Afghanistan often appears in the Western imagination as a barren, arid land, a forbidding “graveyard of empires.” This perception does not do justice to its cosmopolitan history as a crossroads between South Asia and Central Asia, both its settled and nomadic peoples, and its rich traditions of Zoroastrianism, Hellenism, Buddhism, and Islam.
By James BurkeLIFE Photo Collection
The ancient city of Balkh in what is now northern Afghanistan sat along one of the routes of the Silk Road. Balkh was one of the great trading posts of the region and served as a political and religious center for millennia. According to some sources, it was from Balkh that the prophet Zoroaster first preached the religion that would become Zoroastrianism, the official faith of several Persian dynasties.
Group of Five Vessels (1st century B.C.) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum
Bactria - the wider region around Balkh - came under Persian rule as a satrapy, or province, of the Achaemenid empire and then centuries later under the rule of the Parthian and Sassanian dynasties. In between, it was among the conquests of Alexander the Great, who left an indelible mark on the territory and its culture.
Bronze coin of Agathocles (-190/-180)British Museum
Hellenic culture took root in the region, with the Greek language, script, and iconography in frequent use, including on the coins of Greco-Bactrian rulers. The coins of Agothocles (who ruled in the 2nd century BCE) mingled Greek and South Asian imagery and writing, placing Buddhist and Hindu figures on the front of many coins. This fusion of cultures spread southeast to Gandhara, the historic region that straddles modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Four Scenes from the Life of Buddha - (Detail) The Enlightenment (0180/0320) Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Invaders came to the area not just from the west, but also from the east. The Indian dynasty known as the Mauryas wrestled with the Greek successors of Alexander the Great for control over Afghanistan in the late 4th century. Later, a Mauryan ruler, Ashoka, adopted Buddhism and encouraged its practice across the realm. Archaeologists in the 1960s found one of the king’s rock edicts written in Greek - a nod to the remaining Greek communities in the region - near Kandahar in the south of Afghanistan as well as a multilingual rock inscription in Greek and Aramaic. The Ashoka Greek edict was taken to the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul from where it was stolen in the turmoil of the early 1990s.
Standing bodhisattva (3rd?4th century) by Gandharan region, Afghanistan or PakistanNational Gallery of Australia, Canberra
In later centuries, Gandhara became the centre of the distinctive sculptural tradition of rendering the Buddha and other Buddhist figures in human form. Greek and South Asian traditions of representation merge together in the carving of these characteristically graceful (and often mustachioed) sculptures.
Bamiyan Buddha Before and AfterCyArk
Afghanistan was part of the trade route between South Asia and Central Asia. Buddhist texts would journey through the region along the Silk Road to the great translation centers of the Taklamakan desert before eventually reaching China and spreading the religion there. Buddhist foundations and monasteries flourished, resulting in the construction of the gargantuan Bamiyan buddhas in the 6th century. The puritanical Taliban destroyed these buddhas in 2001, a desecration that sparked outrage around the world.
Double dirham of Nuh b. Mansur (976/997)British Museum
Islam arrived in the region in the 7th century after the swift Arab advance through the remnants of the Persian Sassanian empire. Itwould become the dominant faith in the region and is now followed by over 99% of Afghans. A succession of Muslim dynasties grappled over the region, especially after rich deposits of silver were discovered in the Hindu Kush in the 9th and 10th centuries and caused something of a frenzied “silver rush” akin to the gold rush in the American west. These silver dirhams above were minted under the Samanid dynasty, whose patronage of the arts saw the development of an Islamic and Persian-language culture –often described as “Persianate” culture” –that would spread as far as South Asia and the Mediterranean.
Bowl BowlLos Angeles County Museum of Art
The city of Herat in western Afghanistan was a major trading centre, famous for its intellectuals, poets, artisans, and painters. The poet Rumi described Herat as “the pearl of Khorasan” and “the pleasantest of cities.” After being razed to the ground by Genghis Khan’s Mongol army in the 13th century, it recovered to enjoy a golden period of political and cultural prominence under the Timurid dynasty until the 16th century.
In this painting from a Timurid-era manuscript composed in Herat, a king’s female attendant is abducted by her lover. The scene comes from the famous Khamsa or “quintet” of the Indian poet Amir Khusraw Dilhavi, a testament of the sweeping ties that bound Herat to the wider Persianate world.
Folio from a Khamsa (Quintet) by Amir Khusraw Dihlavi (d. 1325); The abduction by sea (1496) by Artist: Attributed to Kamal al-Din Bihzad Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Herat remains a bustling city, but it has suffered in recent times like the rest of the country. For the last four decades, Afghanistan has been wracked by war. The Soviet invasion of the country in 1979 triggered a series of ongoing conflicts. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans have died and over six million have become refugees. The photo above is of Kabul in1963, before the capital city would be devastated in the wars to come.
Invariably, the violence has also battered the cultural heritage of Afghanistan. After a bombing in 1993 and subsequent looting, the National Museum of Afghanistan lost nearly 70% of its collection. In the midst of the chaos, the puritanical Taliban came to power in 1996 and issued an edict five years later against pre-Islamic statues and objects. The American invasion in 2001 led to continued war and instability, which saw the further wrecking of historic neighborhoods of cities like Kabul, threats and damage to important cultural sites, and the illegal trafficking of antiquities out of the country. Speaking in 2010, the French archaeologist Philippe Marquis grimly told AFP that “there is absolutely no site in this country which is unaffected.”
Documenting the Australians in Afghanistan (2009)Australian War Memorial