The Old World’s eastern roundabout

July 1 2008

Maps of Central Asia (category link).

Anyone who, unlike me, already knows something about Afghanistan or Central Asia, or has read the posts here back to only June 26, should be able to understand the next passage.

Europeans have a saying that “all roads lead to Rome”. From a European standpoint they may look as if they do. But Europe is one of the fringes of the Old World, and eccentric positions produce distorted views. Plant yourself, not in Europe, but in ‘Iraq, which is the historic centre of our Oikoumenê. Seen from this central position, the road-map of the Old World will assume a very different pattern. It will become evident that half the roads of the Old World lead to Aleppo, and half to Begrám. The second of these two names marks the site of the historic city of Kapisha-Kanish, at the southern foot of the Central Hindu Kush, where three roads meet after crossing the mountains.

Why particularly Aleppo and Begrám? I referred to the geopolitical significance of Aleppo in this post. Begrám is a staging-post en route to India. Cyrus the Great and his successor Darius captured it, though they did not cross the Indus. Alexander established a colony nearby named Alexandria of the Caucasus. Caucasus Indicus was an ancient name for the Hindu Kush. Another name for Begrám has been Kapisa.

After Alexander’s death, Begrám passed to his general Seleucus, who traded it to the Mauryan Dynasty of India in 305 BC. Bactria, to the north of Begrám, became part of the Seleucid Empire, and then, from the middle of the third century, an independent Greco-Bactrian kingdom.

After the Mauryans (322-185) were overthrown by the Sunga Dynasty (185-73), the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom invaded and conquered northwestern India with an army led by Demetrius. It is then called Indo-Greek. Alexandria of the Caucasus became a capital of the Indo-Greek Kingdom after the Yuezhi and Scythians (Sakas) attacked the Greco-Bactrians in the north c 160-140 BC.

Begrám became the summer capital of the Kushan Empire in the first century CE, its other capitals being Peshawar, Taxila, and, in central India, Mathura.

Civilization in the Old World seems to have started in ‘Iraq about 5,000 years ago, and in the meantime it has spread from ‘Iraq both eastwards and westwards. Eastwards it has spread to Persia, Afghanistan, the Indo-Pakistani Sub-continent, Central Asia, Eastern Asia. Westwards it has spread to Egypt, Anatolia, the Aegean, North-West Africa, Europe, Russia. This progressive spread of civilization from its birth-place in ‘Iraq to the ends of the Earth has turned the Oikoumenê into a house of many mansions. Civilization has become plural instead of singular; and the civilized world has diversified itself into a festoon of regional civilizations, trailing from Japan at the north-eastern end to Ireland at the north-western end and dipping below the Equator in Java. The younger provinces of civilization, on either side of ‘Iraq, do not all stand in the same relation to each other or to the Oikoumenê as a whole. The differences between their geographical situations sort them out into two classes. Some of them are “culs-de-sac” and some of them are “roundabouts”. The culs-de-sac are regions on the fringe of the Oikoumenê that have received successive influences from the centre but have not been able to pass these influences on to regions farther afield. The roundabouts are regions on which routes converge from all quarters of the compass and from which routes radiate out to all quarters of the compass again.

Java is the only place in the Old World south of the Equator that Toynbee brings into the Oikoumenê. He uses that word here to mean the “civilised” world, or rather the world in process of civilisation, but in a later book, Mankind and Mother Earth, he acknowledges that its literal Greek meaning is wider: “the Inhabited (Part of the World)”. We joined him a few weeks ago in Java in a post on Borobudur.

Classical examples of culs-de-sac are Japan at the north-eastern corner of the Oikoumenê, Java at its southernmost bulge, and Morocco, the British Isles, and Scandinavia at its north-western corner. Classical examples of roundabouts are two regions flanking ‘Iraq on either side. Syria (in the broadest geographical meaning of the name) is the roundabout to the west of ‘Iraq, and North-Eastern Iran (the present-day Afghanistan) is the one to the east of her. Syria has been the link between South-West Asia, Africa, Anatolia, and Europe. Afghanistan has been the link between South-West Asia, the Indo-Pakistani Sub-continent, Central Asia, and Eastern Asia.

The vicissitudes of history can turn a cul-de-sac into a roundabout and a roundabout into a cul-de-sac. Western Europe was a cul-de-sac for about 1,700 years, dating from its incorporation in the Oikoumenê in the third century B.C. During those seventeen centuries the Atlantic was a barrier to any farther westward expansion of the civilization of the Old World. But the Spanish-born Roman poet Seneca had prophesied that, one day, this barrier would give way to human enterprise, and, after 1,400 years, this prophecy came true. In the fifteenth century the Portuguese invented a new kind of sailing-ship that could keep the sea continuously for months on end. This invention suddenly gave the West European peoples the command of the oceans, and that achievement temporarily turned Western Europe into the World’s central roundabout from which all sea-routes radiated and on which all sea-routes converged. This revolutionary change in the nature of the key-instruments of communication temporarily put both Afghanistan and Syria out of business; for the traffic that had made the fortunes of these two historic roundabouts had been mainly overland traffic on the backs of domesticated animals. The carriers had been donkeys, horses, and camels. Technology, however, is always reluctant to stand still. In our day we have been seeing a further series of technological inventions: mechanized rail and road vehicles, followed up by aircraft. These latest inventions have been deposing Western Europe from her temporary ascendancy in the World and have been reinstating Syria and Afghanistan.

On some of this, see the post here called Babur’s horizon. The idea, now developed, that the old “roundabouts” were being “reinstated” in 1960, when he was writing, seems a little dated or premature.

Both these historic roundabouts would have recaptured their traditional role as focuses of communication still faster than they are doing if their economic recovery were not being handicapped by disputes over political frontiers. These can be as formidable obstacles as any physical barrier. All the same, Beirut is already one of the World’s most important international airports, and Qandahar is making a bid to become another of them. As for mechanized transport on the ground, the new roads that are being built for Afghanistan by Russian and American civil engineers promise to turn her, once again, into the international thoroughfare that she used to be in the Donkey-and-Camel Age.

The Russians are building a new road from Qandahar northward to Kushka, the southernmost rail-head of the railway-network of Soviet Central Asia [now in Turkmenistan]. The Americans are building a new road from Qandahar south-eastward to Chaman, the terminus of the road and railway in Pakistan that run north-westward from Quetta to the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier. [It is on the border of the Pakistani province of Baluchistan and Qandahar province in Afghanistan.] The Russians are building another new road from Kabul northward to Qyzyl Qala, a river-port that they have already built for Afghanistan on the Afghan bank of the River Oxus. This road will be carried through the Central Hindu Kush by a tunnel under the Salang Pass. This is the most direct, but also the highest, of three passes – Salang, Shibar, and Khawak – that cross this section of the Hindu Kush and link the Indo-Pakistani Sub-continent with Central Asia. The Americans are building another new road from Kabul eastward to Torkham, the western terminus of the road and railway in Pakistan that clamber over the hump of the Khyber Pass.

These new roads promise to reinstate Afghanistan in her traditional position in the World. They are her economic bonus from the present political competition between the Soviet Union and the United States. The bonus is valuable, but the accompanying risk is high. Roundabouts are strategic as well as economic assets, and strategic assets are tempting political prizes.

It will be obvious that Afghanistan is intensely interesting today for a student of contemporary international affairs. It is of equal interest for a student of the history of civilization in the Old World during these last five thousand years. As he follows the main threads of history – economic, political, demographic, artistic, religious – he finds his attention being drawn again and again to the Old World’s eastern roundabout, as well as to its western one. Afghanistan has been a highway for migrating peoples and for expanding civilizations and religions, and it has been a key-point in the structure of empires. The examples of Afghanistan’s role as a roundabout in each of these aspects are so numerous that an exhaustive catalogue would fill a volume and would quite overload a chapter. A few illustrations will be enough to make the point.

A long procession of nomadic or ex-nomadic migrant peoples have passed through Afghanistan from Central Asia en route for the Indo-Pakistani Sub-continent. The Aryas, who passed through at some date during the second half of the second millennium B.C., brought the Sanskrit language to India. They were the fathers of the Hindu civilization that supplanted the pre-Aryan culture which is represented in the Indus valley by the sites at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa. A swarm of Iranian-speaking nomadic invaders who occupied the Helmand River basin and the Panjab in the seventh century B.C. deserves mention because one of the participating tribes bore the name Pactyes according to the Ancient Greek historian Herodotus. Is the name that has come down to us in this Ancient Greek version identical with the present-day name Pakhtuns (alias Pathans)? If it is, we have here a clue to the date at which the ancestors of the present-day Pathans first established themselves in the Helmand basin.

A second swarm of Iranian-speaking nomads, the Sakas, invaded Afghanistan in the second century B.C. Some of these settled in the delta of the Helmand River, as is witnessed by the name Seistan which this country still bears today instead of its previous name Sarangia. [In Afghanistan, this corresponds now to Nimruz province, on the border with Iran.] Others pushed on far into the Sub-continent. Some of their blood, and still more of their spirit, may have been inherited from them by the present-day Marathas in the highland hinterland of Bombay. Another Central Asian nomadic people, the Yüechi, following close at the Sakas’ heels, settled in the country between the Oxus and the Hindu Kush which had previously been known as Bactria and which is now included in the Kingdom of Afghanistan. In the first century of the Christian Era one of the Yüechi tribes, the Kushans, built up an empire [60 BC-AD 375] that straddled the Hindu Kush and stretched from the south bank of the Oxus to the west bank of the Jumna. In the course of the last nineteen centuries the Kushan Empire has had more than one avatar. Approximately the same area was ruled in the eleventh century of the Christian Era by the Turkish empire-builder Mahmud of Ghazni [who established the Ghaznavid Empire, which lasted from 975 to 1187] and again in the eighteenth century by the Afghan empire-builder Ahmad Shah Abdâli [who established the Durrani Empire, which lasted from 1747 to 1843].

In the fifth century of the Christian Era one wing of the Huns invaded the Sub-continent across Afghanistan [and overthrew the Hindu Gupta Empire] while Europe was being invaded by another wing of the same Central Asian nomadic people. The Huns were ferocious and destructive, but they were surpassed by the Mongols, who, in the thirteenth century, invaded Afghanistan as well as most of the rest of continental Eurasia. (On the mainland, only India and Western Europe escaped this calamity.) Finally, in the early years of the sixteenth century, a Turkish-speaking people from Western Siberia, the Uzbegs, occupied what is now Northern Afghanistan, as well as what is now the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan on the opposite side of the Oxus River. The Uzbegs did not succeed in crossing the Hindu Kush, but, indirectly, the Uzbegs did, nevertheless, change the course of history in the Sub-continent. They changed it by propelling across the Hindu Kush the survivors of the Timurids [a Turkicised Mongol rump], who had been the previous Turkish rulers of the Central Asian region that the Uzbegs conquered. These fugitive Timurids became the founders of the Mughal Empire in India.

The peoples of Afghanistan themselves were not always passive spectators of the migrations that passed through their country. They, too, took an active part in the game of invading India. The Ghoris, who supplanted the Turkish rulers of Ghazni in the twelfth century of the Christian Era, were natives of the central highlands of Afghanistan. They extended the area of Muslim rule in India from the Indus to the Ganges basin. The Ghoris’ Turkish successors at Delhi were supplanted by the Afghan Lodis, before these, in their turn, were supplanted by the Mughals. The Mughal Emperor Babur’s conquest of Hindustan was successfully challenged, after Babur’s death, by a Bengali Muslim of Afghan descent, Sher Shah Sur. So long as Sher Shah lived, Babur’s son Humayun remained an exile; and, though Sher Shah’s reign over Hindustan was brief [the Mughals were quickly reinstated], he found time to organize a system of imperial communications and land-taxation. This system was so good that it was taken over by the Mughals after their return, and then by the Mughals’ successors the British. In the interval of anarchy in Hindustan, when the Mughal regime was already declining and the British regime had not yet taken its place, another swarm of Afghan invaders, the Rohillas, established themselves in a choice piece of territory that is now included in [the state of] Uttar Pradesh (formerly the United Provinces and still the U.P.).

Migrations of peoples, such as those that have just been passed in review, can change the course of history, but still greater effects can be produced by the spread of civilizations and religions, and the history of Afghanistan bears witness also to this.

The Achaemenid Persian Empire, which expanded across Afghanistan into the Indus valley in and after the sixth century B.C., brought with it, as one of its official languages, Aramaic written in an alphabet derived from the Phoenician. The use of the Aramaic language as an international medium of communication did not long survive the overthrow of the First Persian Empire by Alexander the Great – though a bi-lingual inscription in Aramaic and Greek, set up by the [Mauryan] Indian Emperor Ashoka in the third century B.C., has recently been discovered at Qandahar. On the other hand the Aramaic alphabet made conquests after the fall of the Persian Empire that put even Chingis Khan’s conquests in the shade. It is not surprising that in Western Iran this alphabet should have been used for writing a local Iranian language: Pahlavi. It is more remarkable that from Afghanistan the use of the Aramaic alphabet should have spread south-eastwards into the Sub-continent and north-eastwards across the whole breadth of Asia. On the north-western border of the Sub-continent the Aramaic alphabet became the parent of the Kharoshthi, which was used for writing some of the Indian dialects stemming from Sanskrit. Travelling north-eastward across the Oxus, the Aramaic alphabet was used successively for writing a Central Asian Iranian language, Soghdian, a Central Asian Turkish language, Uighur, and eventually also Mongol and Manchu. Visit the Temple of Heaven at Peking, which was built in the Manchu imperial dynasty’s time, and look at the trilingual inscriptions on it. The Chinese version is, of course, written in Chinese characters, but the Manchu and Mongol versions are written in the Aramaic alphabet.

After the overthrow of the First Persian Empire by Alexander, the Greek invaders felt themselves at home again when they reached the vine-clad country of the Paropanisadae, at the southern approach to the passes leading northwards over the Central Hindu Kush; and in Bactria, north of the passes and between the Hindu Kush and the Oxus, they planted their civilization so successfully that its influence lasted here for centuries.

About the year 183 B.C. a Greek king of Bactria, Demetrius [the founder of the Indo-Greek Kingdom], seized an opportunity that was offered him in India by the fall there of the Maurya dynasty’s empire. Demetrius crossed the Hindu Kush and conquered what are now Southern Afghanistan and the Panjab. After that, Greek rule lasted for half a century more in Bactria [before it was supplanted by the Yüechi] and for two centuries south of the Hindu Kush. The chief surviving witnesses to it are the Greek princes’ splendid coins. But in this region Greek civilization outlasted Greek rule; for the Greeks’ successors the Kushans, whose empire was larger and longer-lived than the Bactrian Greek empire had been, were – as they claimed to be – Philhellenes. Though they adopted the local Iranian language of Bactria, instead of Greek, to serve as the official language of their empire, the Kushans wrote their Bactrian in the Greek alphabet. This has been proved by the discovery of a Bactrian inscription, in Greek letters, at the Kushan Emperor Kanishka’s fire-temple at Surkh Kotal, on the road to Balkh from the passes over the Central Hindu Kush. [But are there similar Greek inscriptions further east?] And there is, of course, a powerful Greek ingredient in the visual art of the so-called Gandhara School, which flourished, in the age of the Kushan Empire, in and around the empire’s capital cities: Begrám, Peshawar, Taxila.

Greek artistic influences may have played upon Kushan Gandhara from two directions: over the Hindu Kush from Bactria and over the Indian Ocean from Alexandria in Egypt. By the time when the Kushan Empire was established in the first century of the Christian Era, Greek seamen, plying in the Indian Ocean from ports on Egypt’s Red-Sea coast, had discovered how to make use of the monsoons for sailing direct across the Indian Ocean to the delta of the Indus, instead of hugging the coasts of Arabia and Baluchistan. This notable shortening of the length of the voyage gave a stimulus to trade between the valleys of the Indus and the Nile; and so, in Kushan Gandhara, the Greek influence from Bactria over the Hindu Kush may have been reinforced by a Greek influence from Alexandria via the Indus valley.

History repeated itself in the Old World’s eastern roundabout after the overthrow of the Sasanid Persian Empire by the Muslim Arabs in the seventh century of the Christian Era. Like the Greeks nearly a thousand years earlier, the Arabs planted themselves firmly in the country between the Oxus and the Hindu Kush that had once been known as Bactria; and, like their Greek predecessors again, the Muslims eventually forced their way over the Central Hindu Kush and invaded the Sub-continent. Afghanistan was the thoroughfare along which Islam, like Hellenism before it, made its way into India.

All the movements of peoples, empires, civilizations, and religions that have been mentioned in this chapter up to this point were movements across Afghanistan into the Sub-continent from regions outside India. But there have also been movements across Afghanistan from India into other parts of the World; and one of these – the propagation of Buddhism into Eastern Asia – is an outstanding event in mankind’s history up to date.

When the First Persian Empire’s carcass was divided up, after Alexander’s death, among a number of rival competitors for the prize, one of these was an Indian empire-builder, Chandragupta Maurya. Chandragupta began by annexing Alexander’s ephemeral conquests in the Indus valley and uniting them with the ancient Kingdom of Magadha in the Ganges basin. He then went on to extend his empire still farther westward by doing a deal with the Macedonian war-lord Seleucus “the Victor”. Chandragupta gave Seleucus 500 Indian war-elephants for use against Seleucus’s most formidable Macedonian rival, Antigonus “One-Eye”. In exchange, Seleucus ceded to Chandragupta a large zone of former Persian territory west of the Indus and south of the Hindu Kush. The recently discovered bilingual inscription set up by Chandragupta’s grandson, Ashoka, at Qandahar shows that Qandahar must have lain on the Mauryan side of the new frontier between the Mauryan and the Seleucid dominions.

Chandragupta Maurya’s success in extending his empire westward was merely an achievement on the political surface of life; and, on this superficial plane, it was more than undone when, some hundred and fifty years later, the Maurya Empire fell to pieces and the Bactrian Greeks [under Demetrius] pushed their way farther into India than Alexander’s limit. But the spread of Indian influence beyond the bounds of the Sub-continent took a more significant and enduring form when Chandragupta’s grandson, the Emperor Ashoka, became a convert to Buddhism. We know, from one of Ashoka’s own inscriptions, that he sent missionaries to preach Buddhism in the realms of the contemporary rulers of the Persian Empire’s Greek successor-states. We do not know what results, if any, were produced by this Buddhist missionary enterprise in the Hellenic World; but it is certain that, in India itself, Ashoka’s conversion placed Buddhism in a strong position for the next six hundred years at least. It was strong enough to influence successive waves of invaders from beyond the Hindu Kush after the Maurya Empire’s fall. Menander, one of the most important of the Bactrian Greek rulers in India in the second century B.C., figures in the Buddhist scriptures as a participant in a dialogue called The Questions of Milinda; and, round about the turn of the first and second centuries of the Christian Era, the greatest of the Kushan emperors, Kanishka, became a patron of Buddhism, if not an outright convert to it.

The Kushan Empire was the thoroughfare along which Buddhism made its way from India, through what are now Soviet Central Asia and Sinkiang, to the north-west corner of China. From there it spread to the whole of the rest of China and on into Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Afghanistan’s role as a roundabout has never been played to greater effect.

This route from India to China via Afghanistan, which is the route by which Buddhism actually travelled, looks strangely circuitous on the map. Why travel round three sides of Tibet? Why not short-circuit this rambling route by travelling straight from Bengal to Yunnan? The answer is, of course, that South-East Asia – where India and China have so sensitive and sore a common frontier today – was still outside the pale of civilization when Buddhism was on the march. In Kanishka’s day, Indian culture was only just acquiring its first footholds in what are now Cambodia and Annam; and it was not till the close of the thirteenth century of the Christian Era that Yunnan was redeemed from barbarism and incorporated in China by China’s Mongol conquerors. The route through Afghanistan, circuitous though this was, was the earliest route along which India and China made contact with each other. This was the route followed in the transmission of Buddhism; and that is the most important transaction that has ever taken place between India and China so far.

Between Oxus and Jumna, OUP, 1961

4 Responses to “The Old World’s eastern roundabout”


  1. […] The Old World’s eastern roundabout […]


  2. For a full description of the developments of Buddhism under Kanishka and i Kushana generally, and its spread to China, there is no better source than Xinru Liu “Ancient India and Ancient China, Trade and Religious Exchanges AD 1-600”, Oxford University Press Delhi 1988. And also the more popular text “Connections across Eurasia. Transportation, Communication, and Cultural Exchange on the Silk Roads”, McGraw Hill New York 2009.
    I have written to Xinru Liu and once again I realise the tragedy of sectorial knowledge. What the East known the West does not. If both knew what the other knows there would be a historical revolution and both East and West would have to rethink history altogether. I am beginning to discover enough facts to upturn the European idea of the so-called Middle Ages: they are not a French affair…


  3. […] The Old World’s eastern roundabout […]


  4. […] The Old World’s eastern roundabout […]


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