Transoxiana and Bactria

June 28 2008

It’s impossible to get a grasp of Central Asian history without understanding the geography – which is hard to understand because there are no convenient shorelines and, most of the time, no neat cultural or political or ethnic borders to break it all down. I’m moving slowly. I have created a sub-Category here called Maps of Central Asia: link on the left. (I’m a fan of simple maps. Several of them are relevant in understanding this post. See also this post, called Indic and Hindu.)

What are Transoxiana and Bactria?

Transoxiana (sometimes called Transoxania) corresponds with modern-day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and south Kazakhstan east of the Aral Sea and is the land between the Amu Darya (Oxus) and Syr Darya (Jaxartes) rivers. Toynbee calls it the Oxus-Jaxartes basin. The Persians called it, or part of it, Sogdiana. I’ll use the Greek names for the rivers. Here’s a map: rather small, but at least simple.

The Oxus, the longest river in Central Asia, rises in the Pamir mountains in the Wakhan Corridor, northeastern Afghanistan, and flows into the Aral Sea. The Naryn, the main headwater of the Jaxartes, rises in the Tien Shan mountains, and joins the Kara Darya in Fergana in eastern Uzbekistan, to form the Jaxartes, which then flows into the Aral Sea. I showed a map of those mountain systems here. The map above shows the shores of the Aral Sea c 1960. The sea is disappearing.

Sogdiana was a province of the Achaemenid Empire. Alexander the Great extended Greek culture into the region. Transoxiana was the northeastern point of the Hellenistic culture, and kept a hybrid Greek-Persian-Chinese-Buddhist culture until the Islamic invasion.

The Chinese explorer Zhang Qian, who visited Bactria and Parthia along with Transoxiana in 126 BC, made the first known Chinese report on this region.

Transoxiana flourished under the Sasanids (226-651), helped by wealth derived from the Northern Silk Road. Many Persian nobles and landlords escaped there after the Muslim invasion. (Pre-Islamic Persian empires: Elamite, Median, Achaemenid, Seleucid, Parthian, Sasanid.)

The major cities are Samarkand and Bukhara. They remained centres of Persian culture and civilization after the Islamic conquest of Iran. Tashkent is more modern. All three are in Uzbekistan (one of the most appealing countries I’ve ever been to, though not politically: a wonderful cultural and physical mixture of Russian and oriental).

The region was conquered by Qutaybah ibn-Muslim between 706 and 715, loosely held by the Umayyads from 715 to 738, reconquered by Nasr ibn-Sayyar between 738 and 740. It was under the Umayyads from 740 to 748 and under the Abbasids after 748.

As Abbasid power weakened, Samarkand and Bukhara played a role in a revival of Persian civilisation under the native Persian Samanid dynasty (Sunni, ruled Persia 819-999).

Genghis Khan invaded Transoxiana in 1219. Before his death in 1227, he assigned the lands of Western Central Asia to his second son Chagatai, and this region became known as the Chagatai Khanate. In 1369 Timur, of the Barlas tribe, became the effective ruler while continuing the ceremonial authority of Chagatai Khan’s dynasty, and made Samarkand the capital of his future empire. In the map of Uzbekistan, below, you can see Farghana, the home of Babur, which was mentioned in an earlier post.

Bactria is further south. Its centre is the land between the Hindu Kush and the Oxus. Its historic capital was Balkh or Bactra, in northern Afghanistan. The Bactrian language is Indo-European. The people are Tajiks. In the period of the Kushan Empire (60 BC-AD 375), the area to the east of the Hindu Kush – in eastern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan – is called Gandhara. Gandhara’s cities were Purushapura or Peshawar and Takshashila or Taxila.

It isn’t known whether Bactria formed part of the Median Empire, but it was subjugated by Cyrus, and from then formed one of the satrapies of the Persian empire. Alexander conquered Sogdiana (Transoxiana) and Iran without much difficulty; he met more resistance in Bactria. He defeated Darius III. Bessus, the satrap of Bactria, murdered Darius in the ensuing chaos and tried to organise a national resistance based on his satrapy. Bactria became a province of the Macedonian empire, but Alexander never successfully subdued the people. After Alexander’s death, the empire was divided up between his generals. Bactria and Transoxiana became part of the Seleucid empire. Seleucus I and his son Antiochus I founded many Greek towns in eastern Iran.

The difficulties which the Seleucid kings had to face, and the attacks of Ptolemy II of Egypt, gave Diodotus, satrap of Bactria, the opportunity to declare independence (about 255 BC) and conquer Sogdiana/Transoxiana. He was the founder of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom. Diodotus and his successors were able to maintain themselves against the attacks of the Seleucids – particularly Antiochus III, the Great, who was ultimately defeated by the Romans (190 BC).

The Greeks were pushed out of Bactria by migrating Sakas and Yuezhi (both Indo-European-speaking) c 125 BC, but continued to rule south of the Hindu Kush for another fifty years.

The so-called Indo-Greek kingdom, an extension of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom, was founded when the Greco-Bactrian king Demetrius invaded India early in the second century BC. Alexander had reached India, but the Greek presence there had not lasted. Demetrius was more successful. The Indo-Greek king Menander I (known as Milinda in India, ruled 155-130 BC) was converted to Buddhism. His successors managed to cling to power, but by c AD 10 the Greeks were gone, though Greek influence remained. They in turn were overthrown by Sakas and then Yuezhi. The Yuezhi eventually established the Kushan Empire. The Kushans were supplanted in India by the first great Hindu power, the Gupta Empire.

The Arabs conquered Bactria – which they called Tokharistan – before they crossed the Oxus to subdue Transoxiana.


11 Responses to “Transoxiana and Bactria”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Another Persian word for Transoxianan Central Asia was Turan.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    Khiva is also in Uzbekistan, on the lower reaches of the Oxus near the border with Turkmenistan.

  3. […] geopolitical course], which flows from Armenia through Azerbaijan into the Caspian, with the actual Oxus and Jaxartes, into a single mighty and fabulous […]

  4. […] geopolitical course], which flows from Armenia through Azerbaijan into the Caspian, with the actual Oxus and Jaxartes, into a single mighty and fabulous stream. Susa was an Achaeminid capital. The […]

  5. vinh tran Says:

    Thank you so very much for your description.
    I am a beginner in learning about Central Asia, a mysterious region.

  6. I wonder whether the Alexandria founded by Alexander were all based on the same principles.
    Whether they all had libraries and Academies keeping Greek culture going until the Islamic conquest. If this were the case there would be an explanation to the fact that the vast majority of so-called “Arab scholars” were from Eastern Iran, Bactria and Sogdiana: see for example Avicenna and numerous others.
    Here Greek, Indian Persian, Chinese cultural traits mixed and this synthesis spread westward chiefly, but not solely with the spread of Islam contributing in a decisive way to Western Medieval culture and religion.
    Anyone capable of commenting on this fundamental issue?
    Many thanks

    • davidderrick Says:

      Very interesting possibility. I wonder whether that connection has been properly traced. We may not get a flood of responses, as this is an old post (and even new ones aren’t as interactive as I would like).

  7. Uarik Uarik Says:

    how about the Turks, they did not live I guess!

    • davidderrick Says:

      I was not really talking about ethnicities, but that is a good point. These are notes to help me understand part of the history. I want to do more, including many on the “Turks”. The Timurids are described as Turco-Mongol.

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