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Parthian, Indo-Greek, Indo-Parthian, Yuezhi Rule
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Rediscovering the Past
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The years 200 BC to 100 AD in the Afghanistan region was a fitful and confusing period, riven with internal conflict fed by waves of outside invasion from Central Asian nomads and the Parthian warriors from present-day Iran. The result: an ever-shifting military, political, linguistic and cultural landscape, with multiple overlapping powers. No single tribe, dynasty or cultural influence could hold sway beyond their immediate neighborhood.

No less than five separate kingdoms, empires, military dynasties and tribes battled and jostled with one another during this 300-year period to establish a buffer state or homeland in this rugged, remote region. These five overlapping powers and tribes were:

           The Parthian Empire;

           The Indo-Greek Kingdom;

           The Indo-Parthian Kingdom;

           The Yuezhi Invasion; and

           Indo-Scythian Rule; which was supplanted
               and pushed aside by

           The Kushan Empire

The Parthian Empire

After the Medes (8th-7th century BC) and the Achaemenids (6th-4th century BC), the Parthian Empire (late 3rd century BC - 2nd century AD) was the third great military dynasty to dominate present-day Iran, achieving true empire status that lasted for nearly 500 years.

Legendary horsemen and battlefield tacticians, willing to travel vast distances and strike at a moment's notice, the Parthians took advantage of the collapsing Seleucid Empire to carve out an empire during the late 3rd century BC to the 1st century AD that, at its peak, covered a vast region — from the Caspian Sea in the north to Syria in the west, the Persian Gulf in the south and the western half of present-day Afghanistan to the east —making it second only to the Roman Empire in size and economic might.


From its inception, Parthia was synonymous with the Arsacid clan, who emerged from the rugged landscape of present-day Turkmenistan during the 3rd century BC to become leaders of a Scythian tribe in SW Central Asia known as the Parni.

The Arsacid's initial success in Central Asia came about during a period of regional instability, caused in large part by the Seleucid Empire's many distractions in the West:

   • the Seleucids' war with the Gauls, who had invaded
      Asia Minor (276-272 BC), followed by

   • the Seleucids' conflict with Ptolemaic Egypt, part of the
      ongoing War of the Diadochi (323-168 BC), followed by

   • Ptolemy III's seizure of the Seleucid capital at Antioch
     (246), which hastened

   • the death of Seleucid emperor Antiochus II (246 BC).

Multiple distractions in the West allowed a power vacuum to develop in the Seleucid Empire to the East.


Taking advantage of this vacuum, Andragoras, the Seleucid satrap of Partahia (present-day NE Iran and SW Turkmenistan), declared independence from Seleucid rule in 250-248 BC and confirmed his defiance by minting coins with his likeness wearing the royal diadem.

This action signalled Andragoras' neighbor, Diodotus I, the ruler of the Graeco-Bactrian Kingdom in northern Afghanistan, to declare independence as well, circa 248 BC.

The disintegration of the Seleucid Empire in the East was underway. But Andragoras' ability to hold power in a violent part of the world was soon put to the test by the Arsacid clan leader Arsaces I.


Having united the tribes of NE Iran under the Parni flag and crowned himself king in 247 BC, Arsaces I toppled Andragoras in 238 BC and re-named the region Parthia, where he and his successor, Arsaces II, held sway until the next Seleucid ruler Antiochus III (ruled: 223-187 BC) re-asserted control in 209 BC.

Rather than fight the Seleucids, the Parthians sued for peace, which freed Antiochus III to train his sights on Bactria.


For three long years (209-206 BC), thousands of Seleucid troops and Parthian warriors plus one hundred war elephants laid siege to the walled city of Balkh in a bid to unseat the Greco-Bactrian king Euthydemus I (reign: 230-200 BC), without success. The seige ended with a treaty that guaranteed Graeco-Bactrian independence.


As historians of the period suggest, Antiochus III's priorities lay elsewhere. Leaving Balkh, he crossed the Hindu Kush, using a trail that Alexander the Great had blazed more than a century earlier, and stationed his troops in the Kabul Valley (206 BC) where, according to the 2nd century BC historian Polybius, Antiochus III:

    "renewed his friendship with Sophagasenus [an Indian
     regional governor under the Mauryan empire] ... received
     more elephants, until he had a hundred and fifty altogether
     ... provisioned his troops [and] set out again personally
     with his army..."

on a series of campaigns along the Persian Gulf (205-204 BC), against Ptolemaic Egypt (203-199 BC) and the against Romans in Asia Minor and Greece (196-188 BC) — all of which sapped the Seleucid treasury, ended all pretense of Seleucid control in the East and emboldened the Parthians to expand their domain.


Around 150 BC, in a series of lightning attacks, Arsaces I's great-grandson Mithradates I (rule: 171 - 138 BC) captured Babylonia in the east, seized most of southern Afghanistan to the west, including Herat — a key Silk Road trading center.

By capturing Herat, Mithradates I not only cut off the Graeco-Bactrians' contact with the Greek world, he also seized control of the vast flow of goods from the Mediterranean and the Middle East to China and India. This eventually spelled doom for the once-powerful Graeco Bactrian Kingdom.


Control of trade soon became the foundation of Parthian wealth and power. To maintain that control, Arsacids I jealously guarded the lands around the two major trade routes: the Silk Road, which stretched from Antioch across Iran and Central Asia to China, and the Achaemenid Royal Road, which stretched from Susa across Afghanistan to India.

From 150 to 120 BC, commercial relations flourished between Parthia, Central Asia and China — spawning a brief "golden age." One eye-witness account by the Chinese explorer Zang Qian, who visited Sogdia, Bactria and Parthia in 138-126 BC, described Parthia as an advanced urban civilization.

Parthian prosperity and security, however, depended upon maintaining good relations with China — particularly as pressure increased from raids by the Scythians (a nomadic "raiding and trading" people, also known as the Sakas, short for Sacaraucae Confederation), who were distant relatives of the Parthians.


During the mid- to late 2nd century BC, the Scythians were being slowly forced south-westwards into Parthian lands by the Tocharians in northern Bactria as well as the Yuezhi tribe, which had been pushed southward from the Tarim Basin (extreme western China) by Chinese warlords.

Pressure from the Scythians became a major distraction for the Parthians. Both Mithradates I's successor Phraates II (rule: 138-128 BC) and his successor Artabanus I (rule: 128-124 BC) were killed in battle against the Scythians.

In a bid to protect the Silk Road trade, the Han Chinese general Ban Chao formed a military alliance with the Parthians in 97 BC with the two empires mounting a cavalry of 70,000 men to protect the caravans and battle Scythians, the Tocharians and the Yuezhi.

Scythian pressure on Parthia culminated with the placement of a Scythian king Sanatruces (rule: 77-70 BC) on the Parthian throne, after which the Parthians and Scythians achieved a balance of power, which gave rise to a sub-kingdom of the Parthian Empire that extended across SW Afghanistan into present-day Pakistan and northern India. This sub-kingdom is known to historians as the Indo-Parthian kingdom.

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Parthian survival required the Arsacid kings to maintain direct control over the homeland and the main trade routes the linked East and West.

To protect this key asset, the Arsacids formed sub-kingdom,, ruled by their own native dynasties, around the peripheries of the Empire to act as buffers between the areas of direct Parthian control and the outside world.

The largest of these sub-kingdoms — the Indo-Parthian kingdom, located west of the Parthian homeland — was founded in the late 1st century BC by the first of several kings named Gondophares, who was a Scythian (Saka) king and member of the Suren family, one of the seven major noble houses of the Parthians.

From his feifdom in Sakastan (known today as Seistan in southwestern Afghanistan), Gondophares expanded his rule eastward, through Arachosia and Gandhara to present-day Pakistan and northern India.

Around 20 AD, Gondophares declared his independence from the Parthian empire, building his capital at Taxila (in south central Pakistan).

Indo-Parthia suffered major defeats at the hands of the Kushans in the late first century AD, and eventually was reduced to the area of Sakastan and Arachosia until their conquest by the Sassanians during the 3rd century AD.

Silk Road Transmission of Buddhism. While their political and military influence had evaporated, Indo-Parthian presence did persist long after the rise and fall of the Kushans and continued even after the conquest of the region by the Sassanians in 226-250 AD. 

During the 2nd century, for example, as Buddhist missionariesl began to trek through Afghanistan from India (bound for China) and from China and Central Asia (bound for India) — a significant industry took root in the Kabul Valley region: the translation of Indian and Gandharan Buddhist texts into Chinese. The first of these translators whose names are known to us today were Indo-Parthian missionaries. Their work was identified in early Chinese translation by the surname "An," short for "Anshi," which translates into "country of the Arsacids".



Indo-Greek Kingdom

Another layer of the story that played itself out in Afghanistan during the years 200 BC to 20 BC, when several generations of Hellenistic kings and military men, one step ahead of the expanding Graeco-Bactrian kingdom and Parthian, Indo-Parthian and Yuezhi invaders sweeping down from the north and west, expanded their realm eastward by brute force across present-day northeastern Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

The conquests made by these kings, and the changes they imposed on the landscape and culture of this region, represented the final phase of Greek rule in Central Asia, which historians refer to as the Indo-Greek Kingdom.

Founded by the former Gareco-Bactrian king Demetrius I (ruled: 205-171 BC), who first invaded India in 180 BC, the Indo-Greek Kingdom comprised a number of dynasties, polities and petty kingships in the Hindu Kush, Gandhara (northeastern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan) and northern India.


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During their two centuries of rule, the Indo-Greek kings combined Greek and Indian languages and symbols on their coins and blended Greek, Hindu and Buddhist religious practices, as revealed in the archaeological remains of their cities and in their support of Buddhism.

The Indo-Greek kings melded the disparate cultures of Greece and India to a unique artform, cultural, the consequences of which were felt for centuries through the diffusion of Graeco-Buddhist and Gandharan sculpture, painting and architecture.

The Indo-Greeks shined brightly for several generations, then disappeared as a political entity seemingly overnight, around 10 AD, following the invasions of the Indo-Scythians, although pockets of Greek populations probably remained for several centuries longer under the subsequent rule of the Indo-Parthians and Kushans.

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The Yuezhi Invasion

The Yuezhi (of Yüeh-Chih), also known as "The Great Clan of Yue," were a Central Asian tribe of nomads that originally settled in the grasslands of the eastern Tarim Basin region, in present-day Gansu province in China.

After supplying jade to the Chinese for generations from the nearby Yuzhi mountains, the Yuezhi were pushed out circa 190-180 BC by a rival tribe known as the Xiongnu and migrated west and south to Transoxiana [the region north of the ancient Oxus (present-day Amu Darua) River] by 155 BC, and thence to Bactria by 120-110 BC, where they wiped out the remains of the Graeco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek kingdoms and, after 50 BC) formed the Kushan Empire.


The Yuezhi migration occurred in two stages. Initially, a large group fled from the Tarim Basin/Gansu Province region to the northwest, north of the Tian Shan mountains, where they confronted and defeated the resident tribe, the Scythians (also known as Sakas). According to the ancient Book of Han: "The Yuezhi attacked the king of the Sai who moved a considerable distance to the south and the Yuezhi then occupied his lands."

This forced the Scythians to undertake their own migration, south to the Iran Plateau, Afghanistan and northern India, where for a time they established a loosely defined Indo-Scythian Rule.

The Yuezhi's high percentage of men under arms relative to their total size (ancient sources estimate the Yuezhi could deploy 200,000 horse archers out of a total tribal population of 400,000) made them a formidable opponent.


The second Yuezhi migration occurred after 155 BCE, where the Xiongnu allied with another tribe, the Wusun, to force the Yuezhi farther south, where they paused on the northern bank of the Oxus (today's Amu Darya) River in present-day Tajikistan, gathering their forces to attack the Graeco-Bactrian Kingdom.

While still north of the Oxus, the Yuezhi were visited by a Chinese delegation in 126 BC that sought a Chin Yeuzhi alliance to counter the Xiongnu threat (which the Yuezhi declined). While visting the Yuezhi, the China delegation's leader, Zhang Qian, recorded his observations, which provide an insight into the situation on the north side of the Oxus at that moment. Zhang Qian wrote:
      "...the Great Yuezhi live ... north of the Gui [Oxus] river. They
      are bordered on the south by Daxia [Bactria] and on the west
      by Anxi [Parthia]... They are a nation of nomads, moving from
      place to place with their herds... They have some 100,000 or
     200,000 archer warriors."

The Yuezhi were organized into five major tribes: the Xumi; the Guishuang; the Dumi; and the Xidun (the tribe that initially crossed south and settled at Balkh.

A description of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom made by Zhang Qian after the conquest by Yuezhi is revealing:

       "Daxia [Greco-Bactria] is located ... south of the Gui [Oxus]
        river. Its people cultivate the land and have cities and houses.
        ... It has no great ruler but only a number of petty chiefs
        ruling the various cities. The people are poor in the use of
        arms and afraid of battle, but they are clever at commerce.
        After the Great Yuezhi moved west and attacked the lands,
        the entire country came under their sway. The population of
        the country is large, numbering some 1,000,000 or more
        persons. The capital is called the city of Lanshi [Bactra,
        present-day Balkh] and has a market where all sorts of
        goods are bought and sold. ... The men have deep-set eyes
        and ... are skilful at commerce and will haggle over a
        fraction of a cent."


Around 145 BC, the Yuezhi sacked the Greek city of Alexandria on the Oxus, present-day Ai Khanoum.

Twenty years later the Yuezhi became involved in a war with the Parthians to the West. In 124 BC the Parthian king Artabanus I was killed; the following year, his successor Mithridates II pushed the Yuezhi back into present-day Afghanistan, where the final blow against the Graeco-Bactrian Kingdom took place.

Strabo (the late 1st c. BC–early 1st c. AD Greek historian) recorded the fall of the Graeco-Bactrians at the hands of the Yuezhi, which he referred to as Scythians, Tochari and Tokharians:

       "Most of the Scythians ... are are called Dahae Scythae ... but
        each tribe has its peculiar name. All, or the greatest part of
        them, are nomads. The best known tribes are those who deprived
        the Greeks of Bactriana, the Asii, Pasiani, Tochari, and Sacarauli,
        who came from the country on the other side of the Jaxartes,
        opposite the Sacae and Sogdiani [meaning the Tarim Basim
        in Central Asia and extreme western China]."
                                           — Strabo, Geography

Rather than be annihilated by the Yuezhi advance, the last Graeco-Bactrian king Heliocles I - the final successor to Eucratides the Great - retreated and move his capital south to the Kabul Valley.

As the Yuezhi settled in Bactria, circa 125 BC, they gave up their nomadic ways and adopted Hellenized way of life, living in populated settlements, preserving the Greeks' agricultural and trading systems, adopting the Greek alphabet and minting Graeco-Bactrian-style coins.

The Yuezhi continued expansion south into the Hindu-Kush mountains is presumed, given that the last Indo-Greek king in Hindu Kush — Hermaeus (ruled c. 90–70 BC) — had no successor. As before, the Yuezhi emulated the coins of Hermeaus. But these coins, and the Yuetzhi regime itself, began to disappear after the Guishuang faction of the Yuezhi crowded out the other tribes, circa 1 - 30 AD and founded the Kushan reign.

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Indo-Scythian Rule

The Indo-Scythians are a subset of the much larger nomadic tribe known as the Scythians, the Sakas or the Indo-Iranian Sakas.

Between the middle of the 2nd century BC and the 4th century AD, the Indo-Scythians migrated (often one step ahead of the invading Yuezhi tribe) from Central Asia across the Oxus (present-day Amu Darya) River into Bactria, Arachosia, Gandhara (in present-day Afghanistan), then eastward into the Punjab and Kashmir (present-day Pakistan and India) as well as Gujarat and Rajasthant (Western and Central India.

The Indo-Scythian invasion represents just one of many events and consequences triggered by the Yuezhi invasion, which permanently changed the landscape of Bactria, the Kabul Valley and India, with repercussions felt as far off as Rome.

King Maues. During his relatively brief reign (85-60 BC), the Indo-Scythian ruler Maues invaded the Indo-Greek territories of modern Pakistan, established a capital at Sirkap (near Taxila in present-day Pakistan) and established a regime that tended to assimilate, rather than destroy, Greek culture. Some scholars suggest that Maues (who took the tile of "Great King of Kings," derived from a traditional Persian royal title) may have been a Scythian general hired by the Indo-Greeks. In any case, unlike the Yuezhi, Maues appeared to tolerate and patronize the local Greek and Indian communities, a practice his successors would continue.

King Azes I and Azes II. Azes I (probable rule: 57-35 BC) began and Azes II (ruled circa 35-12 BC) completed the domination of the Indo-Greeks by the Indo-Scythians in northern India.

Yet the Azes reign soon crumbled in the face of the Kushans, one of the five tribes of the Yuezhi who were expanding into India after having invaded and settled in Bactria a century earlier.


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The Bimaran Casket. During one of the first recorded amateur excavations of Afghanistan's ancient past in 1833-38, the British explorer Charies Masson discovered a small gold reliquary containing Buddhist relics (burnt pearls, beads made of precious and semi-precious stones) and coins minted by the Indo-Scythian king Azes II at a site known as stupa no. 2 at Bimaran, near Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan.

The tiny, seven-centimeter (2-3/4-inch) high casket, made of solid gold repoussé (cast and hand worked on the surface) with semi-precious stones, probably of Indo-Greek workmanship, is considered a masterpiece of the Graeco-Buddhist art from Gandhara.

Indo-Greek kings hiring Indo-Greek craftsmen to create such an object is not surprising. The Hellenistic representation of the standing Buddha (realistic execution with gently swaying controposto pose), flanked by the Indian deities Brahma and Śakra (both wearing jewelry indicating they represent Bodhisattva figures, their hands in classic anjali-mudra "prayerful gesture" pose) are framed inside arched niches borrowed from Greco-Roman architecture.

The coins found inside the casket fix the date of the relic to no earlier than Azes II's reign (35-12 BC). Further analysis suggests the casket may have been opened and redeposited at a later date, perhaps as late as the 2nd century AD, based on the style and workmanship of the caske. When discovered in modern times, the casket was stored in a box made of steatite with an elaborate inscription on the surface.

The fall of the Indo-Scythians in the East enabled the Parthians to invade from the West under their commander Gondophares, and temporarily push aside the Kushans. This newly-established Indo-Parthian Kingdom, was to last only until the middle of the 1st century AD, by which time the Kushans regained ascendency and prospered for the next two centuries.

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"Raiding and Trading".
Like the Yuezhi and other nomadic wanderers during the 1st century BC and 1st century AD, the Indo-Scythians appear to have prospered through both legitimate trade and the acquisition of booty during conflict. We can only guess at the vast wealth that was available to them along the Silk Road.

Transported by camel caravan in a journey that took many months from China to the Mediterranean, portable wealth in the form of jewelry, artworks, silks and other precious things were warehoused at key trading posts located at
Bactra, Shibargan, Begram (the Kushan's summer capital), Samarkand and the desert oasis city at Merv.

The Bactrian Gold Hoard at Tillya Tepe. A glimpse at the profit potential of this "raiding and trading" strategy came to light in 1978-79, when a team of Soviet archaeologists discovered six Indo-Scythian graves at Tillya Tepe, ("Hill of Gold") near Shebergan, west of Balkh, on the eve of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Less than half a kilometer from the ancient fortified town called Yempshi-tepe, the team found six intact graves, which contained the remains of five women and one man, dating from the 1st century AD. Five of the graves containing some 20,000 pieces of gold and other artifacts — jewelry, belts, headgear, ceremonial weapons and a myriad of personal items. Completely intact, laid out in the precise manner that the families of the deceased had left them, the artifacts unearthed from the five graves at Tillya Tepe enabled archaeologists to reconstruct the clothing and jewelery of the deceased in extraordinary detail.


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Dating the grave sites was possible by studying the coins found in the deceased person's hands or pockets. The specimen with the latest confirmed date was a gold coin of the Roman emperor Tiberius minted in the city of Lugdunum in Gaul (present-day France), between 16 and 21 AD. The years required for the Tiberius coin to travel from Gaul to northern Afghanistan during ancient times suggests a date for the Tillia- tepe burial as the second quarter of the 1st century AD.

The princely figures found in the graves probably belonged to the Indo-Scythian (Saka) tribe (Asian Scythians, who were later to migrate to India). They may have been Yuezhi, Kushans or eastern Parthians. But a number of the artifacts found in the graves are undisputably Scythian in origin, such as the ceremonial daggers and folding royal crown (a unique item that can be taken from the head and slipped into a saddlebag in minutes).

Unlike Scythian artworks from Central Asia and Siberia, the Bactrian Gold at Tillya Tepe is uniquely cross-cultural. The merging of multiple traditions and styles pervades the artifacts—evidence of a sophisticated cosmopolitan society.

Hellenistic subject matter interpreted by local Bactrian craftsmen include elaborately decorative and human depictions (from a tiny sculpure of Aphrodite to scenes with Dionysos on a belt buckle to miniscule cupids on ear pendants and a depiction of Athena on a signet ring with her name inscribed in Greek), all reflecting the influence of the Seleucid Empire and Graeco-Bactrian Kingdom in the same region two centuries earlier and the continuing influence of the Indo-Greeks in northwestern India.


High-style locally-made objects were intermixed at Tillya Tepe with artifacts from distant lands, such as Chinese bronze mirrors, Syrian glass, carved Indian ivories and other items that were transported along the Silk Road.

The Tillya Tepe gold hoard provides testimony to the inventive sophistication and broad range of cultural influences that existed at the crossroads of Central Asia in the 1st century AD.


First discovered in 1978, five of the six grave sites were excavated during a single archaeological season in 1979 (the sixth grave was left untouched at the end of 1979 and was looted. The artifacts in the sixth grave were not recovered and nothing of similar type has appeared on the international market since that time). Once above ground, the Bactrian gold hoard was quickly inventoried and taken to Kabul just weeks before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

While speculation reigned that the Taliban had stolen the gold during the 1990s Afghan Civil War, the entire treasure remained untouched (selected artifacts were exhibited at the Musée Guimet in Paris in 2006-07 and toured the United States in 2008-09).


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The Demise of the Indo-Scythians. After the death of Azes II (circa 12 BC), the rule of the Indo-Scythians crumbled under pressure from the Kushans, one of the five tribes of the Yuezhi which had lived in Bactria for more than a century, and expanded from Afghanistan into India to create a vast Kushan Empire.

For a brief period, the Parthians managed one more invasion from the west. Their leader Gondophares temporarily displaced the Kushans and founded the Indo-Parthian Kingdom across northeastern Afghanistan to northern India. But his rule lasted less than a single lifetime and disappeared by the middle of the 1st century AD.

The Kushans regained northwestern India around 75 AD and captured most of eastern Afghanistan by 100 AD, where they prospered until the middle of the 3rd century.

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