tribute Processions, give us a remarkably detailed view of the peoples, the facial types, the clothing, accoutrements, and other details that help us to understand the various regions of the Achaemenid Empire.

Each year, every satrap was expected to journey to Persepolis and pay tribute to the emperor with some gift or token symbolic of the region's main industry.

The five satraps of present-day Afghanistan are represented among the Tribute Procession with remarkable individuality and verve. These bas-reliefs comprise some of the earliest extant depictions of the Afghan people.




 






 



 
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Another benefit of Achaemenid rule over Afghanistan was the building of the Royal Road, a trade route that extended from Persepolis eastward through present-day Herat to Kandahar (which by 500 BC had replaced Mundigak at the principal city in Afghanistan) and farther eastward through the Khyber Pass to India. The Achaemenid Royal Road formed acritical link in the series of roads that later became known as the Silk Road.

Though the Persians ruled over present-day Afghanistan for more than two centuries, little Achaemenid architecture and few artifacts from the period have been scientifically excavated within the borders of Afghanistan aside from the coinage found at Kabul near the foot of Tepe Maranjan and at the old Chaman i-Hazouri parade ground.

The Chaman-i-Hazouri Hoard purportedly comprised some 1,000 or more coins when first discovered by a construction crew in 1933. One hundred and twenty seven coins and various pieces of jewlery and personal ornaments were documented at the site and made their way to the Kabul Museum, where they were photographed and published two decades later by the Delegation Archaeologique Française en Afghanistan (DAFA) in the book Tresors Monetaire en Afghanistan (MDAFA volume 14, Paris, 1953).

The 127 coins documented from Chaman-i-Hazouri include 63 specimens struck in Greece prior to 550 BC, eight Achaemenid coins struck in the name of Darius I (ruled: 521-486 BC), twelve Gandharan "bent bar" coins of unknown date, and 43 coins of local manufacture punched with animal motifs. The latest specimen in the hoard was circa 380 BC Greek copy of a well-known 6th century Athenian coin type. This circa 380 BC coin represents the probable "terminus date" for the hoard as a whole, the date in which all the coins were gathered up and buried (perhaps for safekeeping on the eve of some invasion or other disturbance).

Given the findspot, date range and the highly varied nature of the coins themselves, the Chaman-i-Hazouri hoard provides historians and archaeologists with a perfect numismatic illustration, the best physical evidence we have, of the cosmopolitan culture that existed in the Kabul Valley during Achaemenid rule. The quantity and variety of coins also suggests that Kabul served as a hub for cross-border trade the stretched from Gandhara (northern India and Pakistan) all the way to Greece.

After their publication in 1953, the Chaman-i-Hazouri coins remained at the Kabul Museum until 1992-93, when the museum was plundered by mujahedeen during the Afghan civil war. At first, the coins (along with thousands of other pieces form the Museum) were presumed to have been scattered and lost. But two years later, 14 of the 127 documented specimens from Chaman-i-Hazouri turned up in the catalog to a private collection in Pakistan (see Osmund Bopearachchi and Aman ur Rahman, Pre-Kushana Coins in Pakistan, 1995).







The most famous ensemble of Achaemenid-period artifacts ever found in or associated with the Afghanistan region — some 180 pieces of gold and silver dating from the 5th through 4th century BC — was discovered by local plunderers during the third quarter of the nineteenth century just north of the Oxus (present-day Amu Darya) River in present-day Tajikistan or Uzbekistan.

Traders eventually began aware of the discovery and brought the pieces to Pakistan, where they were purchased in the smugglers' markets at Peshawer and Islamabad by members of the British diplomat and military corps servingin Islamabad and Rawalpindi. One hundred and eighty gold objects collected in this manner eventually made their way to London, where they are now displayed at the British Museum as the Oxus Treasure.

The importance of the Oxus Treasure cannot be overstated: virtually all subseqent judgments about Achaemenid gold and silver (workmanship, style, iconography even judgments about authenticity) have been based on, or made in relation to, the Oxus Treaure artifacts.

The British Museum believes that all of the Oxus Treasure artifacts were found "in the region of Takht-i-Kuwad" on the north side of the Oxus River a stone's throw distance from Afghanistan.



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For more than a century since the acquisition of the Oxus Treasure by the British Museum, archaeologists have excavated sites in Iraq, Turkmenistan and across ancient Bactria in the hope to finding artifacts at an ancient site that are comparable to the Oxus Treasure artifacts.

A site near Takht-i-Kuwad known as Tahkt-i-Sangin, Soviet archaeologists excavated during the 1970s and found a few intact pieces of Achaemenid gold among a large number of Hellenistic objects at the site of a 3rd-2nd century BC temple. But few of the Achaemenid pieces at Tahkt-i-Sangin bore any resemblance to the Oxus Treasure.

Since none of the Oxus Treasure have been scientifically excavated (most of the objects were first seen in the pockets of traders or in markets and bazaars in Pakistan years after their purported discovery), the true origin of the Oxus Treasure may never be known.

In recent years, the description (and, by implication, the authenticity) of the Oxus Treasure has been challenged by a senior research associate at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and defended by experts at the British Museum without complete success.

After thousands of words of learned discourse, and a recent demand from the Tajikistan government for the return of the artifacts, the mystery concerning the true origin of the Oxus Treasure continues.

A third group of Achaemenid gold related to Afghanistan appeared on the antiquities market during the mid-1990s. Part of this new discovery was hailed by its new owner, the Miho Museum in Japan, as "The Second Oxus Treasure".

The objects were featured in the 2002 exhibition "Treasures of Bactria". Amid great fanfare, the Miho Musem compared the newly-discovered gold with the fabled Oxus treasure at the British Museum and implied that the two separate discoveries came from the source.

But the "Second Oxus Treasure" was not discovered anywhere near the Oxus River. It was pulled from an illicit dig site hundreds of miles to the south and smuggled to Pakistan, where it was sold by dealers to the Miho.

According to eye-witnesses, including Dr. Nader Rassouli, the director of the Afghanistan Archaeology Institute, "the Second Oxus Treasure" at the Miho Museum was, in fact, unearthed from the old village water well as Mir Zakah, east of Ghazni and a few miles west of the Pakistan border in Paktia Province.





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Other recent discoveries of Achaemenid-era sites and settlements in Afghanistan, interrupted by the 1979 Soviet invasion and the civil war that followed, have provided tantalizing clues about this still largely unknown period.

At a series of mounds known as Altyn, near the complex of ancient sites known as Dashli Oasis, a short distance north of Balkh, archaeologists have found the remnants of an Achaemenid-era town with a large administrative quarter and a monumental private residence with a multi-columned courtyard and a pool or fountain, probably occupied by a local governor (the Bactrian satrap Bessus).

Evidence of a burned superstructure at the Altyn site indicates that a great fire occurred, which carbon-14 dating pinpoints to the years 329 or 328 BC — which coincides with date that Alexander the Great captured Bessus near Bactra during the summer of 329 BC.

It was Bessus who gathered between 1,000 and 2,000 Bactrian horsemen to join the Achaemenid emperor Darius III near Mosul in present-day Iraq to oppose Alexander the Great at the Battle of Gaugamela. Alexander's victory on October 1, 331 BC caused Darius and Bessus to flee.

While Alexander sacked the Persian Treasury at Susa and demolished the Apadana at Persepolis (all but the Eastern Stairway shown above), Bessus assassinated Darius III, proclaimed himself Artaxerxes, Emperor of Persia and King of Asia, and fled to Bactria. These events served as prelude to the next chapter in Afghanistan's history, the 330-326 BC invasion by Alexander the Great
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