Ai Khanum: The Lady Moon of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom
Located in the northern part of present day Afghanistan, Ai Khanum was an ancient Greek city that was founded in the late 4th century BC. The generally accepted view among scholars is that, the city was founded in the aftermath of Alexander the Great’s conquest of the region.
For many years, Ai Khanum served as a very important hub of Hellenistic culture and commerce in Central Asia. It was undoubtedly one of the most vibrant cities of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom, along with the likes of Kapisa (modern-day Bagram, Afghanistan) and Bactra (modern-day Balkh, Afghanistan).
Exact location of Ai Khanum
This archeological site is located in Takhar Province in the northeast of Afghanistan. What that means is that the city was located in the southwest of the Bactria region, near the plain between the Amou-Darya (Oxus) and the Kokcha rivers. Therefore, the city benefited a lot from the waters of those rivers, especially when it came to farming.
A city with an unknown original name
To this day, the original name of Ai Khanum remains unknown. What we do know for a fact is that for quite some time the site was called Eucratidia (or Eucratideia). The name was derived from Eucratides, the last Greco-Bactrian king who ruled the city.
Hybrid of Greek and Oriental Architecture
It’s been estimated that the town spanned about 2km in length and about 1.45km in width. Being an ancient Greek city, it comes as no surprise that many of the public buildings were built using Greek architecture. However, a careful look at the some of the buildings would reveal some bit of Iranian influences.
Who founded the city?
The generally held view is that Ai Khanum was most likely founded by one of Alexander the Great’s generals. The most likely person who gave orders for the foundation of the city was either Seleucus I Nicator or his son Antiochus I Soter. At the time, it most likely went by the name Alexandria Oxiana, a combination of the Macedonian conqueror’s name and the Oxus river. However, there are some scholars that opine that Alexandria Oxiana and Ai-Khanum were two different cities.
Beginning around the early 3rd century BC, Seleucid kings, including Antiochus I Soter and Seleucus I Nicator, carried out military expeditions in the area to rid the town of nomads.
Capital of the Greco-Bactrian ruler Eucratides I
Eucratides I, the Greco-Bactrian king best known for his campaigns in the east and on the Indian subcontinent, is credited with making Ai Khanum the capital city of his kingdom. This occurred sometime in the early 2nd century BC. The city is believed to have reached its peak during the reign of Eucratides I, who embarked on many projects such as the palace and gymnasium. He also rebuilt existing temples and the theatre.
A few decades later, the city fell into the hands of the Saka invaders, a group of nomadic Iranian peoples who hailed from the northern and eastern Eurasian Steppe and the Tarim Basin. The Sakas would remain the dominant power in the city until they were defeated by the Yuezhei, an ancient nomadic people of Central Asia who are believed to have originated in the region around Gansu and Qinghai provinces in China.
The Heroön of Kineas
Situated at the center of the lower part of the city was the shrine that is now known as the Heroön of Kineas. The inhabitants erected a small shrine in honor of the founder of the city during the reign of Antiochus I Soter. The architectural style used for the shrine was mainly Greco-Orientalistic.
Archeologists also unearthed a number of temples in the vicinity of the Heroon of Kineas, including the temple which contained a disc that showed a depiction of the goddess Cybele, a famous Anatolian mother deity. The disc also had a depiction of the Greek goddess Nike riding a chariot drawn by lions. The disc basically combined the Greek and Oriental cultures.
There was also another temple that housed the cult statue of Greek god Zeus. Fragments of the statue still remain in the form of the left foot of the Greek god Zeus. The foot, which is about three times a human foot, is believed to be part of a larger statue sculpted according to the Greek tradition.
Archeologists also found a coin of the Indo-Greek king Hermaios that shows Zeus depicted with shining beams of light coming from his head, almost like the depiction of the god Mithra. This led to some scholars to theorize that the inhabitants of the time likely worshiped a merged version of the Greek god Zeus and the Persian god Mithra.
Laying right near the temples of the city is a palace complex, which measured about 350 by 250 meters. Eucratides is credited as the king who built the palace.
There was also a 390-by-100-meter gymnasium that housed the statues of the Greek god Hermes and demigod Heracles. The archeological team led by Paul Bernard also unearthed a theatre and a military arsenal. It was estimated that the theatre could hold about 6,000 spectators.
A cosmopolitan city
Another thing that made Ai Khanum popular was because it stood along the trade route between India and China. It thus became a popular hub for traders, including the nomads and those from the Parthian Empire. The growth in the town’s population and economy was also likely due to the mint that was set up by Greco-Bactrian rulers around the early part of the 3rd century BC. Antiochus I Soter held the city in very high esteem. This is evident in the infrastructure projects he carried out in the city.
Layout and significance of Ai Khanum
The city’s layout was based on a grid system, with wide, straight streets and buildings made of stone and brick. It was adorned with monumental architecture, including a large palace complex, temples, and public buildings. The city’s water supply was provided by an extensive system of canals and wells.
Excavations of the site began in the 1960s, revealing a wealth of artifacts, including Hellenistic and Indian coins, pottery, sculpture, and jewelry. The site is considered one of the most important archaeological discoveries in Central Asia and sheds light on the intercultural exchange that took place in the region during the Hellenistic period.
The various developmental phases of Ai-Khanum
Research has revealed that the city of Ai-Khanum developed in stages. The first stage saw massive expansion carried out by the rulers of the Seleucid Empire – including under the leadership of either Seleucus I Nicator or Antiochus I Soter. Early Seleucid rulers turned Bactria into the military center for the Seleucids in the East. For example, Antiochus committed a lot of resources into the city as it was the site of a very vibrant mint which produced bronze coins.
Around 255 BC, Diodotus I, governor of the eastern provinces, rebelled against the Seleucid rulers and proceeded to establish the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom. Diodotus’ reign witnessed a slight decline in the economy and prosperity of Ai-Khanum; however, he did commit resources to renovating the city’s temple and other civic buildings. Some scholars state that the city was primarily used by Diodotus and his successors as a military stronghold.
In an attempt to reclaim those lost eastern provinces, Seleucid emperor Antiochus III waged war against the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom around 209 BC. Euthydemus I, the Greco-Bactrian king, suffered a major defeat at the Battle of the Arius in 208 BC. In spite of his hard-fought efforts, Antiochus III could not successfully lay siege to Bactra, the capital of the Greco-Bactrian king. It is possible that the Seleucids managed to venture into Ai-Khanum, which in turn caused the population of the city to increase.
Discovery and excavations
While hunting in the region in 1961, Afghan king Mohammad Zahir Shah (1914-2007) stumbled upon the remains of the city. A few years later, archeologists and scholars thronged to the area to carry out excavation works.
The excavations, which spanned for more than a decade, were led by renowned French archeologist Paul Bernard (1929-2015). Excavations had to be temporary put on hold due to the Russo-Afghan war and a civil war that broke out in the region. During those periods, a great deal of the artefacts from the site were looted. Additionally, the Taliban occupation of the area did not help matters as the site suffered further damage to its archeological integrity.
Did you know…?
- It’s been estimated that the walls of Ai khanum measured about 12 meters in height.
- Prior to the coming of the Greco-Macedonian settlers under Alexander the Great in the late 4th century BC, the place might have housed a military outpost or fort built by the Persian Achaemenids. However, there exist no concrete evidence to support this view.
- By the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, the city was largely deserted.
Questions & Answers
When was the city abandoned?
Ai Khanum was a center of trade and commerce, with evidence of trade links with India, China, and the Mediterranean world. It was likely abandoned in the 2nd century BC, possibly due to a combination of natural disasters and political instability.
What was the original name of Ai-Khanum?
To this day, the exact date of the founding of Ai-Khanum remains unknown.