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

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

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

The Kushan Empire spread from the Kabul River Valley to defeat other CentralAsian tribes that had previously conquered parts of the northern central IranianPlateau 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 asfar west as the central Iranian Plateau. Early in the second century A.D. underKanishka, the most powerful of the Kushan rulers, the empire reached itsgreatest geographic and cultural breadth to become a center of literature andart. Kanishka extended Kushan control to the mouth of the Indus River on theArabian Sea, into Kashmir, and into what is today the Chinese-controlled areanorth of Tibet. Kanishka was a patron of religion and the arts. It was duringhis reign that Mahayana Buddhism, imported to northern India earlier by theMauryan emperor Ashoka (ca. 260-232 B.C.), reached its zenith in Central Asia.

In the third century A.D., Kushan control fragmented into semi-independentkingdoms 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 theSassanians from the west and by the growing strength of the Guptas, an Indiandynasty established at the beginning of the fourth century.

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

By the middle of the sixth century the Hepthalites were defeated in theterritories north of the Amu Darya (the Oxus River of antiquity) by anothergroup of Central Asian nomads, the Western Turks, and by the resurgentSassanians 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 kingdomsunder Sassanian control but with local rulers who were Kushans or Hepthalites.

Of this great Buddhist culture and earlier Zoroastrian influence there remainfew, if any, traces in the life of Afghan people today. Along ancient traderoutes, however, stone monuments of Buddhist culture exist as reminders of thepast. The two great sandstone Buddhas, thirty-five and fifty-three meters highoverlook the ancient route through Bamian to Balkh and date from the third andfifth centuries A.D. In this and other key places in Afghanistan, archaeologistshave located frescoes, stucco decorations, statuary, and rare objects fromChina, Phoenicia, and Rome crafted as early as the second century A.D. that bearwitness to the influence of these ancient civilizations on the arts inAfghanistan.

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