When you're a country that sits atop a crossroads of the world, you're going to have a convoluted history. The Koreans, for example, can tell you all about incursions from China and Japan that way predate the birth of Christ, just as the Panamanians know a lot about legalistic shenanigans and 20th-century gunboat diplomacy. Still, a special place in the annals of the human experience should be saved for those countries that sit upon the land routes over which pass caravans and armies. Sometimes it seems like every square inch of Turkey has been a battleground at some point or another, and Poland's not far behind, but any list of such (un)fortunate lands must, by all rights, include Afghanistan.
The list of empire-builders who have swept into Afghanistan reads like a who's who of people who conquer other people. Tonight, your resident historiorantologist turns his bloodshot eyes and quaking pen to the history of this ancient land, with its critical mountain passes and fiercely independent tribesmen. Join me, if you will, in the Cave of the Moonbat, for yet another installment in the ongoing series, "Places You May Not Want to Visit This Year..."
Historiorant: This diary, written at the suggestion of – and dedicated to - Never In Our Names founder and Daily Kos Rescue Ranger Avila, was originally posted at NION on December 8, 2006.
I'll be up-front about this: I've never been to Afghanistan, but I've dreamed about it since back in the days when I was known in certain circles as Morocco Mole, World Traveler of Great Renown, and tended to make epic road trips to places haunted by the Muses. Afghanistan seemed to fit the bill: it's the kind of place so remote-sounding that Ally Sheedy, playing the weird chick in The Breakfast Club, mentions it as a potential destination, and throughout the centuries prior to that definitive film, the place has inspired some truly great writing. We'll get to Great White Burden Guy in a little while, but one of the most travel-inciting lines I ever read about the place actually came from a contemporary traveler-cum-historian.
Back before he took to writing fawning court histories praising the WASP work ethic, John Steele Gordon drove a Land-Rover to Tierra del Fuego, and upon his return, published one of the definitive books on road-tripping at the ends of the Earth, Overlanding: How to Explore the World on Four Wheels (Harper & Row, 1975). It was the kind of book that really shouldn't have fallen into the hands of the young unitary moonbat (kind of like The People's Guide to Mexico or any of Ed Buryn's Vagabonding series), but I read it through and through, and always got hung up on the last line - something about driving into an Afghan sunset the color of rubies and gold. I found it so inspirational, in fact, that me and a couple of buddies back in the late 80's made plans to follow as much of the Old Hippy Trail from London to Kathmandu as we could, once we were free of the bonds of military service.
Of course, by the early 90's, the Old Hippy Trail wasn't what it used to be. Eastern Europe might have become a little more accessible, but Iraq and Iran had spent the better part of a decade making war upon each other, and in Afghanistan, a Soviet invasion had been supplanted by an intolerant regime with contemptuous disregard for any point of view not its own. Perhaps there's still hope, though: if there's anything I've learned from looking into Afghan history, it's that all attempts to rule and administer its peoples are as transitory as they are doomed to failure.
For the Cartographically Inclined
The Library of Congress countrystudies entry for Afghanistan
has a rather odd way of describing the country:
Afghanistan resembles an irregularly shaped hanging leaf with the Wakhan Corridor and the Pamir Knot as its stem in the northeast.
Perhaps not the way a person accustomed to writing test questions would have put it, but I suppose it'll do. Here's a map - can you see the leaf?
For you absolute-location enthusiasts, the country lies between 29°35' (hi, Atlanta!) and 38°40' North Latitude (hi, Korean Demilitarized Zone!), and 60°31' to 75° East Longitude. It's roughly the size of Texas (but without the coast) and has some long borders with some surly neighbors:
Climatically speaking, Afghanistan is typical of your average arid and semiarid steppe, with temperatures varying by altitude as well as air mass circulation. Regardless, it's damn cold in the winter, and damn hot during the summer. It's also dry: annual rainfall tops out at under 50 cm, though the mountains get much more precipitation in the form of snow. Additionally, different regions experience their own pockets of periodic weather-based horrificness - in the south and west, for example, you might encounter the "Wind of 120 Days," which brings "dust winds" that can range in afternoon-long velocity from 97-177 km (about 60-100 mph) throughout the summer months. Then again, to escape the heat, you could always take a respite in the subarctic conditions in the Central Mountains and the Hindu Kush, where you can wade through two-meter snowpacks and compete with yaks and yetis for your food.
As Old As The Hills?
The website Afghanistan Online makes some pretty grandiose claims about the origins of some of the earliest achievements of our entire species:
50,000 BCE-20,000 BCE
* Archaeologists have identified evidence of stone age technology in Aq Kupruk, and Hazar Sum. Plant remains at the foothill of the Hindu Kush mountains indicate, that North Afghanistan was one of the earliest places to domestic plants and animals.
3000 BCE-2000 BCE
* Bronze might have been invented in ancient Afghanistan around this time.
* First true urban centers rise in two main sites in Afghanistan--Mundigak, and Deh Morasi Ghundai.
* Mundigak (near modern day Kandahar)--had an economic base of wheat, barley, sheep and goats. Also, evidence indicates that Mudigak could have been a provincial capital of the Indus valley civilization.
* Ancient Afghanistan--crossroads between Mesopotamia, and other Civilizations.
2000 BCE- 1500 BCE
* Aryan tribes in Aryana (Ancient Afghanistan)
* The City of Kabul is thought to have been established during this time.
* Rig Veda may have been created in Afghanistan around this time.
* Evidence of early nomadic iron age in Aq Kapruk IV.
Granted, the site itself is a little, um, Afghano-centric, but more neutral sources also indicate that the peoples of ancient Afghanistan were at or near the beginning of a lot of zeitgeists around the time of the Neolithic Revolution.
Plenty of evidence exists to prove that the Indus River Valley civilizations traded with those in Mesopotamia (link), and it stands to reason that settlements might develop at strategic or convenient points along the way; Afghanistan would have been among these. These early traders must have discovered the same thing that every army and merchant since has found: There simply aren't any ways of avoiding strategic chokepoints like the Khyber Pass, which at it's narrowest is as little as three meters (about 20 feet) wide.
Aryans and Persians and Greeks, oh my!
Exactly where the ancient Aryans might have originated seems a little murky - most history books pick up the tale with them in the regions east of the Caspian, with the arrows indicating their southward migrations starting in northern Iran. This Zoroastrian site places the homeland of the Aryans above the Arctic Circle in modern Russia, but in a much earlier period:
Iran is the ancient name of Persia, and it is derived from the root "Arya" or Aryan, the Indo-European branch of peoples who settled in that land. The Aryans of ancient Iran were Mazdayasni Zarathushtris, ie. Worshippers of Ahura Mazda (the name of God in Avestan) as revealed by the ancient prophet Zarathushtra, thousands of years before Christ.
However, all the ancient Zoroastrian scriptures speak of an earlier homeland from where our people came, the lost "Airyane Vaejahi" or seedland of the Aryans. From this homeland, the Indo- Europeans or Aryans moved to upper India, Iran, Russia and the nations of Europe such as Greece, Italy, Germany, France, Scandinavia, England, Scotland and Ireland.
Sanskrit, Latin, Avestan are all sister languages, and the present day upper Indian, Persian and European languages are related eg. Baradar in persian = Brata in sanskrit = Brother in english. "Persia" is actually a late European term for the land of "Farsi" language ie. Iran. The Arabic phase in Iran only began 1300 years ago, and we had to escape to India to preserve our Zoroastrian religion.
The "Vendidad" is one of the ancient scriptures of the Zoroastrians, actually called the "Vi-daevo-dat" or the law to fight against evil. In the first "Fargad" or chapter, the Golden Age of the ancient Aryans is outlined with their greatest king, "Yima Kshaeta" (Yam Raj in the Indian Vedas) who banished old age and death. Then, the ice age broke on the ancient home and the Aryans were forced to migrate southwards, to the southeast and the southwest.
Though more often associated with ancient Persia, tradition holds that Zoroaster himself was from the region in northern Afghanistan known as Balkh to us moderns, but as Bactriana, Bactra, or Bactria to classical writers. Though it seems pretty certain that he died in battle at Balkh (killed at an altar by nomadic Turanians who were storming the city), what's less clear is when this might have occurred: according to Wikipedia, "modern scholarly research" points to his living sometime between 1400 and 1000 BCE - a considerable departure from the traditional story, which holds that the time of Zoroaster (and thus, the revelation of monotheism) was 258 years before the invasion of Alexander, which would have put it around 588 BCE.
Cyrus the Great and his progeny incorporated much of modern Afghanistan into the Persian Empire, but he and his Achaemenid line seem to have had the same problems as everyone who's attempted to impose his will upon the people of the land they called Airyanem Vaeja ("Dominion of the Aryans"): rebellious tribes that chafed under foreign occupation. Still, the province of Bactriana stood with the Persians at Gaugamela, and like the Persians themselves, found they'd backed the wrong horse in Darius, who fled the field in the face of a charge by Alexander. Retreating to their mountain strongholds, they awaited the inevitable, conquering approach of the Macedonians.
Historiorant: Back in the early days of historioranting (when the processes and terms of moonbatification were first being unearthed here in the Cave), I posted Persia, Part 1 at Daily Kos - please check it out for a brief mention of the Aryans and more stuff on the Achmenaeians. Persia, Part 2 has a bit more to do with the conqueror moonbatified below)
The Man Who Would Be King
Alexander the Great needed only 3 years to conquer a region that has proven resistant to countless attempts at subjugation by lesser men. He entered the region in pursuit of Bessus, a Bactrian cavalry officer who had betrayed and slain Darius while the latter was being pursued by Alexander in the months after the fall of Persepolis. Bessus probably thought that Alexander would reward him for his treachery - which had, after all, rid the Macedonian of a potential problem. He was wrong; Alexander saw regicide as among the more serious of crimes that one could commit, and town after town was forced to submit to his army as he moved to corner Bessus. Once his logistical lines were secure, Alexander encouraged the now-depopulated nomadic raiders to take up sedentary village life by through the founding of towns, many of which he named after himself. (Weird Historical Sidenote: tradition holds that "Kandahar" is a reworking of "Alexandria")
Back in his days at the Academy, Alexander's teacher, Aristotle, had told him that from the top of the Hindu Kush, one could see the end of the world. Alexander found out that even teachers like Aristotle can occasionally be full of crap when he climbed said range and found nothing but more mountains, plains, and deserts beyond, but he did get to see the rock to which Prometheus had been bound for the overtly-Zoroastrian act of bringing fire to the people. Disillusionment didn't stop him from chasing Bessus, though, who had begun employing a scorched-earth policy to cover his retreat - a tactic Alexander used against him by securing the aid of local chieftains against the guy who was slaughtering their livestock.
The fugitive was finally captured and brought, naked and wearing a wooden yoke, before Alexander at Balkh. The Macedonian had Bessus flogged when the latter had the temerity to attempt to justify himself, then honored Persian custom by having the guy's ears and nose cut off. Later, after trial by a Persian court, the traitorous, unfortunate Bessus was executed.
In the meantime, Alexander was displaying signs of what the British would later call "going native." He began insisting that people bow to the floor in his presence, which was the status quo for the Persian types, but laughably slavish-looking to the Macedonians who'd been with Alexander from the start. He also adopted Persian dress and court mannerisms - ostensibly to help with assimilation, but the semi-divinity of the position of oriental potentate probably didn't hurt, either. Even more troubling to the men was his marriage to Roxana, the daughter of a Bactrian chieftain, instead of a proper Greek girl. All this, plus the drunken murder of one of the army's most trusted generals by their great commander, led to the army refusing to march any further than about 100 miles into India, which compelled Alexander to draw the eastern border of his empire at the Indus instead of the Ganges.
Alexander returned to Babylon with plans to meld the cultures and civilizations of his empire under the Platonic/Aristotelian idea of a benevolent philosopher/king, but died in 333 BCE, before he could implement the most ambitious of them. Still, his policies encouraging his soldiers to intermarry with local women (and to educate their offspring in Greek ways at state expense) resulted in a fair number of Greek settlers in Bactria and the eastern provinces, where the two cultures diffused and assimilated and did all those other anthropological things to one another over the next couple of centuries.
When Alexander's empire was partitioned by his leading generals after his death, the eastern end fell to Seleucus, who continued the policies of importing Hellenism to the East. Only 20 years after taking control of the region, the Seleucids lost a significant part of it (including the modern provinces of Herat and Kandahar) to Chandragupta Maurya, paving the way for the introduction of Buddhism to the area. This was especially true under the reign of Asoka the Great, but the tides of invasion were reversed after 185 BCE, when a coup overthrew the last Mauryan emperor and India entered a long, confusing, warring-states-type period.
Enter the kingdom of Greco-Bactria. It had been declared independent by a Seleucid military governor, Diodotus, around 250 BCE, and, using the growing power of the northern-Iranian Parthians as something of a shield, had gone on to resist attempts to re-incorporate it into the Greek sphere (Bactra resisted a 2-year siege around 205 BCE). Its existence thus secured, Greco-Bactria sent emissaries as far away as China - possibly the first meeting of China and the West - and traded with Ptolemaic Egypt. By the 2nd century BCE, they were part of Han China's Silk Road:
"The Son of Heaven on hearing all this reasoned thus: Ferghana (Ta-Yuan) and the possessions of Bactria and Parthia are large countries, full of rare things, with a population living in fixed abodes and given to occupations somewhat identical with those of the Chinese people, but with weak armies, and placing great value on the rich produce of China"
Han Shu, , via laborlawtalk.com http://dictionary.la...]
With the fall of the Mauryans, Greco-Bactria now made its move toward the Khyber Pass, conquering much of northern Afghanistan in the process. Around 275 CE, a Greco-Bactrian king named Demetrius established the Indo-Greek Kingdom, which would exist until around 1 CE and become a model of Greek/Buddhist relations, but while he was doing so, he found himself usurped back home. Though he marched back across Afghanistan with 60,000 men, he lost a showdown with his rival (a guy named Eucratides) and the two Greco-Bactrias went on as separate kingdoms.
As it turns out, Demetrius' offshoot lasted longer than the original. In 162 BCE, Greco-Bactria found itself under pressure from the nomadic Yueh-Chih, who were likely moving out of the path of the Huns. It's not clear whether they were invited into Greco-Bactria the first time around (the Romans used to import refugees to serve as speedbumps and buffers; the Yeuh-Chih could have been early, eastern versions of the Goths), but forty years afterward, they were violently supplanting the order of things. The last Greco-Bactrian king, Heliocles, retreated to the fortress of Kabul in 125 BCE, pushing before him other groups like the Indo-Scythians, and the whole of the Greek holdings in India were incorporated into the growing Kushan Empire around 12 BCE-1 CE.
Straddling the Silk Road
Greek influences continued to exert themselves upon the cultures of northern India both during and after the demise of the Greco-Indian state - one of the earliest representations of the Buddha on a coin bears the word "Boddo" written in the Greek script - and Hellenistic thinking may have been a factor in the development of the Mahayana school of Buddhism. The syncretism born of religious toleration was wildly popular: According to the Mahavamsa, a Greek Buddhist monk named Mahadharmaraksita led 30,000 monks from Alexander-of-the-Caucasus (approx. 150 km north of Kabul) to Sri Lanka for the dedication of a stupa during the reign of the Greek Buddhist king Meander in the 2nd century BCE, and Greek influence is detectable in the Buddhist art and architecture of the period. By the 1st century CE, the Kushans were using the Greek alphabet and telling each other their own versions of stories about Trojan horses.
The Kushans were one of the five tribes that formed the Yueh-Chih confederation, and were pretty clearly the most successful of them. From their capitol near Kabul, they came to dominate a large chunk of modern Afghanistan, northern India, and Pakistan - which gave them control of every trade route between the Aral Sea and Benares. Perhaps not surprisingly, they were a mercantile, urban people, and much concerned with matters of Buddhist theology and the visual arts. By the time they added a second capitol at Peshawar, then a third in India, the Kushan Empire was exchanging diplomatic niceties with Hadrian's Rome and Han China.
As successful, luxuriant cultures are wont to do, the Kushans grew soft with time, and by the 3rd century CE, they found themselves too weak to defend against the two younger, hungrier civilizations on their eastern and western borders. Between 224-240, Sassanian Persians invaded and conquered Bactria and northern India; a little less than a century later, the Gupta Empire was helping itself to Kushan's southern and eastern flanks. The Kushans finally succumbed to Shapur II, who added most of the rest of what is now Afghanistan to the Sassanid Empire in the mid-4th century, though locally powerful Kushan strongholds survived here and there.
Weird Historical Sidenote: Remember those enormous sandstone Buddhas on the road between Balkh and Bamian - the ones the Taliban blew up? Those were of Kushan origin, dating from the 3rd and 5th centuries.
Into this mix rode yet another warlike tribe from the north: the Hepthalites, or "White Huns," who cut a path clear to India before stopping to assimilate into the local cultures. They seem to have fought the Sassanians for the better part of a century, but by the mid-500s, the White Huns were historical goners. Yet another wave of fierce nomadic horsemen - the Western Turks, this time - had swept in from the north and wrested control of the lands north of the Amu Darya (the river Alexander called the Oxus) from the Hepthalites, even as the Sassanisans had caught a second wind and took control of the lands to the south. Until the arrival of Islam, the area remained a smattering of kingdoms under nominal Sassanian control - they named their new province Khorasan - but the local lords were always Kushan or Hepthalite.
Historiorant: The origin of the White Huns, as well as their eventual fate, seems to the source of some pretty impassioned debate in certain circles. No two sources seem to agree on their homeland - placed anywhere from Mongolia to Eastern Iran - and the Wikipedia article (which is contested) points to the Hepthalites as, among other demographic influences, possible forebears to the Pashtun tribes.
Peace and Blessing Be Upon Him
About five years after the passing of the Prophet, with the Arabian Peninsula fully Abu Bakr-ized behind them, the forces of Islam faced off against the much larger army of Sassanian Persia at the town of al-Qadisiyah (near Hilla in modern Iraq). The four-day battle that followed was epic in the way that only those battles upon which hinge the fates of empires can be, and has all the twists and plot reversals of a really well-told piece of fiction:
- The Persians brought elephants, which terrified the horses of the Arab cavalry. By the third day, the Muslims figured out how to spook the elephants by costuming their horses, and a soldier was able to take out the lead pachyderm. Seeing this, the other elephants cut and ran, trampling their way back through the Persian lines.
- Any battle like this has to have an outrageously-fortuitous arrival of reinforcements, and al-Qadisiyah was no exception. Early on the third day, when things were starting to look hopeless for the outnumbered Muslims, they found their ranks suddenly bolstered by the arrival of veteran troops fresh from the conquest of Syria.
- On the fourth day, as fate would have it, a sandstorm blew directly into the faces of the Persians, which gave the Arab archers a distinct advantage. The Sassanian center began to collapse, and the whole scene turned into a rout when a Muslim soldier killed the Zoroastrian commander, held aloft the man's severed head, and shouted, "By the Lord of the Ka'bah! I have killed Rostam!"
Al-Qadisiyah is a defining moment for Islam - had the Sassanian lines held, the rapid expansion across Asia that has resulted in such colorful maps in our history texts might have been halted on the banks of the Euphrates. Saddam Hussein, especially, tried to associate himself with the battle: among other things, he commissioned murals of himself surveying the battlefield (although in his version, the good guys had tanks) and constructed Baghdad's most recognizable landmark, the Sword of al-Qadisiyah.
With the main body of its army destroyed, the days of Zoroastrian Persia were numbered. The last Sassinian king, Yazdgerd III, retreated to Khorasan in the hopes that he could raise yet another army while the Muslims paused to consolidate their hold on the rest of his former empire. It didn't work out that way: Yazdgerd was assassinated, and Khorasan fell to the Muslims in 647.
Fruits of the Faith
The Umayyads seem to have met with rather violent pockets of conversion-resisters, and during the Abbasid-Umayyad civil war (743-750), most of the region's inhabitants backed the Abbasid challengers. They were rallied to the cause by Abu Muslim Khorasani, a propagandist-cum-governor-cum-general who hailed from Iraq (Kufa) but administered areas further east – a guy so devoted to the Abbasid cause that he was eventually executed for reminding the newly-enthroned Caliph him just who had put him in the seat of power - and the newly-Abassidized people of Khorasan availed themselves of the perks that came with having backed the winning side in a civil war. The region flourished under the rule of the early Abbasids (especially under Harun al-Rashid, 785-809), and peace encouraged folks to settle down. It is during this period that Turkic-speakers began settling in the Hindu Kush region, where they started taking on the ways and customs of the Pashtun tribes that were already there.
Abbasid control of the outlying provinces became a rather tenuous thing by the mid-9th century, and independent kingdoms started popping up wherever the Caliph's hold seemed to be weakening. The Samanid Dynasty, originally founded (819) as a vassal of the Abbasids, eventually extended its influence from Iran to India, and transmitted the culture of the first Persian Muslim dynasty - read: Shi'aism - throughout their short-lived reign (capitol of Bukhara captured 999; last king assassinated in 1005).
It's only now that people start to call this the "land of the Afghans" - the first confirmed use of the term is by Hadud al-Alam in 982 CE - but it was applied more specifically to the lands of the Pashtun tribes than to the region as a whole. The origins of the word "Afghan" itself are obscure; the Pashtuns seem to have used it to refer to themselves since deep in antiquity. 17th Century Pashto poet Khushal Khan Kattak about sums it up:
Pull out your sword and slay any one, that says Pashton and Afghan are not one! Arabs know this and so do Romans: Afghans are Pashtons, Pashtons are Afghans!
In some lands, cultures just sort of layer on top of one another - one assimilating into the next with the plodding certainty of historical inevitability. Afghanistan is one of those lands, one whose traditions of freedom assertion and tribal alliances/feuds are so old, so connected to the very soil, that they may just be beyond the ken of a westerner. Those who would invade Afghanistan would do well to remember that this is a land peopled by folks who are descended from some of the most bad-ass nomadic raiders that ever rode away from a burning village.
Next time, we’ll meet up with the Ghaznavids, Ghurids, Mongols, and a guy called Timur the Lame – until then, Merriest of Christmases and Happiest of Holidays from the Cave of the Moonbat!