Geography of Iran

History of Balkh (Bactria)
By: Ramin Javid-Moshref


The Old Iranian name of Paktra, which the classical writers named it Bactria and their language was known as Bactrian, and after invasion of Iran by Arabs in 7th century CE it has come to be called Balkh; A northern province of Turkistan in modern Afghanistan, which boarders to the north, the river Oxus and the former USSR.

Not much has been known about this empire, only some coins and a little bit of writing and occasional archaeological artifacts. Much of the work on excavations of Bactrian artifacts has been done by French Archaeologists. Historians find remote references in other people's records about the kingdom.

It was from Bactria that came prophet Zarathushtra (Zartosht/Zardosht). Another source of spiritual home that made Bactria sacred was a great temple of the ancient Iranian goddess, Anahit (in Pahlavi or Middle-Persian) and Anahita (Ânâhitâ) in the Avesta hymns.

The temple was so rich that often it attracted the needy Syrian kings who sat out to plunder it. In her name and honor, in Armenia, girls prostituted themselves. Anaitis was a Scythian goddess, but she is identified also as Assyrian Mylitta, the Arabian Alytta and the Greek Venus Urania. Artaxerxes Mnemon, one of the emperors of Achaemenid dynasty was among her devotees. She is also associated with the Persian Mithra. Her association with Zoroaster adds to her popularity.

Bactria, by some writers, is called "the pride of Ariana". The ancient local citizen called it "Bactria the beautiful". Bactria was popular for its fertility. Besides Oxus, the Arius [modern Hari-rud] and a few other smaller river irrigate it. A large variety of fruits and vegetables grows here and excellent breed of sheep were raised in green Hindu Kush slopes. Bacteria is also known for its camels. Although they are rarely mentioned in history, they nevertheless played a significant role in shaping history. For example, the Parthians used these camels as ammunition carriers for their mounted infantry. Once were they ever celebrated in some coins. However, the most popular of the Bactrian animals is the Bactrian horse. This animal played a partial role in the reputation of Bactrian cavalry in the ancient world.

The once well watered land of Bactria and its fair climate has generally changed. The courses of the rivers have shifted, thus Bactria is not as glorious as it had been during the Macedonian occupation. The river Oxus once poured into the Caspian Sea, but now it flows into the Aral Sea. The modern city of Balkh [the old Bactrus], stood on the banks of this river, but now the city is a few miles away from the mighty Oxus.

Another feature of Bactria was the succession of mighty natural forts spread over the country, asserting to the traveler the safety and excellent strategical position of the city. As an example: when Antiochus the Great sieged Bactra, the Bactrians showed so much courage and stability - thanks to their location - that the king had no choice but to break the siege. Hence, the "siege of Bactra" in history is another way of saying stubborn resistance. When the Greeks came to Bactria [with Alexander], they were impressed by some features of Bactrian culture, namely clean and spacious suburbs. However, they were disgusted with the treatment of the dead. After the Achaemenian dynasty, especially during the Sasanian dynasty, the Zoroastrian religion required the bodies to be left exposed on a Dakhma [tower of silence] so that the birds of pray could eat them. On the other hand, dogs too ate the dead and they were considered sacred - to injure a dog was more offensive then man-slaughter, in the Vendidad. The streets were full of half wild dogs, and full of bone - presumably because they were the bones of the dead.

The original population of Bactria were largely Scythian. Apparently the Aryans who came over and took control, formed a military aristocracy over a technologically less developed people - as was the case with early Greeks, Romans and Gauls.

These people lived simple lives and were not effected by the luxury which spoiled the Persian Empire - they had the virtues of the true Persians. Their geographical location exposed them to all invaders, so they were in constant war. They also kept the worrier spirit alive.

Their long time enemy was the Scythians who lived to the north of Oxus and crossed over, from time to time, to loot the border villages. They were a free people; they resented an insult and very proud of the privilege of having a royal prince as their ruler. They fought for him to the last man, dying in honor, against the Greek invaders. In Persia, they were considered the most loyal subjects of the Empire. The Bactria's geographical location put them in an import strategic location put them in an import strategic location. Bactria was the center from which other parts of the empire could be checked. For example, Bactria was a block to the northern nomads, and a policeman in central Asia and had easy access to the northern, eastern and western provinces. Bactria was also a sacred place because of Zarathushtra raised from that land. It is also the home of the authorship of many of the oldest hymns of the Zand Avesta. Bactrians were also famous for proverbial sayings. One example is: when speaking of Alexander, a Bactrian chief said: "His bark is worse than his bite: for still waters run deep".

About four thousand years ago a collection of tribes known as the Aryans swept into South and West Asia - by a series of wave-like migration. Most historians divide there people into two groups, the Aryans and the Iranians [although they are all from the Aryan race]. First tribes were the Aryan tribe, which later were pushed down over the Paropamisus [mountains] into Punjab. The Iranians split into two sections, one section went West and founded settlements on the Tigris and Euphrates valley - which later became strong Kingdoms. Of this section, separated yet other tribes such as the Persians and the Medes. The Persians spread over the elevated lands of the Persian golf region. The Medes subdivided into smaller clans and occupied The land between the Caspian Sea to the land of Persis. The other section of the Iranians took the easterly direction. They also pushed the Aryans before them to the mountains and settled on the banks of the Oxus. They made Bactra {modern Balkh} their capital, and seized the ancient shine of Bactra. Forming an aristocracy over the local people they lived in isolation. They had a swift cavalry which suddenly attacked the enemy from the slopes and quickly retired to their strongholds.

The Aryans and the Iranians of Bactria, had a lot in common. They spoke the same language, worshiped the forces of nature, such as: Varuna, the shining Vault of Heaven; Mithra, the friendly light of the sun; Vayu; the wind that pushes aside the storms and clears the heaven; Yama, the primeval man, reigning over the blessed souls in paradise. The powers of nature, to them, were the signs of something far more deeply interfused. In their ceremonies they also drunk the sacred Juice, Soma. These two races slowly drifted apart as time went on, for not known reasons. Although the history of early Bactria is vague, the historians gather that as early as the second millennium BCE, a powerful confederacy, centered in Bactria existed in South Central Asia. The confederacy was created to survive the influences of powerful neighbors such as the Persians, the Medes and the non-Aryans (An-Iranian).

Historians gather that Zarathushtra Spitama was born probably at Raghae or Rai, in Media Atropatene; and he belonged to the tribe of Magu who had acquired a monopoly in religious functions. It is probably Zarathushtra who changes the religion of the Iranians from the old Aryan to the Zarathushtrian. By this time, the language also changed. Iranians held the fire sacred and stopped burning their dead, instead they exposed the dead to the birds. Out of the old religion came new practices, for example, holding some animals [like the dog] sacred and punish people severely for harming them. Also minute rituals were created around new practices. Lastly, the existence of a dualism in Nature appeared. They explained Evil as the work of Ahreman, Ahura Mayniu, the prince of Darkness and the lord of the Hosts of Daeva [this may have been acquired from contact with Semitic people]. The legend is that Zarathushtra appeared during the reign of Gushtaspa at "Bactra the beautiful, city of the high - streaming banner". Zarathushtra's wife's family were very influential in the Royal court, that helped Zarathushtra spread his religion. Hence, Bactria became the heart of the new creed. According to Ferdowsi. Zarathushtra was killed by an invading Scythian party in front of his fire-altar, in Balkh.

Around 700 BCE, the Medes over came the Assyrian rule and over-threw that great empire. From the Ashes of Assyria arose two new nations. Babylon and Media. In 550 BCE Cyrus the Great over threw the Medes and established the Achaemenid dynasty in Persia. In 538 BCE, the Persians took Babylon [freeing the Jews] and thus became masters of Western Asia. After the conquest of Babylon, Bactria submitted willingly to Cyrus and for the first time the whole "Iranian" division of the Aryan race were united under one ruler. Seeing the danger of the Scythian invasion, Cyrus stationed a blood prince to act as the kings Viceroy. The first of such royal representatives was Cyrus's own son, Smerdis [Tanoxyarces]. Cyrus expanded his boundaries to the North and South. On a second invasion on the barbers [called Massu Getae] living between the Oxus [Amu] and Jaxartes [Sir] rivers, Cyrus was killed. After Cyrus the Great, his son Cambyses took the power, and so continued to expand the Achaemenid dynasty.

In 356 BCE, in Macedonia was born, to king Philip and Olympia's daughter Ophan Epirote prince, a son who was destined to over throw the feared Persia. Alexander, at age of twenty proved himself capable of commending in the battle of Thebes. From here he continued the preparation of the invasion of Persia, from where his father had left off.

In 334 BCE, Alexander's 30,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry in the battle of Grunicus won a decisive battle and set the stage to conquer Asia minor. Darius, the Persian king, retreated battle after battle, losing ground to Alexander - who followed the running monarch city to city. Finally, the king become refugee in Bactria, where he was assassinated by his own people in the hope that Alexander would stop following Darius II. Nonetheless, Alexander did go to Bactria and killed the murderer. Bactra the sacred city and the capital of Bactria was the last of the Persian Empire's provinces to fall. In 328 BCE, while preparing for the conquest of Arabia, he died of malarial fever at the age of 32, in the Babylon desert. He left behind a great Empire which needed an Alexander to be organized into one nation.

Alexander's Empire fell into a war- zone for power. Three generals of Alexander took under their control, most of the Empire. They were Ptolemy, Antigonus and Seleucus. A whole series of events changed the shape of Asia. Constant war for power among Greeks converted most of Asia into a battlefield. I would like to skip over all that confusion and come to Diodotus I. He was a satrap stationed at Bactria. When the Seleucids became weak he became independent and remained so until his death in 230 BCE A high official of Diodothus I, Euthydemus, with the help of Queen's help came to power in 227 BCE He was the real founder of an independent Bactria. In 208 BCE the reigning Seleucid monarch Antiochus III gave his daughter to Euthydemus's son Demetrius. Euthydemus expanded his empire outward. He died in 189 BCE and his son Demetrius took power. He continued to expand his rule. He ruled over a great area. Unfortunately his expansion was too much for his army and his treasury. In 167 BCE a general of Antiochus Epiphanes [a Seleucid ruler], ruler of Syria and other Greeks, by the name Eucratides, invaded Bactria, defeated and killed Demetrius. Eucratides was probably killed by his son is 159 BCE and ruled it along with Parthia. Menander I of India came to power and ruled over India and later, Bactria. He was a great ruler. Menander died around 145 BCE Heliocles, a Greek of Asia minor came to claim Menander's throne, right after Menander's death. It was during this time that a horde from Central Asia over-run Bactria.

In the middle of third century BCE, Chin Shin Huang - Ti of the Chin dynasty reunited China and drove the nomads of outside the walls away. They moved Westward. The Yuch-Chi were defeated by Chins and Huns so moved Westward. Finally in 140 BCE, they over-run Bactria and Sogdiana. They left behind the Kushano-Sasanian dynasty of which, Kanishka is the greatest monarch.