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Bactria (Bactriana) was the ancient Greek name of the country between the range of the Hindu Kush (Caucasus Indicus) and the Amu Darya (Oxus), with the capital Bactra (now Balkh). To the east, it was bordered by the ancient region of Gandhara in the Indian subcontinent. Bactria's inhabitants spoke the Bactrian language, an Iranian language of the Indo-Iranian languages sub-familly of Indo-European languages. Today's Persians of Central Asia (Tajiks) are their descendants.
It is a mountainous country with a moderate climate. Water is abundant and the land is very fertile. Bactria was the home of one of the Iranian tribes. Modern authors have often used the name in a wider sense, as the designation of the whole eastern part of Iran.
It was in these regions, where the fertile soil of the mountainous country is surrounded by the Turanian desert, that the prophet Zoroaster preached and gained his first adherents. The sacred language in which the Avesta, the holy book of Zoroastrianism, is written, was once called "old Bactrian."
It is not known whether Bactria formed part of the Median empire, but it was subjugated by Cyrus and from then formed one of the satrapies of the Persian empire. After Darius III had been defeated by Alexander and killed in the ensuing chaos, his murderer Bessus, the satrap of Bactria, tried to organize a national resistance based on his satrapy.
Alexander the Great
But Bactria was conquered by Alexander the Great without much difficulty; it was only farther in the north, beyond the Oxus, in Sogdiana, where he met with strong resistance. Bactria became a province of the Macedonian empire, and soon came under the rule of Seleucus, king of Asia.
The Macedonians (and especially Seleucus I and his son Antiochus I) established the Seleucid Empire, and founded a great many Greek towns in eastern Iran, and the Greek language became for some time dominant there. The paradox that Greek presence was more prominent in Bactria than in areas far more adjacent to Greece could possibly be explained by the supposed policy of Persian kings to deport unreliable Greek as colonists to this the most remote province of their huge empire.
Main article: Greco-Bactrian Kingdom
The many difficulties against which the Seleucid kings had to fight and the attacks of Ptolemy II, gave to Diodotus, satrap of Bactria, the opportunity of making himself independent (about 255 BC) and of conquering Sogdiana. He was the founder of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom. Diodotus and his successors were able to maintain themselves against the attacks of the Seleucids particularly Antiochus III the Great, who was ultimately defeated by the Romans (190 BC).
The Greco-Bactrians were so powerful that they were able to expand their territory as far as India:
- "As for Bactria, a part of it lies alongside Aria towards the north, though most of it lies above Aria and to the east of it. And much of it produces everything except oil. The Greeks who caused Bactria to revolt grew so powerful on account of the fertility of the country that they became masters, not only of Ariana, but also of India, as Apollodorus of Artemita says: and more tribes were subdued by them than by Alexander...." (Strabo, XI. xi. 1)
Main article: Indo-Greek Kingdom
The Bactrian king Euthydemus and his son Demetrius crossed the Hindu Kush and began the conquest of eastern Iran and the Indus valley. For a short time they wielded great power; a great Greek empire seemed to have arisen far in the East. But this empire was torn by internal dissensions and continual usurpations. When Demetrius advanced far into India one of his generals, Eucratides, made himself king of Bactria, and soon in every province there arose new usurpers, who proclaimed themselves kings and fought one against the other.
Most of them we know only by their coins, a great many of which are found in Afghanistan and India. By these wars the dominant position of the Greeks was undermined even more quickly than would otherwise have been the case. After Demetrius and Eucratides, the kings abandoned the Attic standard of coinage and introduced a native standard, no doubt to gain support from outside the Greek minority. In India, the syncretism went even further. King Milinda (Menander of India), known as a great conqueror, even converted to Buddhism. His successors managed to cling to power somewhat longer, but around AD 10 all of the Greek kings were gone.
The weakness of the Greco-Bactrian empire was shown by its sudden and complete overthrow, first by the Sakas, and then by the Yuezhi (who later became known as Kushans), who had conquered Daxia (= Bactria) by the time of the visit of the Chinese envoy Zhang Qian, c. 126 BCE.
But then its emergence, isolated thousands of miles from Greece, could only be described as a paradox. However, its cultural influences were not completely undone; an artistic style mixing western and eastern elements known as the Gandhara culture survived the empire for hundreds of years.
Contacts with China
The reports of Zhang Qian were put in writing in the Shiji ("Records of the Great Historian") by Sima Qian in the 1st century BCE. They describe an important urban civilization of about one million people, living in walled cities under small city kings or magistrates. Ta-Hia was an afluent country with rich markets, trading in an incredible variety of objects, coming as far as Southern China.
By the time Zhang Xian visited Ta-Hia, there were no longer a major king, and the Bactrian were suzerains to the nomadic Yuezhi, who were settled to the north of their territory beyond the Oxus. Overall Zhang Qian depicted a rather sophisticated but demoralized people who were afraid of war.
These contacts immediately led to the dispatch of multiple embassies from the Chinese, initiating the development of the Silk Road.
- Beal, Samuel. 1884. Si-Yu-Ki: Buddhist Records of the Western World, by Hiuen Tsiang. 2 vols. Trans. by Samuel Beal. London. Reprint: Delhi. Oriental Books Reprint Corporation. 1969.
- Beal, Samuel. 1911. The Life of Hiuen-Tsiang by the Shaman Hwui Li, with an Introduction containing an account of the Works of I-Tsing. Trans. by Samuel Beal. London. 1911. Reprint: Munshiram Manoharlal, New Delhi. 1973.
- Hill, John E. 2003. "Annotated Translation of the Chapter on the Western Regions according to the Hou Hanshu." 2nd Edition.
- Hill, John E. 2004. The Peoples of the West from the Weilue 魏略 by Yu Huan 魚豢: A Third Century Chinese Account Composed between 239 and 265 CE. Draft annotated English translation. 
- Watson, Burton. Trans. 1961. Records of the Grand Historian of China: Translated from the Shih chi of Ssu-ma Ch'ien. Chapter 123: The Account of Ta-yŁan, p. 265. Columbia University Press.
- Watters, Thomas. 1904-5. On Yuan Chwang's Travels in India (A.D. 629-645). Reprint: Mushiram Manoharlal Publishers, New Delhi. 1973.
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