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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 King of Kings


Traces & Narratives

Reveal Source

Abbott, Jacob. Cyrus the Great. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1902.

"Dastgah-e Mahur: Tasnif "Mahd-e Honar"" Recorded April 15, 1989. In Music of Iran I. King Record, 1989, CD.

De Corselas, Manuel Parada López. "Ars Summum Tesoro Oxus Brazalete." Digital image. Wikipedia Commons. Accessed August 19, 2010.

Dynamosquito. "Immortels." Digital image. Dynamosquito's Flickr Photostream. Accessed August 19, 2010.
Creative Commons:

Dynamosquito. "Roaring." Digital image. Dynamosquito's Flickr Photostream. Accessed August 18, 2010.

"Herodotus, Historiae." Digital image. Wyoming_Jackrabbit's Flickr Photostream. Accessed August 18, 2010.
Creative Commons:

Marsyas. Bust of Herodotus. December 23, 2005. Stoa of Attalus, Athens. Accessed August 10, 2010.
Creative Commons:

Nickmard. "Persepolis." Digital image. Nickmard's Flickr Photostream. Accessed August 19, 2010. Creative Commons:

Nickmard. "Plaque of Lapis Lazuli." Digital image. Nickmard's Flickr Photostream. Accessed August 19, 2010.
Creative Commons:

Nikopol. "Persepolis Stairs of the Apadana Relief." Digital image. Wikipedia Commons. Accessed August 19, 2010.
GNU Free Documentation License:

Oedipus and the Sphynx, Museo Gregoriano Etrusco Vaticano. Photographer and date unknown.

"Persépolis. La Garde." Digital image. Wikipedia Commons. Accessed August 18, 2010. GNU Free Documentation:

Unknown. "Painting of Rama." Digital image. British Museum. Accessed August 18, 2010.
© Trustees of the British Museum

Producer: Grace Norman

Reveal Transcript

Herodotus, the 6th century BCE Greek historian, recounted the story of Cyrus, the founder of the Achaemenid Dynasty.

Like Oedipus in the Greek tradition, and Rama in the Hindu tradition, the story is of a prediction, a banishment, and a glorious return of a King to his rightful place on the throne.

According to Herodotus, Cyrus’ grandfather was the King of the powerful Median Empire. One night, the King had a dream that his grandson would eventually overthrow him.

In an insecure rage, the King ordered a servant to kill the newly born baby. The servant, unable to carry out the task himself, asked a bandit to take the baby deep into the woods and to abandon him. But the baby Cyrus was found alive by a herder. The herder brought the baby to his wife, and they raised the child as their own.

When Cyrus was ten years old, word spread that the child living in the woods was far too noble to be the child of a simple herdsman, and rumors circulated that the royal kin was still alive. The King summoned the boy–and noticed a distinct resemblance to himself. The King ordered his servant to explain what he had done with the baby. The servant confessed he gave the baby to bandits and did not kill the infant.

This time the King spared Cyrus, and Cyrus went on to found a Persian empire, known as the Achaemenids. The Achaemenid Empire became the largest empire the world had ever seen.

The Achaemenids were also the first great empire that dominated Afghanistan.

They, of course, had their own great culture based in Persepolis, in Iran. One of the great architectural monuments in the world at the present time. They influenced Afghanistan for the first time, in a strictly Iranian manner, which is basically one of the foundations of modern Afghan Civilization.

An Achaemenid King once boasted of the Empire’s influence while describing the construction of Persepolis: He described gold and lapis from Central Asia, silver and ebony from Ethiopia. The metalsmiths were Medes and the brickmakers, Babylonians. The rich variety of materials and artisans came together to create a hybrid style that very much reflected the Empire in general. 

The rulers learned that exerting control over a greater region meant greater taxation, resources, and ultimately, greater wealth. There were political advantages, too.

The Achaemenids entered into Afghanistan in large part to control a buffer zone. The fear was people from central Asia or other regions might encroach upon Iran. To have a buffer zone between them was critical.

And what did that mean for the early ancestors of Afghans?

The Achaemenids did have an influence, but they allowed a great deal of local autonomy. The government that was based in Iran, allowed the local people considerable independence as long as they provided tribute and taxation. On a governmental level, there was no significant influence by the Achaemendis on Afghanistan during that time. Moreover, the Achaemenids themselves were beset by dynastic struggles and conflicts, so that they couldn’t pay as much attention to Afghanistan as they would have wanted.





The Persian Achaemenid Empire was the greatest empire of the ancient world.