The Greeks, Afghanistan, and the Buddha

Bijan Omrani

Is the Classics just about Europe and the West? Far from it. Greek and Roman culture was influential far beyond the Mediterranean, and had an impact deep into Africa and Asia. The mixture of these eastern and western ideas in the Classical world affects us even today. Take, for example, the story of the lost Greek kingdoms of Afghanistan, and the development of the image of the Buddha.

In the early 1960s, a farmer found some unusual carved stonework at a spot called Ai Khanum on the south bank of the Amu Darya (also known as the Oxus, which forms the northern border of Afghanistan). The farmer showed his find to a local tribal chief and business magnate, Gholam Sarwar Nasher, who immediately contacted a Princeton archaeologist, Daniel Schlumberger. The find was Greek in style, and it prompted Schlumberger to start a campaign of excavations at Ai Khanum, which lasted from 1964 until the outbreak of the Soviet invasion in 1979.

The Graeco-Bactrian Kingdom (c. 180 BC), with Ai Khan(o)um marked to the east

The discoveries were extraordinary. In the north-eastern corner of Afghanistan, 2,500 miles from the Mediterranean coast and in the middle of Central Asia, a city emerged that was replete with typically Greek material. It contained a gymnasium and a theatre – the easternmost Greek theatre ever discovered. Buildings were decorated with Corinthian column capitals. There were statues of Heracles with his club, and funerary carvings of young men (ephebes) crowned with laurel such as might be seen in Athens itself. Traces of texts on papyrus and parchment showed that the inhabitants were reading Platonic-style philosophical dialogues, and watching the tragedies of Sophocles in the theatre.

Statue of Heracles found at Ai Khanum, 2nd century BC (Kabul National Museum, Afghanistan)

Indeed, the settlement boasted of its connections with the distant Greek west. On the monumental tomb of a man called Cineas, who is thought to be the official founder of the settlement, are a number of verses which record the visit to the tomb of a man called Clearchus. This is likely to be a philosopher called Clearchus of Soli, active in the late fourth century BC.

Heroon (funerary monument) inscribed with the Greek precepts of Clearchus (Ai Khanum, 2nd cent. BC, now in the Guimet Museum, Paris)

Clearchus was born in Cyprus, became a pupil of Aristotle, and then travelled extensively in Asia, writing books about the connections between eastern and western religions, particularly between Judaism and Indian faiths. The inscription states that Clearchus had travelled to Ai Khanum from the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi – the heart of the ancient Greek world – to bring from the shrine “wise sayings of the men of old”, which are also inscribed on Cineas’ tomb:

As a child, be well-behaved;

in puberty, be self-controlled;

in middle age, be righteous;

in old age, be of good counsel;

upon death, be without sorrow.

The presence of this Greek-style city in Afghanistan was a legacy of Alexander the Great (356–323 BC). Alexander had entered the region of Afghanistan in around 330 BC in the course of his conquest of the Persian Empire under the Achaemenid dynasty. He campaigned in the region of Afghanistan and the modern-day states of Central Asia (particularly Tajikistan and Uzbekistan), before heading south-east to attack India. Later Greek historians record a number of striking stories about Alexander’s time in these regions. They claim he married a local princess, Roxane, to cement the relationship between the invading army and the local nobility, and also that he discovered a city in the mountainous frontier area between modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan which had been founded by the wine god Dionysus – overjoyed at which discovery Alexander tore off his clothes and led a Bacchic revel.

The eastern campaigns of Alexander the Great, 331–323 BC

In his progress through these regions, Alexander re-established the captured Achaemenid cities as his own strongholds. Each re-founded city would be named after him – for example Herat in western Afghanistan became Alexandria Ariana, and Khujand in northern Tajikistan became Alexandria Eschate (or Alexandria the Farthest). He would settle Greek and Macedonian troops in them, whilst also recruiting new troops locally. These cities became the centres of Alexander’s new empire, and later attracted new Greek settlers.

Gold coin of King Diodotus, first king of the independent Graeco-Bactrian kingdom, c. 250 BC; the reverse depicts Zeus with his thunderbolt, aegis, and eagle.

After Alexander’s early death in 323 BC at the age of 33, his empire, which stretched from Egypt and Asia Minor to the borders of India, started to break up. By 250 BC, the area around northern Afghanistan and the Hindu Kush had become an independent entity, known as the Graeco-Bactrian Kingdom, ruled by Greek kings. The city at Ai Khanum – whose original Greek name we do not know – was probably established by one of Alexander’s successors on the site of an original Achaemenid stronghold, serving as one of the main centres of this independent Greek kingdom in Asia. The city survived until around 145 BC, when it appears to have been violently destroyed; however, the Greek kingdom in Afghanistan seems to have lasted for at least a century beyond this.

Statue of Strato discovered in the Gymnasium at Ai Khanum, of which he seems to have been the patron (Kabul National Museum, Afghanistan)

Although Ai Khanum shows that many elements of typically Greek culture were on display in this independent Greek kingdom, there were many aspects of it which belong to other traditions. In the city centre was a palace complex which, although adorned with Doric and Corinthian columns, had a design with grand courtyards and corridors more akin to the palaces of the Achaemenid kings, for example that of Darius I at Susa. Some of the temples too were more Iranian or Mesopotamian in pattern, and seem to show a mixture of Greek and Iranian religious customs. Several inscriptions from the palace complex reveal administrators with Greek names, such as Zenon and Timodemos, working side-by-side with others who have Iranian names, such as Oxybazos and Aryandes.

Coin of the Graeco-Bactrian king Demetrius (reigned c. 200–180 BC), wearing an elephant scalp, marking an interest in India; Heracles appears on the reverse.

Ai Khanum testifies not only to the mixture of Greek and Iranian culture. The influence of India also became more pronounced as time went on. There are many striking signs of this mixture. The Graeco-Bactrian kings all minted coins with self-portraits and, originally, depictions of Greek gods. However, later kings mixed Greek and Indian motifs. One king, Demetrius, put Heracles on the reverse of his coins, but in his own portrait wore an elephant-head helmet, testifying to his interest in India. A subsequent king, Agathocles, depicted not only the Greek gods, but also Indian deities including Vashudeva-Krishna and Samkarhana. Another king, Menander I, is recorded as having been a convert to Buddhism, and a Buddhist text of c. 100 BC, the Milinda Pahna (Questions of Menander), depicts a dialogue between him and the Buddhist sage Nagasena. 

An early Gandharan Buddha, which shows the influence of Greek artistic styles in the Graeco-Bactrian kingdom, c. 1st-2nd century AD (Museum of Tokyo, Japan).

But the one sign of this mixture which everyone will know is the figure of the Buddha himself. From the first century BC onwards, in the area of southern Afghanistan and north-western Pakistan, a new style of art arose – Gandharan Art – which reflected ideological developments in Buddhism, and which required an anthropomorphic depiction of the Buddha for the first time. In this style, the Buddha – an Indian creation – came to be depicted with a mixture of Greek and Indian elements, drawing from the recent Graeco-Bactrian past. In particular, he is dressed wearing a Greek-style tunic-like himation, his hair is in a wavy Hellenistic style, and he stands in a contrapposto pose, with his weight on one leg. The typical image of Heracles with his club was even used to represent Buddha’s protector, Vajrapani.

The Buddha protected by Vajrapani, depicted as Heracles with his club. c. 2nd century AD (British Museum, London).

The cultural mixture of Greek and Indian ideas in Central Asia 2,000 years ago left a legacy which still has a profound importance today. When it becomes possible to investigate further other important sites such as Balkh and the Buddhist complex of Mes Aynak near Kabul (at present under threat from development as a copper mine), then we will be able to learn even more about the remarkable interaction of these cultures in the ancient world.

Dr Bijan Omrani is an Honorary Associate Research Fellow at the University of Exeter. His books include Afghanistan: A Companion and Guide, and Caesar’s Footprints: Journeys to Roman Gaul.

Further Reading:

Those wishing to explore this topic further may enjoy Frank Holt’s Thundering Zeus: The Making of Hellenistic Bactria (Berkeley, 1999), Rachel Mairs’s The Hellenistic Far East: Archaeology, Language and Identity in Greek Central Asia (Berkeley, 2014), and Llewellyn Morgan’s The Buddhas of Bamiyan (Profile, London, 2012). For a survey focussed on Ai Kanoum, consult Laurianne Martinez-Sève’s “Ai Khanoum and Greek Domination in Central Asia” in Electrum, Vol. 22 (2015) 17–46, available here.