North-east Passage : crossroads at the edge


Begram, the centre of Kushan culture in the early centuries of our era, is today in Afghanistan not far north of Kabul. Around the year200, and for no reason we can fathom, two rooms in a building in the town centre were bricked up and abandoned. When opened by French archaeologists in the 1930s, nearly two millennia later, an astonishing crossroads in material culture was revealed. And it was a culture at the very edge of architecture, of settlement.

In these rooms in Begram were stacked luxury goods of all sorts: bronze sculptures from Italy, lacquer boxes from China, plaster medallions of muscular Greek youths, exquisitely painted Egyptian glass vessels – with images of the pharos (the lighthouse at Alexandria), of an African leopard hunt, of a scene from the Iliad. There were more than a thousand exquisitely carved ivory or bone sculptured figures, featuring placidly smiling but dynamically poised, curvaceous women – their grapefruit breasts and tiny waists immediately appearing Indian, and often they were likenesses of Ganga the Indian river goddess.

2ndC BCE Ai Khanoum

2nd Century BCE column capital from Ai Khanoum
(Wikimedia Commons)

Here was a key exchange point on the cultural artery which crossed Asia, from northern China to the Mediterranean, whose central tract had varied routes the most southern of which came by here, and which was to become known as the Silk Route. Begram’s history as trading centre has long been seen in huge caches of coins – 175 years ago a British traveller said the locals were unearthing 30,000 coins a year; he took 2000 on his way, and hordes are still being found in this unhappy country today. The plastered up rooms, it seems, were probably a merchant’s luxury goods warehouse.

Greek-style sculpture was found here – there is a lovely, delicately modelled plaster medallion of a youth – but a dynamic hybridity in the regional culture was nothing new, for half a millennium earlier there was a Greek city founded 130 miles further north, on the south of the great Amu Darya [or Oxus] river, today the Afghan northern border with Uzbeki and Tajikistan, but even then the border between cities and the open steppes, between town and nomad. Alexandria Oxiana, was the furthest Greek foundation, and ultimately allowed access to commerce with the Chinese empire. (Today it is called Aï-Khanoum, that is Uzbek for ‘Moon lady’.)

With its Greek theatre, gymnasium, baths, cemeteries with mausoleums, and Greek houses with colonnaded courtyards, Alexandria Oxiana was an important new city, Greek inasmuch as was Alexander, it is Seleucid and yet Bactrian. Its vast palaces and temples meld Hellenistic, Persian and Zoroastrian forms from across western Asia. With a rectangular grid enclosed within two miles of ramparts, it stood at the edge of architecture – for beyond were vanishing nomads.

The hybridity of its culture is typified in a 10 inch diameter silver disk now in Kabul Museum. (Well, by “now” I know it was it here a few years ago.) It shows gilded figures of Cybele and Nike, in Grecian dress though one with wings, riding in a central Asian chariot pulled by lions and followed by a servant on foot holding a gilded umbrella. They are approaching a priest who officiates atop a ziqqurat while, in the sky above, Helios the gilded sun-god watches over them, with a golden sun and crescent moon. It is a wonderful amalgam.


Plate showing Cybele, votive sacrifice and sun god, 2nd Century BCE, Ai Khanoum
(Wikimedia Commons)

Within two centuries this city was destroyed, and within two more (still well before the rise of Begram), some 200 miles west along the river, a tribe of Bactrian nomads settled, coming south across the great river, the Amu Daryu from the central Asian steppe. While their architecture remains unknown – and surely formed of nomads’ material – they embedded their new material cultural in the chieftains’ graves at the start of the present era.

At a place today called Tillya Tepe (‘golden hill’), graves found by a Russian archaeologist in 1970 held not only riches of wonderfully worked gold, but an engaging hybridity, reflecting not just east and west, but also north and south – that is the nomadic and settled life. A Siberian bear holds a grapevine; an Aphrodite with wings has an Indian-style circle on her brow. A gold-chain collar, beautifully formed of strung units of delicately shaped gold pendants inlaid with gems had been sewn into a dress that could go everywhere with the noblewoman’s person; a similarly delicate gold crown could be dismantled into six pieces for easy travel in a camel’s satchel.

Here one senses a genuinely global hybridity of culture, enough to terrify a Ukip euroskeptic, producing object of wonderful quality. Meanwhile, not far away, the great Alexandria Oxiana, buried for so long is become, since 1978, a totally destroyed battleground, as the Soviet Union then the United States and their vassals fight their bitter colonial struggles. Classic destruction.

Capsule 103

15 February 2014


Discussion of this post on Linkedin moves to Petra and the Nabataeans, and offers the fascinating map of Indo-Roman trade:

Indo-Roman trade

Indo-Roman trade (Wikimedia Commons)


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