In the centuries that followed Alexander’s death in 323 BC, Transoxiana once again found itself a border zone, torn apart by different centres of power, such as Parthia, Graeco-Bactria and the Kushan and Sasanian empires.

In ancient times, Afghanistan was known as Ariana or Bactria. Bactria was inhabited from roughly 2000 B.C. to 1000 B.C. by fire-worshiping agricultural tribes. After the death of Alexander, Central Asia broke up into a number of kingdoms ruled by ex-Greek generals and their descendants. One such kingdom was Bactria. It covered much of what is now Afghanistan and was centered in the Bactrian Plain in northern Afghanistan between the Hindu Kush and the Amu Darya (Oxus River) around the city of Bactria (present-day Balkh).

Bactria has at its height from around 200 B.C. to 150 B.C. It was located in a prosperous region and it grew rich from trade between Gandhara, the Middle East and Europe. In 185 B.C., the Bactrian king Demetrius marched over the Hindu Kush and claimed much of what is now Pakistan. Much of the artwork found at Bactrian sites came from places along the Silk Road. The stuff that was locally made often had influences from foreign cultures.

Under Menander, (155-130 B.C.) the Bactria spread into the Punjab, the Swat Valley and the Hazara district. Menander converted to Buddhism but that didn’t stop him from trying conquer the Ganges Valley, which ultimately was unsuccessful and brought about the decline and downfall of Bactria.

Andrew Lawler wrote in National Geographic, “Long a hub of trade flowing from east to west and north to south, Afghanistan is where caravans of bundled Chinese silk passed camels loaded with glass from ancient Rome. It's where classical Greek art fused with the sinuous sculpture of India.The storied city of Balkh at the foot of the central highlands is the legendary home of the great prophet Zoroaster, who lived here centuries before Alexander the Great arrived. And it was in this region that Buddhism was transformed into a vibrant world religion. [Source: Andrew Lawler, National Geographic, December 2004 <>]

In the third and second centuries B.C., the Parthians, a nomadic people speaking Indo-European languages, arrived on the Iranian Plateau. The Parthians established control in most of what is Iran as early as the middle of the third century B.C.; about 100 years later another Indo-European group from the north--the Kushans (a subgroup of the tribe called the Yuezhi by the Chinese)--entered Afghanistan and established an empire lasting almost four centuries. The Kushan Empire spread from the Kabul River Valley to defeat other Central Asian tribes that had previously conquered parts of the northern central Iranian Plateau once ruled by the Parthians. By the middle of the first century B.C., the Kushans' control stretched from the Indus Valley to the Gobi Desert and as far west as the central Iranian Plateau. [Source: Library of Congress, 1997]

“Nowhere is the past so evident as the remote valley of Bamian, northwest of Kabul at the edge of the Hindu Kush mountain range. A vast Buddhist community of devout monks and nuns thrived here in the early centuries a.d. Two giant Buddhas once towered over the valley and its sprawling monasteries, gleaming in gilt and bright paint, possibly gesturing with wooden arms and attracting pilgrims from as far away as China. Rain and snow and marauders robbed the Buddhas of their faces and arms, but they remained magnificent sentinels of the province until 2001, when the ruling Taliban blasted the Buddhas into dust, causing a global outcry.” <>

Kushan Empire

The Kushan Kingdom (135 B.C. to A.D. 375) was founded in the Bactria region of northern Afghanistan by Yuezhi nomads who migrated there from Xinjiang due to Han Dynasty campaigns. Once there, they displaced the Greco-Bactrian kingdom and expanded over the Hindu Kush mountains into today’s India and Pakistan. The Kushans controlled parts of Afghanistan and Iran, and in India the realm stretched from Purushapura (modern Peshawar, Pakistan) in the northwest, to Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh) in the east, and to Sanchi (Madhya Pradesh) in the south. For a short period, the kingdom reached still farther east, to Pataliputra. The Kushana Kingdom was the crucible of trade among the Indian, Persian, Chinese, and Roman empires and controlled a critical part of the legendary Silk Road. [Source: Library of Congress]

Originally nomadic horsemen, the Kushans were enamored with Greco-Roman culture and converted to Buddhism in the 1st century B.C. The Kushans were patrons of Gandharan art, a synthesis between Greek and Indian styles, and Sanskrit literature. They initiated a new era called Shaka in A.D. 78, and their calendar, which was formally recognized by India for civil purposes starting on March 22, 1957, is still in use.

The Kushans established what is regarded as the first Silk Road kingdom. Operating out of their winter capital of Pursapura, near Peshawar, and a summer capital in Gandhara, they extracted duties from caravans and traded a variety of goods and art work. The Kushans grew wealthy on trade between East and West— that included trade between China and Rome—and helped to spread Buddhism and Buddhist Culture throughout Asia.

Early in the second century A.D. under Kanishka, the most powerful of the Kushan rulers, the empire reached its greatest geographic and cultural breadth to become a center of literature and art. Kanishka extended Kushan control to the mouth of the Indus River on the Arabian Sea, into Kashmir, and into what is today the Chinese-controlled area north of Tibet. Kanishka was a patron of religion and the arts. It was during his reign that Mahayana Buddhism, imported to northern India earlier by the Mauryan emperor Ashoka (ca. 260-232 B.C.), reached its zenith in Central Asia.

When the Kushan Empire was at its peak in first three centuries after Christ, it ranked with Rome, China and Parthia as one of the great powers off the world. Ruling over an empire that stretched from the Oxus River in present-day Uzbekistan to the Ganges, the Kushans controlled most of the Ganges valley and an arc that extended through Afghanistan and Central Asia into Xinjiang. It was under their reign that trade routes developed between India, China, Persia, and Rome. Ultimately, however, the empire fragmented into many principalities and was replaced in North India by the resurgent Hindu Gupta Empire while its Afghan territories became tributary to the Persian Sassanid Empire. [Source: Akhilesh Pillalamarri, The National Interest, May 8, 2015]


The Yuezhi (Wade-Giles Yüeh-chih, also called Indo-Scyth) were ancient people who ruled in Bactria and India from about 128 B.C. to about B.C. 450 as the Kushin Empire. The Yuezhi are first mentioned in Chinese sources at the beginning of the 2nd century B.C. as nomads living in the western part of Gansu province, northwestern China. When Lao Shang (reigned c. 174–161 B.C.), ruler of the Xiongnu (a powerful people of North China), defeated them and killed their king, the main body of the Yuezhi moved westward into Sogdiana and Bactria, putting an end to Greek rule in both regions. [Source:]

The Yuezhi are described in some detail in Chinese historical accounts, in particular the 2nd–1st century B.C. “Records of the Great Historian,” or Shiji, by Sima Qian. One passage goes: The Yuezhi originally lived in the area between the Qilian or Heavenly Mountains and Dunhuang, but after they were defeated by the Xiongnu they moved far away to the west, beyond Dayuan, where they attacked and conquered the people of Daxia and set up the court of their king on the northern bank of the Gui River. A small number of their people who were unable to make the journey west sought refuge among the Qiang barbarians in the Southern Mountains, where they are known as the Lesser Yuezhi. [Source: Account of Dayuan", Shiji, 123]

The area between the Qilian Mountains and Dunhuang lies in the modern Chinese province of Gansu. However some scholars have argued that the mountains referred to are the Tian Shan, placing the original homeland of the Yuezhi 1,000 kilometers further west in the northern part of modern Xinjiang. The archaeologist Lin Meicun further argues that Dunhuang refers to a mountain in the Tian Shan named Dunhong, which is listed in the Classic of Mountains and Seas. [Source: Wikipedia]


Yuezhi and the Xiongnu

The Yuezhi, was related linguistically to the ancient nomadic Scythian peoples--who inhabited the steppes north and northeast of the Black Sea and the region east of the Aral Sea--and was therefore Indo-European. The other grouping was the Xiongnu, a nomadic people of uncertain origins. [Source: Robert L. Worden, Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

Although in the course of history other peoples displaced, or became intermingled with, the Yuezhi and the Xiongnu, their activities, conflicts, and internal and external relations established a pattern, with four principal themes, that continued almost unchanged--except for the conquest of Eurasia in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries--until the eighteenth century. First, among these four themes, there were constant fierce struggles involving neighboring tribes, engaged in frequently shifting alliances that did not always follow ethnic, racial, or linguistic lines. Second, during periods when China was united and strong, trade with Inner Asian peoples was allowed, and nomadic states either became vassals of the Chinese emperor, or they retreated beyond his reach into the northern steppes; conversely, when China appeared weak, raids were made into rich Chinese lands, sometimes resulting in retaliatory expeditions into Mongolia. Third, occasional, transitory consolidation--of all or of large portions of the region under the control of a conqueror or a coalition of similar tribes--took place; such temporary consolidations could result in a life-or- death struggle between major tribal groupings until one or the other was exterminated or was expelled from the region, or until they joined forces. Fourth, on several occasions, raids into northern China were so vast and successful that the victorious nomads settled in the conquered land, established dynasties, and eventually became absorbed--sinicized--by the more numerous Chinese. *

Within this pattern, the Xiongnu eventually expelled the Yuezhi, who were driven to the southwest to become the Kushans of Iranian, Afghan, and Indian history. In turn, the Xiongnu themselves later were driven west. Their descendants, or possibly another group, continued this westward migration, establishing the Hun Empire, in Central and Eastern Europe, that reached its zenith under Attila. *

The pattern was interrupted abruptly and dramatically late in the twelfth century and throughout the thirteenth century by Chinggis and his descendants. During the consolidation of Mongolia and some of the invasions of northern China, Chinggis created sophisticated military and political organizations, exceeding in skill, efficiency, and vigor the institutions of the most civilized nations of the time. Under him and his immediate successors, the Mongols conquered most of Eurasia. *

Xiongnu and the Yuezhi Exodus

The Xiongnu temporarily abandoned their interest in China and turned their attention westward to the region of the Altai Mountains and Lake Balkash, inhabited by the Yuezhi), an Indo-European-speaking nomadic people who had relocated from China's present-day Gansu Province as a result of their earlier defeat by the Xiongnu. Endemic warfare between these two nomadic peoples reached a climax in the latter part of the third century and the early decades of the second century B.C.; the Xiongnu were triumphant. The Yuezhi then migrated to the southwest where, early in the second century, they began to appear in the Oxus (the modern Amu Darya) Valley, to change the course of history in Bactria, Iran, and eventually India.*

Shortly before 174 B.C., led by one of Modu's tribal chiefs, the Xiongnu invaded Yuezhi territory in the Gansu region and achieved a crushing victory. Modu boasted in a letter (174 B.C.) to the Han emperor that due to "the excellence of his fighting men, and the strength of his horses, he has succeeded in wiping out the Yuezhi, slaughtering or forcing to submission every number of the tribe." The son of Modu, Laoshang Chanyu, subsequently killed the king of the Yuezhi and, in accordance with nomadic traditions, "made a drinking cup out of his skull." (Shiji 123. Watson 1961:231). [Source: Wikipedia +]

Following Chinese sources, a large part of the Yuezhi people therefore fell under the domination of the Xiongnu, and these may have been the ancestors of the Tocharian speakers attested in the 6th century CE. A very small group of Yuezhi fled south to the territory of the Proto-Tibetan Qiang and came to be known to the Chinese as the "Small Yuezhi". According to the Hanshu, they only numbered around 150 families. +

Finally, a large group of the Yuezhi fled from the Tarim Basin towards the Northwest, first settling in the Ili valley, immediately north of the Tian Shan mountains, where they confronted and defeated the Sai (Sakas or Scythians): "The Yuezhi attacked the king of the Sai who moved a considerable distance to the south and the Yuezhi then occupied his lands" (Han Shu 61 4B). The Sai undertook their own migration, which was to lead them as far as Kashmir, after travelling through a "Suspended Crossing" (probably the Khunjerab Pass between present-day Xinjiang and northern Pakistan). The Sakas ultimately established an Indo-Scythian kingdom in northern India. +

After 155 B.C., the Wusun, in alliance with the Xiongnu and out of revenge from an earlier conflict, managed to dislodge the Yuezhi, forcing them to move south. The Yuezhi crossed the neighbouring urban civilization of the Dayuan in Ferghana and settled on the northern bank of the Oxus, in the region of Transoxiana,in modern-day Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, just north of the Hellenistic Greco-Bactrian kingdom. The Greek city of Alexandria on the Oxus was apparently burnt to the ground by the Yuezhi around 145 B.C. +

Yuezhi Conquer Bactia

The Yuezhi were visited in Transoxiana by a Chinese mission, led by Zhang Qian in 126 B.C., that was seeking an offensive alliance with the Yuezhi to counter the Xiongnu threat to the north. The Yuezhi turned down the request, preferring to stay peacefully where they were rather than to seek revenge. Zhang Qian spent a year with the Yuezhi and in Bactria. He wrote in "the Great Yuezhi live 2,000 or 3,000 li (832–1,247 kilometers) west of Dayuan (Ferghana), north of the Gui (Oxus) river. They are bordered on the south by Daxia (Bactria), on the west by Anxi (Parthia), and on the north by Kangju (beyond the middle Jaxartes). They are a nation of nomads, moving from place to place with their herds, and their customs are like those of the Xiongnu. They have some 100,000 or 200,000 archer warriors." [Source: Shiji 123 <+>]

The Yuezhi were organized into five major tribes, each led by a yabgu, or tribal chief. Although they remained north of the Oxus for a while, they apparently obtained the submission of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom to the south of the Oxus. Describing the Greco-Bactrian kingdom after the conquest by Yuezhi, Zhang Qian wrote: "Daxia (Greco-Bactria) is located over 2,000 li southwest of Dayuan, south of the Gui (Oxus) river. Its people cultivate the land and have cities and houses. Their customs are like those of Ta-Yuan. 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) (modern Balkh) and has a market where all sorts of goods are bought and sold." <+>

On physical types and cultures of Central Asia in 126 B.C., Zhang Qian reported that "although the states from Dayuan west to Anxi (Parthia), speak rather different languages, their customs are generally similar and their languages mutually intelligible. The men have deep-set eyes and profuse beards and whiskers. They are skilful at commerce and will haggle over a fraction of a cent. Women are held in great respect, and the men make decisions on the advice of their women." <+>

In 124 B.C., the Yuezhi were apparently involved in a war against the Parthians. Some time after that the Yuezhi moved south to Bactria, which was conquered by Alexander the Great in 330 B.C. and settled by his Greek-Persian successors, the Seleucids. The Greek historian Strabo recorded this event, mistaking the Yuezhi for a Scythian tribe. "Most of the Scythians, beginning from the Caspian Sea, are called Dahae Scythae, and those situated more towards the east Massagetae and Sacae; the rest have the common appellation of Scythians, but each separate 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." [Source: Strabo, 11-8-1]

The last Greco-Bactrian king, Heliocles I, retreated and moved his capital to the Kabul Valley. The eastern part of Bactria was occupied by Pashtun people. As they settled in Bactria from around 125 B.C., the Yuezhi became Hellenized to some degree, as suggested by their adoption of the Greek alphabet and by some remaining coins, minted in the style of the Greco-Bactrian kings, with the text in Greek. The area of Bactria they settled came to be known as Tokharistan, since the Yuezhi were called Tókharoi by the Greeks. [Source: Wikipedia]

Xiongnu, Kushans and Chinese

In time the Yuezhi made peace with the Xiongnu, Saka and Sogdians. Their descendants, the Kushans, converted to Buddhism in the 1st century B.C. and established a kingdom that embraced parts of Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and Central Asia. When Kushan was its peak in first three centuries after Christ, it ranked with Rome, China and Parthia as one of the great powers of the world.

Commercial relations with China also flourished, as many Chinese missions were sent throughout the 1st century B.C.: "The largest of these embassies to foreign states numbered several hundred persons, while even the smaller parties included over 100 members ... In the course of one year anywhere from five to six to over ten parties would be sent out." The Hou Hanshu also records the visit of Yuezhi envoys to the Chinese capital in 2 B.C., who gave oral teachings on Buddhist sutras to a student, suggesting that some Yuezhi already followed the Buddhist faith during the 1st century B.C. [Sources” Shiji, trans. Burton Watson; Baldev Kumar 1973]

A later Chinese annotation in Shiji made by Zhang Shoujie during the early 8th century, quoting Wan Zhen's “Strange Things from the Southern Region”, a now-lost third-century text of from the Wu kingdom, describes the Kushans as living in the same general area north of India, in cities of Greco-Roman style, and with sophisticated handicraft. "The Great Yuezhi [Kushans] is located about seven thousand li (about 3000 km) north of India. Their land is at a high altitude; the climate is dry; the region is remote. The king of the state calls himself "son of heaven". There are so many riding horses in that country that the number often reaches several hundred thousand. City layouts and palaces are quite similar to those of Daqin (the Roman empire). The skin of the people there is reddish white. People are skilful at horse archery. Local products, rarities, treasures, clothing, and upholstery are very good, and even India cannot compare with it." The quotes are dubious, as Wan Zhen probably never visited the Yuezhi kingdom through the Silk Road, though he might have gathered his information from the trading ports in the coastal south. [Source: Wikipedia]

Buddhism and the Kushans

When the Kushans became powerful they showed a great tolerance towards religion, particularly Buddhism, which prospered during their rule. Kanishka, who reigned for two decades starting around A.D. 78, was the most noteworthy Kushana ruler. He converted to Buddhism and convened a great Buddhist council in Kashmir. The first Chinese Buddhist art and the famous Bamiyan statues destroyed by the Taliban were made during this era.

Akhilesh Pillalamarri wrote in The National Interest: "Under the influence of the Kushans, who eventually moved their capitals to Peshawar (in Pakistan) and Mathura (in India), Indian influence, especially Buddhism, became predominant across Central Asia. This tendency reached its height under the Emperor Kanishka (127-151 C.E.) who convened the 4th Buddhist Council—essentially converting Buddhism into a state religion; Kanishka also expanded his empire deep into central India." [Source: Akhilesh Pillalamarri, The National Interest, May 8, 2015]

The Kushans rulers appear to have been Zoroastrians but they had a great many Buddhist subjects. Buddhism reached its peak in the region under King Kanishka in the A.D. 2nd century. Under him Pakistan and Afghanistan became a cradle of Mahayana Buddhism. Numerous stupas and monasteries were built in Gandhara. Attracting pilgrims from as far away as China, they were decorated with statues of Buddha and bodhisattvas and scenes from the life of the historical Buddha and his previous lives. As Mahayana Buddhism developed, Buddha himself became the object of worship.

The Swat Valley was a major center of Tantric Buddhism. Many tantras (manuals for mystical acts) were developed here. From Gandhara Buddhism was carried by traders and pilgrims along the Silk Road into China, Tibet and Central Asia. Buddhist engravings dating back to these period can be seen on rock faces along the Karakoram Highway. Buddhism took hold in the Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan where it remained strong until the A.D. 10th century.

Kushan art was a unique fusion of Indian, Central Asian, Buddhist and Greco-Roman styles. Particularly noteworthy were the representations of Buddha in the human form. The most famous of these is the famous Fasting Buddha—with its exposed rib cage, skeletal limbs and emaciated features—from Taxila. Earlier Indian styles represented Buddha in the forms of symbols such as a lotus, a tree, a footprint, a wheel or a stupa. Some Gandharan Buddhas have Western features.

Buddhism Spreads from India to Central Asia

Perry Garfinkel wrote in National Geographic: “As Buddhism migrated out of India, it took three routes. To the south, monks brought it by land and sea to Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. To the north, they spread the word across Central Asia and along the Silk Road into China, from where it eventually made its way to Korea and Japan. A later wave took Buddhism over the Himalaya to Tibet. In all the countries, local customs and cosmologies were integrated with the Buddhist basics: the magic and masks of demon-fighting lamas in Tibet, the austerity of a Zen monk sitting still as a rock in a perfectly raked Japanese garden. Over centuries Buddhism developed an inclusive style, one reason it has endured so long and in such different cultures. People sometimes compare Buddhism to water: It is still, clear, transparent, and it takes the form and color of the vase into which it's poured.” [Source: Perry Garfinkel, National Geographic, December 2005]

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: ““In the first centuryA.D., the Kushans, nomadic warriors from Central Asia, conquered the ancient Gandharan region (which includes parts of modern Pakistan and Afghanistan) and much of northern India. Different styles of art emerged from the two Kushan capitals, one in the Peshawar area of Gandhara and the other at Mathura further southeast in India. The Gandharan style adapted forms from late Hellenistic and Roman art, perhaps a legacy of Alexander the Great’s successors in the area, but largely because the major trade routes from the Roman Empire to India and China passed through the region, bringing peoples and ideas from the West. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

The Chinese monk Fa-hsien ventured as far west as India around A.D. 400 to study Buddhism. He traveled from Xian to the west overland and cross into India over Himalayan passes and sailed back to China on route that took him through present-day Indonesia. The the spread of Buddhism—a peaceful process in itself—periodically met with hostility. In China, in A.D. 842, the Tang Emperor Wuzong began to persecute foreign religions. Some 4,600 Buddhist monasteries were annihilated, priceless works of art were destroyed, and about 260,000 monks and nuns were forced to return to lay life.

Tillya Tepe

Tillya Tepe (“Golden Hill”)—in northern Afghanistan near the large village of Sheberghan, about 50 miles from the Turkmenistan border —is one of the oldest archeological sites in Central Asia. A 3300-year-old temple for fire worship was found there. It contained a double line of columns around a mud-brick altar covered with ashes. After that the region was quiet for a few hundred years and then dominated by a succession of empires include the Persians of the Achaemenid period, the Greeks, the nomadic Kushans and the eastern Scythians. Zoroastrianism began in Afghanistan in the 6th century B.C. The most significant finds at Tillya Tepe are from around 200 B.C. to A.D. 200. Local people had forgotten how the hill got it name intil a “golden hoard” was found there.

According to Metropolitan Museum of Art: Nomads from the Eurasian steppes overran northern Afghanistan around 145 B.C., bringing an end to the Greco-Bactrian kingdoms that had flourished there. The first evidence of this nomadic presence in the region was found at Tillya Tepe, or "hill of gold." In 1978, a Soviet-Afghan team of archaeologists made an extraordinary discovery: the cemetery of a nomadic family buried in the first century A.D. The graves revealed a stunning treasure of some twenty thousand gold objects, consisting of jewelry and luxury items including ceremonial weapons and appliqués. Most of them were inlaid with an astonishing range of materials, available to the local artists, particularly semiprecious stones such as turquoise from Iran, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan and Tajikistan, garnets and amethysts from India, and Baltic amber. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York ><]

The finds at Tillya Tepe revealed a nomadic culture that was very refined and eclectic. The nomads retained their own imagery—the "animal style" of the steppes—but they also absorbed different elements from works of art traveling along the Silk Road, resulting in a synthesis and reinterpretation of Hellenistic, Indian, Chinese, and nomadic traditions. Typical of nomadic burials, the graves at Tillya Tepe were dug into an earthen mound. In the Eurasian steppes, funeral mounds, or kurgans, were man-made constructions of overwhelming size, erected with a huge amount of the sod of grazing lands. In Tillya Tepe, however, the nomads reused an existing "hill," which was actually the earth-covered remains of a fortified mud-brick temple of earlier antiquity. The most important person, the chieftain in tomb IV, was interred at the highest point in the center of the mound, and the female burials were arranged roughly in a circle around him. The deceased were interred in lidless coffins that were wrapped with burial shrouds and placed in simple trenches covered by timber planks and earth. ><

No evidence survives to suggest how the people buried at Tillya Tepe died. Perhaps they were victims of sickness or the harsh Afghan environment. It is also possible that the women were sacrificed upon the death of the chieftain. According to Herodotos' description of the burial practices of Scythian nomads, a man did not go alone into the hereafter, but was accompanied by members of his household. Archaeological evidence from nomadic graves scattered from Ukraine to Siberia complements this account, attesting to impressive burials filled with gold adornments, weapons, symbols of high status, and provisions, servants, grooms, and horses to accompany the deceased into the eternal pastures. ><

Golden Hoard of Bactria

"Golden Hoard of Bactria" refers to an astonishing collection of about 100 artifacts — totaling more than 22,000 pieces of gold, some smaller than a teardrop — found at Tillya Tepe. Regarded as one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the 20th century, the pieces date back about 2,000 years and were discovered in 1978 by Russian archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi while he was excavating the burial site of a nomadic royal and five of his wives in Tillya Tepe.

The "Golden Hoard of Bactria" was presented to the Kabul Museum and displayed in 1980 and 1991 before disappearing from view. Thought to have been lost or stolen or melted down during years of civil war and turmoil, in 2004 the treasure was dramatically revealed to be intact, hidden away in a secure bank vault.

The Bactrian pieces were excavated in 1978-79 from the graves of six wealthy nomads believed to be Saka tribesmen from Central Asia or the Yuezhi from northwest China. Five of the graves were occupied by five women, initially said to be Kushan princesses. The other belonged to a man. Soviet archeologist decided to excavate the area after some local farmers found field mice burrows filled with gold platelets. [Source: Viktor Ivanovich Sarianidi, National Geographic March 1990] ▪ The discovery was called Bactrian Gold even though it came from the Kushans. The find was extraordinary. It was compared with the discovery of King Tut’s tomb. It gave archeologists great insight into trade networks and civilizations of that time. Unfortunately, the find was made at the around the time the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Two unexcavated tombs were looted and their contents showed up on the world market.

Roger Atwood wrote in National Geographic, “The hoard tells a uniquely Afghan story of how nomads rode off the Central Asian steppes around the time of Christ, crossed the Amu Darya River, and created a civilization whose art reflects an amalgam of East and West, transience and settled life. From the wilds of Siberia come the animals, such as a bear depicted on a knife handle, dancing and holding a grapevine in its mouth. Greek and Hindu influences merge in a golden Aphrodite with wings and an Indian-style circle on her forehead. Many objects show a strikingly Western naturalism, such as a ram sculpted in gold that decorated a nomad nobleman's headdress. Only under a magnifying glass can the masterpiece's splendid workmanship be fully appreciated. And a delicate, golden crown tells of a refined culture that had not given up its steppes roots. The crown can be disassembled into six pieces for easy transport, perhaps in a leather satchel on a two-humped Bactrian camel - a perfect accessory for a nomadic princess. [Source: Roger Atwood, National Geographic, June 2008]

Bactrian Gold Objects

Most of the gold pieces from were made of thins sheets of hammered gold with semiprecious stones and were dated to around 2,000 years ago. Some of the craftsmanship was extraordinary. Sheets of gold wore formed into beads. Gold grains were meticulously soldered onto hemispheres that joined beads. Analysis of the gold found that some of it came from local rivers.

Among the golden artifacts were golden hair pendants, a realistic-looking Greco-Bactrian ibex once part of a ceremonial diadem; a necklace with hollow gold and black-painted ivory; hundreds of gold bangles; gold jewelry; hundreds of tiny discs and platelets sewn into clothing; Chinese-style gold buckles with inlaid turquoise; fluted shell-like dishes; and a lidded gold jar decorated with pomegranate images.

A collapsible gold crown was composed of a gold mainframe with hundreds of thin gold disks dangling from it. The main frame came apart into six pieces—five elaborate palmettes, which fit into a slotted headband. The crown was found in the grave presumed to belong to a princess. It was designed to be assembled and taken apart easily for nomads on the move.

Many works had clear Greco-Roman influences. A gold clasp featured cupids and dolphins inset with pearls. This piece clearly showed foreign influence. Bactria was located in a landlocked desert about a thousand miles from the nearest dolphin. There was also a small Aphrodite pendant with wings (a Bactrian tradition) and forehead mark (an Indian tradition) and a clasp with Dionysus fondling Ariadne on a chimera with a drunkard extending a cup. Other pieces had Scythian beasts.

Some of the pieces featured gods and dragons and encrusted with semiprecious stones, A warrior belt featured gold medallions connected by braided gold. Each medallion contained an exquisitely-crafted image of a goddess riding on a snarling lion. The images are similar those found on Scythian gold objects. It was found on a warrior wearing Greco-Roman-style armor and a Macedonian-style helmet, a gold dagger with turquoise inlays and images of dragons and beasts.

Richard Covington wrote in Smithsonian Magazine, “The 2,000-year-old artifacts exhibit a rare blend of aesthetic influences (from Persian to Classical Greek and Roman) and a high level of craftsmanship. The diadem, a five-inch-tall crown of hammered gold leaf, conveniently folds for travel, and a thumb-size gold figure of a mountain sheep is delicately incised with curving horns and flaring nostrils. [Source: Richard Covington, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2008]

Discovery of the Bactrian Gold

Viktor Sarianidi, the Moscow archaeologist who led the joint Soviet-Afghan team that uncovered the graves in 1978-79, compares the impact of the find to the 1922 discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb. "The gold of Bactria shook the world of archaeology," he wrote. "Nowhere in antiquity have so many different objects from so many different cultures—Chinese-inspired boot buckles, Roman coins, daggers in a Siberian style—been found together in situ." [Source: Richard Covington, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2008 /*\]

Richard Covington wrote in Smithsonian Magazine, “Sarianidi first came to the Bactrian plain in 1969 to search for traces of the Silk Road. After excavating ruins of a first-century A.D. city there, he stumbled across, and soon began uncovering, an Iron Age temple used for fire worship that dated from 1500 to 1300 B.C. While carting away earth from the temple mound in November 1978, a worker spied a small gold disk in the ground. After inspecting it, Sarianidi dug deeper, slowly revealing a skull and skeleton surrounded by gold jewelry and ornaments—the remains of a woman, 25 to 30 years old, whom he called a nomadic princess. He subsequently found and excavated five additional graves, all simple trenches containing lidless wooden coffins holding the remains of once ornately attired bodies. Over the next three months, he cleaned and inventoried more than 20,000 individual items, including hundreds of gold spangles, each about the size of a fingernail. /*\

“In late 1978, just before the outbreak of widespread civil war in Afghanistan, armed tribesmen began threatening the dig. By February 1979, the political situation and the impending onset of winter caused Sarianidi to abandon the site before he could excavate a seventh grave; it would later be stripped by looters. Sarianidi crated up the artifacts he had found at the site and brought them to the National Museum in Kabul, where they remained until their removal to the bank vault in 1989.” /*\

Contents of the Bactrian Gold Graves

Richard Covington wrote in Smithsonian Magazine, “In the grave of a chieftain—the only male found at the site—Sarianidi's team uncovered turquoise-studded daggers and sheaths and a braided gold belt with raised medallions that bear the image, some say, of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, riding sidesaddle on a panther. (Others speculate it's the Bactrian goddess Nana seated on a lion.) Near the chieftain's rib cage, excavators found an Indian medallion that, according to Véronique Schiltz, a French archaeologist with the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, bears one of the earliest representations of Buddha. The man had been buried with his head resting on a gold plate on a silk cushion. Around him lay two bows, a long sword, a leather folding stool and the skull and bones of a horse. [Source: Richard Covington, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2008 /*\]

“In a nearby grave, the archaeological team found the remains of a woman in her 30s wearing signet rings with images of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, and a pair of matching jeweled pendants with gold figures grasping S-shaped dragons, as if to tame them. Another grave, that of a teenage girl, contained thin gold shoe soles (meant, says Hiebert, for the afterlife), along with a Roman coin minted in the early first century a.d. in Gallic Lugdunum (present-day Lyon, France). Schiltz says the coin probably came to southern India by sea before ending up with the woman through trade or as booty. Schiltz also speculates that the nomads had migrated south from Central Asia or China and ended up plundering the Greco-Bactrian cities. The opulent jewelry that accompanied their burials, she says, indicates that the group belonged to a ruling family. The graves apparently survived intact because they were well concealed in the ruins of the Iron Age temple. /*\

“Archaeological evidence about nomadic groups is rare, for obvious reasons. The Tillya Tepe graves contained the first examples of nomadic art to be found in Afghanistan. Initially Hiebert thought the nomads had acquired the artifacts by "cherry-picking the Silk Road," he says. But after inventorying the objects, he was persuaded by their similarities that they all came from a single local workshop. "That meant that these nomads took iconography from Greece, Rome, China, India, even as far away as Siberia, and put it together into their own unique and highly refined art style," he says. "They were creators, not merely collectors." He suspects that the workshop lies buried near the tombs.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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