For over 1,600 years goods moved along the Silk Road between Europe and Asia, and Alexandria Arachosia, now Kandahar, was right in the middle of it. The city was founded, or rather re-founded, by Alexander the Great, which helped set the stage for the emergence of the Silk Road.
This complex arrangement of travel and trade routes developed in large part from Alexander’s military campaign, but once the fighting stopped the city stood and went on to supply Eurasia with goods from all over the continent. After the collapse of Alexander’s Empire, the city was occupied by the Kushan Empire, a civilization famous for its vibrant mix of religions and cultures. Ultimately, this city would fade in prominence after the Silk Road fell out of use.
From its re-establishment as a Greek military town at the center of the Silk Road through to the Islamification of Afghanistan, Kandahar was a meeting place of many cultural and religious traditions. The religious traditions present ranged widely, covering Greek paganism to Zunbilsun-worship, with many in between. Of course, not all of their religions were foreign, and the local people held their own animist beliefs. Most of these animists fled or were converted to Islam in successive waves of invasion, some persisted further northwest of Kandahar, in an area of Afghanistan now called Nuristan, as late as 1895.
The city may have stayed still, but the hearts and minds of these people moved often. Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest religions, once held this region as a faithful bastion, before the locals transitioned to Buddhism just before the conquests of Alexander the Great. This once-thriving Afghan Buddhist community left massive carvings of Buddha – made from the solid cliff sides in a region north of Kandahar, and a now-ruined monastery just outside of the city (below) – but like the other religious traditions, this group of Afghan Buddhists also faded over time. Jews were likely present in the area as early as 538 CE, and Herat, the Silk Road stop just to the west of Kandahar, was home to several thousand Jews as late as the mid-1930s.
Part of the northern cliff of the Valley of Bamiyan, with the Western man-made aperture where a giant Buddha stood before the Taliban destroyed it in 2001.
Bamiyan Valley Buddha
A reconstitution of the original appearance of the Western Buddha (Vairocana)
Today, Afghanistan is almost completely Muslim. Islam arrived in the 7th century CE in the form of an Arab army, and Kandahar has been predominantly Muslim ever since. This newer administration was less tolerant, and Kandahar’s vibrant cultural and religious exchanges would not last.
The Silk Road served as the main trade route between ancient China to the Middle-East and then onwards to the West. It’s named for the silk that was transported on it, which was only produced in China, and heavily demanded by the Romans. Other goods moving from East to West also included tea, dyes, porcelain, spices and, eventually, gun powder. In return for these exports, the goods that came from West to East were, horses, gold, silver, slaves, and wool.
Despite all the turmoil, Kandahar thrived, and not just because of the Silk Road. The city in fact lays at the center of a large oasis which favored population growth and the development of grain fields, orchards, and gardens through the management of an irrigation system. Its unique climate also made the region ideal for grapes, melons, and pomegranates. It was not only suited to agriculture though, but also for the captive breeding of elephants, making Kandahar a rare source of prestigious and fearsome elephants and their ivory.
This is all the more valuable considering that Kandahar, thanks to its prosperity, was one of the first centers in the region to develop into a sedentary, agricultural community: the Afghans’ traditional lifestyle would in fact otherwise remain largely pastoral-nomadic and transhumant, with an economy primarily based on sheep raising, limited horse breeding and modest agriculture capacity.
Unfortunately, the city’s pre-Alexandrian history is lost to time, with our earliest records indicating Kandahar’s origins as a military town founded by Alexander the Great: Alexander famously conquered eastward, and eventually he arrived in modern-day Afghanistan, established a garrison and town on the banks of the Arghandab River, and Alexandria Arachosia came to be in 329 BCE in an effort to better project military power into the surrounding area.
Marble portrait head of Alexander the Great
2ndC BC - 1stC BD
© The Trustees of the British Museum
Alexander never made it back home, and in 323 BCE his empire disintegrated without him. The Greeks governed in the empire’s former territories, and their old supply routes, for the next three centuries, became the genesis of the Silk Road.
Our knowledge of Kandahar remains foggy in the following centuries, with the name of the city reappearing from antiquity only in the 13th century and then, from the later Medieval accounts, we learn of its size and wealth, which would be maintained for centuries to come.
Mosque of Coolaum Hoossein Huzrut-Jee, circa 1847
An excellent example of Alexandria Arachosia’s wealth, the Mosque of Coolaum Hoossein Huzrut-zee, a great prophet of the Afghauns, and the tombs of the kings at Kandahar.
Regions in modern day Afghanistan have a tradition of local governance, and Kandahar is no exception. The majority ethnic group in Kandahar is Pashtun, who have a traditional governance system rooted in “Pashtunwali,” which is a code of behavior that controls many issues ranging from hospitality to justice, including governance. Under Pashtunwali, villages have a group of elders who act as judges and community leaders. In the event that multiple villages must decide matters collectively, the elders in each village will send representatives to form a council called a “jirga.”
Generally, Pashtunwali aims at reaching decisions by consensus. The notion of consensus is so important among the Pashtuns in particular, but Afghans in general, that it was written into the Afghan Constitution in the form of the “Loya Jirga,” or grand jirga, which is supposed to represent the major power blocks in Afghanistan if it is called.
Interior of the City of Kandahar, from the house of Sirdar Meer Dil Khaun, 1848
The tomb of Ahmed Shah and the Bala Hissar (fort) and citadel. Among the peoples congregating here were Persians, Uzbegs, Bhaluchs, Hazaras, Jews, Armenians, Hindus, Ghilzais, Durranis and Arabs. The Durranis, a Pashtun people, were the largest and most powerful of these groups.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, improvements in sailing technology made the transportation of goods by sea safer and more cost effective, making the Silk Road redundant. With the redirection of trade away from the Silk Road many of the cities along the route, including Kandahar, lost their cosmopolitan character and wealth.
Not all was lost for Kandahar, Mughal Emperor Babur admired its strategic situation and potential for trade, while the 17th century French traveler Jean-Baptiste Tavernier regarded Kandahar as “the strongest city in all Persia”. Kandahar’s decline was mostly caused by the wars between Safavids and Mughals and the final capture and destruction by NadirShah in 1738.
The Siege of Kandahar, 1757 AD
The Siege of Kandahar began when Nader Shah’s Afsharid army invaded southern Afghanistan to topple the last Hotaki stronghold of Loy Kandahar, which was held by Hussain Hotaki. It took place in the Old Kandahar area of the modern city of Kandahar in Afghanistan and lasted until March 24, 1738, when the Hotaki Afghans were defeated by the Persian army.
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