Thursday, December 22, 2011

Bactria, Afghanistan: the Old Persia on the Silk Road

The forerunners of pre-Islamic Persians were the migrant farmers of desert oases in the Kara Kum Desert and in the arid areas of Central Asia southerly toward the Indus Valley. Archeological remains trace the flowering of this culture from the third millennium B. C. to 300 B. C. when Alexander the Great married the Bactrian princess in Bactria, Afghanistan as he conquered Persia. These first Iranians were not nomads, but they were in movement, because the earth was in a warming period as their culture spread into the areas mentioned. The drying up of the oases in this large area of the earth caused the migration of the farmer settlers to pick up and move when necessary, thus the spread of the culture and the amalgamation with the indigent groups into which they moved.

As they moved they traded and this activity created a new economy that began to flourish along the route that we eventually called the Silk Road. As you see from this map, the Silk Road finally spread out to go many places, but by 2500 B. C., the road through Bactria was already heavily traveled from Europe to China. And it was Bactria in Afghanistan where the finest stone beads of that period were made. Lapis, turquoise, carnelian, banded agates, serpentine all were produced from mining the Himalayas. Artisans were no doubt attracted by the traffic of buyers through Balkh, which became a hub along the Silk Road.

The bead makers had materials ready to hand and a culture that produced craftsmen who had developed their bead making to a high art. For this post, I will add just this one photo of such beads:

These are amulets made from fossilized shells or alabaster, but they do not have the characteristic grain of alabaster, and they are too hard and dense to be gypsum, the other white material used for beads and seals. So I am assuming that they are fossilized shell, as I saw a lot of that in Afghanistan when I lived there.

More information on Bactria in the book Bactria, an ancient oasis civilization from the sands of Afghanistan, Giancarlo Ligabue and Sandro Salvatori, eds.

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