Bactria (Bâkhtriš): country in northern Afghanistan, in Antiquity famous for its fierce warriors and its ancient religion, which was founded by the prophet Zarathustra.
If there was ever a region that can be described with the old geographical cliché that it is a country of opposites, it must be Bactria. Situated between the Hindu Kush mountain range in the south and the river Oxus (Amudar'ya) in the north, it is essentially an east-west zone that consists of extremely fertile alluvial plains, a hot desert, and cold mountains. The contrast between the country's fertility and desolation was already noted in Antiquity (e.g., by the Roman author Quintus Curtius Rufus); the presence of all types of landscape helps to explain why agriculture and urbanism started early in Bactria.
Bactria (Bactriana, Bākhtar in Persian, also Bhalika in Arabic and Indian languages, and Ta-Hsia in Chinese) was the ancient Greek name of the country between the range of the Hindu Kush and the Amu Darya (Oxus); its capital, Bactra or Balhika or Bokhdi (now Balkh), was located in what is now Afghanistan. It is a mountainous region with a moderate climate. Water is abundant and the land is very fertile.Bactria was the home of one of the Iranian tribes. Modern authors have often used the name in a wider sense, as the designation of all the countries of Central Asia.
Bactria was the homeland of Aryan tribes who later moved south-west into Iran, South Afghanistan, North Pakistan and North-WesternIndia around 2500-2000 BC Later it became the north province of the Persian Empire in Central Asia.(Cotterell, 59) It was in these regions, where the fertile soil of the mountainous country is surrounded by the Turanian desert, that the prophet Zarathushtra (Zoroaster) was said to have been born and gained his first adherents. Avestan, the language of the oldest portions of the Zoroastrian Avesta, was once called "old-iranic" which is related to Sanskrit. Today some scholars believe the Avestan-Language was the western dialect of the Sanskrit because both languages are the oldest Indo-Iranian language of Aryans we know. With the time the Avestan-Language became developed by own western style.
Bactria was bounded on the south by the ancient region of Gandhara. The Bactrian language is an Iranian language of the Indo-Iranian sub-family of the Indo-European family.
Bactrian was probably spoken by the local populations of Bactria when Alexander the Great invaded the area around 323 BCE, inaugurating a two-century period of Hellenistic rule by the Seleucid Empire and the then the Greco-Bactrian kingdom.
Greek rule ended around 123 BCE with the invasions of the Yuezhi ( Kushans) from the North, who adopted the Greek alphabet to write the local Bactrian language, a case which is unique among Iranian languages. Before that time, Bactrian was written in the Aramaic alphabet.
Bactrian seems to have been, together with Greek, the official language of the Kushans, descendant of the Yuezhi, and was used in their coins and inscriptions. In 1993, the Bactrian Rabatak inscription was discovered, recording that under the Kushan king Kanishka (c. 120 CE), use of the Greek language was officially discontinued. The territorial expansion of the Kushans helped propagate Bactrian to Northern Indiaand parts of Central Asia, as far as Turfan where Buddhist and Manichean inscriptions in Bactrian can be found.
The phonetic composition remains very hard to know for sure, because not all phonemes can be distincted from written documents. Supposedly, there were 9 vowels (all long and short, except short o), which could be reduced easily due to phonetic processes. The consonant mutations included *d > l, *c > dj, -rs- > -s'- etc. In general, Bactrian phonetics has features both seen in modern Pashto and in Middle Iranian Parthian and Sogdian.
In morphology, Bactrian went rather far from ancient languages than other Iranian tongues. The gender disappeared, only 2 noun cases were preserved (direct and indirect), the ancient inflected forms of the past tense were replaced. The language used a definite article i.
According to Professor Nicholas Sims-Williams of SOAS, University of London, who is the leading expert of the Sogdian and Bactrian languages, gave a lecture on the discovery and decipherment of Bactrian documents, written in the little-known Iranian language of Ancient Afghanistan in modified Greek script, at the Ancient Orient Museum in Ikebukuro, Tokyo, on September 23.
During the first centuries of the Christian era, Bactrian could legitimately have been ranked amongst the world's most important languages. As the language of the Kushan kings, Bactrian must have been widely known throughout a great empire, in Afghanistan, Northern India and part of Central Asia. Even after the collapse of the Kushan empire, Bactrian continued in use for at least six centuries, as is shown by the ninth-century inscriptions from the Tochi valley in Pakistan.
and the remnants of Buddhist and Manichean manuscripts found as far away as the Turfan oasis in western China. (This slide, for instance[Slide 212KB], shows the unique fragment of a Bactrian text written in Manichean script, which forms part of the Turfan collection in Berlin.) The career of Bactrian as a language of culture thus lasted for close to a thousand years.
Until forty years ago virtually nothing was known of the Bactrian language except for the legends on the coins of the Kushans and their successors. The Kushan coins are inscribed in Greek letters of an angular type, apparently imitating a style of writing used for monumental inscriptions. In principle these legends are not particularly difficult to read, but their content is limited to the names and titles of kings and deities. The coins of the later rulers of Bactria --- Kushano-Sasanians, Kidarites, Hephthalites, Turks, and so on --- are written in a cursive script, imitating manuscript styles, which has proved much more difficult to decipher. Some tiny scraps of manuscripts in a similar cursive script were also known, but they were too few and too incomplete to offer any realistic prospect of interpretation.
Although I have only been able to describe a small part of an immense new body of material, I hope that I have said enough to show that it will throw new light on many aspects of the history and culture of ancient Afghanistan. But as yet I have hardly mentioned its importance for Iranian historical linguistics, though for me personally this is its chief fascination .
This slide shows a small selection of forms which illustrate the position of Bactrian amongst the Iranian languages. In particular I have chosen forms which show the connection between Bactrian and the languages of the surrounding area: medieval Sogdian and Choresmian; modernPashto, Yidgha-Munji, and Ishkashmi. Such forms support the conclusion which Henning reached on first acquaintance with the new language that it is "in its natural and rightful place in Bactria" and justify his decision to name it Bactrian.
In many cases the new material confirms or contradicts views originally reached on the basis of limited evidence. For instance, Gershevitch's controversial interpretation of lruh-minan in the Surkh Kotal inscription as the plural of a putative *lruh-min "enemy" receives strong support from the contexts in which the later form druh-min occurs. It is particularly impressive that the new texts provide examples of many previously unattested Bactrian words whose existence had already been postulated by Martin Schwartz on the basis of their occurrence as loanwords in other languages of Central Asia.
Bactrian coin: an imitation
of an Athenian drachma
(British Museum, London)
The Hindu Kush, which marks the fault line of the Iranian and Eurasian tectonic plates, runs more or less from the east to the west, and many small rivers run down from its slopes to the north, deposeting sediments on the foothills and the plain that runs parallel to the mountain range. Consequently, this is a very fertile area, where farmers produced wheat and barley in very ancient times. Their culture, known as the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC), can be dated to c.2200-1700 and is sometimes associated with the arrival of the Indo-Iranians.
Figurine from Bactria, c.
2000 BCE. (Louvre, Paris)
Once, there had been a semi-arid zone between the fertile area and the river. Some of the mountain streams, however, had reached the river Oxus, and had formed lush corridors through the steppe. When the farmers started to dig canals to irrigate fields immediately north of the foothills, however, the waters disappeared from the arid zone and it changed into a desert.
So, after 2000 BCE, several parallel zones can be discerned:
the Hindu Kush mountains in the south;
the foothills and the fertile agricultural zone;
the river Oxus.
North of the river was the steppe, which was occupied by Sogdian nomads, with whom the Bactrians must have exchanged products.
According to some scholars, the Bactrian prophet Zarathustra lived in the second half of the second millennium. He is the founder ofZoroastrianism and reformed aspects of an older religion. Archaeologists have tried to see traces of this older religion in the BMAC, but decisive proof is lacking. Besides, it must be noted that there are scholars who date Zarathustra in the mid-first millennium, which makes it very implausible that there is continuity from the BMAC to Zoroastrianism.
A modern picture of
However this may be, Bactria was incorporated in the Achaemenid empire as a special satrapythat was sometimes ruled by the crown prince or intended heir (mathišta). The country north of the Oxus, Sogdia, was at times part of this satrapy. The capital of Bactria was Bactra (Balkh, near modern Mazâr-e Sharîf), an important city in the history of Zoroastrianism. It is known to have had a sanctuary dedicated to the goddess of water and fertility Anahita, and is called "the town with the high-lifted banners" in the Avesta, the sacred book of the Zoroastrians.
When Darius I the Great reorganized the Persian empire and created formal satrapies, the Bactrians and the otherwise unknown Aeglians were reckoned to be one tax district, which was supposed to pay 360 talents every year. The Bactrian warriors were famous: they are known to have been part of the army of Darius' son and successor Xerxes, who invaded Greece in 480. Herodotus mentions their turbans, bows, and spears, and tells that they were employed during the battle of Plataea in 479.
The Greeks knew no nation beyond Bactria. When the Athenian playwright Euripides wanted to write that the god Dionysus was born in the far east, he called it Bactria, and the philosopher Aristotle of Stagira argued that from the Hindu Kush, one could see the eastern Ocean.
From coins, it can be deduced that these exiles managed to keep in touch with the motherland. Another group of Greek settlers was called the "Branchidae" and descended from a group of priests that had once lived near Didyma (near Miletus) and had been taken captive by the Persians.
In 329, the Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great arrived in Bactria, after a heroic crossing of the Hindu Kush. His opponent, the Persian leader Artaxerxes V Bessus, had expected an invasion from Aria in the west, and had destroyed the countryside, but Alexander arrived from the southeast. He captured Bactra, passed through the desert (text) and crossed the river Oxus. For the Iranian tribesmen inBactria and Sogdia, the shock was too much, and their leader Spitamenes arrested Bessus, who was handed over to Alexander's colonelPtolemy.
However, the Macedonian occupation of Sogdia and Bactria was not to be uncontested. Almost immediately after Alexander had decided to build a new city, called Alexandria Eschatê, 'the furthest Alexandria' (modern Khodzent), the Sogdians revolted, because they did not like urban settlements in their nomadic country. Another reason for this revolt was Zoroastrianism: the Zoroastrians did not want to soil the sacred earth or fire with dead corpses, and therefore exposed their dead to the vultures and dogs. The Macedonians were shocked and Alexander forbade this custom. Another cause may have been cattle raiding. It is impossible that the invading army did not confiscate cows - the only sin that was condemned explicitly in the Zoroastrian creed. All this was unacceptable to the Sogdians, and Spitamenes became their leader.
A mounted archer
(British Museum, London; ©**)
Many Bactrians sympathized with the insurrection, and Spitamenes knew how to exploit this. His mounted archers came dangerously close to the walls of Bactra. However, the Macedonians were able to overcome the revolt. Alexander's friend Hephaestion founded several new cities (including, probably, the one excavated near Ai Khanum). In the spring of 327, Bactria was more quiet, and Alexander married a native princess named Roxane to create more sympathy. Many Greek mercenaries -perhaps 30,000 men- were left behind as an occupation force when the Macedonian army crossed the Hindu Kush to invade the Punjab.
When Alexander was almost mortally wounded during the siege of the city of the Indian Mallians (early in 325), the Greek settlers in Sogdia and Bactria revolted and decided to march home. They were supported by the native population, who wanted to get rid of their new masters, leave the cities, and take up their old way of life. Order was restored, but a new insurrection in the summer of 323 (after thedeath of Alexander) was never really suppressed, although Alexander's successor Perdiccas had sent an army commanded by Peithon(text).
Peithon had wanted to save the Greek settlers, but they were killed by his army. From now on, there were insufficient Europeans to keepBactria occupied. At the same time, war broke out between Perdiccas and several of Alexander's commanders, and it was only in 308, afterSeleucus I Nicator had won the Babylonian War, that a new European army could invade Bactria again. From now on, Bactria belonged to the Seleucid Empire, and Seleucus' son and successor Antiochus I Soter was for some time governor of the eastern satrapies, as if he were an Achaemenid mathišta.
Greek-style capital from Balkh
The Greeks and Macedonian living in Bactria were now cut off from the European west. They became an independent kingdom, led by a man named Diodotus, who had already supported the Parni. Although the Seleucid king Antiochus III the Great invaded Parthia and Bactria in 206, the Bactrians were able to retain their independence. King Euthydemus appears to have been a powerful man. In 184, the Graeco-Bactrian kingdom seized Gandara and the Punjab, where the power of the Indian Maurya dynasty was in decline. Euthydemus' son Demetrius settled in Taxila, which he refounded as a Greek city (Sirkap).
In c.130, the Graeco-Bactrian kingdom came to an end: the Sacae nomad ( Scythians ) from the north, who had often made incursions, broke through, and in 110, they were also present in India. There were many small kingdoms, which have produced a remarkable variety of coins.
In the first century CE, the Yuezhi nomads or Kushans reunited Bactria and the Punjab. From their capital Peshawar in Gandara, the new kings ruled a powerful Buddhist empire, in which Indian, Iranian, Sacan, Parthian, and Greek elements were integrated. The Silk roadconnected Bactria with the Roman Empire in the west and China in the far east
Bactrian language was completely assimilated by the Persian and later by Turkish language, which spread in Tocharistan. This process is believed to take place until the 12th century. Some Bactrian tribes moved south, some north-west who saved partially thier languages
The Bactrians are one of the ancestral lines of the modern-day Pashtuns, Tajiks, Dards, and Pamirians . Some bactrians who lived aroundOxus were assimilated by Altic people
Pashtuns are classified as an Iranian people (Iranic People), possibly as partial modern-day descendants of Bactrians and Saka-Scythians, an ancient Iranian group. According to academic Yu. V. Gankovsky, the Pashtuns began as a "union of largely East-Iranian tribes which became the initial ethnic stratum of the Pashtun ethnogenesis, dates from the middle of the first millennium CE and is connected with the dissolution of the Epthalite (White Huns) confederacy." Early precursors to the Pashtuns were Old Iranian tribes that spread throughout the eastern Iranian plateau. The Pashto-speaking Pashtuns refer to themselves as Pashtuns or Pukhtuns depending upon whether they are speakers of the southern dialect or northern dialect respectively. In terms of phenotype, the Pashtuns overall are predominantly aMediterranean Caucasoid people, although light hair and eye colors are not uncommon, especially among remote mountain tribes.
The Aryans first settled on the Oxus (AMU DARYA in BACTRIA) around 4000 B.C. They called this river the Sarasvati and here Vedic culture developed. Around this time agriculture begins, allowing the population to move from the foothills into oases along the rivers that flow into the Central Asian desert. The new settlements include large fortified buildings.
Seen in isolation, the Rigveda is undateable. However, by placing it in the context of external evidence some useful time brackets can be assigned. The reference to copper, harnessing of domesticated horse for transport and draft, and use of wheeled-vehicles show that the oral tradition of the Rigveda is from around 4000-3000 BC.
The 2 rivers Sarasvati (Oxus) and Drishadvati (Jaxartes) represent Ikshvaku. Mr. Gangaram writes:” The Aryan civilisation was centered around the Sarasvati and Drishadavati rivers. We know that the goddes Sarasvati is also called Vaks (speech) and that the Sarasvati (daugher of the lake, sea) river is called Va(m)ksu in the Mahabharata. The Greek word Oxus is a corruption of Vaksu. The other river Jaxartes (Caks-sar(i)tes means eye-river) is. Drishadvati which means daugher of the eye (or stone). (Drish means: to see). The one river signifies sight while the other signifies speech. There is a relationship with Iksh-vaku (sight-speech), the well-known sage. Iksh-vaku is the great grandson of sage Kashyapa. The 2 rivers represent Iksh-vaku (see-speak), while Kashyapa is the Caspian sea, which in Vedic times was called Kasyapa Mira. Scientists have shown that the 2 rivers used to flow in the Caspian sea, before they changed their course and emptied in the Aral sea. This could be the cause of the southward movement of the Aryans. The Vedic river Raha ro Rasa is identified with the Volga river, which in old slavonic languages is called Rasa, from which Russia derives its name”.).
The Aryans called their country Arya-varta or shortly varta. Later on varta was corrupted to varat, barat which in modern times is mistaken for Bharat a character from the Mahabharata.
Bunsen however states that around 4000BC or earlier the Ayans were living on the Oxus or Sarasvati banks, around 3000 BC they were in Bactria and they reached the Indus around 2000 BC and in 1000 BC they reached Ceylon (Vambery, Bunsen, iii. 584,586), but some scolars object to this and state that the Aryans were much earler in the Indus/Ganga region).
From the Oxus river the Aryans reached the Tarim Basin around 3000 BC. Recently Aryan Nordic type mummies from around 2000 BC have been found in his ormer part of Aryavarta.
Alexander the Great invaded Bactria, Arya and Arachosia in 332 BC. He built Alexandrias in many parts of the country. Later, one of his generals founded the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom in the north of Afghanistan which lasted two centuries.
Buddhism began to penetrate Afghanistan around 250 BC and from the 1st century to the 7th, it flourished in one of its greatest centers in the beautiful valley of Bamiyan where today the two giant statues of Buddha (the tallest in the world) carved in the face of a cliff, are one of the wonders of the world
According to the historians, the same Bactrian Aryans were the ancestors of the Eastern Iranian tribs (Tajiks, Pashtuns, Ossetians, Pamirians) they had settled in the areas of Balkh, Herat, Kabul and Gandhara. They gave it the name of Aryana. In the hymns of reg Veda, there was a clear-cut indication of sindho (inus) , kubha (Kabul) , kurrma (kurram) , gumati (gumal) suvastu (swat) and other rivers of the area. Above all, according to bakhtar shah zafar, the philologists agree that Pashto joined hands with the Aryans group of languages. Abdul hye habibi, the most eminent scholar, has given a list of Pashto words, which resemble other languages of house of Aryans.
In historical times, the Arians lived in the country along the river Arios (the modern Hari Rûd), which is more or less identical to theAfghanistan province of Herât (Arya). The Aryans moved later south-west into Iran and into North-Western India around 2500-2000 BC . There were large deserts surrounding the fertile river valley.
From the late seventh or early sixth century BCE, the Arians were subjects of the Medes, and their country became a satrapy of theAchaemenid empire when king Cyrus the Great defeated the Medes (550 BC).
During the civil war of 522/520, the Arians seem to have remained quiet. Under Persian rule, the Arians started to live in towns; the Greek geographer Ptolemy of Alexandria (Geography 6.17.3) states that there were many towns and villages in the valley of the river, and that there were nomadic tribes who were living in the mountains. The center of the Persian government was the palace at Artacoana, which is usually identified with the modern town of Herât (Arya)
In September 330 BC, the Macedonian king Alexander the Great conquered Aria in pursuit of the leaders of the Persian national resistance, king Bessus and the last satrap of Aria, Satibarzanes. Alexander used siege towers to take Artacoana; the inhabitants were killed or sold as slaves. The empty town was rebuilt and called Alexandria.
After Alexander's death (in 323), Aria became a stable part of the Seleucid empire -ruled by a Macedonian dynasty- for more than half a century. However, after 240, the neighboring countries Bactria and Parthia became independent from their Macedonian overlords. Aria was part of the new Bactrian kingdom, although the Seleucid king Antiochus III the Great managed to extend his realm to the east between 208 and 190. His son Antiochus IV Epiphanes sent a general, Eucratides, to do the same in 167, but the Parthian king Mithridates I outsmarted him and seized almost all Afghanistan. From now on, Aria was part of the Parthian empire.
In Antiquity, Aria was famous for its wine. It is mentioned in the Avesta as one of Ahuramazda's special creations (Vendidad, Fargard 1.9).
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