Recorded history in Central Asia begins around the 6th century B.C. when large parts of Central Asia were part of the Persian Achaemenid Empire. Achaemenid territory in Central Asia was broken down into three subservient kingdoms beyond the Amu Darya river: 1) Sogdiana, between the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers in what is now eastern Uzbekistan; 2) Khorzem, between the Aral Sea and the Amu Darya river in what is now western Uzbekistan; and 3) Saka, in the steppes, high plateaus and mountain and what is now Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

The first people known to have occupied Central Asia were Iranian nomads who arrived from the northern grasslands of what is now Uzbekistan sometime in the first millennium B.C. These nomads, who spoke Iranian dialects, settled in Central Asia and began to build an extensive irrigation system along the rivers of the region. At this time, cities such as Bukhara (Bukhara) and Samarqand (Samarkand) began to appear as centers of government and culture. By the fifth century B.C., the Bactrian, Soghdian, and Tokharian states dominated the region. As China began to develop its silk trade with the West, Iranian cities took advantage of this commerce by becoming centers of trade. Using an extensive network of cities and settlements in the province of Mawarannahr (a name given the region after the Arab conquest) in Uzbekistan and farther east in what is today China's Xinjiang Uygur Auton-omous Region, the Soghdian intermediaries became the wealthiest of these Iranian merchants. Because of this trade on what became known as the Silk Route, Bukhara and Samarqand eventually became extremely wealthy cities, and at times Mawarannahr was one of the most influential and powerful Persian provinces of antiquity. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

In the wake of the military expeditions of Cyrus II in the middle of the sixth century BC, the central and southern regions of Central Asia became part of the Achaemenid Empire. Eventually, military defeats sustained by Darius III at the hands of Alexander the Great quickly led to the disintegration of the Achaemenid Empire. [Source: “Tajikistan” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

The wealth of Mawarannahr was a constant magnet for invasions from the northern steppes and from China. Numerous intraregional wars were fought between Soghdian states and the other states in Mawarannahr, and the Persians and the Chinese were in perpetual conflict over the region. Alexander the Great conquered the region in 328 B.C., bringing it briefly under the control of his Macedonian Empire. In the same centuries, however, the region also was an important center of intellectual life and religion. Until the first centuries after Christ, the dominant religion in the region was Zoroastrianism , but Buddhism, Manichaeism, and Christianity also attracted large numbers of followers.

In the Fifth century B.C.: Bactrian, Soghdian, and Tokharian states dominate area of present-day Uzbekistan, including cities of Bukhara (Bukhara) and Samarqand (Samarkand) and begin profit from trade on Silk Route. Province of Mawarannahr begins long period of prosperity in eastern Uzbekistan. In the fourth-third centuries B.C. Kyrgyz tribes invade northern China.

In 329 B.C., Alexander the Great captured Maracanda (Samarqand) in conquest of southern Central Asia from Persian Achamenid Empire. In the A.D. first century, the Han Dynasty of China trades with Soghdians and Bactrians of Central Asia. In the A.D. first to fourth centuries, Present-day Tajikistan ruled by Buddhist Kushans, who spread their faith to Soghdians. Around A.D. 500, feudal society emerges in present-day Kyrgyzstan.

The Achaemenid Empire same as Persian Empire. See Persia

Alexander the Great in Central Asia

Alexander the Great's victory over the Persians in the 330s B.C. in present-day Turkey and Iran opened up former Persian territories in Central Asia to Alexander's conquering armies. Upon capturing Samarkand in present-day in 329 B.C., Alexander the Great reportedly exclaimed, "Everything I have heard about the beauty of Samarkand is true except it is even more beautiful; than I could have imagined." Soon afterwards he declared himself a god.

Alexander married Roxana (Roshanak), the daughter of the most powerful of the Bactrian chiefs (Oxyartes, who revolted in present-day Tajikistan), and in 324 B.C. commanded his officers and 10,000 of his soldiers to marry Iranian women. The mass wedding, held at Susa, was a model of Alexander's desire to consummate the union of the Greek and Iranian peoples. These plans ended in 323 B.C., however, when Alexander was struck with fever and died in Babylon, leaving no heir. His empire was divided among four of his generals. Seleucus, one of these generals, who became ruler of Babylon in 312, gradually reconquered most of Iran. Under Seleucus's son, Antiochus I, many Greeks entered Iran, and Hellenistic motifs in art, architecture, and urban planning became prevalent. [Source: Library of Congress]

Alexander subjugated most of its eastern territories from 330 to 327 .BC. Perhaps the most lasting impacts of Alexander's conquests were: 1) the strengthening of trade routes between East and West that would later become the Silk Road; 2) the spreading of European culture and knowledge eastward; and 3) the spreading of Asian culture and knowledge westward. Of particular importance was the dissemination of Greek culture far into Asia, which in turn had an affect on government, art, literature and religion in places that had never heard of Greeks before.

The nomadic Turkic tribes that live in Central Asia today say that Alexander had two rams horns on the sides of his head and that is why he wore his hair long. Coins minted after his death show Alexander with horns. Later Muslims would call him Iskander Dhulcarnein — Alexander the two horn. In the Turkoman version of the story still told today only Alexander's barber knew his secret...and he just had to tell someone or something, so he whispered the secret into a well. Reeds began to grow in the well, but whenever someone cut one for a flute, it didn't make any music it only said "Alexander has two horns.

Alexander's Conquest's in Central Asia

After Darius' death rumors spread that the campaign was finished and Alexander was ready to head home. To squash these rumors Alexander called a meeting of his generals and told them, according to a 1st century Roman historian Curtius, "with tears in his eyes, complained he was being brought to a halt in the middle of a brilliant career." Alexander then headed into present day Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, where he encountered little resistance. By 329 B.C. he had reached present-day Kabul.

Alexander's goal in Central Asia was to capture Bessus, a Persian traitor and ruler of Bactria. After his men suffered from frostbite and severe hunger while crossing a 3,700-meter-high pass in the Hindu Kush in April, when mountains were still covered in snow, Alexander got his hands on Bessus, who was turned over by his allies. Besses was tied a post on the side of a road. After he was taunted and jeered, his ears and nose were cut off. After that he may have been dismembered but more likely he was crucified.

Central Asia was a major crossroad for Silk Road caravans. Hostels and caravansaries were set up every 17 miles, the distance a camel train covers every day. Alexander captured six cities including Samarkand (then called Maracanda) in three days. He set up a headquarters in Samarkand. Alexander established a number of garrison towns in western Asia and used them to house troops, encourage trade and defend conquered lands. Herat in Afghanistan is the only one of these towns that still remains today. It was known in Alexander's time as Areion.

Begram: Alexander’s City in Afghanistan

In 329 B.C., Alexander the Great is believed to have established the fortress city of Alexandria of the Caucasus in a lush river valley south of the Hindu Kush mountains about 50 miles north of Kabul. Now known as Begram, the city was an important trading center for the Greco-Bactrian kingdom from about 250 to 100 B.C. and continued to thrive under the Kushan Empire that arose in the A.D. first century. [Source: Richard Covington, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2008 /*]

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “The ancient city of Begram was partially excavated in the 1930s and 1940s by French archaeologists who uncovered a building with several rooms. Two of them—Rooms 10 and 13—had been sealed off in antiquity and contained a remarkable cache of works of art. Many had originated in distant parts of the world: glassware, bronzes, and porphyry from Roman Egypt; first-century lacquer bowls from China; and ivory furniture ornaments, made in India or locally carved. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York ]

The hoard dates to the rule of the Kushan dynasty (1st–3rd century A.D.), a royal line descended from nomads who first conquered the northern parts of Afghanistan before taking the territory south of the Hindu Kush and extending their empire to the Ganges valley in India. The Kushans are thought to be a branch of a people known in Chinese writings as the Yuezhi who were pushed out of their ancestral lands on China's northwestern frontier by another nomadic group, the Xiongnu in Chinese sources.One branch of the Yuezhi, the Guishuang, fled to Afghanistan where they encountered the Greek language and eventually changed their name to Kushan, the term by which they are known today.

Ever since its discovery, scholars have puzzled over the nature of the settlement at Begram. Some believed it to be a city founded by Alexander the Great or his successors in the fourth century B.C. (Alexandria ad Caucasum), which later became the summer capital of the Kushan dynasty. According to this view, the works of art constitute a treasure hoarded or assembled over time by Kushan rulers for their personal use. More recent studies have regarded Begram not as a royal city but as an important trading center on the northwestern edge of the Kushan Empire. In this view, the finds represent a splendid repository of trade goods, sealed off to protect valuable commodities awaiting further distribution along the Silk Road.

Begram is located near an American air base. Roger Atwood wrote in National Geographic, “The ancient city of Begram... 2,000 years ago this was the opulent summer capital of the great Kushan Empire, which stretched as far as northern India. Traders brought ivories and art from all corners of Asia. Courtiers stuffed themselves on local figs, pomegranates, and grapes against the majestic scrim of the snowy Hindu Kush. [Source: Roger Atwood, National Geographic, June 2008 ]

Art and Artifacts of Begram

Roger Atwood wrote in National Geographic, “When French archaeologists cut into the site in the late 1930s, they found a cache of luxury goods suggesting a vibrant, trade-based economy that flourished while Rome crumbled. Buried under layers of soil were bronze sculptures from Italy, lacquer boxes from China, plaster medallions of muscular Greek youths, and a group of exquisitely painted Egyptian glass vessels depicting, among other things, the Alexandria lighthouse, an African leopard hunt, and a scene from the Iliad. Most strikingly, the diggers found stacks upon stacks of carved ivory and bone sculptures, more than a thousand in all, featuring placidly smiling women and mythical river creatures associated with the art of India. Someone left this impossibly eclectic mix inside two rooms that, around A.D. 200, were bricked shut and abandoned. Dazzled by the find, archaeologists compared it to the discovery of King Tut's tomb 15 years earlier, believing it to be the remains of a royal residence. Researchers now think the structure may have been a warehouse for luxury goods being transported across Asia on the Silk Road or marketed to local elites.” [Source: Roger Atwood, National Geographic, June 2008]

Some of most pieces from Begram Highly prized in the ancient world, ivory—the tusks or teeth of animals such as the elephant or hippopotamus—was an elite material used to make luxury objects and to embellish furniture for royal palaces from the Mediterranean to Mesopotamia and Iran. In Hellenized Central Asia as well, ivory was used to carve exceptional pieces for the local aristocracy, such as a large hoard of ceremonial vessels from the Parthian court of Nysa, in modern Turkmenistan. The exquisite ivory furniture elements discovered at Begram provide another instance of the masterful use of this fragile material, easily damaged by changes in temperature and climate, and very rarely found intact in excavations. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York ]

Most of the Begram ivories depict voluptuous women relaxing, playing musical instruments, or hugging children in semi-enclosed spaces suggested by gateways, doors, and fences. The doors are often shown ajar, as if to invite the viewer to enter the private world within. Such imagery has suggested that the objects they once decorated were intended for the use of women rather than for a more general population. The lush figures of the women shown in the sculptures and plaques found at Begram parallel those found in contemporaneous Indian works, as does the clothing and jewelry. This led many scholars in the past to suggest that the ivories found at Begram may have been produced further south, in India, and traded to northern Afghanistan. Historical records in fact indicate that guilds of ivory carvers existed in India. However, it is also possible that the Begram ivories were produced by itinerant craftsmen or, as has been recently proposed, by local artists trained in a range of South Asian traditions.

Sanjyot Mehendale, a Near Eastern authority at the University of California at Berkeley, told Smithsonian magazine that Roman glass and bronze, Chinese lacquered boxes and hundreds of Indian-style ivory plaques and sculptures unearthed at Begram in 1937 and 1939 suggest that the city had been a major commodities juncture along the Silk Road. French archaeologists Joseph and Ria Hackin, who excavated the site, concluded that Begram was the summer residence of the Kushan emperors. Other archeologist say the two sealed rooms containing what the Hackins called "royal treasure" were actually a merchant's shop or warehouse. The glassware and bronze likely arrived by sea from Roman Egypt and Syria to ports near present-day Karachi, Pakistan, and Gujarat in western India, and were then transported overland by camel caravan. Artifacts from Begram include plaster medallions depicting Greek myths; ivory plaques recounting events from the life of Buddha; a chair adorned with carved ivory, mythical creatures of India; and fish-shaped flasks of blown colored glass. /*\

Central Asia After Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great’s empire collapsed shortly after his death and the territories that were conquered in Central Asia were ruled for a while by Alexander's successors in the region, the Syria-based Selucids. The Selucids didn't last long. After their empire collapsed Central Asia fell back into the hands of the Persians or local leaders. 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.

Although the Seleucids faced challenges from the Ptolemies of Egypt and from the growing power of Rome, the main threat came from the province of Fars (Partha to the Greeks). Arsaces (of the seminomadic Parni tribe), whose name was used by all subsequent Parthian kings, revolted against the Seleucid governor in 247 B.C. and established a dynasty, the Arsacids, or Parthians. During the second century, the Parthians were able to extend their rule to Bactria, Babylonia, Susiana, and Media, and, under Mithradates II (123-87 B.C.), Parthian conquests stretched from India to Armenia. After the victories of Mithradates II, the Parthians began to claim descent from both the Greeks and the Achaemenids. They spoke a language similar to that of the Achaemenids, used the Pahlavi script, and established an administrative system based on Achaemenid precedents. [Source: Library of Congress]

Meanwhile, Ardeshir, son of the priest Papak, who claimed descent from the legendary hero Sasan, had become the Parthian governor in the Achaemenid home province of Persis (Fars). In A.D. 224 he overthrew the last Parthian king and established the Sassanid dynasty, which was to last 400 years.

Ai Khanum: Afghanistan’s Ruined Greco-Roman City

Around 328 B.C. Bactria, a province of the Achaemenid Empire, was conquered by Alexander the Great and the region became the easternmost outpost of Hellenistic civilization in Asia. Here, in 300 B.C., Seleucus I, one of the Alexander's successors, founded Aï Khanum, a Greek colony that flourished under the local Greco-Bactrian rulers as a center where Hellenism and eastern traditions intermingled to create a distinctive art form. Aï Khanum was invaded and pillaged in 145 B.C. by nomadic peoples of the northeastern steppes, but its artistic legacy endured for centuries, influencing the arts of Central and South Asia until the Islamic conquest. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York ]

Aï Khanum was modeled on a Greek urban plan and was filled with the public buildings of a Greek city, such as a gymnasium for education and sports, a theatre, a fountain, and a library with Greek texts. Other structures derive from ancient Near Eastern traditions, such as the royal palace and the temples. The same melding of eastern and Hellenistic elements is found in the artistic production of the local workshops.

Richard Covington wrote in Smithsonian Magazine, “Founded around 300 B.C. by Seleucus I, a Macedonian general who won a power struggle to control the region following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C.”, Ai Khanum “became the eastern outpost of Greek culture in Asia. Its artifacts reflect Greek and Indian, as well as local, artistic traditions. Works... include a seven-inch-high bronze figure of Hercules and a gilded silver plaque that combines Greek and Persian elements. It depicts Cybele, the Greek goddess of nature, riding in a Persian-style chariot, shaded by a large parasol held by a priest.” [Source: Richard Covington,Smithsonian Magazine, September 2008 /*]

“Ai Khanum was also discovered by chance. While out hunting game in 1961 near the border with the then Soviet Tajik Republic (present-day Tajikistan), the last Afghan king, Zahir Shah, was presented with a carved chunk of limestone by local villagers. The king later showed the fragment to Daniel Schlumberger—then the director of a French archaeological expedition in Afghanistan—who recognized it as coming from a Corinthian, likely Greek, capital. In November 1964, Schlumberger led a team to Ai Khanum, where, after digging up shards bearing Greek letters, he began excavations that continued until the Soviet invasion in December 1979. /*\

“Shaped like a triangle, roughly a mile on each side, the city, which was strategically located at the junction of the Oxus and Kokcha rivers, was dominated by an acropolis situated on a flat-topped, 200-foot-high bluff. Its huge entry courtyard was surrounded by airy colonnades supported by 126 Corinthian columns. Beyond the courtyard lay reception halls, ceremonial rooms, private residences, a treasury, a large bathhouse, a temple and a theater. As in nearly every Greek city, there was a gymnasium, or school, and in it excavators found two sundials that appear to have been used to teach astronomy. Unusually, one of them was calibrated for the Indian astronomical center of Ujjain, at a latitude some 14 degrees south of Ai Khanum—an indication, says Paul Bernard, a member of the French excavation team, of scholarly exchanges among Greek and Indian astronomers. /*\

“Based on Indian works discovered at the site, Bernard believes that in the second century B.C., Ai Khanum became the Greco-Bactrian capital city Eucratidia, named for the expansionist king Eucratides, who likely brought the pieces back from India as spoils from his military campaigns there. After a century and a half as an outpost of Hellenistic culture in Afghanistan, the city came to a violent end. Eucratides was murdered in 145 B.C., apparently touching off a civil conflict that left the city vulnerable to marauding nomads, who burned and destroyed it the same year. Sadly, the archaeological site of Ai Khanum met a similar fate; it was looted and nearly obliterated during the years of Soviet occupation and civil strife in Afghanistan.” /*\

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.

Last updated April 2016

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