Academic journal article Journal of Asian Civilizations

From Northern Afghanistan to Xinjiang, Hellenistic Influences in the History of a Yuezhi-Kushan Burial

Academic journal article Journal of Asian Civilizations

From Northern Afghanistan to Xinjiang, Hellenistic Influences in the History of a Yuezhi-Kushan Burial

Article excerpt

I. The historical background of Tillya Tepe: the legacy of Alexander the Great in the Oxus region, and the city of Ai Khanoum until the Kushans (334 B.C- 1st century. A. D)

Although it is a well studied subject (Briant 2010: 156-157), it is still interesting to summarize the history of the events that preceded the formation of the Kushan dominions of Northern Afghanistan in the area of Tillya Tepe (fig. 1). I will concentrate here the attention on the Greek military and cultural penetration into a specific region of Central Asia: Bactria. The historical parenthesis that follows is used with the aim of explaining the Hellenistic influence clearly visible in the golden clasp from Tillya Tepe in the second chapter.

Concerning the history of Afghanistan, India and Central Asia more in general, an un-precedented event was the invasion of the Macedonian army of Alexander the Great into the dominions of the Persian Empire. In 334 B.C Alexander started war against Darius III Codomannus. With a series of brilliant, victorious and rapid military campaigns, the Macedonian general, son of Philip II, launched the first Western military expedition on such a grand scale in the vast and unknown territories of Central Asia, against the Achaemenid Empire. This enormous military enterprise arguably represented the first transcontinental conquest of the world, but it was also an exploration that arrived far beyond the lands known to the Greek geographers. On May 327 B.C. Alexander crossed the snowy peaks of the Hindu Kush and entered in the Indian Subcontinent (Torri 2007: 93). He defeated King Porus of India in the Battle of Jhelum, defined "among the most brilliant operations of ancient warfare" (Bosworth 1996: 6). After a mutiny of his veteran Macedonian troops, the army reached the river Hydaspes, a tributary affluent of the Indus. There, Alexander was forced to retire the whole army back to Babylon, where he died under unclear circumstances, but arguably of illness, in 323 B.C.

After the celebrated Alexander's expedition an enormous empire was formed. From Pella in Macedonia, the capital established by Alexander's father, to Egypt where the young general founded Alexandria at the delta of the Nile, to present day Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan till the Punjab (the region of the five rivers that includes the Indus), till the doors of India. After his unexpected death, the eastern part of the empire of Alexander the Great was divided and after the treaty that followed the battle of Ipsus in 304 B.C, Seleucus I Nicator became the ruler of a vast area from Babylon to the region of Bactria and the founder of the Seleucid Empire (Torri 2007: 93).

It should be noted that Hellenism was a truly important cultural phenomenon that introduced in Central Asia many aspects of the Greek culture, such as a greek system of writing, and most importantly, urban life in cities. In Central Asia, Alexander himself founded, on virgin territories of strategic importance, many polis with the first function of military garrisons flourishing. These outposts were also strategic for the spread of Hellenism. It was a period that, with the climax of the Greco Bactrian Kingdom, was characterized by multiculturalism for the Greeks-Macedonians and a multilingual environment for the local inhabitants of Central Asia (Frye 1996: 106).

The region of the Oxus, and the region of Bactria in particular (fig. 1), seems to be an important as well as an evocative place, situated between the Oxus River and the mountains of the Hindu Kush. As Frank L. Holt recently wrote, "like the Nile, the Oxus region had a potent influence on the imaginations [...] it was rumoured for example that rich deposits of gold lay unmolested along its banks, and that the actual descendants of Alexander the Great lived near its upper reaches" (Holt 2003: 27).

Bactria and the territories of the Amu Darya, (the current name for the river Oxus) have often been defined by specialists as the "Central Asiatic Mesopotamia"' (AA-VV 2005: 410-411). …

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