The Hellenistic east and the Greek arrival and settlement in Central and South Asia has raised questions about the identity of the communities living in far away areas such as Parthia or Bactria. Scholars have been looking at the identity built among locals in areas that were part of the Achaemenid Empire and that had their own local ethnicity, not just language but also religious beliefs and other local peculiarities. The arrival of the Greeks to far east areas such as modern India and north Afghanistan have raised questions about acculturation, hybridisation or the concept of the middle ground. Some of these concepts, Rachel Mairs believes, need to be treated with caution, as these were concepts used to define post colonialism historical periods.
Even theories written by authors such as Narain and Tarn, who tried to define the identity resulted by Hindu – Western culture contact on the Acharian and West India region, are based on modern Colonial and Post Colonial British Empire terms. According to authors such Rachel Mairs or Frank Holt, these theories seemed to have failed, and as I said, this have raised questions about the identity of communities inhabiting these regions between the late third century BC and the early first century AD.
The complications on defining the local identity in those areas are caused by poor archaeological and epigraphic evidence. Recent discoveries such as the excavation of Ai-Khanoun, or the epigraphic evidence found in this site and at Alexandria-in-Arachosia has helped us to have a slightly clearer picture. This recent evidence clearly shows Greek influence and a mixing culture that not just has Greek elements but also Achaemenid, local Bactrian and Hindu.
According to authors such as Rachel Mairs, who wrote about the findings in Ai-Khanoun, there was a Bactrian identity, which had Greek elements, but that also syncretised with Achaemenid culture which derived from Mesopotamian and Persian culture. These cultures mixed with local elements that could result from the exposure to local Zoroastrian religion or local nomad cultural traits from the North.
In an article written by this same author, the author analyses Ai-Khanoun findings and “The Temple with Intended Niches” which is “Mesopotamian”. The temple has Zoroastrian and Achaemenid elements but also Greek ones, such as a Delphic message. This raises questions about the identities of the communities inhabiting Bactria, what were the local customs during those times and the sort of unique identity that was created after years of Greek and local coexistence.
The location of this temple, right in the centre of the city, the lack of Greek temples, the finding of Greek architectural buildings such as the theatre, a palace or a gymnasium, the finding of administrative texts, which probes that Achaemenid names were involved in the administration of the town, gives us a picture of a culture that had Greek elements co-existing with Achaemenid and local cultural traits.
The confrontation between Alexander the Great and some migrated people from Miletus which settled in Branchidae, helped some authors to understand the change that Greeks and Macedonians, who arrived and settled in Central Asia might have experienced. A new culture which had Greek, local and Achaemenid elements might have been established in Central Asia. This episode helps us to understand the cultural changes experienced due o the Hellenisation of Asia. The fact that the people from Branchidae were not recognised by Greeks give us some clues.
Alexander the Great arrived to Branchidae and found people that spoke Greek but also were bilingual and had incorporated cultural traits which belonged to Branchidae. These Milesians felt Greeks, or this is what seemed to have happened as they welcomed Alexander the Great to their community. The new comers though did not recognised them as Greeks and Alexander not just ordered them to be all killed, but he ordered for everything that had been built to be destroyed. Alexander might have intended to erase any evidence of their existence. It seemed as if he was ashamed of what they found there.
What Rachel Mairs and other authors have interpreted from this encounter is that the people from far regions such as Bactria had Greek elements on their cultures. They preserved elements such as language, religions and customs. However, they also related to locals and absorbed their cultural traits, which after years of coexistence resulted on a new identity for the local Bactrian.
Some interesting epigraphic findings have been found. A Greek text written by Sophytos, possibly of Indian origin, was written provably in Kandahar and shows clues of the mixture between Indian and Greek culture. This give us clues of the identity built in this area. This identity was built after various cultures cohabited Central and South Asia. Sophytos wrote a text which is written in fine Greek language and had elements from Homer. This might show that local Indian ruling class had interest in learning Greek culture.
Other examples are a copied text from Delphi. This Delphic message was found at Ai-Khanoun. Two other texts written in Aramaic and Greek were found at the same site. All these texts show that Greek culture prevailed and mixed with local and Achaemenid traits. The Temple of intended Niches or an altar found in Ai-Khanoun, which seemed to be built to venerate a Sun God of Achaemenid origin are great examples of the various cultures coexisting in Bactria. The archaeological site found near the Oxo River where the Oxo River God was venerated, probes that local culture remained in the area, not just during the Seleucid times, but even during Achaemenid control.
Numismatic evidence from the area give also clues of the cultural mixture that gave a unique identity to this region. Coins made during the satraps of Diodotus I, whom detached Bactria from the Seleucid kingdom, or during the Euthydemos dynasty, helped Jens Jacobson to probe the mixture of Aramaic and Greek language. These coins had Greek and Indian elements on them.
From my understanding in reading these texts, Greek culture was present during all the Hellenistic Bactrian period but the Achaemenid, Indian and other local customs also prevailed. This all mixed together, creating a unique and peculiar culture in this region. Therefore Bactria was made of a conglomerate of traditions and communities inhabiting this area with cultural elements from Greece, Macedon, India, Persian and other local traits.
Image taken from http://www.livius.org/articles/place/alexandria-on-the-oxus-ai-khanum/ .
Jacobson., J. The Greek of Afganistan Revisited.
Mairs, Rachel R. (2008). An ‘Identity Crisis’? Identity and Its Discontents in Hellenistic Studies. Bolletino di Archeologia.
Mairs, Rachel R. Ethnicity and Funerary Practice at Hellenistic Bactria. Page 111 – 124.
Mairs, Rachel R (2008).Greek identity and the settler community in Hellenistic Bactria and Arachosia. Migrations and Identities. Page 19 – 43.
Mairs, Racle R (2008). Greek settler communities in Central and South Asia 323 BC to 10 AC. Chapter 26. Page 449 to 453.
Mairs, Rachel R. (2006). Hellenistic India. New voices in Classical reception studies. Issue 1.
Mairs Rachel R. The Hellenistic far east, from the Oikoumene to the community.
Mairs Rachel R. The places in between, model and metaphor in the archeology of Hellenistic Arachosia. From Pella to Gandhara. Page 166 to 188.
Mairs, Rachel R. (2013). The Temple with Intended Niches at Ai Khonoun. Ethnic and civic identity in Hellenistic Bactria. Cults, Creeds and Identity in the creek city after the classical age.