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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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Timeline Timeline

The Greco-Bactrian Empire

CIRCA 180 BCE
THEMES:

Identity & Perception

Traces & Narratives

Reveal Source

"Arhat (Buddhist Elder) - 16 Elders: Nagasena." Digital image. Himalayan Art. Accessed August 20, 2010. http://www.himalayanart.org/image.cfm/71987.html.

Bibi Saint-Pol. "Head Platon Glyptothek Munich 548." Digital image. Wikipedia Commons. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Head_Platon_Glyptothek_Munich_548.jpg.

Boyd, Florian. "Bust of King Menander." Digital image. Florian's Flickr Photostream. Accessed August 20, 2010. http://www.flickr.com/photos/fboyd/2625588318/.
Creative Commons: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en

Classical Numismatic Group. "Coin of the Bactrian King Antimachus II." Digital image. Wikipedia Commons. Accessed August 20, 2010. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Animachusii%282%29.jpg.

Classical Numismatic Group. "Coin of the Greco-Bactrian King Plato." Digital image. Wikipedia Commons. Accessed August 20, 2010. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Plato1.jpg.

Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. "Coin of the Baktrian King Diodotos II: Digital image. Wikipedia Commons. Accessed August 20, 2010. 

"Coin of Menander." Digital image. Wikipedia Commons. Accessed August 20, 2010. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MenandrosCoin.jpg.

Dupree, Nancy. 65-M-78. Dupree Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Williams College, Williamstown, MA.

Qamargul. Pa Ru Wru Rokda Qadamona. Sakata Music Collection.

Tetradrachm: Bust Wearing Crested Helmet, with Bull's Horn and Ear, Afghanistan, Bactrian Period. 170-145 BCE. Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH.

Tetradrachm: Bust Wearing Elephant-Scalp Headdress, Afghanistan, Bactrian Period. Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH.

Tetradrachm: Head of Philetauros with Laureate Diadem. 262-241 BCE. Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH.

Tetradrachm: Head of Philetauros with Laureate Diadem. 262-241 BCE. Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH.

World Imaging. "Gold 20-stater of Eucratides." Digital image. Wikipedia Commons. Accessed August 20, 2010. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:EucratidesStatere.jpg.


Producer: Kate Harding

Reveal Transcript

Bactria was the ancient name of a region in Central Asia that stretched between the Hindu Kush and the Amu Darya river.

In 250 BCE, this region was ruled by the Seleucid empire. But Diodotus, the Greek governor of this area, rebelled against his superiors. His new kingdom would become one of the richest and most urban empires of Asia.

The new Greco-Bactrian empire prospered by encouraging trade across the region.

… the Bactrian Greeks … brought to Afghanistan products from Greece such as wine, olives and so on. They took from Afghanistan lapis lazuli and various other minerals and gems.

Trade enriched all the settlements known today as Kandahar, Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif, and Kabul. And as the empire grew wealthier it began to expand. They successfully pushed east into parts of India.

As trade flourished, it also became more and more systematized. The Greco-Bactrians produced an outstanding system of coinage. And these coins became the face of the society.

Some of the most famous coins from Afghanistan are the so-called Greco-Roman coins, because they have portraits on them, and those tell us about history. These are very well struck. They were clearly important for the society. They weren’t just crude things made in the back room. They give you the official view of society.

There are spectacular decorative motifs on these coins made of gold…They have survived into the modern world. Spectacular and simple in many ways but glorious representations in others.

Sometimes these coins also displayed motifs of the local environment.

There are figures and animals depicted on it, which tell us a great deal about the culture and the economy of the Bactrian peoples.

As the Greek leaders interacted with local traditions, they were forced to re-evaluate their own culture. They had come to Asia steeped in the philosophical traditions of Plato and Aristotle. But in the new empire, Greek philosophy mixed with local Buddhist and Hindu traditions. A famous exchange between the Bactrian King Milinda and the Buddhist monk Nagasena demonstrates how two highly sophisticated cultures were meeting each other and negotiating their differences:

One of the most famous of these dialogues is with King Milinda…the story is that he debated with a famous Buddhist monk Nagasena on the question of existence.

And he comes up with a chariot and they get into a debate and Nagasena the monk says well how did you come to see me? He says well I rode on my chariot as you can see…

[Nagasena] says, "I see no chariot." Nagasena’s looking around like, "No, no chariot here."

And Milinda says, "I just rode up on it. You can see it."

[Nagasena] says "I don’t see it." And Milinda says, "well here it is."

Nagasena points to wheel and says "is that the chariot?" Milinda says, "no that’s the wheel of the chariot."

[Nagasena] points to the goad that the driver is holding. "Is that the chariot?"

"No that’s not the chariot either."

To the reins. To the harness. [Nagasena] points to everything. "Is that the chariot?" And Milinda says, no it’s this part of the chariot, that part of the chariot. By the time they pointed to all the parts Nagasena says, "well, you must agree with me there is no chariot."

And that’s when Milinda explodes and says, "but it’s NOT the wheels, the cart, the reins, the goad. It’s all of them together is what we call a chariot."

Nagasena’s argument is essentially that to one extent the chariot is something you name. It doesn’t really exist. On the other hand Milinda rode up and he rode down in this chariot. But he had a sudden realization, and again this is a philosophical concept, of what is naming. What is real? How much do we assume?

This is not the type of conversation that we see in the Platonic dialogues. This is different. And it’s because we’ve got two cultures coming together that are looking at the world in slightly different ways but both are highly sophisticated. This is not you know ignorant barbarians learning at the feet of wise men. We’ve got two very sophisticated cultures that have approached the world in a different way. And the area of Afghanistan is at this period the place where they’re coming together.

This exciting cultural exchange would soon lead to an explosion of Greco-Buddhist art that would continue well into the reign of the Kushan Empire.

 

Afghanistan was a meeting place of Greek philosophy, Buddhist beliefs, and Hindu traditions. The results were magnificent.

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