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History of Afghanistan
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Pre-Islamic Period
Achaemenids (550-330 BC)
Seleucids (330-150 BC)
Greco-Bactrians (256-125 BC)
Sakas (145 BC - )
Kushans (30 CE - 248 CE)
Indo-Sassanid (248 - 410)
Kidarites (320-465)
Hephthalites (410-557)
Sassanids (224-579)
Kabul Shahi (565-670)
Islamic Conquest
Umayyads (661-750)
Abbasids (750-821)
Tahirids (821-873)
Saffarids (863-900)[1]
Samanids (875-999)
Ghaznavids (963-1187)
Seljukids (1037-1194)
Khwarezmids (1077-1231)
Ghurids (1149-1212)
Ilkhanate (1258-1353)
Timurids (1370-1506)
Mughals (1501-1738)
Safavids (1510-1709)
Hotaki dynasty (1709-1738)
Afsharids (1738-1747)
Durrani Empire (1747-1823)
Emirate (1823-1926)
Kingdom (1926-1973)
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Islamic Emirate (1996-2001)
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Afghan Civil War

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Archaeological exploration of the Pre-Islamic period of Afghanistan began in Afghanistan in earnest after World War II and proceeded until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan disrupted it in December 1979.

Louis Dupree, the University of Pennsylvania, the Smithsonian Institution and others suggest that humans were living in Afghanistan at least 50,000 years ago, and that farming communities of the region were among the earliest in the world.[2] Artifacts typical of the Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron ages were found.[3]



Afghanistan has a historical and cultural connection with the people of Ancient India, South Asia, and the Indus Valley Civilization

It is not yet clear, however, to what extent these periods were contemporaneous with similar stages of development in other geographic regions. The area that is now Afghanistan seems in prehistory, as well as ancient and modern times, to have been closely connected by culture and trade with the neighbouring regions to the east, west, and north. Urban civilization, which includes Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, may have begun as early as 3000 to 2000 BCE. The ancient city of Mudigak may have been a provincial colony of the Indus Valley Civilization or closely affiliated, but this remains largely circumstantial and speculative. Archaeological finds also indicate the possible beginnings of the Bronze Age which would ultimately spread throughout the ancient world from Afghanistan. It is also believed that the region had early trade contacts with Mesopotamia.

Ancient Afghanistan: From the Aryans to the Medes. 1500 BCE–551 BCE

Between 2000–1200 BCE, a branch of Indo-European-speaking tribes known as the Aryans began migrating into the region. This is part of a dispute in regards to the Aryan invasion theory. They appear to have split into old Persian peoples, Nuristani, and Indian groups at an early stage, possibly between 1500 and 1000 BCE in what is today Afghanistan or much earlier as eastern remnants of the Indo-Aryans drifted much further west as with the Mitanni. The Aryans dominated the modern day plateau, while the Indo-Aryans ultimately headed towards the Indian subcontinent. The Avesta is believed to have been composed possibly as early as 1800 BCE and written in ancient Ariana (Aryana), the earliest name of Afghanistan which indicates an early link with today's Iranian tribes to the west, or adjacent regions in Central Asia or northeastern Iran in the 6th century BCE.[4] Due to the similarity between early Avestan and Sanskrit (and other related early Indo-European languages such as Latin and Ancient Greek), it is believed that the split between the old Persians and Indo-Aryan tribes had taken place at least by 1000 BCE. There are striking similarities between the Old Afghan language of Avestan and Sanskrit, which may support the notion that the split was contemporary with the Indo-Aryans living in Afghanistan at a very early stage. Also, the Avesta itself divides into Old and New sections and neither mention the Medes who are known to have ruled Afghanistan starting around 700 BCE. This suggests an early time-frame for the Avesta that has yet to be exactly determined as most academics believe it was written over the course of centuries if not millennia. Much of the archaeological data comes from the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC and Indus Valley Civilization) that probably played a key role in early Aryanic civilization in Afghanistan.

It has also been surmised by many researchers that the Aryan prophet Zoroaster was born somewhere in ancient Aryana, possibly in the ancient city of Balkh, and the timeframe of his life literally spans millennia from as early 2000 BCE to as late as 600 BCE. Zoroastrianism spread throughout the region alongside early pagan beliefs and centuries later Buddhism.

The Medes, a Western Persian people, arrived from what is today Kurdistan sometime around the 700s BCE and came to dominate most of ancient Afghanistan. They were an early tribe that forged the first empire on the present Iranian plateau and were rivals of the Persians whom they initially dominated in the province of Fars to the south. Median domination of Afghanistan would last until the Persians challenged and ultimately replaced them from their original base in Fars in southern Iran near ancient Elam.

Vedic civilization

In the region around what is today Kabul and eastern Afghanistan, an Hindu-Buddhist culture, emerged in conjunction to the Vedic civilization that arose in northern India due to the native Indo-Aryans.[5] At some point that has yet to be determined, but possibly between 12th to 8th century BCE, Gandhara - which spans from Kandahar to some of the other provinces in Afghanistan and Pakistan and Kamboja, two of the sixteen Mahajanapadas (in Sanskrit 'Great Kingdoms') frequently referred to in Buddhist and Hindu religious texts are believed to have evolved as important political entities in what is today south-eastern Afghanistan. Many scholars believe that while the Gandharans were early Indo-Aryan-speakers, the Kambojas were either Iranian or Indo-Iranian-speaking. Both groups find frequent mention in numerous ancient Sanskrit and Pali texts, in particular the Mahabharata and numerous Puranic literature. Alexander’s historians refer to the tribal population of Paropamisade as consisting of such clans as the Parsyetae (Parshu/Parshava), Aspasii (Aspasians), Asteknois (Hastiyanas), and Assakenois (Ashvakanas) and others. This nomenclature possibly demonstrates that while most of this tribal population was, there were also some population segments which may have spoken early Indo-Aryan tongues. This is because while the tribal name Parsyete implies Old Afghan affinities and the Aspasii (derived from Farsi-Dari also Pashto word Aspa) also indicates an Aryanic horse culture, the Assakenois (Sanskrit Ashvakan) of the Swat valley, on the other hand, were possibly an Indo-Aryan horsemen culture as their name derives from the Sanskrit Ashva (horse). The Aspasian peoples are believed to be the western branch of the Ashvakas or Assakenians[6].

The Assakenois and Aspasios of the classical writings or the Ashvakas of the Sanskrit texts are believed by numerous scholars to have been sub-sections of the ancient Kambojas in reference to their equestrian nature. The rock edict V of Emperor Ashoka found at Shahbazgarhi and Mansehra prominently refers to the Yonas (Ionian Greeks), Kambojas and Gandharas, while rock edict XIII refers to the Greeks and Kambojas (Yonakambojesu) as people of the western frontiers. It is noteworthy that Ashoka’s rock edicts/inscriptions written exclusively in Aramaic have been discovered only in the Paropamisade (region between river Kabol and Hindu Kush Mt), whereas those in Greek and Aramaic were discovered in Arachosia (south-east Afghanistan) and in Prakrit and Aramaic in Gandhara region (Peshawer to Rawalpindi). Scholars believe that the Greek version of Ashokan inscriptions was intended for the Yonas (the Greeks or Aryans), the Prakrit version for the Indo-Aryan Gandharas, while the Aramaic version was directed at the Kambojas[7]. This shows that Paropamisade region (an Aramaic territory) was inhabited by early Persian Kambojas as the Aramaic was an official language for the Persian tribes under Achaemenid rulers. Moreover, as a Greco-Aramaic inscription (known as Shar-i-Kuna inscription) was discovered in 1957 in Kandhahar also, this, according to some scholars, may attest that a section of the Aramaic-knowing Kambojas (or other Iranian tribes) were also possibly located north of Kandhahar as neighbors to the Greeks. The compound expression Yonakambojesu of Ashoka’s Rock Edict XIII as well as of Buddhist Majjhima Nikaya[8], powerfully supports this view. The chronology of major events and corresponding archaeology remains highly sporadic as does the religious connotation which remains unverifiable.

Achaemenid Rule, and rise of Zoroastrianism ca. 550 BCE–331 BCE

The city of Bactria (which later became Balkh), is believed to have been the home of Zarathustra, who founded the Zoroastrian religion. The Avesta refers to eastern Bactria as being the home of the Zoroastrian faith, but this can be a reference to either a region in modern Afghanistan or Border line of Afghan-Pakistan. Regardless of the debate as to where Zoroaster was from, Zoroastrianism spread to become one of the world's most influential religions and became the main faith of the old Aryan people for centuries. It also remained the official religion of Persia until the defeat of the Sassanian ruler Yazdegerd III—over a thousand years after its founding—by Muslim Arabs. In what is today southern Iran, the Persians emerged to challenge Median supremacy on the Iranian plateau. By 550 BCE, the Persians had replaced Median rule with their own dominion and even began to expand past previous Median imperial borders. Both Gandhara and Kamboja Mahajanapadas of the Buddhist texts soon fell a prey to the Achaemenian Dynasty during the reign of Achaemenid, Cyrus the Great (558–530 BCE), or in the first year of Darius I. According to Pliny's evidence, Cyrus II had destroyed Kapisa in Capiscene[9] which was a Kamboja city. The former region of Gandhara and Kamboja (upper Indus) had constituted seventh satrapy of the Achaemenid Empire and annually contributed 170 talents of gold dust as a tribute to the Achaemenids.

Bactria had a special position in old Afghanistan, being the capital of a vice-kingdom. By the fourth century BCE, Persian control of outlying areas and the internal cohesion of the empire had become somewhat tenuous. Although distant provinces like Bactriana had often been restless under Achaemenid rule, Bactrian troops nevertheless fought in the decisive Battle of Gaugamela in 330 BCE against the advancing armies of Alexander the Great. The Achaemenids were decisively defeated by Alexander and retreated from his advancing army of Greco-Macedonians and their Iranian allies. Darius III, the last Achaemenid ruler, tried to flee to Bactria, but was assassinated by a subordinate lord, the Bactrian-born Bessus, who proclaimed himself the new ruler of Persia as Artaxerxes, but was unable to mount a successful resistance to the growing military might of Alexander's army. Fleeing to his native Bactria, Bessus attempted to rally local Aryan tribes to his side, but was instead turned over to Alexander who proceeded to have him tortured and executed for having committed regicide.

Alexander the Great, Seleucid-Mauryan rivalry, and Greco-Bactrian Rule, 330 BCE–ca. 150 BCE

It had taken Alexander only six months to conquer Iran, but it took him nearly three years (from about 330 BCE–327 BCE) to subdue the area that is now Afghanistan. Moving eastward from the area of Herat, the Macedonian leader encountered fierce resistance from the local tribes of Aria (West Afghanistan), Drangiana (now part of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Eastern Iran), Arachosia (South and Central Afghanistan) and Bactria (North and Central Afghanistan). In a letter to his mother, Alexander described his encounters with the western and northern tribes[citation needed] thus: "I am involved in the land of a 'Leonine' (lion-like) and brave people, where every foot of the ground is like a wall of steel, confronting my soldier. You have brought only one son into the world, but everyone in this land can be called an Alexander”[citation needed]. Local resistance and the difficult terrain made it difficult for Alexander's forces to subdue the region as many invaders have found the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan similar to a maze that often trapped outside invaders. Alexander also met his Bactrian/Sogdian bride, Roxana—who was reportedly born in Balkh—while trying to consolidate his rule over ancient Afghanistan and adjacent regions in Central Asia. Their union reportedly produced one sole heir, Alexander IV, who was later killed in Greece by Cassander. Although Alexander's expedition through ancient Afghanistan was brief, he left behind a Hellenic cultural influence that lasted several centuries.

Upon Alexander's death in 323 BCE, his empire, which had never been politically consolidated, broke apart as his companions began to divide it amongst themselves. Alexander's cavalry commander, Seleucus, took nominal control of the eastern lands and founded the Seleucid dynasty. Under the Seleucids, as under Alexander, Greek colonists and soldiers colonized Bactria, roughly corresponding to modern Afghanistan's borders. However, the majority of Macedonian soldiers of Alexander the Great wanted to leave the east and return home to Greece. Later, Seleucus sought to guard his eastern frontier and moved Ionian Greeks (also known as Yavanas to many local groups) to Bactria in the third century BCE.


Mauryan Period (305-180BCE)

Bilingual edict (Greek and Aramaic) by Emperor Ashoka, from Kandahar - Afghan National Museum. (Click image for translation).

While the Diadochi were warring amongst themselves, the Mauryan Empire was developing in the northern part of the Indian subcontinent. The founder of the empire, Chandragupta Maurya, confronted a Macedonian invasion force led by Seleucus I in 305 BCE and following a brief conflict, an agreement was reached as Seleucus ceded Gandhara and Arachosia (centered around ancient Kandahar) and areas south of Bagram (corresponding to the extreme south-east of modern Afghanistan) to the Mauryans. During the 120 years of the Mauryans in southern Afghanistan, Buddhism was introduced and eventually become a major religion alongside Zoroastrianism and local pagan beliefs. The ancient Grand Trunk Road was built linking what is now Kabul to various cities in the Punjab and the Gangetic Plain. Commerce, art, and architecture (seen especially in the construction of stupas) developed during this period. It reach its high point under Emperor Ashoka whose edicts, roads, and rest stops were found throughout the subcontinent. Although the vast majority of them throughout the subcontinent were written in Prakrit, Afghanistan is notable for the inclusion of 2 Greek and Aramaic ones alongside the court language of the Mauryans.

Inscriptions made by the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka, a fragment of Edict 13 in Greek, as well as a full Edict, written in both Greek and Aramaic has been discovered in Kandahar. It is said to be written in excellent Classical Greek, using sophisticated philosophical terms. In this Edict, Ashoka uses the word Eusebeia ("Piety") as the Greek translation for the ubiquitous "Dharma" of his other Edicts written in Prakrit:

"Ten years (of reign) having been completed, King Piodasses (Ashoka) made known (the doctrine of) Piety (εὐσέβεια, Eusebeia) to men; and from this moment he has made men more pious, and everything thrives throughout the whole world. And the king abstains from (killing) living beings, and other men and those who (are) huntsmen and fishermen of the king have desisted from hunting. And if some (were) intemperate, they have ceased from their intemperance as was in their power; and obedient to their father and mother and to the elders, in opposition to the past also in the future, by so acting on every occasion, they will live better and more happily." (Trans. by G.P. Carratelli[10])

The last ruler in the region was probably Subhagasena (Sophagasenus of Polybius), who, in all probability, belonged to the Ashvaka (q.v.) background.

Greco-Bactrian rule

Coin of the Greco-Bactrian king Eucratides (171-145 BCE)

In the middle of the 3rd century BCE, an independent, Hellenistic state was declared in Bactria and eventually the control of the Seleucids and Mauryans was overthrown in western and southern Afghanistan. Graeco-Bactrian rule spread until it included a large territory which stretched from northeastern Iran in the west to the Punjab in India in the east by about 170 BCE. Graeco-Bactrian rule was eventually defeated by a combination of internecine disputes that plagued Greek and Hellenized rulers to the west, continual conflict with Indian kingdoms, as well as the pressure of two groups of nomadic invaders from Central Asia—the Parthians and Sakas.

The Kushan Empire, ca. 150 BCE–300 CE

Silver tetradrachm of Kushan king Heraios (1–30 CE) in Greco-Bactrian style, with horseman crowned by the Greek goddess of victory Nike.
Greek legend: ΤVΡΑΝΝΟVΟΤΟΣ ΗΛΟV - ΣΛΝΛΒ - ΚΟÞÞΑΝΟΥ "Of the Tyrant Heraios, Sanav, the Kushan" (the meaning of "Sanav" is unknown).

In the third and second centuries BC, the Parthians, a nomadic Iranian peoples, arrived in ancient Afghanistan. The Parthians established control in most of what is now Iran as early as the middle of the 3rd century BC; about 100 years later another Indo-European group from the north—the Tocharian Kushans (a subgroup of the tribe called the Yuezhi by the Chinese)—entered the region Afghanistan and established an empire lasting almost four centuries.

The Kushan Empire spread from the Kabul River valley to defeat other Central Asian tribes that had previously conquered parts of the northern central Iranian Plateau once ruled by the Parthians. By the middle of the 1st century BCE, the Kushans' base of control became Afghanistan and their empire spanned from the north of the Pamir mountains to the Ganges river valley in India. Early in the 2nd century under Kanishka, the most powerful of the Kushan rulers, the empire reached its greatest geographic and cultural breadth to become a center of literature and art. Kanishka extended Kushan control to the mouth of the Indus River on the Arabian Sea, into Kashmir, and into what is today the Chinese-controlled area north of Tibet. Kanishka was a patron of religion and the arts. It was during his reign that Mahayana Buddhism[citation needed] , imported to northern India earlier by the Mauryan emperor Ashoka (ca. 260 BCE–232 BCE), reached its zenith in Central Asia. Though the Kushanas supported local Buddhists and Hindus as well as the worship of various local deities.

Sassanian Rule, ca. 300–650

A coin depicting Shapur I who conquered ancient Afghanistan

In the 3rd century, Kushan control fragmented into semi-independent kingdoms that became easy targets for conquest by the rising Iranian dynasty, the Sassanians (ca. 224–561) which annexed Afghanistan by 300 CE. Sassanian control was tenuous at times as numerous challenges from Central Asian tribes led to instability and constant warfare in the region.

The disunited Kushan and Sassanian kingdoms were in a poor position to meet the threat of a new wave of nomadic, Indo-European invaders from the north. The Hephthalites (or White Huns) swept out of Central Asia around the fourth century into Bactria and to the south, overwhelming the last of the Kushan and Sassanian kingdoms. Some have speculated that the name Afghanistan land of the Afghans derives from which could be an adjective such as brave, chivlarious, valour, which was to use for the people in today's Afghanistan. Historians believe that Hepthalite control continued for a century and was marked by constant warfare with the Sassanians to the west who exerted nominal control over the region.

By the middle of the sixth century the Hephthalites were defeated in the territories north of the Amu Darya (the Oxus River of antiquity) by another group of Central Asian nomads, the Göktürks, and by the resurgent Sassanians in the lands south of the Amu Darya. It was the ruler of western Göktürks, Sijin (aka Sinjibu, Silzibul and Yandu Muchu Khan) who led the forces against the Hepthalites who were defeated at the Battle of Chach (Tashkent) and at the Battle of Bukhara.

Kabul Shahi

Coin of the Shahi king Spalapati Deva, circa 750-900.
Obv: Bull, symbol of Shiva. Rev: King mounted on a horse.

The Shahi dynasties ruled portions of the Kabul Valley (in eastern Afghanistan) and the old province of Gandhara (northern Pakistan and Kashmir) from the decline of the Kushan Empire in third century to the early ninth century.[11] They are split into two eras the Buddhist-Shahis (also known as the Kushano-Hephthalites and the later Hindu-Shahis with the change-over occurring around 870, and ruled up until the Islamic conquest of Afghanistan.

Kushano-Hephthalite Kingdoms in 600 AD.

When Xuanzang visited the region early in the 7th century CE, the Kabul valley region was ruled by a Kshatriya king, who is identified as the Shahi Khingal, and whose name has been found in an inscription found in Gardez. The Turk Shahi regency was overthrown and replaced by a Mohyal Shahi dynasty of Brahmins who began the first phase of the Hindu Shahi dynasty.

These Hindu Shahi kings of Kabul and Gandhara may have had links to some ruling families in neighboring Kashmir and other areas to the east. The Shahis, though Hindu, were rulers of a predominantly Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Hindu and Muslim populations and were thus patrons of numerous faiths, and various artifacts and coins from their rule have been found that display their multicultural domain. In 964 AD, the last Mohyal Hindu Shahi was succeeded by the Janjua overlord, Jayapala, of the Panduvanshi dynasty. The last Shahi emperors Jayapala, Anandapala and Tirlochanpala fought invading Muslim Turks from Central Asia and were gradually defeated and eventually exiled from their domains into northern India.

Archaeological remnants from Afghanistan's pre-Islamic period

Most of the Zoroastrian, Greek, Hellenistic, Buddhist, Hindu and other indigenous cultures were replaced by the coming of Islam and little influence remains in Afghanistan today. Along ancient trade routes, however, stone monuments of the once flourishing Buddhist culture did exist as reminders of the past. The two massive sandstone Buddhas of Bamyan, thirty-five and fifty-three meters high overlooked the ancient route through Bamyan to Balkh and dated from the third and fifth centuries. They survived until 2001, when they were destroyed by the Taliban. In this and other key places in Afghanistan, archaeologists have located frescoes, stucco decorations, statuary, and rare objects from as far away as China, Phoenicia, and Rome, which were crafted as early as the 2nd century and bear witness to the influence of these ancient civilizations upon Afghanistan.

See also


  1. ^ Encyclopaedia Britannica
  2. ^ John Ford Shroder, B.S., M.S., Ph.D. Regents Professor of Geography and Geology, University of Nebraska. Editor, Himalaya to the Sea: Geology, Geomorphology, and the Quaternary and other books. Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2006 - Afghanistan...Link
  3. ^ Nancy Hatch Dupree - An Historical Guide To Afghanistan - Sites in Perspective (Chapter 3)
  4. ^ Autochthonous Aryans-corr.doc
  5. ^ The Rg-Veda in Afghanistan? A review of Rajesh Kochhar: The Vedic People
  6. ^ (Political history of Ancient India, 1996, p 216; Cambridge History of India, 352, n 3)
  7. ^ Aramaic edicts of Ashoka, 1980, p 66, notes 11–13; Political History of Ancient India, 1996, pp 610–13; Scerrato in Pugliese Carratelli and Garbini, 1964, 14–15; Colloque, L’Archeologie de l'empire achemenide, Paris, Nov, 21–22, 2003
  8. ^ (43.1.3)
  9. ^ Naturalis Historia, VI, 25, 92
  10. ^ History of Afghanistan
  11. ^ "Shahi Family." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2006. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 16 October 2006 [1].

Other sources

  • Ahmed, Akbar S. 1980. Pukhtun economy and society. London: Routledge and Kegan


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