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Asia Society
Homeland Afghanistan

Geography and Destiny For centuries, scarce resources and difficult terrain have required people in the Hindu Kush region to develop unique solutions to survive. But while geography has brought challenges, it has also offered opportunities. In Afghanistan, geography is a multi-sided destiny.

Identity and Perception Local, tribal, and religious identities in the Hindu Kush region have always shifted depending on one’s point of view. As Afghanistan decides what it means to be Afghan, it faces a kaleidoscope of moving perspectives.

Tradition and Modernization Afghans have always had to be flexible. At times, this flexibility has brought people together, and at other times it has torn them apart. Reconciling tradition and modernization means making sense of what’s at stake when people change--and when they don’t.

Traces and Narratives History is not always written. Much of what we know about Afghanistan comes from scattered artifacts, symbols, and oral traditions. Understanding these traces means piecing together the narratives that history leaves behind.

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The Lost Civilization of the Oxus River

CIRCA 2000 BCE
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Traces & Narratives

Reveal Source

"Amulet." Digital image. The British Museum. Accessed August 11, 2010. http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database/search_object_details.aspx?objectId=129587&partId=1.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

"Amulet." Digital image. The British Museum. Accessed August 11, 2010. http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database/search_object_details.aspx?objectid=132311&partid=1&searchText=lapis+lazuli&fromADBC=ad&toADBC=ad&numpages=10&orig=/research/search_the_collection_database.aspx&currentPage=6. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

AudreyH. "Amu Darya River (Oxus)." Digital image. AudreyH's Flickr Photostream. Accessed August 10, 2010. http://www.flickr.com/photos/25393766@N00/2006442924/.
Creative Commons license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/deed.en

"Bronze Ceremonial Axe Head Inlaid with Silver." Digital image. The British Museum. Accessed August 11, 2010. http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/b/bronze_ceremonial_axe_head.aspx.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Dungodung. "The Great Giza Pyramids." Digital image. Dungodung's Flickr Photostream. Accessed August 10, 2010. http://www.flickr.com/photos/dungodung/2714816217/.
Creative Commons license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en

Fragment of a Bowl Depicting Bearded Bulls. 2008. Kabul Museum, Kabul, Afghanistan.

Jmcgall. "Ziggurat at Ur." Digital image. Jmcfall's Flickr Photostream. Accessed August 10, 2010. http://www.flickr.com/photos/jmcfall/46769923/.
Creative Commons license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/deed.en

Joepyrek. "Amudaryasunset." Digital image. Joepyrek's Flickr Photostream. Accessed August 10, 2010. http://www.flickr.com/photos/joepyrek/3879372758/in/set-72157622084600263/.
Creative Commons license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en

Kogo. "Indus near Skardu." Digital image. Wikipedia Commons. Accessed August 10, 2010. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Indus_near_Skardu.jpg.
Creative Commons license: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Commons:GNU_Free_Documentation_License

"Lapis Lazuli Stamp Seal." Digital image. British Museum. Accessed August 11, 2010. http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/l/lapis_lazuli_stamp_seal.aspx.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Levy, Michael, performer. "Echoes of Ancient Egypt." In An Ancient Lyre. 2009, MP3.
Sample of an improvisation on an ancient Egyptian scale.
© Michael Levy

Mahwash, performer. Delem Aamada Ba Josh. Radio-Television Afghanistan Archives.

Travelling Runes. "IMG_0790." Digital image. Travelling Runes' Flickr Photostream. Accessed August 11, 2010. http://www.flickr.com/photos/travellingrunes/2962033038/in/set-72157608274749991/.
Creative Commons license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en

Travelling Runes. "IMG_0791." Digital image. Travelling Runes' Flickr Photostream. Accessed August 10, 2010. http://www.flickr.com/photos/travellingrunes/2961190775/.
Creative Commons license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en

Travelling Runes. "IMG_0795." Digital image. Travelling Runes' Flickr Photostream. Accessed August 11, 2010. http://www.flickr.com/photos/travellingrunes/2961196689/.
Creative Commons license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en

Travelling Runes. "IMG_0803." Digital image. Travelling Runes' Flickr Photostream. Accessed August 10, 2010. http://www.flickr.com/photos/travellingrunes/2962054070/.
Creative Commons license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en

Travelling Runes. "IMG_0804." Digital image. Travelling Runes' Flickr Photostream. Accessed August 10, 2010. http://www.flickr.com/photos/travellingrunes/2962055564/.
Creative Commons license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en

Travelling Runes. "IMG_0807." Digital image. Travelling Runes' Flickr Photostream. http://www.flickr.com/photos/travellingrunes/2962060272/.
Creative Commons license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en


Producer: Alexis Menten

Reveal Transcript

Archeaologists have found evidence that East and West were already connected by trade thousands of years before the Silk Road.

One of the clues appears during the Bronze Age, when a new civilization developed in Central Asia. Although little is known for certain about the origins of this civilization, one thing is sure: it ended mysteriously…

The first real culture that we’re aware of in Afghanistan, is a Bronze Age culture in which there were actually settlements and a division of labor. 

This Bronze Age culture is known to archaeologists as the Oxus Civilization, named after the Oxus River, which today is called the Amu Darya.

Other great Bronze Age civilizations–like Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, and Nile civilizations–also developed along fertile river valleys. The mineral-rich lands produced enough food to support a large society.

There is archaeological evidence that these civilizations were connected through trade. One clue to the extent of this trade are these seals made in Mesopotamia out of lapis lazuli – a blue semi-precious stone that was only mined in Afghanistan in ancient times.

Well we know that there must be long distance trade.

In part one of the best evidences is to see where lapis is found in other parts of the world. And since it can only come from Afghanistan we know there must have been trade roots out there.

Evidence of this long-distance trade is found in Afghanistan as well. Artifacts from a grave site in Afghanistan called Tepe Fullol feature designs from Mesopotamia, such as the bearded bull shown on this bowl.

But sometimes beautiful but relatively rare artifacts can overshadow what is more typical during this time, and the impact of trade can be exaggerated.

Though trade in this early period is significant, the number of merchants were relatively small. Most of the people during the bronze age made their livelihood either through nomadic pastoral pursuits or through agriculture.

The farmers of the Oxus Civilization created cities that are known for their distinctive architecture… until they were abandoned after only a few centuries.

Archaeologists are unsure why. Some have proposed environmental reasons like draught or shifting river courses. Others point to the perennial struggle between settled and nomadic ways of life, which could foreshadow the frequent rise and fall of subsequent civilizations in this region.

A great civilization connected Eurasia—until it vanished mysteriously.

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