The Paropanisus or Paropamisus range is a name for the western Hindu Kush. Paropanisadae or Paropamisadae can refer both to the region and its inhabitants.
I was standing on a terrace at Istâlif [about 18 miles northwest of Kabul], looking out northeastwards over the Koh-i-Daman plain. The northern horizon was barred by the snow-crowned wall of the Hindu Kush – not quite so lofty here, perhaps, as farther east above Nuristan [Afghan province in the southern Hindu Kush bordering Pakistan], yet lofty enough to be an obstacle even for an eagle, if the range’s ancient name is something more than a poetic hyperbole. The graecised version of this ancient name is Paropanisus, and the original word is said to mean, in the Iranian language of the Avesta [ancient Zoroastrian texts], a mountain loftier than the ceiling of even an eagle’s flight. There it now was, the Paropanisus, barring the horizon from east to west. And down here, in the middle distance, this isolated miniature mountain, rising abruptly out of the Koh-i-Daman plain, gives me the bearings of the invisible point where the Ghorband and Panjshir rivers meet. Either river leads up to [flows down from] a pass, practicable for men and donkeys, over the eagle-baffling Paropanisus. So the point where the two rivers meet was always supremely important until the recent rise to prominence of the city of Kabul deflected the lines of communication from their natural courses.
For at least fourteen hundred years running from the sixth century B.C., the strategic and political centre of this part of the world was not Kabul; it was a pair of cities bestriding the confluence of the Ghorband and Panjshir rivers just to the north-west of that miniature mountain down there in the plain. Darius calls this pair of cities Kapisha-Kanish. Today, the deserted site is known as Begrám [or Bagram, about 40 miles north of Kabul; the Greeks called it Alexandria of the Caucasus, ie of the Hindu Kush]. The double city attained its political zenith in the first and second centuries of the Christian Era, when it was one of the capitals of an empire stretching from the Oxus to the Jumna. The builders of this empire were the Kushans, ex-nomadic immigrants from Central Asia. Under the aegis of the Kushan Empire, Buddhism made its passage of the Paropanisus in the course of its long roundabout trek from India through Central Asia to China. But the imperial Kushans were heirs of imperial Greeks. And, as I stood on that terrace at Istâlif and feasted my eyes on that magnificent landscape of plain and mountain, my mind was running on the exploits of Alexander and Demetrius and Hermaeus [one of the last Greek rulers in the Paropamisadae].
When the Greeks reached the land of the Paropanisadae after crossing South-West Asia from the Dardanelles, they felt at home again here for the first time. This mountain-girt plain reminded them of their own Eordaea or Thessaly, and the vineyards convinced them that their own god Dionysus must have forestalled Alexander’s conquests. This land of the Paropanisadae must be Dionysus’s legendary land of Nysa. The god had made it his own; and his latter-day Greek worshippers joyfully took their cue from him. Alexander planted a Greek colony at Begrám, and, in the first century of the Christian Era, a Greek prince, Hermaeus, was still ruling here after Greek rule had evaporated everywhere else. Hermaeus is said to have fraternised with the Kushans from the other side of the mountain-wall. No doubt, his power was a puny one compared to theirs. But he did still hold the key to the passage from Central Asia to India, so his good will still had an appreciable value for his Kushan heirs. The Kushans, like the Romans, were Philhellenes; and on the banks of the Jumna and the Oxus, as well as round the shores of the Mediterranean, Greek culture, fostered by a non-Greek but Philhellene regime, long survived the extinction of Greek rule.
No one now believes that Hermaeus lived in the first century CE. He died c 80-70 BC.
Musing on the terrace at Istâlif, I thought of Alexander crossing the Hindu Kush from the Koh-i-Daman plain to invade Bactria from the south. I thought of Demetrius, the later Greek king of Bactria, crossing the same mountain-wall from north to south, a century and a half later, on his way to invade India. Demetrius and his successors carried Greek arms and Greek coinages into India farther afield, and with more lasting effects, than Alexander in his ephemeral raid into the western fringe of the huge Sub-continent. The lovely coins of the Bactrian Greek conquerors of India and the Hellenising art of the Bactrian Greeks’ Kushan successors testify to the vitality of Greek culture in this far-away land of the Paropanisadae and in the still more remote land of Gandhara, where the Kabul River loses itself in the mightier Indus. For fifty years past, I had been studying this chapter of the World’s history in books and on maps. Here, at Istâlif, I had been able to take it all in at a glance; and that one glance had told me more than my fifty-years’ book-work had.
www.istalif.com has images which might remind you of the Greek landscape.
Bagram relief, c 100 AD, National Museum of Afghanistan, Kabul
There is something oddly Indian in this image of the rear of the V&A’s plaster copy of Donatello’s David, the first freestanding nude sculpture made in the West since antiquity. (What a revolutionary work, for a man born in the fourteenth century.) The buttocks remind one of Indian sculpted breasts. The akimbo arm, tilting hips, legs look Indian. Of course there was no Indian influence on Italian sculpture, but a Greco-Buddhist art was exported to China and beyond. Is it stretching things too far to imagine a Hellenic influence on a non-Greco-Buddhist “Hindu” sculpture?
Between Oxus and Jumna, OUP, 1961