Fifty-thousand-old artifacts have been found in Afghan caves. A 22,000-year-old stone head was unearthed by archeologist at Aq Kupruk. Tribes related to modern Afghans have been living in the region for many generations. Five-thousand-year -old villages have been excavated by archeologists.

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. A 3200-year-old temple for fire worship was found at a site called Tillya Tepe. 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 that include the Persians of the Achaemenid period, the Greeks, the Kushans and the eastern Scythians. Zoroastrianism is thought to have originated in Afghanistan in the 6th century B.C.

Archaeological exploration began in Afghanistan in earnest after World War II and proceeded promisingly until the Soviet invasion disrupted it in December of 1979. Artifacts typical of the Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron ages were found. It is not yet clear, however, to what extent these periods were contemporaneous with similar stages of development in other geographic regions. The area that is now Afghanistan seems in prehistory — as well as ancient and modern times — to have been closely connected by culture and trade with the neighboring regions to the east, west, and north. Urban civilization in the Iranian plateau, which includes most of Iran and Afghanistan, began between 3000 to 2000 B.C. About the middle of the second millennium B.C. people speaking an Indo-European language may have entered the eastern part of the Iranian Plateau, but little is known about the area until the middle of the first millennium B.C., when its history began to be recorded during the Achaemenid Empire, which controlled the region from 550 B.C. until 331 B.C. [Source: Library of Congress, 1997 *]

Between 330 and 327 B.C., Alexander the Great defeatedthe Achaemenian emperor Darius III and subdued local resistance in the territory that is now Afghanistan. Alexander’s successors, the Seleucids, continued to infuse the region with Greek cultural influence. Shortly thereafter, the Mauryan Empire of India gained control of southern Afghanistan, bringing with it Buddhism. In the mid-third century B.C., nomadic Kushans established an empire that became a cultural and commercial center. From the end of the Kushan Empire in the third century A.D. until the seventh century, the region was fragmented and under the general protection of the Iranian Sassanian Empire. [Source: Library of Congress, August 2008 **]

Early History, See India, See Pathans, Pakistan Minorities

Early Persians in Afghanistan

Cyrus the Great extended the Achaemenid Persian empire into Afghanistan in the 6th century B.C. after conquering Herat. The area that is present-day Afghanistan comprised several satrapies (provinces) of the Achaemenid Empire when it was at its most extensive, under Darius the Great (ca. 500 B.C.). Bactriana, with its capital at Bactria (which later became Balkh), was reputedly the home of Zoroaster, who founded the religion that bears his name. [Source: Library of Congress, 1997 *]

By the fourth century B.C., Iranian control of outlying areas and the internal cohesion of the empire had become tenuous. Although outlying areas like Bactriana had always been restless under Achaemenid rule, Bactrian troops nevertheless fought on the Iranian side in the decisive Battle of Gaugamela (330 B.C.). They were defeated by Alexander the Great. *

Alexander the Great and the Greeks in Afghanistan

In 330-325 B.C., Alexander the Great armies marched though present-day Afghanistan, crossed the Indus and entered India briefly before following the Indus across Pakistan to the Arabian Sea and then making their way back to the Middle East.

It took Alexander only three years (from about 330-327 B.C.) to subdue the area that is now Afghanistan and the adjacent regions of the former Soviet Union. Moving eastward from the area of Herat, the Macedonian leader encountered fierce resistance from local rulers of what had been Iranian satraps. Although his expedition through Afghanistan was brief, he left behind a Hellenic cultural influence that lasted several centuries. [Source: Library of Congress, 1997 *]

Upon Alexander's death in 323 B.C., his empire, which had never been politically consolidated, broke apart. His cavalry commander, Seleucus, took nominal control of the eastern lands and founded the Seleucid dynasty. Under the Seleucids, as under Alexander, Greek colonists and soldiers entered the region of the Hindu Kush, and many are believed to have remained. At the same time, the Mauryan Empire was developing in the northern part of the Indian subcontinent. It took control, thirty years after Alexander's death, of the southeasternmost areas of the Seleucid domains, including parts of present-day Afghanistan. The Mauryans introduced Indian culture, including Buddhism, to the area. With the Seleucids on one side and the Mauryans on the other, the people of the Hindu Kush were in what would become a familiar quandary in ancient as well as modern history — that is, caught between two empires. *


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).

In the middle of the third century B.C., an independent, Greek-ruled state was declared in Bactria. Graeco-Bactrian rule spread until it included most of the territory from the Iranian deserts to the Ganges River and from Central Asia to the Arabian Sea by about 170 B.C. Graeco-Bactrian rule was eventually defeated by a combination of the internecine disputes that plagued Greek rulers to the west, the ambitious attempts to extend control into northern India, and the pressure of two groups of nomadic invaders from Central Asia — the Parthians and Sakas (perhaps the Scythians). *

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. Locally-made crafts often had influences from foreign cultures.

Under Menander, (155-130 B.C.) 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.

Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World

Boyd Tonkin wrote in The Independent, “Five centimetres tall, the golden "Aphrodite of Bactria" rests a bangled hand on an ultra-curvy hip, Bollywood style. Below, her Greek gown swirls, and wings sprout from Olympian shoulders. It's Classical civilisation, but not quite as we know it: on her forehead is a prominent Indian bindi mark. Near her, on glass goblets painted in riotous blues and yellows, nymphs and swains gather in the vintage, but with palm fronds in the background of their idyll: grapes or dates. [Source: Boyd Tonkin, The Independent, March 6, 2011 ^^^]

“A plaster-cast medallion, a smug pretty-boy ties his long hair back in a band with a show-off seductiveness that might have shocked Mediterranean fans of cropped warrior youths. An Indian ivory nymph boasts a beyond-hourglass figure and fails to hide it, not with a dhoti but diaphanous Greek drapery. And the shimmering gold crown of a nomad princess turns out to be a fold-away marvel made of five detachable sections: portable bling by an antique Ikea. On her chest, for the journey to the otherworld, this wandering diva bore a Chinese mirror. Where are we, as so many strands of East and West entwine? In Afghanistan, two millennia ago. ^^^

“Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World”, a British Museum exhibition in 2011, highlighted finds from four sites in northern Afghanistan excavated between the 1930s and 1970s. In this region, the multiple paths of the Silk Road crisscrossed as they snaked between China and the Med. Forlorn, barren, windswept wilderness? Forget it. Two thousand years ago, this patch was a multicultural hub. In the first century AD, you might serve meals from the same ribbed-glass bowl in Bath as in Begram, north of Kabul.

The outlier cache here originates in Tepe Fullol, a Bronze Age burial hoard of golden goods dated to 2000BC. These sumptuous fragments tell not of desert isolation but a network of trade from Mesopotamia to India. The other three movements of this cosmopolitan quartet range in time from the third century BC to the first AD. At Aï Khanum a Hellenistic city flourished, one of many founded in Bactria by Alexander the Great's troops. Here, a year's march from the heartland, bearded stone sages preside over the mind-and-body "gymnasium" and bronze Heracles swings his club. Yet a gilded plate fuses Greek and Asian motifs: hey, we're not in Macedonia any more. ^^^

“Aï Khanum fell in 145 B.C. to nomad tribes. If you had the scary horsemen marked down as barbarians, think again. Two treasure-packed storerooms found intact at Begram prove that, 2,000 years ago, the Kushan dynasty had not only settled down and grown rich, but forged trade links with every chic supplier of luxury items from China to Rome. Was this a palace or – as now seems more likely – a high-value bonded warehouse? Whatever: enjoy the Roman-Egyptian glass, the sturdy Greek bronze figures, and the frisky Indian maidens semi-nude on ivory plaques. In a medallion of Eros and Psyche, the infant love-god seems to struggle free of his setting. ^^^

“We end in a fabulous shower of gold. But the six nomad tombs of Tillya Tepe (around AD50) astonish most not by weight of carats but their workmanship. Others will swoon over that five-part turquoise-inlaid crown. I left haunted by the transfixing gaze of a little horned ram, a headdress ornament, every detail of his wool, muzzle and muscles picked out. Our hyper-alert ram matches no known imported style. He belongs to Afghanistan.” ^^^

Kushans in Afghanistan

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. [Source: Library of Congress, 1997 *]

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. *

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.*

Sassanians and White Huns in Afghanistan

In the third century A.D., Kushan control fragmented into semi-independent kingdoms that became easy targets for conquest by the rising Iranian dynasty, the Sassanians (ca. 224-561 A.D.). These small kingdoms were pressed by both the Sassanians from the west and by the growing strength of the Guptas, an Indian dynasty established at the beginning of the fourth century. [Source: Library of Congress, 1997 *]

The disunited Kushan and Sassanian kingdoms were in a poor position to meet the threat of a new wave of nomadic, Indo-European invaders from the north. The Hepthalites (or White Huns) swept out of Central Asia around the fourth century into Bactria and to the south, overwhelming the last of the Kushan and Sassanian kingdoms. Historians believe that their control continued for a century and was marked by constant warfare with the Sassanians to the west.*

By the middle of the sixth century the Hepthalites were defeated in the territories north of the Amu Darya (the Oxus River of antiquity) by another group of Central Asian nomads, the Western Turks, and by the resurgent Sassanians in the lands south of the Amu Darya. Up until the advent of Islam, the lands of the Hindu Kush were dominated up to the Amu Darya by small kingdoms under Sassanian control but with local rulers who were Kushans or Hepthalites.*

Of this great Buddhist culture and earlier Zoroastrian influence there remain few, if any, traces in the life of Afghan people today. Along ancient trade routes, however, stone monuments of Buddhist culture exist as reminders of the past. The two great sandstone Buddhas, thirty-five and fifty-three meters high overlook the ancient route through Bamian to Balkh and date from the third and fifth centuries A.D. In this and other key places in Afghanistan, archaeologists have located frescoes, stucco decorations, statuary, and rare objects from China, Phoenicia, and Rome crafted as early as the second century A.D. that bear witness to the influence of these ancient civilizations on the arts 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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