Kushans (c. 135 B.C. – 241 B.C.)
Restless nomadic tribes living in Central Asia had long been of concern to the rulers of Bactria and their relentless encroachments into the settled areas fill the pages of the area’s early history. Real nomadic political power in Afghanistan was, however, first established by the Yueh-chih who, forced from their grazing lands on the Chinese border, enter this story as a loose confederation of five clans. United under the banner of one, the Kushan, they wrote one of history’s most brilliant and exciting chapters in Afghanistan.
Kushan King Kanishka (c. 130 A.D.) was this dynasty’s most forceful and colorful personality. The heart of his empire centered around two capitals: the summer capital of Kapisa, north of Kabul near the modern towns of Begram and Charikar, and, Peshawar, the winter capital. Far beyond this, however, from the Ganges Valley to the Gobi Desert, satellite satrapies and independent states bowed to Kushan economic and political influence.
The Second Century A.D. which saw the Kushan Empire reach its greatest heights was a fabulous era in world history: the time of the Caesars in Rome and the Han Emperors in China, both of whom avidly exchanged their most exotic products and greedily eyed the spices, gems and cosmetics of India and Ceylon, the gems and furs of Central Asia. Silk was the major item of this trade and it is reported that it sold for $800,000 a pound in the sybaritic markets of Rome. Situated exactly midway on the great caravan route known as the Silk Route, the Kushans exploited their position and gained vast wealth and with it, great power.
In addition, during the first two centuries of the A.D. era sea trade between the northern and eastern coasts of Africa and India was brisk and prosperous. Sometime in the middle of the 1st century n.e. a Greek sailor named Hippalus discovered that he could take advantage of the monsoon winds and sail from southern Arabia to India in forty days. By 24 B.C. at least 120 ships set sail annually and by the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. ships and fleets had become so large that they were “agitating the white foam,” according to Strabo the geographer. The overland Silk Route takes its name from the most prestigious commodity traded along it. The sea route could therefore be called the Pepper Route, for though the great warehouses in the Indian ports were stocked with pearls and gems, fine fabrics and perfumes, it was the tangy spice from Mala-bar which was valued above all. In exchange, the merchants from Greece and Alexandria brought wine, metalwork, ceramics, glass-ware and slaves.
At Kapisa, political and commercial center of the Empire, French archaeologists discovered (1939) a most magnificent Kushan treasure which represents the extent and the richness of this trade in capsule form. Here, in two small rooms, exquisitely carved ivories wrought in classic Indian style were stacked side by side with fine Chinese lacquers and an infinite variety of Roman bronzes, bas reliefs and glass from Alexandria. Obviously, Kapisa’s citizenry had fine taste, and the wealth to indulge it.
The rise to world prominence had wrought great changes on the nomadic Kushans. Having no traditions on which to build a settled way of life, they adapted what they found in ways best suited to their own personality. What emerged was a vibrant and indigenous culture born of the fusion of western-oriented Bactrian ideals with those from eastern-oriented India, interpreted by the forceful, free character born on the steppes of Central Asia. The result was vital and dynamic.
The massive city site of Delbarjin built on the plains north-west of Balkh during the Achaemenid/Bactrian period flourished under Kushan occupation. Wall-paintings depicting the icono-graphy of Buddhism and Hinduism exhibit stylistic affiniti.es with Central Asia (I. Kruglikova, 1970-present). Delbarjin is a most dramatic monument to Kushan power and culture. The old city of Kandahar was also extensively occupied during this period. An unique soapstone mold depicting a winged lion on an elephant standing on a lotus includes several Buddhist motifs; a stupa/monastery stands on a spur overlooking the city.
The revival of the ancient religion of Buddhism by Kanishka and the attendant emergence of Gandhara art are enduring mani-festations of Kushan culture. A new school of Buddhist thought stressing the miraculous life and personality of the Buddha was officially sanctioned at a great council called by Kanishka. This humanization of the Buddha led directly to a desire for a represen-tative figure of the Buddha who had, until this time, been depicted by such symbols as a wheel, an empty throne, a riderless horse, or a foot print. East and West joined in the creation of the familiar Buddha figure and adapted it to fit Indian philosophical ideals.
Scores of missionaries soon travelled the world to spread the word. They followed the caravans along the Silk Route and Buddhism spread from its homeland through Afghanistan to China and the lands of the Far East where it lives today as one of the Twentieth Century’s most vibrant religions.
Along the route they established countless shrines and monas-teries and Afghanistan’s landscape is liberally sprinkled with Buddhist Kushan sites : Hadda and Darunta near Jalalabad; Kandahar; Maranjan, Shewaki and Guldara in and near Kabul; Tope Darra, Koh-i-Mari, Shotorak, and Paitava in the Koh Daman; Tapa Sardar in Ghazni; Wardak; Fondukistan in the Ghorband Valley; Bamiyan; Takht-i-Rustam in Samangan; Durman Tapa and Chaqalaq near Kunduz, and Tapa Rustam and Takht-i-Rustam at Balkh. The most recently identified complex, dated by carbon-14 Ca. 150 A.D., sits beside the lake of Ab-i-Istada, southwest of Moqor (Dupree, 1974).
The central shrines at these religious complexes, called stupas, were lavishly decorated with sculptured scenes from the life of the Buddha. Fashioned from stone, stucco, or, simply from mud and straw, this indigenous art style, among history’s most stimulat-ing and inspiring forms, bears the name of Gandhara Art.
Kanishka’s interest in religion was, however, eclectic. On his coinage the Buddha stands as only one of a wide pantheon of gods and goddesses representing deities of Greek, Persian, Central Asian and Hindu origin. Buddhist iconography is, for instance, totally lacking at Kanishka’s own temple at Surkh Kotal, just north of the Hindu Kush. Excavations began at Surkh Kotal in 1952 under the direction of Daniel Schlumberger. They have disclosed the existence of a purely indigenous religion centered around the cult of fire which may have been dedicated to the worship of Kanishka himself.
A layer of ash at Surkh Kotal speaks silently of the end of this brilliant era and the beginning of an age characterized by warring petty kingdoms. With the demise of the Great Kushans, the centers of power shift outside the area and almost 900 years pass before Afghanistan swings back into the spotlight.