Afghanistan Archaeological Research – Pre-Islamic Period

By | December 16, 2021

Our knowledge for the Hellenistic period is very scarce. Only recently (1958) did we have a very important proof of the vitality of the Greek element that followed Alexander’s army in Afghanistan with the discovery of a Greek-Aramaic bilingual edict of Aśoka near Qandahār. The inscription then allows us to locate almost with certainty one of the foundations of Alexander, and solves the problem of the duration of the Greek domination in Aracosia and fixes the western limits reached by the Maurya empire and at the same time is the westernmost document of the Aśoka Buddhist propaganda.

Unfortunately, the research conducted in Balkh in search of Bactra by the French archaeological mission first by Afghanistan Foucher and then, in 1947, by D. Schlumberger, was not positive, although the ceramic materials collected in the last campaign are not negligible.

Our archaeological knowledge on the period of the Indo-Greek and Greek Bactrian kings is still almost exclusively entrusted to the numerous harvest of beautiful coins that continually come to light in the country. We point out among the important finds that of Mīr Zakah, where coins ranging from the 4th-3rd century were recovered in a sacred source. to. C. up to Vāsudeva, the last of the great Kuṣāṇa and that of Kunduz. For Afghanistan 2018, please check

Starting from the 1st century. and above all with the Kuṣāṇa period the data in our possession become more numerous and particularly rich was the harvest of documents of the Gandharic type of Buddhist art that the French excavations have assured us.

Not far from Kābul, the fort of Saka was excavated by J. Carl in 1935. Its perimeter is enlivened by round towers and with arrow-headed slits, of Iranian tradition, probably attributable to the reign of Hermaios, the last of the Indian rulers (1st century). In the same year, in the immediate vicinity of Kābul, on the Tepe Maranǧan, a Buddhist monastery was brought to light which returned interesting statues in raw earth mixed with straw and horsehair, which constitute the southernmost example of this technique typical of Central Asia. Also from the monastery comes a treasure trove of Sassanid silver drachmas and a group of Kushano-Sassanid scifate gold coins.

In 1937, a Buddhist monastery full of paintings and sculptures in painted raw earth, which can be dated to the 7th century, was excavated by the same scholar in Fondukistan. and constitute one of the later products of the Buddhist art of the Afghanistan, produced by the meeting of the refined forms of late-Gupta Indian art with the spirit and iconography of Central Asia.

In the same year J. Meunier excavated a sanctuary in Shotorak, near Kapiçi-Begram, probably the one where Kaṇiṣka housed the Chinese hostages. The layout of the monastery is similar to that of others found in Taxila and has the particularity, exceptional in a religious building, of being equipped with round corner towers. Numerous sculptures in green schist were found, including the beautiful stele with the Dipankara Jataka and the relief with the conversion of the Kaśiapa brothers. None of the sculptures seem to predate Kaṇiṣka (whose reign, according to one of the most accredited opinions, should be placed around the middle of the 2nd century AD), and these, together with those coming from the convent of Paitawa, from Burg- the Abdallaas, from Begram and from Kābul, constitute a fairly homogeneous group in the art of Gandhāra, called the Kapiça group, characterized by a frontal view of the human figure, reminiscent of late Roman sculpture, and which most likely is inspired by the official art of the kuṣāṇa rulers. Two other Buddhist foundations were excavated in the same area, in 1939 that of Qol-i Nader (J. Meunier) and in 1940 that of Tepe Kalan (J. Carl).

Between 1936 and 1939 and then later in 1942 and 1946 it was explored about 60 km from Kābul, at the confluence of the Ghorband river with the Pangishir, the ancient city known today as Begram, which must correspond to the ancient capital of Kapiça. Among the remains, which have been identified as those of the “New Royal City”, a famous treasure was discovered in 1937 composed of Indian ivories, Chinese lacquers, glasses, bronzes and plasters of Hellenistic-Roman art of extreme interest belonging to some king or viceroy kuṣāṇa who buried him under the pressure of some invasion. The treasure is one of the most vivid and exciting testimonies of the particular situation of this territory located at the meeting of the great communication routes between East and West. The excavation of the ” the oldest datable perhaps to the 2nd century. to. C., that is from the period of the Indo-Greek kings, to which the fortifications in earth and raw brick with rectangular towers that are compared with the most ancient phase of Taxila (Sirkap) belong. The second phase with a quadrangular layout has similarities with the more recent phase of Taxila (Sirsukh) and is attributed to the kuṣāṇa age, and according to R. Ghirshman it would have been destroyed by the Sassanid king Sapor I around the middle of the 3rd century. d. C. The treasure belongs to this second phase. Shortly after the destruction now mentioned, the city, although on a smaller scale, rises again to be once again destroyed by the Ephthalites around the middle of the 5th century. d. C.

In 1942 R. Ghirshman explored an area not far from Begram, Burg-i Abdalla, in which he recognized the “Ancient Royal City”. A fortress was built on very archaic structures, the origin of which, the hypothesis has been advanced, can be traced back to Alexander the Great.

Near Bāmiyān in 1957 the Italian mission discovered a new group of Buddhist caves, some of which preserving the remains of some interesting paintings, dating back to around the 6th century. d. C. They add to the other universally known of the main valley, some of which were explored in 1933 by J. Hackin, after the publication of the large volumes on Bāmiyān, and on which a posthumous summary report has recently been made known.

About 12 km from Kābul on the hill of Khair Khaneh, a rocky spur overlooking the Balkh road that conveyed the traffic between Central Asia and India, a Brahmin sanctuary was discovered in 1935 (J. Hackin and J. Carl), the only one found in the region, dedicated to the god Sūrya and datable between the 4th and 5th centuries, when the Iranian cults of fire and sun spread to India through Afghan mediation. Deep Indian influences are revealed in the plan of the temple, while the Sassanid influence is very evident in the two recovered sculptures, one of which represents the god Sūrya and the other a donor. Rather exceptional in Afghānistān, they are in marble.

Research in Bactria is still in its infancy. We have already mentioned those of Balkh. Here we will recall the exploration of a Buddhist monastery in Qunduz by J. Hackin in 1936, in which some stucco heads were found, some very close to Hellenistic models, while others seem to be products more linked to local art. The architecture in the vaults and domes shows Iranian-type solutions.

In 1939 the British E. Barger and Ph. Wright partially discovered a building which retained three Hellenistic-type column bases similar to those of the Jandial fire temple at Taxila. From Qunduz itself comes a series of reliefs in white limestone, which came to light at different times, which, although they fit into the general framework of the art of Ghandara, have particular stylistic and iconographic characteristics that authorize us to believe them to be typical products of a Bactrian school..

The French mission also carried out surveys in 1938 at Mazār-i Sherīf, Shahr-i Banu and Zaker Tepe, which were not then continued due to the outbreak of the known war events. In Shar-i Banu the excavations ascertained the superimposition of several settlements which in the deeper layers were accompanied by coins of Euthydemus and Heliocles while kuṣāṇa coins were in the upper ones.

During the works for the construction of the road that from Kābul leads to Mazār-i Sherīf and about 60 km from this city, important ruins were sighted that the French mission began to explore in 1951 (D. Schlumberger) highlighting a grandiose sacred complex of kuṣāṇa age which constitutes one of the most remarkable discoveries of recent years known under the name of Surkh Khotal. In addition to various ancillary constructions, a temple was excavated preceded by a grandiose staircase. The building is very similar in plan to the Iranian fire temples, but differs from them in that it is completely open on the forehead like an iwan. While the plant is of an Iranian type, some architectural parties such as the Ionic bases of the columns are of the Western type, and the decoration is partly derived from the usual Indo-Greek formulas and partly, as in some sculptures, is of the kusāna type. It is not yet possible to specify the type of cult for which the complex was intended, although it is certainly an Iranian-type religion. It was initially thought of a fire temple, but the hypothesis for various reasons does not seem acceptable. Just as it is not certain that the other would like to see a dynastic temple there, similar to that of Mathura.

The discovery of a large inscription has not yet solved the problem. This inscription, written in an alphabet derived from Greek cursive, is written in a hitherto unknown language of the Middle-Iranian type of the Eastern group to which the name of Bactrian (VB Henning) would be better than that of eteo-Tokharic proposed by the first publisher (A. Maricq). The inscription, which is very difficult to interpret, informs us of a restoration carried out on the building (a fact already ascertained during the excavation) which had been erected by Kaṇiṣka. Unfortunately, the document makes no contribution to the controversial question of the chronology of this ruler. The statues found, belonging to kuṣāṇa princes and sovereigns, are stylistically in the same current as those of Mathura, that is, they would belong to a

In 1957 in the Ghaznī region the Italian archaeological mission began its work during which many pre-Islamic areas were reported. Near Ghaznī itself, on Tepe Sardar, in a dominant position on the plain, the excavation of a Buddhist foundation and a large stupa was begun in 1959. Earlier in 1957, just north of Ghaznī on the Ǧakatu plateau, some ephthalite inscriptions of a Buddhist character had been discovered and in 1958 the remains of a very ancient city and a system of fortifications; a preliminary test in an area of ​​small mounds revealed the remains of structures associated with Napki Malka coins dating back to the 7th century. d. C.

Afghanistan Archaeological Research - Pre-Islamic Period