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An Ancient Empire

Updated on February 11, 2018


Few people have heard about the ancient Empire of Bactria. Most people know about the country of Afghanistan.

 I published book in Russian “The Art of Ancient Jewelers,” and also in English “The Jewelry of Central Asia,” about the surprising treasures from six tombs from Afghanistan. I managed to see an exhibition in Washington, in the National Gallery and in Metropolitan museum in New York.

And so, Bactria! Ancient, legendary, lying in the very heart of Asia. The country includes modern territories of southern Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and the northern part of Afghanistan, is already mentioned in Behistuni inscriptions of the Persian tzar Darii I. Ancient authors mention it many times, but there is not much accurate information.

To understand why Bactrian coins from the Boston museum can be found in the antique department, why on them are represented, according to the classical tradition of ancient art, Greek rulers, we have to search deep into history. The archeological excavations in Bactria’s territory have confirmed the writings of ancient authors. The country was famous for its high level of culture and art, magnificent architectural complexes, palaces, temples. In 6th century B.C. Persian tzars invited Bactrian soldiers to serve at their palace. In the middle of the first millennium B.C., Bactria was the border province of the Persian power/lands of Achaemenians. Tempered/changed by collisions with northern Massagets, the Bactrial cavalry was highly valued in Persian armies. The extensive lands of Achaemenians were divided into so-called “satrapies” (areas), where Zareche, which included at that time the territory of Israel, was the fifth satrapy, while Bactria was the twelvth satrapy. It is known that, in the fourth century B.C., the armies of Alexander the Great came to the territory of CentralAsia. The most active resistance to them turned out to be Bactria and its northern neighbor Sogdiana (modern Uzbekistan). After military actions did not result in success, the great conqueror married a Sodian princess, Roksana. In this time, several cities of modern territories of Afghanistan and Tajikistan became parts of Alexandria.

In the middle of third century B.C., on the territory of Bactria was formed an independent Greek-Bactrian empire, which was called in ancient times “the country of a thousand cities.” With time, its borders extended to north-western India. And by this time in the third century B.C. in the history of Bactria the coins from the Boston collection were made. These are called tetradrahm, on which the rulers of the country are represented, on the first side the Greek deputy Diadotus, and on the back sides are represented Zeus, Hercules, the Gemini twins (Castor and Pollux), Apollo, Athena, and an obligatory Greek inscription. On separate coins, in addition to the Greek inscription are inscriptions in Aramaic or Kharoshti?, like the translation into the local language. Just like many other collections of the world, Boston’s classical collection began with donations and gifts from private persons, beginning with the end of the 19th century. By 1904 the collection totaled 4,096 pieces of art, including 96 sculpture fragments, more than 1300 Greek coins, vases, bronze pieces, terracotta, and sculptures.



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