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Bactria – the Country of Gold

Ancient Bactria, glorified by Hellenic historians as a great powerful state, is a vast historic area located on the both banks of the Amu Darya river, from the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan to the Hissar Mountain Range in Uzbekistan.

Golden argali, Tilla-Tepe

In order to study ancient Bactria, in 1969 there was formed a joint Soviet-Afghan archeological team headed by Professor Victor Sarianidi. The object of study was the Hellenic settlement Eshmi-Tepe located near present-day Afghan town Shibirghan. Among the hills, surrounding the village, there was one named Tilla-Tepe (Gold-Hill). However, archaeologists did not find any gold there, just pieces of pottery decorated with quaint patterns. By the autumn of 1978 it was found out that the excavation site once had accommodated a monumental building, probably a temple, with multicolumn main hall, encircled by a strong wall and watchtowers.

Just before the field works had been completed a striking event took place. While digging an ancient burial, one of the workers found gold ware.

Eventually, archeologists established that the burial represented royal graves. The dead had gold crowns on their heads. One of these crowns was carved from five golden palmettos in a shape of stylized trees with birds among the twigs. The crown was incrusted with pearls and turquoise. Luxurious dresses of those buried in the grave were adorned with thousands of gold plaques, buttons, rosettes, pendants and beads. The fabric itself was embroidered with golden threads and hundreds of pearls representing intricate vegetable patterns. Each of the excavated graves contained about three thousand gold articles whereas with the total number of gold articles exceeded twenty thousand.

It was a sensational discovery not only because of its artistic and commercial value, but also because of its historical significance. Now the Bactrian Kushan Empire presented itself as an important component of Asia at the beginning of our era. It was at this period that Buddhism began to spread from Hindustan to Central Asia, and further on to the Far East. The first transcontinental highway, the Great Silk Road, had been already well-known by then. It ran from China through Kushan territories westwards to the Mediterranean Sea. Concurrently, the trade route from Egypt to India was being developed. Caravan trails connected Central Asia with the northern parts of the Black Sea coast. Thus it was quite natural that samples of jewelry from remote lands, such as Greece, Rome, Parthia, India and China, were found in one place.

Dalverzintepe, golden bucle, 1st century A.D.

Ancient Bactria had a rather dramatic destiny. From the time it was first formed in the mid-first millennium B.C. to the first centuries of Common Era, when slave-owning system was widely spread on its territory, more powerful empires tried to conquer, to subdue or to annex this prosperous land. And it is not surprising. Located on the fertile plateau washed by the Amu Darya river and irrigated by the developed irrigation system, the country was rich in arable lands. Moreover, the important trade roads intersected its territory; along the mountain passes of the Pamirs, in particular, the traders delivered silk and other goods from China.

It is obvious that the tribes residing in Bactria initially formed a part of Median kingdom and then became a part of Achaemenid kingdom. In 540 B.C. Bactria became a satrapy of the Persian king Cyrus the Great and rendered him a tribute. The earliest description of the Baktrians, who belonged to the eastern Iranian nations, can be found in the works of Hellenic author Hekatitus, who lived in 500 B.C. Subsequently, when Alexander the Great was "re-shaping" the world's map, he conquered Bactria and annexed it to his empire and even built twelve towns there. After his death the country was inherited by his military commander Seleucus and became a part of the Seleucid empire. At that period there appeared many Greek towns and Hellenic culture began to spread. In 255 B.C., Diodotus, the ruler of one of the provinces, proclaimed himself a Czar and founded Graeco-Bactrian kingdom, which subsisted for one hundred years.

Hellenistic world, which Central Asia was a part of for several centuries, inevitably influenced the life and culture of local people. In Bactria and Sogdiana rulers governed with the aid of Graeco-Macedonian forces. There appeared new Hellenic towns – Merv and Herat. The Greek language became the language of nobility and the highest military ranks. Coins were minted in accordance with the Greek standards. The whole pantheon of Hellenic Gods, Hellenic literature and theatre became available for local elite. Blending of local and Hellenic traditions was virtually inevitable.

Athena from Bactria, Tilla-Tepe

However, Graeco-Bactrian kingdom ultimately appeared to be a weak structure. The weakness of King's power, continuous struggle for the throne, resulted in the country's inability to protect its borders. In the mid-second century B.C. Graeco-Bactrian kingdom was conquered by Central Asian tribes of Yuezhi. The dominating clan of Kushans formed their Kushan Kingdom on the territory of Bactria. At the peak of its prosperity, in the 1st-3rd centuries A.D., Kushan kingdom embraced a part of Northern India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and present-day Uzbekistan. Northern boundary of the state of Kushans lay between the present-day Surkhandarya and Kashkadarya provinces of Uzbekistan where the ruins of strong outer walls, 6-7 meters in width, were found. Along the narrow gorge through the "Iron Gates" there was built the shortest way from Sogd to Bactria. Thus the millennium-long history of Bactria started with the dominance in this region of Persia and ended with the rule of the Kushans.

Within this period of time many cities and countries rose and fell to decay; the tribes and nations integrated and broke up; one social structure substituted another; religions and spiritual doctrines emerged and vanished.

In Central Asian ancient architecture stone never played an important role. But in Bactria it was often used as attic bases for wooden columns, for incrustation of the surfaces, for manufacture of figured carving and statuettes. However, clay in the form of adobe bricks continued to be a commonly used construction material. Though clay was easily available and offered good plasticity, it was not a durable material. But nobody bothered much about the durability of the dwellings and it was rather rare that such a dwelling, made of clay bricks, could last more than 50 years.

No wonder almost all extant fortresses are in ruins: the former walls have been washed out by the rain, the towers have turned into sunken hills. As our predecessors said, "Of dust we come and to dust we are reduced".

Khalchayan, fragment of sculpture, 1st century B.C. - 1st century A.D.

The site of Old Termez, located in five kilometers from the modern city which shares the same name, is the very example of initially a Hellenic and subsequently a medieval town. The legend has it that Alexander the Great founded here a fortress named Alexandria Oxianan, which in the later period was demolished by nomads. But already in the 3rd century B.C. the site, convenient for crossing of the mile-wide Amu Darya river, was restored by the Graeco-Bactrian King Antiochius the First, and this new urban settlement was named Antiochia Tarmita. Thus, within several centuries, at the crossroads of caravan trails of the Great Silk Road there developed one of the most important towns of the Bactrian kingdom and subsequently it became an important centre of the Kushan Empire.

The town occupied the territory of five hundred hectares – a huge area for an ancient settlement. The rectangle of its walls, once surrounding the citadel, still towers over the steep bank of the river. The citadel was flanked with vast quarters of traders and craftsmen on one side and the ensemble of religious constructions on the other. It should be noted that Kushan rulers were rather tolerant to other religions and alongside with Zoroastrianism, Hinduism and other religions, Buddhism throve in this region, too. Thus in Termez there was built a large Buddhist temple and a Buddhist monastery. Big canal ran across the town and supplied all residential areas with water. Inside the citadel there were palaces of noblemen, administrative and social buildings.

In general, the first centuries A.D. in the history of the region can be characterized by rapid urban growth and subsequent increase of towns' social significance. Contemporaries called Bactria "the country of a thousand towns". The ruins of numerous urban constructions buried under centuries-old thickness of dust evidence the appropriateness of these words.

Silver coin. Seleucus I Nikator

A rather significant event in the world culture was the discovery of Dalverzintepe settlement – a remarkable archaeological monument of Kushan epoch. The settlement was excavated in sixty kilometers from Termez, near Shurchi town. The settlement was surrounded by 10-metre thick defensive outer walls and watchtowers with loopholes. The central part of the town accommodated dwelling houses of rich citizens. The southern part of the site was occupied by workshops of craftsmen. Numerous archaeological finds testify to the fact that Dalverzintepe was located on one of the busiest branches of the Great Silk Road.

On Dalverzintepe site there was found one more striking monument of the Kushan epoch – the "golden" treasure, weighing thirty two kilograms and consisting of articles and jewelry made of gold, silver, and precious stones.

Several other ancient settlements, such as Khalchayan, Zartepa, Fayaztepa, Ayrtam, which evidence a rich material and spiritual culture of the local peoples, were excavated on the territory of Surkhandarya region. The excavation work at Karatepe settlement have been carried out by the joint team of Uzbek and Japanese archeologists, who discovered the dwellings of Buddhist monks and in some distance from it – a Buddhist monastery.

The research carried out by the scientists revealed certain peculiarity of fine and applied arts of ancient Bactria, which represent a symbiosis of Hellenic and Indo-Buddhist culture.

Centuries have passed since the following lines were written by ancient Greek dramatist Euripides, who lived in the 5th century B. C.:

Of golden Lydia I quit the fields, and then Through Phrygia and Persia I walked, Whose endless lands were parched by midday sun. Then, having left the walls of Bactria and Media, Where winter colds I had to put up with, I made towards Arabs and the Asian countries.

Many changes have taken place ever since. Bactria, with its capital Bactra, have been lost in the mist of time. However, three colours of time have remained ever since: brown – the colour of ground and clay; blue – the colour of the oriental sky; and green – the colour of verdure. And evidently the people, who live and constructively work on the land of ancient Bactria.

Excavations at Karatepa

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