Ancient Afghanistan

holtWhen we think of ancient Greek civilization, we rarely think of Afghanistan and the Punjab. We’re not alone. Most historians ignore these countries too. One of the few exceptions is the American historian Frank Holt, who has been studying ancient Bactria and Gandara for many years.

Lost World of the Golden King is his latest and most interesting book, but unlike his earlier publications, he is not focusing on Antiquity but on the study of Antiquity. In this way, he shows the study of the past at its best.

The central theme that connects the disciplines studying Antiquity is a devastating shortage of information. The history of the study of ancient civilizations can therefore be read as a series of attempts to overcome this problem. First, the study of coins and inscriptions was added to the study of the Greek, Latin, and Hebrew sources. Then, ethnographic parallels were added, and after that, we saw the rise of art history and archaeology. The comparative explanatory models that were introduced in the twentieth century are now being improved by computer simulations. The data shortage forces the ancient historian to be a classicist, archaeologist, numismatist, epigrapher, anthropologist, and art historian as well.

This is especially true for Afghanistan and the Punjab, about which we have hardly any texts at all. True, archaeologists have scientifically excavated several places, but rescue operations are usually all that is possible. The most important type of evidence is coinage, and this means that the history of Afghan/Punjabi studies is also a history of numismatics.

In the first phase, Holt informs us, people tried to find a coin with the portrait of every king they had read about. This aim was quickly reached, and more than that: coins had been found with the portraits of hitherto unknown rulers. In the next phase, numismatists tried to make some kind of spreadsheet with all rulers, their approximate regnal years, their territories, and family ties. The perfect overview will never be constructed, but by patient gathering of information – the third phase – the reliability of our knowledge increased. Even in a discipline with insufficient data, quantity may lead to quality.

Tables of rulers, kingdoms, and regnal years are, however, not what makes a good narrative. Some researchers, like Tarn and Narain, have attempted to tell a story, in which they placed Bactria and Gandara one-sidedly either in a Hellenistic or an Indian context. Holt remains polite but cannot hide that he does not like “narrative numismatics”. He mentions shocking excesses, like the judgment that a particular ruler had a strong personality, which could be deduced from the portrait on his coins. Physiognomy, however, will not improve our understanding of the past.

The study of ancient Afghanistan and the Punjab started anew when achaeologists excavated cities like Ai Khanum and Taxila. For the first time, scholars were not forced to limit themselves to kings and mint masters; now, they could also see how ordinary people lived. Inscriptions helped to reconstruct their mental world.

In the 1970s, it might have been possible to expand Bactrian and Gandaran studies, break with the old one-sidedness, and investigate the continuity from Iran through Afghanistan and Pakistan to India. Or the continuity from the Iron Age through Antiquity to the Middle Ages. However, the Soviet Invasion and the Taliban made innovative research difficult, although thousands of coin were offered on the black market. Holt mentions several rescue excavations and finishes his story with some recent perspectives.

Lost World of the Golden King is a good book, because it tells unpleasant things. It shows that we will always know just a fraction of what we would like to know: there are almost no knowns and endlessly many unknowns (which is, of course, true for all of Antiquity). The scholars investigating Afghanistan and the Punjab always have to face danger. And, worst of all: the results are ignored.

After the one-sided approaches, we might have expected a broader vision, especially from heritage organizations. But perhaps they are biased. Holt tells that the soldiers who are helping Afghanistan to recover from Taliban terror, received playing cards with pictures of heritage that needs protection: almost all of it was Greek, while Afghanistan’s Medieval past was virtually ignored. This is not only one-sided, but also gave the Afghans a feeling that the forces from the international community are not in their country to help them and protect their past.

This is one unpleasant detail from a book that, because Holt does not give a standard history of Bactria and Gandara, is not an easy read. However, the author is right in refusing to offer pseudo-certainties. And this is exactly what makes Lost World of the Golden King a valuable book: Holt stresses how preciously little we can now and shows how scholarship evolves by stubbornly looking for ways to supersede this lack of information.


3 Responses to Ancient Afghanistan

  1. brink1948 says:

    I am quite a layman in the said regional issue. However, for me the most intriguing is that it was probably a transfer point for Budhism as well as the portraying of Budha in the Greco-Indian style. Does the book cover this?
    Harry ten Brink

  2. Sean Manning says:

    Your comment about predictions based on analysis of portraits reminded me that a number of historians tried to do the same with the bust of Themistocles found at Ostia. I have posted some quotes which were to hand at The response of the Richard III Society to reconstructions of his face also comes to mind …

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