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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

Upon the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, his vast empire, which had never been politically consolidated, broke apart as Alexander's military commanders, the Diadochi ("followers"), began to fight among themselves in a tumultuous twenty-year war known to historians as the Wars of the Diadochi (322-301 BC).

Since the most prized territories lay in Egypt (claimed by Ptolemy), Asia Minor (claimed by Lysimachus) and Greece (claimed by Cassander), little attention was given to the vast territories in the East, from Mesopotamia to Central Asia and India. As a result, Alexander's cavalry commander, Seleucus I Nikator, seized control of these eastern lands and established capitals at Antioch (Syria) and the newly-built Seleucus-on-the-Tigris (60 miles south of Baghdad). As founder of the Seleucid Dynasty, Seleucus Nikator proclaimed himself King of Persia, Syria and Bactria.

Seleucid Rule in Afghanistan (313-304 BC)

By this time, across Bactria in northern Afghanistan, Greeks who remained in the fortresses and surrounding towns built by Alexander's advancing army had firmly rooted themselves, colonized the region, and instilled a decidedly Hellenistic culture in this Central Asian region.

They were joined by Ionian Greeks sent by Seleucus during the 3rd century BC to guard the eastern frontier, further solidifying a Greek influence in the region that would persist for hundreds of years.

Determined to conquer the land that had eluded Alexander decades earlier, Seleucus marched eastward from Syria in 305 BC.

He increased his 50,000-man army with 10,000 Bactrian recruits and proceeded in 304 BC to invade the territory that he considered his rightful inheritance — India. But Seleucus was repelled by 100,000 Indian soldiers and 9,000 fighting elephants under the command of Mauryan emperor Chandragupta (ruled: 324 – 301 BC).


In the peace treaty that followed, Seleucus gave up the lands south and east of the Hindu Kush mountains (the Achaemenid satraperies of Arachosia and Gandhara) to the Mauryans, who allowed Greek administration to continue north of the Hindu Kush, where an independent Graeco-Bactrian kingdom would eventually emerge.


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Mauryan Rule in Afghanistan (304-180 BC)

While the Diadochi were warring among themselves in the Mediterranean region, a great empire formed in India under the Chandragupta Maurya, who expanded his rule westerward to present-day southern Afghanistan. During the 120 years of Mauryan rule in southern Afghanistan, Buddhism migrated westward from India and became a major religion alongside Zoroastrianism, which persisted in Bactria and across the Iranian plateau.

The Achaemenid Royal Road was extended, linking what is now Kabul to various cities in the Punjab and the Ganges Plain. Commerce, art, and architecture flourished, especially in the construction of Buddhist architecture, the ever-present burial stupas that are still visible in eastern Afghanistan today.

This early phase of Buddhist culture in Afghanistan expanded greatly under Chandragupta's grandson, Ashoka the Great (ruled 269-232 BC). After uniting the Indian subcontinent under his rule, Ashoka converted to Buddhism and became a pacifist. To convert his people to Buddhism, Ashoka opened the Buddha's burial stupa at Sarnath, divided the holy relics into equal parts, sent the precious articles to all corners of his empire, where new stupas could be built and the relics buried within. He sent emmissaries north to China, west to the Mediterranean, and to the east to spread Buddhist wisdom. Finally, to educate his people, he sponsored the construction of ceremonial pillars and rock carvings throughout his empire with elaborate inscriptions know to historians as the Edicts of Ashoka.

According to several of the inscriptions, the carnage from his campaign to unite India caused Ashoka to renounce bloodshed, take up Buddhism and pursue rule through righteous nonviolence and extensive patronage with local rule and laws governing every aspect of civic affairs.

Under Ashoka, the Mauryan city of Kandahar boasted palaces, gardens and a library — the first of their kind known to the region.

From these inscriptions, we learn of Ashoka's attitude toward the border peoples in Afghanistan for whom he felt a benevolent responsibility even though they remained as semi-independent satrapies (self-governing provinces) with their own chieftains. Kabul, known at this time as Parapamisidae, was one such satrapy, as was Arachosia, with a capital at Kandahar, and Gandhara, with a capital at present-day Peshawer, Pakistan.

The fact that Ashoka Edicts in Afghanistan (at Kandahar) were written in both Aramaic (the official language of the Achaemenid Empire) and Greek suggest that a significant Persian and Greek population (descendents of Alexander's army) were present in Afghanistan during late 3rd and early 2nd century BC.

After Ashoka’s death, the Mauryan Empire gradually devolved into a collage of regional powers, petty kingdoms and tribes with overlapping boundaries.

India's unguarded northwestern border region, Gandhara, experienced a power vacuum that attracted successive waves of invaders from central and western Asia, beginning around 200 BC that culminated with a 1st century AD tribe known as the Kushans, who gave up their nomadic ways and continued the cultural diffusion and artistic achievement that historians now describe as Gandharan culture.

By the time Greek rule ended in Bactria, circa 145-130 BC, as Hellenism was absorbed into the local identity, all memory of the Mauryan rulers who had started the process or cultural growth and diffusion had come to an end.


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