Bactria, the territory of which Bactra was the capital, originally consisted of the plain between the Hindu Kush and the Āmū Daryā with its string of agricultural oases dependent on water taken from the rivers of Balḵ (Bactra), Tashkurgan, Kondūz, Sar-e Pol, and Šīrīn Tagāō. This region played a major role in Central Asian history. At certain times the political limits of Bactria stretched far beyond the geographic frame of the Bactrian plain (Figure 5; Figure 6).
Bactria in the Bronze and Iron Ages. The first mentions of Bactria occur in the list of Darius’s conquests and in a fragment of the work of Ctesias of Cnidos—texts written after the region’s incorporation in the Achaemenid empire. Ctesias, however, echoes earlier reports in his mention of campaigns by the Assyrian king Ninus and the latter’s wife Semiramis (late 9th and early 8th century B.C.). Thereafter, he states, Bactria was a wealthy kingdom possessing many towns and governed from Bactra, a city with lofty ramparts. A similar picture is presented in the Zoroastrian tradition (Avesta, Šāh-nāma), which speaks of the protection given to Zoroaster by a powerful ruler of Bactra (see ii, below).
While the existence of such a kingdom remains hypothetical, archeological investigations have produced evidence of big oasis communities grouped around a fortress (Dašlī). These communities, like those of the oases in Margiana, were already practicing a well-developed system of irrigation and carrying on trade in products such as bronze and lapis lazuli with India and Mesopotamia.
Bactria under the Achaemenids. After annexation to the Persian empire by Cyrus in the sixth century, Bactria together with Margiana formed the Twelfth Satrapy. Apparently the annexation was not achieved through conquest but resulted from a personal union of the crowns. Indicative of this are the facts that the satrap was always a near kinsman of the great king and that the Achaemenid administrative system was not introduced. The local nobles played a big part and held all real power. Their wealth is attested by the opulence of the Oxus treasure. Bactra occupied a commanding position on the royal road to India. Profits from the east-west trade as well as from the outstandingly prosperous local agriculture enabled the province to pay a substantial tribute (360 talents of silver per annum).
The Bactrians also made an important contribution to the Persian army. At Salamis they were under the great king’s direct command. At Gaugamela the Bactrian cavalry nearly turned the scales against the Macedonians. When Darius Codomannus, after his defeat in this battle, sought refuge in the Upper Satrapies, the Bactrian Bessos caused him to be murdered and then proclaimed himself king. Despite the resistance by scorched earth tactics conducted by Bessos, Bactria was conquered by the Macedonians and Bessos was delivered to them and put to death on Alexander’s order. Bactra then served as Alexander’s headquarters during his long campaign into Sogdia. After overcoming all the forces of resistance, Alexander took away 30,000 young Bactrians and Sogdians as hostages and incorporated a large number of Bactrians in his army. At the same time he settled many of his veterans in colonies planned to secure the Macedonian hold on Bactria.
Little information has been obtained from Achaemenid sites in Bactria. Bactra is deeply buried under the citadel (bālā-ḥeṣār) of present-day Balḵ. Drapsaca and Aornos, mentioned by the historians of Alexander, are usually identified with Kondūz and Tashkurgan, where excavations have yet to begin. More recently it has been suggested that Aornos may have been located at Altyn Delyār Tepe (Rtveladze, pp. 149-52), a site north of Balḵ where excavation was started but could not be pursued. Other sites from the Achaemenid period are Kyzyl Tepe and Talaškan Tepe on the Sorḵān Daryā, and Taḵt-e Qobād (the probable source of the Oxus treasure) on the right bank of the Oxus, the citadel of Delbarjīn, and the circular town of Āy Ḵānom II on the left bank. All show traces of fortifications built of dried mud or large bricks on massive platforms. At none of them has thorough exploration yet been possible.
Hellenistic Bactria. The future of the Greek colonization of Bactria hung in the balance when the colonists rebelled in 326, after learning of Alexander’s death, and again in 323; but they were reduced to obedience, and Bactria was then combined with Sogdia to form a satrapy under Philippos. After the establishment of the Seleucid regime, Bactra became for a time the headquarters of Seleucos I’s son Antiochos, who was deputed to defend the eastern satrapies against the growing might of the Mauryan empire. The weakening of Seleucid power particularly in the reign of Antiochos II (261-247) enabled first Parthia, then Bactria to secede. The independent kingdom of Bactria was founded by Diodotos. On coins minted at Bactra the figure of Antiochos is replaced with that of Diodotos over the royal title (the figure on the reverse being Zeus brandishing a thunderbolt).
In 208 Antiochos III set out to reestablish Seleucid authority and marched into Bactria. After fending off a move by the Bactrian cavalry to halt his advance, he blockaded their king Euthydemos in the city of Bactra. The siege dragged on for two years, and in the end Antiochos had to recognize Bactria’s independence and sign a treaty of alliance with Euthydemos.
The Greco-Bactrian kingdom was bounded in the south by the Paropamisadai (Hindu Kush) and in the east by the mountains of Badaḵšān. In the west it was in direct touch with the Parthians, who recovered Parthyene after the departure of Antiochos III and seized the Marv oasis. Scholars now generally accept the view that its northern frontier lay on the line of the Ḥeṣār mountains (between the Oxus and Zarafšān valleys; Bernard and Francfort, pp. 4-16) rather than the view, based on the rarity of finds of Greek coins north of the Oxus, that it lay on that river (Zeĭmal’, pp. 279-90). These frontiers shifted in the course of the kingdom’s career. In the north, Sogdia was annexed at an uncertain date. In the south, a campaign of conquest launched by Demetrios I about 190 led to the creation of a Greco-Indian kingdom with its center at Taxila, but relations did not remain close for long. The Greco-Indian kingdom survived for half a century after the collapse of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom.
The Hellenistic period appears to have been a prosperous time for Bactria. One indication of this is the high quality of its coin issues. Strabo echoes memories of the period when he speaks of “Bactria of the thousand towns.” Until recently, however, archeological investigations, mainly at Balḵ (Bactra) and Termeḏ, were so fruitless that A. Foucher could speak of the “Bactrian mirage.” The situation has been radically changed since 1964, when the remains of a large city were discovered at Āy Ḵānom. Excavations, vigorously pursued until 1978, have shown that this city at the confluence of the Oxus and the Kūkča river was the capital of eastern Bactria. Strongly fortified and dominated by an acropolis and citadel, it was built on a regular plan well suited to the site and had a number of fine edifices typical of a Hellenistic city: a heroon (monument to the founder), gymnasium, theater, fountain with sculptures, and peristyle courts. On the other hand, the huge palace occupying the central position and the upper class dwellings are clearly influenced by Iranian concepts, while the temples and the fortifications show signs of Mesopotamian inspiration.
The abundant and datable material from Āy Ḵānom provided guidance for other site investigations, which were pursued with vigor on both sides of the Oxus. These have revealed the great scale of the irrigation projects undertaken to complete the already substantial works of the preceding periods. Furthermore several new sites of towns or fortified settlements were identified and provisionally excavated, though Termeḏ (probably a foundation of Demetrios) remained inaccessible. In general these are sites of towns founded in the later years of the kingdom’s existence; they are smaller than those of the cities founded by the Seleucids and have a markedly military character, with a citadel overlooking a geometrically planned settlement surrounded by ramparts. Noteworthy are the quadrangular town of Delbarjīn in the north of the Balḵ oasis, and the fortresses of Kay Qobād Šāh, Ḵayrābād Tepe, Qaḷʿa-ye Kāfernegān, and Qarabāḡ Tepe on right bank tributaries of the Oxus. Somewhat later came the discovery of the site on the right bank of the Oxus called Taḵt-e Sangīn, which is surrounded by stone fortifications (most unusual in this region); excavations there have uncovered a sanctuary of the Oxus god and yielded abundant materials closely resembling those found at Āy Ḵānom (Litvinskij and Pitchikian, pp. 195-216).
The last period of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom is marked by the reign of Eucratides, who overthrew Demetrios and thereby started a long conflict with the descendants of Euthydemos who remained in power in India, which continued under his successors. The protracted hostilities probably explain, in part, why the kingdom lost strength and succumbed to a nomad invasion, which ended Greek rule in the region. It is known that Āy Ḵānom was abandoned by the Greeks and pillaged by neighboring populations in 147. According to the Chinese traveler Chang Chien, Ta Hsia (Bactria) in 130 consisted of a multitude of petty principalities, lacking a supreme chief but all under the domination of the Yüe Chih tribes whose camping grounds lay on the right bank of the Oxus.
Pre-Kushan Bactria. The subsequent period is extremely obscure. It is known from the Chinese historical work Hou Han Shu that the Yüe Chih occupied Lan Shih, which many scholars identify with Bactra. This is taken to mean that Bactria then came under the direct rule of the Yüe Chih. The exact date of the occupation is unknown. The work goes on to describe the political situation in Bactria: “The Yüe Chih . . . moved into Ta Hsia (Bactria) and divided this kingdom into five hsi-hou (yabḡū), namely those of Hsiu-mi, Shuang-mi, Kuei-shang, Hsi-tun, and Tu-mi.” Strabo, who possessed only indirect information because the presence of the Parthian empire prevented contact, gives us to understand that Bactria was conquered by several nomad groups: the Asii/Asiani, the Tochari, and the Saraucae (Geography 11.511). Although Strabo’s statement is difficult to reconcile with those in the Chinese sources, archeological evidence obtained from excavations of several large nomad cemeteries on the right bank of the Oxus shows that many of the newcomers were natives of the northwestern steppes and belonged to the Sauromatian/Sarmatian ethnic group.
According to Trogus Pompeius (quoted by Justin, Prologi 42), “the Asiani became the kings of the Tochari, and the Saraucae (Sacaraucae) were destroyed.” This statement tallies with the account in the Hou Han Shu which tells how one of the chiefs who shared Ta Hsia overcame the others and founded the Kushan dynasty in Bactria: “More than a century after (the arrival of the nomads in Bactria), the hsi-hou of the Kuei-shang, named Ch’iu-tsiu-ch’ü, attacked the other four hsi-hous. He proclaimed himself king. The name of his kingdom was Kuei-shang.” Comparison of the two texts leaves no doubt as to the identity of the Asiani with the Kushans.
The Tochari, from whom eastern Bactria was to acquire the name Ṭoḵārestān, were for a long time thought to be identical with the Kushans. Their language may have belonged to the Indo-European “centum” group used in the oases of the Tarim basin. These matters, however, remain problematical and controversial.
As for the Sacaraucae, they are thought to have settled in western Bactria after they had pillaged Bactra. Probably attributable to a dynasty of chiefs of this tribe are the tombs discovered in 1978 at Ṭelā Tepe in the Šebergān district, a site in one of several oases along the Sar-e Pol river west of Bactra which were developed and settled at that time. The extraordinary profusion of the finds of jewelry and gold artifacts, often encrusted with precious stones, in these tombs has prompted comparison with the treasure of Peter the Great in the Hermitage Museum at Leningrad. All the items can be dated from the first century B.C. and first century A.D. The workmanship attests the continuing impact of Greek culture (e.g., buckles with figures of Ares or Dionysos in his chariot), the strength of Bactrian traditions akin to the art of the steppes (e.g., scabbards with encrusted dragon ornamentations, ear pendants in animal style), and the presence of East Asian influences (e.g., Chinese mirrors, Mongoloid features of human figures).
The archeological discoveries relating to pre-Kushan Bactria point to continuance of the agricultural and urban development observed in the later part of the Greco-Bactrian period. The case of Āy Ḵānom is exceptional; here the only occupants were now a small garrison lodged in the citadel, the role of chief city of eastern Bactria having reverted to Kondūz. In addition to finds made at nomad cemeteries, such as Tūlḵār, Bīškent, and Tūpḵāna (Litvinskiĭ and Sedov, 1984), materials have been unearthed from sites of towns founded in the previous period which continued to live and flourish without a break, such as Delbarjīn and Qaḷʿa-ye Kāfernegān. Other settlements of smaller size from this period were elaborately fortified with ramparts and covered galleries in a quadrangular layout, as at Kohna Qaḷʿa, Aĭrtam, and Saksanošūr. Real towns arose at Delvarzīn Tepe on the Sorḵān Daryā, at Zar Tepe on the right bank of the Oxus, and at Yemšī Tepe which was probably the seat of the local rulers interred at Ṭelā Tepe (Sarianidi).
Bactria under the Kushans. The history of the Kushan empire presents, as is well known, many difficulties due to the paucity and heterogeneity of the Greco-Roman, Syrian, Indian, and Chinese sources. The only documentation of Kushan origin consists of coin legends, seals, and votive inscriptions whose dating remains problematic because several different eras are used in them.
This empire spread far and wide from its nucleus in Bactria and finally comprised a vast area stretching from Central Asia to India. As a result, Bactria gradually lost its political importance and became merely one province among many others.
Even so, Bactria appears to have prospered during the Kushan period. Thanks to trade expansion made possible by the prevalence of peace, Bactra became a major commercial center. The city was one of the chief halts on the silk road and the crossroads of routes leading westward to Marv, northward to Termeḏ, Čaḡānīān, and Kāšgar, and south-eastward to Kondūz, Sorḵ Kotal, Begrām, and thence to India. People were able and willing to travel, and among them were Indian monks who brought the religion of the Buddha to Bactria with the encouragement, so it seems, of the powerful Kushan king Kanishka. Numerous monasteries were founded in the region at that time: at Termeḏ (Qara Tepe), Zar Tepe, Kondūz, Bāmīān, Begrām, and elsewhere. The art types of the Buddha flashing fire and the Buddha gushing water were probably conceived in the Bactrian monasteries under the influence of Mazdean and Zoroastrian concepts (Staviskii).
In the Kushan period a Bactrian alphabet based on the Greek was created for monumental use, and excavations at Delbarjīn and near Termeḏ have uncovered fragments of texts in a cursive Bactrian script. (See bactrian language.)
A substantial increase of the area under cultivation in Bactria took place in the Kushan period. New lands were irrigated, e.g., at Bīškent and along the lower course of the Vaḵš, while the valleys of the Balḵ, Kondūz, and Sorḵān Daryā rivers were important producers. Urbanization showed similar progress. Some forty urban sites, including fifteen of more than 15 ha, have now been located; all have dimensions fit for medium-sized or large towns. Besides the main cities of Bactra (Zariaspa, Lan Shi), Kondūz, and Termeḏ (Qara Tepe), the following towns deserve mention: in southern Bactria, Delbarjīn, Begrām (famous for the find of a treasure-store containing objects from Alexandria in Egypt and from India), and the sanctuary Sorḵ Kotal (with a great temple at the top of a flight of steps, dedicated to an apparently eclectic collection of gods headed by a deity personifying the victory of the temple’s founder Kanishka; Schlumberger, le Berre, and Fussman); north of the Oxus, Delvarzīn, Aĭrtam, Zar Tepe, Qaḷʿa-ye Kāfernegān, and Ḵaḷčajān. All these sites attest the remarkable development of urban life which characterized Kushan Bactria.
It was in the Kushan period, however, that the name Bactria fell out of use. We do not know what name the region then bore. The geographer Ptolemy, writing in the second half of the second century A.D., states that it was then inhabited mainly by Tochari. In Middle Persian and Armenian, the name Balḵ denotes only the capital city. By the end of the Kushan period, Bactria had come to be known as Ṭoḵārestān. After the conquest of the region by the Sasanians, Ṭoḵārestān formed the core of their province of Kūšānšahr. In the Chinese sources Tu Kho Lo, undoubtedly a transcription of the new name, replaces the older Ta Hsia.
Comprehensive surveys are now available in two fundamental works: A. D. H. Bivar, in Camb. Hist. Iran III, 2, Cambridge, 1983, pp. 181-209, and B.A. Staviskii, La Bactriane kouchane, Paris, 1986 (both with full and up-to-date bibliographies).
Some further material is to be found in the recently published studies by P. Bernard, Fouilles d’Aï Khanoum IV: Les monnaies hors trésor. Questions d’histoire gréco-bactrienne, Paris, 1985; idem and H. P. Francfort, Etudes de géographie historique sur la plaine d’Aï Khanoum, Paris, 1978; G. A. Koshelenko, Drevneĭshie gosudarstva Kavkaza i Sredneĭ Azii, Moscow, 1984; P. Leriche, Fouilles d’Aï Khanoum V: Les remparts et les monuments associés, Paris, 1986; B. A. Litvinskij and I. P. Pitchikian, “Découvertes dans un sanctuaire du dieu Oxus de la Bactriane septentrionale,” RA, 1981, no. 2, pp. 195-216; B. A. Litvinskiĭ and A. Sedov, Tepa i Sakh: Kul’tura i svyazi kushanskoĭ Baktrii, Moscow, 1983; idem, Kul’ty i ritualy kushanskoĭ Baktrii, Moscow, 1984; T. V. Pyankov, Baktriya v traditsii drevnosti, Dushanbe, 1982; E. V. Rtveladze, “O mestopolozhenii baktriĭskogo goroda Aorna,” VDI, 1982, no. 1, pp. 149-52; V. I. Sarianidi, Zoloto Baktrii, Moscow, 1985; D. Schlumberger, M. le Berre, and G. Fussman, Surkh Kotal en Bactriane I: Les temples, Paris, 1983; B. Staviskij, “Kara Tepe in Old Termez,” Acta Antiqua Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, 1980, pp. 99-135; V. I. Zeĭmal’, Drevnie monety Tadzhikistana, Dushanbe, 1985.
Still stimulating are the broad perspectives presented by A. Foucher, La vieille route de l’Inde de Bactres à Taxila, Paris, 1942; W. W. Tarn, The Greeks in Bactria and India, 2nd ed., Oxford, 1952; D. Schlumberger, L’Orient hellénisé, Paris, 1969.
In the Avesta Bactria is mentioned only in the list of countries in the first chapter of the Vendīdād (Vd. 1.6 and 7). It appears as Bāx’iš (from which Humbach [1966, p. 52] reconstitutes an original form *Bāxδriš in order to explain the western, probably Median, form Bāxtriš), and is qualified as srīra- “beautiful” and uzgərəptō.drafša- “with uplifted banners.” The names of the two plagues sent to Bactria by Angra Mainyu, barvara- (or bravara-) and usaδ-, are puzzling and the corresponding names in the Pahlavi version are incomprehensible. Barvara-, if compared with Sanskrit barbara-, varvara-, Greek barbaroi, might designate non-Aryan peoples (indeed the name Barbar is still applied to some populations and places in Bactria, especially in the mountainous area). Usaδ, used in the plural, is considered by Humbach (1960, pp. 38-39) as a graphic corruption of usij-, which in Y. 44.20 designates priests hostile to Zoroaster.
In the existing Pahlavi books, Bactria is mentioned in two contexts. In the Bundahišn (ed. and tr. B. T. Anklesaria, XI-A, p. 109) the Oxus, together with the Indus, is identified with the Wehrōd, the “Good River,” which forms the boundary of Ērānšahr and is conceptually linked with the Avestan Vaŋhvī Dāityā, next to which the first upholders of the faith performed their sacrifices (meanwhile, the latter’s proper Pahlavi transcription; Dāitī, is never identified with any real river in the Pahlavi texts). The Šahrestānīhā ī Ērān (8-9) associates Bactria with the Kayanid prince Spandyād (Esfandīār) and his victory in the holy war against Arjāsp, king of the Xyōn; he is purported to have built Balḵ under the name Navāzag (Pers. Avāza, elsewhere identified with the Rūʾīndež “brazen castle” and the town of Paykand), and to have established a “Wahrām fire” there. Both the Spandyād tradition and the Oxus-Wehrōd identification are found in the Armenian History of Heraclius attributed to Sebeos (ca. A.D. 660).
It is highly probable that by the end of the Sasanian period the lost national chronicle Xwadāy-nāmag had come to incorporate more substantial traditions on Balḵ, linking it with the second Kayanid dynasty and with the preaching of Zoroaster under king Goštāsp (Kavi Vīštāspa). In fact, from Ṭabarī onwards, the last point is expressed by all the authors whose information is derived from the chronicle (see Jackson, pp. 199-201, 205-19). Some of them consider that Kay Kāvūs had already established the capital at Balḵ, while the Šāh-nāma attributes this step to Goštāsp’s father Lohrāsp (called “the Bactrian” by Bīrūnī). The idea that Bactria had been the setting of the prophet’s activity was eventually reconciled with the claim by Azerbaijan to be his birth-place; it superseded other eastern traditions (especially those of Sīstān and Sogdiana), transmitted by some Pahlavi sources. This process can be explained by several factors: the long-lasting political preeminence of Bactria among eastern regions; its importance as a scene of the wars with “Turanian” peoples at the end of the sixth-beginning of the seventh century A.D. (reminiscences of these wars color Ferdowsī’s account of Goštāsp’s reign, and even more the section on Spandyād in the Šahrestānīhā); traditions proper to the local clergy, whose intervention is shown by the fact that a genuinely Bactrian name, Lohrāsp, was substituted for Aurvaṱ.aspa, the Avestan name of Vīštāspa’s father.
A. Christensen, Le premier chapitre du Vendidad et l’histoire primitive des tribus iraniennes, Copenhagen, 1943, pp. 64-65.
Gh. Gnoli, Zoroaster’s Time and Homeland, Naples, 1980, pp. 62, 66-67.
J. Harmatta, Acta Orientalia Hungarica 11, 1960, pp. 202-03.
H. Humbach, “Die awestische Länderliste,” Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde Süd- und Ostasiens 4, 1960, pp. 36-46.
Idem, Baktrische Sprachdenkmäler I, Wiesbaden, 1966.
A. V. W. Jackson, Zoroaster, the Prophet of Ancient Iran, New York, 1899, repr. 1965.
G. Lazard, “Notes bactriennes,” Studia Iranica 13, 1984, p. 223.
J. Marquart (Markwart), Ērānšahr nach der Geographie des ps. Moses Xorenacʿi, Berlin, 1901, repr. Göttingen, 1979, pp. 87-91.
Idem, A Catalogue of the Provincial Capitals of Ērānshahr, Rome, 1931, pp. 10, 34-38.
Idem, Wehrot und Arang, Leiden, 1938, pp. 31-52, 125-26, 143-44.
S. Wikander, “Sur le fonds commun indo-iranien des épopées de la Perse et de l’Inde,” La Nouvelle Clio 1-2, 1949-50, pp. 310-29.
(P. Leriche, F. Grenet)
Originally Published: December 15, 1988
Last Updated: August 19, 2011
This article is available in print.
Vol. III, Fasc. 4, pp. 339-344