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Ai-Khanoum or Ay Khanum (lit. “Moon Lady” in Uzbek), probably the historical Alexandria on the Oxus, also possibly later named Eucratidia), was founded in the 4th century BC, following the conquests of Alexander the Great. The city is located in the Kunduz area in northeastern Afghanistan, at the confluence of the Oxus river (today's Amu Darya) and the Kokcha river.

The site was excavated through archaeological searches by a French DAFA mission under Paul Brunat between 1964 and 1978, as well as Russian scientists. The searches had to be abandoned with the onset of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, during which the site was looted and used as a battleground, leaving very little of the original material.

Strategic location

The choice of this site for the foundation of a city was probably guided by several factors. The region, irrigated by the Oxus, had a rich agricultural potential. Mineral resources were abundant in the back country towards the Hindu Kush. Lastly, its location at the junction between Bactrian territory and nomad territories to the north, ultimately allowed access to commerce with the Chinese empire.

Hellenistic foot fragment of a giant statue, from Ai-Khanoum, 2nd century BC (Source)

A Greek city in Bactria

Numerous artifacts and structures were found, pointing to a high Hellenistic culture, combined with Eastern influences. "It has all the hallmarks of a Hellenistic city, with a Greek theater, gymnasium and some Greek houses with colonnaded courtyards" (Boardman). Overall, Aï-Khanoum was an extremely important Greek city (1.5 sq kilometer), characteristic of the Seleucid Empire and then the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom. It seems the city was destroyed, never to be rebuilt, during the time of the Greco-Bactrian king Eucratides around 150 BC

Architecture

The mission unearthed various structures, some of them perfectly Hellenistic, some other integrating elements of Persian architecture:

  • Two-miles long ramparts, circling the city.
  • A citadel with powerful towers (20x11 meters at the base, 10 meters in height) and ramparts, established on top of the 60 meters-high hill in the middle of the city.
  • A Classical theater, 84 meters in diameter, that could sit 4,000-6,000 people, equipped with three loges for the rulers of the city.
  • A huge palace in Greco-Bactrian architecture, somehow reminiscent of formal Persian palatial architecture.
  • A gymnasium (100x100m), one of the largest of Antiquity. A dedication in Greek to Hermes and Herakles was found engraved on one of the pillars.
  • Various temples, in and outside the city. The largest temple in the city apparently contained a monumental statue of a seated Zeus, but was built of the Zoroastrian model (massive, closed walls instead of the open column-circled structure of Greek temples).
  • A mosaic representing the Macedonian sun, acanthus leaves and various animals (crabs, dolphins etc...)
  • Numerous remains of Classical Corinthian columns.

Sculptural remains

Statue, Ai Khanoum, 2nd century BC (Source)

Various sculptural fragments were also found, in a rather conventional, classical style, rather impervious to the Hellenizing innovations occurring at the same time in the Mediterranean world.

Of special notice, a huge foot fragment in excellent Hellenistic style was recovered, which is estimated to have belonged to a 5-6 meters tall statue (which had to be seated to fit within the height of the columns supporting the Temple). Since the sandal of the foot fragment bears the symbolic depiction of Zeus' thunderbolt, the statue is thought to have been a smaller version of the Statue of Zeus at Olympia.

Also found among the sculptural remains were:

  • a statue of a standing female in a rather archaic chiton
  • a fully preserved bronze statue of Herakles
  • a gargoyle head representing the Greek cook-slave

Due to the lack of proper stones for sculptural work in the area of Ai-Khanoum, unbaked clay and stucco modelled on a wooden frame were often used, a technique which would become widespread in Central Asia and the East, especially in Buddhist art. In some cases, only the hands and feet would be made in marble.

Epigraphic remains

The inscription with the Delphic precepts, at Ai-Khanoum.

Various inscriptions in Classical, non-barbarized, Greek have been found in Ai-Khanoum.

On a Herôon (funerary monument), identified in Greek as the tomb of Kineas (also described as the oikistes (founder) of the Greek settlement) and dated to 300-250 BC, an inscription has been found describing Delphic precepts:

"As children, learn good manners.
As young men, learn to control the passions.
In middle age, be just.
In old age, give good advice.
Then die, without regret."

(Ai Khanoum inscription)

The precepts were placed by a Greek named Clearchos, possibly Clearchos of Soles the disciple of Aristotle, who had copied them from Delphi:

"Whence Klearchos, having copied them carefully, set them up, shining from afar, in the sanctuary of Kineas"

(Ai Khanoum inscription)

  • Remains of some papyrus manuscripts, the imprint of which were left in the thin earth of brick walls, contained unknown philosophical dialogues on the theory of ideas, thought to be the only surviving remain of an Aristotelician dialogue, possibly the Sophist, where Xenocrates, another philosopher, present his theory of ideas[1].
  • Various Greek inscription were also found in the Treasury of the palace, indicating the contents (money, imported olive oil...) of various vases, and names of the administrator in charge of them. The hierarchy of these administrators appears to be nearly identical to that of the Mediterranean. From the names mentioned in these inscriptions, it appears that the directors of the Treasury were Greek, but that lower administrators had Iranian names[2].

Artifacts

Numerous Greco-Bactrian coins were found, down to Eucratides, but none of them later. Ai-Khanoum also yielded unique Greco-Bactrian coins of Agathocles, consisting of six Indian-standard silver drachms depicting Hindu deities. These are the first known representations of Vedic deities on coins, and they display early avatars of Vishnu: Balarama-Samkarshana and Vasudeva-Krishna, and are thought to correspond to the first Greco-Bactrian attempts at creating an Indian-standard coinage as they invaded northern India.

Among other finds:

  • A round medallion plate describing the goddess Cybele on a chariot, in front of a fire altar, and under a depiction of Helios.
  • Various golden serpentine arm jewellery and hearings.
  • Some Indian artifacts, found in the treasure room of the city, probably brought back by Eucratides from his campaigns.
  • A toilet tray representing a seated Aphrodite.
  • A mold representing a bearded and diademed middle-aged man.

Various artifacts of daily life are also clearly Hellenistic: sundials, ink wells, tableware.

Nomadic invasions

The invading Indo-European nomads from the north (the Scythians and then the Yuezhi) crossed the Oxus and submerged Bactria about 135 B.C. It seems the city was totally abandoned between 130-120 BC following the Yuezhi invasion. These is evidence of huge fires in all the major buildings of the city. The last Greco-Bactrian king Heliocles moved his capital from Balkh around 125 BC and resettled in the Kabul valley. The Greeks were to go on controlling various parts of northern India under the Indo-Greek Kingdom until around 1 BC, until the Yuezhi further expanded in northern India themselves, to form the Kushan Empire.

As with other archaeological sites such as Begram or Hadda, the Ai-Khanoum site has been pillaged during the long phase of war in Afghanistan since the fall of the Communist government.

Eucratides I Coins

Significance

The findings are of considerable importance, as no known remain of the Greco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek civilizations had been uncovered in the East (beyond the abundant coinage) until this discovery, leading some to speak about a "Bactrian mirage".

This discovery gives a new perspective on the influence of Greek culture in the East, and reafirms the influence of the Greeks on the development of Greco-Buddhist art.

Notes

  1. ^ Claude Rapin, "De l'Indus à l'Oxus", p375
  2. ^ Claude Rapin, "De l'Indus à l'Oxus", p375

References

  • "The Greeks in Bactria and India", W.W. Tarn, Cambridge University Press.
  • "De l'Indus à l'Oxus, Archéologie de l'Asie Centrale", Osmund Bopearachchi, Christine Sachs, ISBN 2951667922

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