AFGHANISTAN - a brief survey

    It is not often that a hitherto neglected and ignored nation intrudes into the consciousness of the readers of this journal in quite the dramatic fashion that this one has.  Accordingly, it seemed to the point to revisit Afghanistan, previously addressed briefly at the beginning of this series back in 1989.
    Afghanistan is more or less the size of Texas, with roughly the same population - about 20 million.  No railroad, no superhighways, few paved roads, thousands of mountains.  Four main ethnic groups, several more minor ones.  I have heard a boast that the Afghans have never been defeated in war.  That's not exactly true.  The region has been overrun many times, but the conquerors eventually lost their footing and disappeared as political entities.  Similarly, several empires grew out of an Afghan base, but they didn't last either.  What seems to be generally true is that fighters in Afghanistan have had a habit of not giving up, as if they didn't understand the concept of defeat.  They would go on fighting until they were all dead, then a new generation would arise and the conflict - against the Greeks, or the Scythians, or the Mongols, or the Russians, would begin again.  If there was no external conqueror to fight they would fight each other.  Warlordism and civil war has been the norm in Afghanistan for 2500 years.  Peaceful periods have been the punctuation marks in the story.
    Meanwhile, each group of conquerors would leave their genes behind in Afghanistan, so that today there are blond and blue eyed descendants of Scythians and of Alexander's Greeks, Arabs, Turks, Persians, people who look completely Chinese, who knows what else?
    I read in a newspaper recently that the Pashto people, the most populous minority in this nation of no majorities, claim to be the oldest ethnic group in the world.  That's doubtful, but the written history of the area goes back 2500 years, the archeology another 100,000.  That takes us back to the middle Paleolithic period, the homo erectus era.  Neanderthal sites have been found as well, as well as Neolithic, copper, bronze, and iron cultures.
    The region is mentioned in Persian records of the Achaemenid period.  The eastern border of the Persian empire lay in the Indus valley, now in modern Pakistan.  The Persians themselves did not use coinage, but their neighbors to east and west did, so they got into the habit of striking coins to facilitate trade.  On the western border their coins are the well known sigloi and darics of Lydia.  In the east were the so-called "bent bar" coins of Taxila near Peshawar in Pakistan.  Afghanistan, "Aryana," Land of the Aryans, as it was called then, did not use coins.
    In actuality, Persian control in the region was strongest in the south, and faded to the north as the mountains grew more rugged.  Mountain tribes might give formal allegiance to the Persian emperor, but collecting taxes from them was basically impossible, and the Persians didn't really try.  Beyond the mountains horse nomads roamed.
    Alexander the Great came through southern Afghanistan in 327 BCE on his way to India.  He founded one of his cities, Alexandria Ariana, near the site of modern Herat.  That region was called Baktria then.  Just north of Baktria was Sogdiana, now southern Turkmenistan, which was part of the conquered package.  When Alexander moved on eastward he found trouble in the mountains, which had to be pacified inch by inch.  Up in the hills, at a local peace conference, he met and married the daughter of a local chieftain.  The things you must do to get allies!
    Eastern Afghanistan was at that time a part of the Mauryan empire, which took in much of the Indian subcontinent.  When Alexander reached the Indus in Pakistan he encountered a Mauryan feudatory king.  The Mauryans made those punchmarked silver coins, roughly the size of a drachm, that have become so common in recent decades.  They are found all the time in Pakistan, but are rather scarce in Afghanistan.
    On Alexander's death his empire fell into the hands of his generals, who fought among themselves for power and territory.  When the dust settled a guy named Seleukos had command of the east, from Palestine to India.  His holdings were difficult to administer, and his descendants were not up to the job.  After all, here were a relative handful of Greeks trying to hold down millions of natives over thousands of miles.
    Greek administration was essentially military.  They were in the habit of appointing military governors for the various provinces, called satraps.  Family members were preferred, but strong unrelated warriors would do.  These satraps had a tendency to drift toward autonomy and occasionally revolted.
    Seleukos died in 280 BCE, and by the 250s BCE the satrap of Baktria had withdrawn his allegiance and made himself into a king.  The Greeks proceeded to hang on in Baktria for a couple of centuries.  We call them "Indo-Greeks," and the locals called them "Yavanas."  At their peak they controlled territory deep into Pakistan and on into Kashmir.  But the origin of the "Indo-Greek" phenomenon was western Afghanistan.
    The Baktrian Greek kings were in the habit of making their sons and top generals into co-rulers, and these sub-kings struck coins along with the senior king.  The sub-kings struck coins as well, one of the more famous being Menander, mentioned in records by Greeks and Indians alike.  The whole region was becoming a hotbed of missionary Buddhism at the time, and Menander seems to have been involved in the growth of that faith.
    Indo-Greek coins are mostly of silver and bronze, with a few rare gold items and the occasional lead piece.  Early coins are thoroughly Hellenistic, but as time went on they became more Indian, with bilingual Greek/Karosthi legends, some production of square coins, and advancing crudity of the artwork.  A few of the bronze coins contain a high proportion of nickel, the earliest coins made from that metal.  It was probably not done deliberately.  A major source of silver was the Panjshir valley.
    The Greek kingdom was disrupted around 130 BCE by a massive migration of Scythian nomads who had been pushed out of their home in Uzbekistan by another group of nomads, the Yueh Chi, some of whom settled in northern Baktria, issuing scarce coins derived from Indo-Greek models, while others later settled in India and became the Kushans.  The Scythians were fond of burning and looting, and they drove the Greeks out of Baktria, restricting them to the eastern section of Afghanistan and western Pakistan.  The border was around the northern town of Balkh for a while.  Then the Scythians were stopped by the Parthians in Iran and turned back into southern Afghanistan, advancing into Arachosia, in which is now found the city of Qandahar.  At that point the Greeks were almost out of Afghanistan.  By about 110 BCE they had been pushed into Pakistan, where they endured another 90 years, gradually losing ground until the Greek remnant in Jammu (Kashmir) finally succumbed to the Scythians around 10 BCE.
    Scythian coins were inspired by those of the Greeks, some bearing identical types.  The signature Scythian type though was the horseman holding a whip, seen on both silver (usually billon) and copper.  The drachms of the Scythian king Azes II, c. 35 BCE - 5 CE, have been very common in recent years, mediocre specimens going for just a few dollars.
    The next turn of the wheel of fate in Afghanistan involved the Parthianization of the southern Scythian tribes, thus the term "Indo-Parthians."  There was probably some kind of feudal relationship with the Parthian kings involved.  This would be in the early first century CE.  Coins of Parthian derived types were struck by satraps and kings in Sakastan and Aria (Baktria) in the west, Arachosia (Gandhara) in the southeast, and Taxila (Pakistan) on into western India.  Among these rulers is Gondophares, supposedly one of the three wise kings in the bible.  Some of his coins are not uncommon, remarkably ugly bits of copper.
    Indo-Parthian rule was supplanted in the east by the expansion of the Kushan realm.  Centered in the Ganges valley, the Kushans controlled eastern Afghanistan as far as Balkh.  They struck coins there, as well as at Kapisa in the Kabul valley and Taxila in Pakistan.  In artistic terms the Kushan period marks the high point of the "Gandhara" culture of southeastern Afghanistan, in which Hellenistic and Buddhist traditions were melded into a highly expressive sculptural tradition.  The giant Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, though not of the Gandhara tradition, are of this period.  A lot of Gandhara sculpture was made, and with the current rulers' penchant for iconoclasty lots of bits and pieces of it have come to the bazaars of Pakistan recently.  It is available in all price levels from dirt cheap to ridiculously expensive, and in qualities from superb to fake.
    In 224 CE the last Parthian king in Iran succumbed to the Sasanian Ardashir I, who began a campaign of conquest eastward.  The Indo-Parthian realms were incorporated into the renascent Persian empire, and shortly afterwards the western Kushan holdings as well all the way to the Indus in Pakistan.  These Sasanian holdings in Afghanistan were organized into a vassal kingdom of "Kushanshahr," and coins were issued in the names of the Kushanshahr kings through the 400s CE.  There are large gold coins mixing Kushan and Sasanian motifs, and more purely Sasanian coppers, some of the latter being fairly common these days.  The mints at Balkh and Sakastan (Land of the Scythians) also struck standard Sasanian silver dirhams alongside these local gold and copper issues.
    Around 350 CE the southeast corner of Afghanistan (Gandhara) was peeled off of Kushanshahr by a Kushan rebel, Kidara, who proceeded to take over the rest of the Kushan realm in Pakistan and India from his base in Peshawar.  A few Gandharan coins of Sasanian type were issued by the Kidarites early on, but most hail from Pakistan.  There are coppers and base gold staters declining to copper, both generally available.
    In the 4th century CE a new nomad migration disturbed Afghanistan and its neighbors.  These people seemed to call themselves "Hono," or Huns, and we call them "White Huns" or "Hephthalites."  Whether or not they were related to the Huns who ravaged the Roman Empire is an open question, but the Turkic element of their culture is undeniable.The Hephthalites conquered most of Kushanshahr, where they issued coins in Balkh, the Kabul Valley, Zabul (southeast Afghanistan), and Gandhara, as well as in Pakistan.  Most are based on Sasanian prototypes.
    More Turks followed the Hephthalite vanguard.  In the 6th century CE Turkish tribes were in occupation of virtually all of Afghanistan, where they struck coins based on the Hephthalite interpretations of Sasanian coins.  In the southeast region of Zabul a series of silver coins with a horseman were struck by Turks in the 8th century CE.  This southern Turkish kingdom became substantially Hindu in the 9th century, and this development was signalled by the the issue of the earliest "bull and horseman" type coinage, which became very widespread in succeeding centuries.
    Meanwhile, the west had witnessed the first appearance of Muslim Arabs in Sakastan as early as the late 7th century CE.  The earliest Muslim Afghan coins were Sasanian types with the governor's name written in Pahlavi.  Arab-Sasanian type coins were issued through the 8th century and into the 9th.  There are also a number of Bactrian countermarks of the period.  All of these coins are a bit pricey.
    By the 9th century Arab control of Afghanistan was fairly completely secured and the tide of conquest had continued into Pakistan.  Coins of the standard Abbasid types began to appear in Sijistan (Sakastan) as early as the 8th century, in Herat a few decades later.
    The Abbasid califate decayed in the 9th century, and the eastern provinces fell into local hands.  A bandit in Sijistan put together the Saffarid kingdom, which survived his death by a few years, to be succeeded by a major dynasty, the Samanids, which ruled much of Afghanistan from their seat in Samarkand (Uzbekistan).  Samanid coinage is noteworthy for the production of large multiple dirham coins, about 45mm in diameter, made from bullion mined in northeastern Afghanistan.
    It had become normal practice at this time for rulers to buy large contingents of Turkish soldier-slaves to run their army and government.  Eventually, in many locales from Egypt to India, these slaves took over.  This happened to the Samanids, when the Turkish governor of Ghazni in central Afghanistan revolted and displaced his overlord.  The Ghaznavids continued striking Samanid style coins in the west, but they quickly moved into the Punjab, where they encountered bull and horseman type coins, debased to billon, which they copied, along with other Indian types.  Numerous bull and horseman types, derivatives, and companion non-figural pieces were struck by Ghaznavid rulers at mints in eastern Afghanistan and Pakistan, and many are fairly common.
    The Ghaznavids were supplanted by the Ghorids, who came from the west, around Herat.  They made similar types of coins, bull and horseman, etc. in the east and inscriptional in the west.  The second king, Muhammad bin Sam, did a lot of marauding in India.  Eventually Ghorids conquered Delhi, where they took up residence as the first Delhi sultans.  This period, the 12th century, is more or less the first in which are mentioned the Pathans, or Pashtuns, who have been much in the news in recent years.
    The Afghan possessions of the Ghorids were substantially appropriated in the 13th century by the Khwarezmshah 'Alauddin Muhammad, many of whose coins are very common.  'Alauddin chose to annoy the Mongol Genghis Khan, who proceeded to destroy his empire.  Genghis took virtually all of Afghanistan, where he issued coins, some scarce but available, most rare.
    Afghanistan remained in Mongol hands, various dynasties ruling in various regions.  Western Afghanistan became attached to the Ilkhans of Iran.  Remnants of the Saffarids in Nimruz and of the Ghorids in Herat were vassals of the Ilkhans, asserting their independence when that government decayed in the 14th century.  A rebellion of the Sarbedarids in the 14th century pulled away more of western Afghanistan from the Ilkhans.The overlords of the north and east were descendants of Chagatay, one of Genghis' sons.  The center of the Chagatay realm was up in Uzbekistan, but reached into the Pubjab at times.  This was a period of religious wars between Muslims and pagans, and in many places anarchy prevailed.  All of these governments struck coins, mostly scarce, badly struck silver.
    The Chagatay realm was transformed when the vizier Timur (Tamerlane), a distant descendant of Genghis Khan, took power in Afghanistan, and from the death of his overlord in 1398 he ruled in his own name.  Timur embarked on a career of conquest that eventually brought him an empire that stretched from Anatolia to Kashmir.  Most of this territory fell away on his death, and his successors ruled a shrinking state centered in Afghanistan until the 15th century.  Timur and his successors issued a lot of silver and copper coins, many of them fairly common.  A lot of countermarking went on as well.  There are only a very few Timurid gold coins.  I think the first coins with mint name "Kabul" were made in the late Timurid period.
    The Timurid realm descended into anarchy in the 16th century, and Afghanistan was carved up.  The north went to the Shaybanids of Uzbekistan, the west went to the Safavids of Iran, while the southeastern region was the homeland of Babur "the Tiger," who went on to capture Delhi and establish the Moghul empire of India.  Herat is a not particularly common Safavid mint, Balkh similarly of the Shaybanids, and Kabul and Qandahar the same for the Moghuls.
    It was about this time that the copper coinage in the non-Moghul regions became a definitively civic project, with the precious metal reserved for the royal government.  This is the well known Iranian model, with frequent recoinages designed to squeeze money out of the poor sods who did their piddling business in copper.
    In 1722 the Afghan provinces of Safavid Iran revolted and succeeded in establishing a breakaway regime centered in Herat and undermining the Iranian regime.  The Persian adventurer Nadir Shah took advantage of the anarchy to make himself supreme in Iran and proceeded to take back Afghanistan, marauding east as far as Delhi, which he conquered in 1738.  A nasty piece of work, Nadir was assassinated in 1747.  Iran fell into civil war and Afghanistan became independant under the leadership of Ahmad Shah Durrani, collateral ancestor of the deposed king who lives in Rome today.
    The continuation of a dynasty for more than two centuries is highly unusual in Afghan history.  The current situation is the normal one.
    Durrani silver coins are moderately available.  Western mint products look Iranian and are scarcer, those of the eastern mints look Indian and are more common.  The dynasty split, and one branch, the Barakzais, became dominant.  The SCWC listings for Barakzai coins are, according to expert Stephen Album, pretty good, though with handmade dies used into the 20th century, unlisted varieties are as likely to be met with as listed ones.  Silver coins are readily available, rupees from Kabul and Qandahar, halves from Herat.  Gold coins are rare.  Local coppers from Kabul and Qandahar are fairly common, from other cities not so much, and most easily found are illegible, multiply struck specimens.  Refer to the excellent SCWC listings for the machine struck coins.
    Currently they use paper money only in Afghanistan.  During the Taliban period there were actually either 3 or 4 issuing authorities printing notes, and the money changers charged differently for each type, identifiable by slight differences in color and design.  I've never been able to assemble reference sets of these different printings.
    Now do you have a better understanding of the situation?