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26 HISTORY •• Buddhist Afghanistan

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city in the world was a place of gymnasiums and theatres performing the Greek tragedies, temples to the old gods and groves of olive trees.

Into the Land of Bones – Alexander the Great in

Afghanistan by Frank Holt is a lively history of Alex- ander’s Afghan campaign and the Graeco-Bactrian kingdoms that sprung up in its wake.

BUDDHIST AFGHANISTAN

As the Graeco-Bactrian kingdoms flowered in the north, a new power rose in the east. In 302 BC north India became unified under the Mauryans, who quickly took control of southern and eastern Afghanistan. A peace treaty with the north was sealed with gifts of elephants and marriages between the Greeks and Indians. Under the great emperor Ashoka, the Mauryans converted to Buddhism, driven by his guilt at the blood spilled for the formation of his empire. Buddhist monasteries thrived across Af- ghanistan, together with rock-cut edicts from Ashoka exhorting readers to follow a pious life. One found in modern Kandahar was written in Greek and Aramaic. Buddhism proved irresistible to the Graeco-Bactrians. After Seleucus the kingdom fell into a tumbling succession of warring factions and dynasties, and the Hellenistic traditions were slowly absorbed by local customs. By 150 BC, they were under pressure from other directions – the Parthians from Iran, and then nomad tribes from the north. These were the outermost ripples of a wave of people displaced by the unification of China under the Qin dynasty. Again Afghanistan’s direction was influ- enced by events in distant imperial capitals. Of the nomads that washed up, it was the Yueh-chih in 130 BC that had the greatest impact, when they united under the name of the Kushans. The Kushans soon settled, and took the best traditions from the Graeco-Bactrians and the Indians to fuse them with the free-spirited

THE SILK ROAD

The Silk Road was never a single highway, rather a network of routes stretching over 8000km from Xi’an in modern China across Central Asia to Damascus and Antioch on the Mediterranean. Similarly, no trader ever passed its entire length. Instead, caravans traded along set stages with goods exchanged and becoming ever more expensive at each stop. The Silk Road really sprang into life in the 1st century BC, when China exchanged embassies

with Parthia (modern Iran) and Ferghana in Central Asia. From these were born the Roman craze for silk, supplied by the Parthians. The fabric was so popular – and expensive – that the Roman Senate even tried to ban it, on moral as well as economic grounds. As the Chinese guarded the secret of its production closely, silk was supposed to literally grow on the trees of the far east. The Parthians and Bactrians were the most avid traders, sending gold, horses, glass and ivory. In

return, China sent porcelain, paper, tea, lacquer – and endless bolts of silk. Ideas became an equally important currency. The Kushans sent Buddhist ideas from Afghanistan to China, and Buddhist art to India. Manichaeism and Nestorian Christianity also headed east. Bukhara, Balkh, Yarkand and Dunhuang flourished as great cities of trade and culture. The Silk Road reached its apogee during the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. The collapse of the Roman and Han Chinese empires caused a collapse in trade, while the rise of Islam further changed the political and economic balance of the region. The Pax Mongolia that briefly followed Genghis Khan allowed Marco Polo to hit the old trade roads to China, but by the time the region had recovered from the depredations of Timur, the powers of Europe were looking elsewhere. The age of sea exploration had arrived, dealing the final death knell for the Silk Road.

6th century

The Buddhas of Bamiyan carved from cliffside

652

Arab conquest of Herat brings Islam to Afghanistan

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HISTORY •• Islamic Empires 27

nature of the steppe. In doing so they created a unique culture that ruled Afghanistan for five centuries. The new kingdom was ideally placed to ex- ploit the burgeoning trade along the Silk Road (see boxed text, opposite ). From AD 128, the visionary King Kanishka built two capitals at Kapisa (modern Bagram) and Peshawar, forging an empire whose influence travelled as far as the Ganges. Kushan art, also known as Gandharan art, was a vibrant blend of Classical, Indian and Persian styles, and was hugely influential. The kingdom was the first to represent the Buddha in human form, a style it sent to Kashmir, Tibet and China. Monasteries thrived in Balkh, Kandahar, Bamiyan, Samangan, and Hadda near Jalalabad. Decline eventually came with the demise of the Silk Road, and the Kushans fell before the arrows of their neighbours. In the 3rd century AD the Sassanians arrived from Persia and reduced Kushan power to a rump. A century later the Hephthalites (or White Huns) swept in, and stayed long enough to build the giant Buddha statues at Bamiyan. From the east, the Hindus raised kingdoms in Kabul and Ghazni. Afghanistan was again pushed to the margins of history.

ISLAMIC EMPIRES

In the 7th century a new power with a new religion was knocking at the door. Having swept the Sassanians aside, the Arab armies arrived in 652, marching under the banner of Islam. Herat and the south were soon subdued, but the north was a harder nut to crack. It took two centuries for Balkh to fall fully under Muslim control, where it was ruled from the Samanid Arab capital at Bukhara, and flourished as a centre of learning and culture. The rest of Afghanistan became a patchwork of squabbling Muslim city-states, far from Bukhara’s influence and chafing for independence. Out of this morass came Alptigin, a Turkish slave-soldier who over-

threw his masters and captured the fortress of Ghazni in 961. He quickly died thereafter, but his successors consolidated their power and went onto capture Kabul, Bost, Balkh and Herat, dealing a deathblow to the Arabs. In their place stood the new power of the Ghaznavid dynasty. Sultan Mahmoud the Great was both an empire builder and patron of the arts. Ghazni was richly endowed with mosques and palaces, becoming one of the greatest cities in Islamic world. He filled his court with poets and artists, his stables with an army of elephants, and whenever the treas- ury was bare, raided Delhi – introducing Islam to India in the process. Winter was spent in the warmth of Bost and Lashkar Gah, made green with an intricate series of canals. On Mahmoud’s death in 1030 his rule stretched almost to Calcutta in the east, and west to the Caspian Sea. The empire was too swollen to be stable. India and the Afghan north

fell almost immediately, and while the Ghaznavid princes fought over the remains they failed to notice new tribes coming down from the mountains with envious eyes. In 1148 the Ghorids, Muslims from central Afghanistan led by Alauddin, ‘the World Burner’, swept into Ghazni and laid the great city to waste. It took seven days to burn to the ground. From here the Ghorids poured into India and Iran on an orgy of pillage. When they returned they endowed their capitals at Firuzkoh and Herat with fine buildings, leaving the Minaret of Jam and Herat’s Friday Mosque as their greatest testaments.

11th century

Ghazni flourishes under Mahmoud the Great

Life Along the Silk Road

by Susan Whitfield is a great read for Silk Road enthusiasts, presenting the history of the route through an absorbing set of characters and vignettes.

Asia is comparable to a living body composed of soil and water/

The heart that beats inside the body is Afghanistan/

The destruction of Afghans would be the destruction of Asia/

And in their progress and prosperity lies the

well-being of Asia

MOHAMMED IQBAL, 1936

1136

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