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Afghanistan Table of Contents


Central Asian and Sassanian Rule, ca. 150 B.C.-700 A.D.

In the third and second centuries B.C., the Parthians, a nomadic people speaking Indo-European languages, arrived on the Iranian Plateau. The Parthians established control in most of what is Iran as early as the middle of the third century B.C.; about 100 years later another Indo-European group from the north--the Kushans (a subgroup of the tribe called the Yuezhi by the Chinese)--entered Afghanistan and established an empire lasting almost four centuries.

The Kushan Empire spread from the Kabul River Valley to defeat other Central Asian tribes that had previously conquered parts of the northern central Iranian Plateau once ruled by the Parthians. By the middle of the first century B.C., the Kushans' control stretched from the Indus Valley to the Gobi Desert and as far west as the central Iranian Plateau. Early in the second century A.D. under Kanishka, the most powerful of the Kushan rulers, the empire reached its greatest geographic and cultural breadth to become a center of literature and art. Kanishka extended Kushan control to the mouth of the Indus River on the Arabian Sea, into Kashmir, and into what is today the Chinese-controlled area north of Tibet. Kanishka was a patron of religion and the arts. It was during his reign that Mahayana Buddhism, imported to northern India earlier by the Mauryan emperor Ashoka (ca. 260-232 B.C.), reached its zenith in Central Asia.

In the third century A.D., Kushan control fragmented into semi-independent kingdoms that became easy targets for conquest by the rising Iranian dynasty, the Sassanians (ca. 224-561 A.D.). These small kingdoms were pressed by both the Sassanians from the west and by the growing strength of the Guptas, an Indian dynasty established at the beginning of the fourth century.

The disunited Kushan and Sassanian kingdoms were in a poor position to meet the threat of a new wave of nomadic, Indo-European invaders from the north. The Hepthalites (or White Huns) swept out of Central Asia around the fourth century into Bactria and to the south, overwhelming the last of the Kushan and Sassanian kingdoms. Historians believe that their control continued for a century and was marked by constant warfare with the Sassanians to the west.

By the middle of the sixth century the Hepthalites were defeated in the territories north of the Amu Darya (the Oxus River of antiquity) by another group of Central Asian nomads, the Western Turks, and by the resurgent Sassanians in the lands south of the Amu Darya. Up until the advent of Islam, the lands of the Hindu Kush were dominated up to the Amu Darya by small kingdoms under Sassanian control but with local rulers who were Kushans or Hepthalites.

Of this great Buddhist culture and earlier Zoroastrian influence there remain few, if any, traces in the life of Afghan people today. Along ancient trade routes, however, stone monuments of Buddhist culture exist as reminders of the past. The two great sandstone Buddhas, thirty-five and fifty-three meters high overlook the ancient route through Bamian to Balkh and date from the third and fifth centuries A.D. In this and other key places in Afghanistan, archaeologists have located frescoes, stucco decorations, statuary, and rare objects from China, Phoenicia, and Rome crafted as early as the second century A.D. that bear witness to the influence of these ancient civilizations on the arts in Afghanistan.

Data as of 1997