19 February 2007

Cybele and the Silk Road

I couldn't resist.

This silver medallion enriched with gold in relief is such an amazing image(© Thierry Olivier /musée Guimet), just one object in the astonishing exhibition at the Guimet Museum in Paris, Afghanistan, les trésors retrouvés.

The show includes the famous "Bactrian gold" discovered in northern Afghanistan shortly before Soviet forces moved into the country in 1979. These stunning finds survived the Soviet occupation and later civil war locked in the vaults of the National Bank in Kabul, where they were "rediscovered" after the US-led invasion in October 2001. There is also a rich display of glass from Alexandria and Indian carved ivories excavated at Bagram (sadly, better known today for its military base and prison) and from Aï Khanoum, north of Kabul, almost certainly the historical city of Alexandria on the Oxus, founded on the ruins of a Persian town after Alexander the Great's conquest of the area in the late fourth century BC.

The medallion - 10 inches across - comes from the 3rd Century BC temple in Aï Khanoum ("Moon Lady" in Uzbek): the goddess Cybele rides with a winged female divinity on a chariot drawn by a pair of lions across a mountainous tract. A priest in a long robe and pointed cap holds an umbrella over their heads, while another priest burns incense on a fire altar. The Sun-god and the crescent moon and a star hang in the sky. The picture is Greek but the style is strongly Oriental, a beautiful combination of east and west in art.

The temple, on the other hand, is distinctly eastern in form, and decidedly non-Greek in its conception. It was built on the Zoroastrian model, with massive, closed walls instead of the open column-circled structure of Greek temples. So, who really are these deities? Is the Sun-god the Greek Helios or a manifestation of the Zoroastrian Ahura-Mazda (Zoroaster, the religious teacher of the sixth century B.C., is thought to have lived in northern Afghanistan)? And has this Cybele, originally a mountain mother goddess from Anatolia, assimilated with a local 'Moon Lady'? Such things happen in Afghanistan, aptly called the "roundabout of the ancient world".

What is the Palmyra connection?

Aï Khanoum (a big dot on this small map) seems more of a strategic site than a trading centre. It lies on a high mound at the confluence of the Oxus and Kokcha rivers, with a moat and massive rampart with enormous bastion towers to protect the vulnerable northeast entrance. Masonry platforms to hold heavy ladders and siege machinery at the foot of the towers speak of intense military activity; of riches within, and enemies without. From the citadel on top of the mound, one can see the plains of Central Asia stretching away into the distance. Alexander spent two years on these plains and suffered numerous setbacks at the hands of mounted horsemen roaming the steppe. He must have been impressed by the strategic position of this tract of land and it may be that he himself ordered the establishment of a colony to protect the defile, an open back-door to the prosperous new province of Bactria. More details on the city here.

The riches of Bactria depended on the Silk Road, one route of which passed through the finger of the Wakhan Corridor and ran south of Aï Khanoum to Balkh where it met up with the northern route from Merv (now in Turkmenistan: the middle dot on the map). Two stelae written in the Palmyrene language were found at Merv, which shows that Palmyran merchants were travelling at least that far from their Syrian desert home. But a much earlier Afghan link comes even closer to home. Some 200 miles south of Aï Khanoum, in Laghman Province, there is an Ashokan Edict written in Aramaic (the official language of the Persian Empire).

What's an Ashokan Edict?

Ashoka was a king of the Mauryan Dynasty which had united the petty kingdoms in India shortly after Alexander the Great left the subcontinent. In 305 BC, the Mauryans brought much of Afghanistan, too, under their sway, when Seleucus I traded it away for 500 elephants and an Indian princess (possibly the best land deal before Manhattan island was sold to the Dutch). The renowned Mauryan King Ashoka, who reigned from 268-233 B.C., was a fervent Buddhist. He sent messengers to explain his new faith to every part of his empire, and even to the Greek monarchs of the west. He had the rules of Buddhism engraved on rocks and stone pillars. The western-most of these 'Edicts' (as they are known) are from Afghanistan, a good illustration of Afghanistan's traditional role as the crossroads between east and west.

Afghanistan and Palmyra

Two of Ashoka's rock inscriptions were found in the old city of Kandahar, inscribed in both Aramaic and Greek. They spell out his precepts for a life devoted to charity and compassion. The Edict from Laghman Province, which is written only in Aramaic, also contains the phrase:

"At a distance of 200 'bows' this way to (the place) called Tadmor."

Tadmor is the Aramaic - and Palmyrene - name for the city of Palmyra (third big dot on the left), and the boulder on which this was written stood beside the highway which led from India to the Middle East.

One day I hope to blog about Hellenistic Palmyra (aka Tadmor), only recently starting to come to light. It is already a town with some pretensions: large mudbrick structures built on solid limestone foundations, some showing traces of wall paintings and stucco decoration. This may have been the settlement, incidentally, burnt by Mark Antony in 41 BC.

Which brings this post (and the last two) almost full circle and to a close.

PS: you'll find wonderful photo's of the Bactrian gold on the PHDiva blog,
here, here, here, and here.


  1. Ohh, I wish I had the money to see that exhibition - why can't the lottery take pity on my travel enthusiasm already, lol. I've seen a TV report about the treasures some time ago and would love to see them. And a few other places in Paris while I'm at it. :)

  2. I liked the article and am fascinated by the silver medallion but my Ashoka is the same as Diodotus-I. (www.ranajitpal.com)

    I have also written something on the historical Jesus which has surprised many people http://ranajitpal-jesus-from-asia-minor.blogspot.com/2011/06/jesus-christ-was-amyntas-of-galatia_20.html


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