Article

Afghanistan remains a crossroads of cultural, political, and physical geography.

Photograph by Frank and Helen Schreider, National Geographic

Big Find
In 2003, Dr. Fredrik Hiebert was among a group of archaeologists who witnessed the rediscovery of the “Bactrian hoard,” a bounty of 20,000 gold, silver, and ivory objects that had been hidden in Afghanistan’s presidential palace in Kabul 15 years earlier. Read more about the Bactrian hoard here.

By Stuart Thornton

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Silk Road was an ancient, storied network of roads, trading posts, and oases that linked Asia and the Mediterranean basin
 
The modern nation of Afghanistan was a major thoroughfare of the Silk Road. Today, the region continues to be a crossroads for concepts of ancient and modern, East and West, geography and history.
 
Afghanistan is a land of rugged mountains, but its intimidating topography was actually beneficial to ancient traders, says Dr. Fredrik Hiebert, a National Geographic Society archaeology fellow. 
 
“Why do you call it a crossroads of trade if there is a giant, massive, mountainous blob right in the middle of Afghanistan?” he asks. “Well, those mountains and those rivers are the best things to facilitate trade. Because what happened is you look at the mountains, and you see these valleys that go up into the mountains. Those are superhighways. You go up from the deserts, and you can go up through the mountains. It’s easy. You don’t really have to know too much about navigation.”
 
Graveyard of Empires 
 
Afghanistan sat at a strategic juncture between the empires of Asia, eastern Africa, and southern Europe. Traders and travelers on the Silk Road could interact with the cultures of China, India, Persia, Arabia, eastern Africa, the Maghreb, and the eastern Mediterranean.
 
“It is almost equidistant between the China Sea and the Mediterranean,” Hiebert says.
 
Afghanistan’s central location on the Silk Road helped develop the region’s impressive wealth. 
 
“It was kind of mythical in the past, because it was very wealthy,” Hiebert says. “They not only had a lot of agriculture, they had a lot of animal wealth, because [the region] is really great for herding. And they had mineral wealth.”
 
The wealth and cosmopolitan culture of Afghanistan’s trading outposts made them popular sites on the Silk Road. Settlements including Tepe Fullol, Ai Khanoum, Bamiyan, and Bagram (current site of the U.S. military’s Bagram Airfield) were bustling stops for traders. 
 
It wasn’t only trade goods, however, that moved across Afghanistan. Powerful ideas spread through the region. Trade, religion, communication, and political thought all interacted on the Silk Road.
 
Buddhism, for instance, started in India and spread to Afghanistan before migrating to China, Hiebert says. 
 
Bamiyan, in central Afghanistan, was a Buddhist center with towering statues that dominated local cliffs before they were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. 
 
“Those giant Buddhas were 200 to 300 feet tall,” Hiebert says. “Those were very easy beacons for traders.”
 
Art, too, developed diverse influences. Greek architectural style, for instance, permeates the ruins of Ai Khanoum, an archaeological site in modern Afghanistan’s northeast. Ai Khanoum was conquered by Alexander the Great, and inscriptions to Greek gods such as Hermes and Heracles have been found on artifacts. 
 
The same elements that made Afghanistan so attractive to ancient traders also made it a target for conquest.
 
“Once you have that kind of wealth,” Hiebert says, “the next thing you know is you have all these foreign people coming onto your soil trying to take it over.” 
 
But from the Greek forces of Alexander the Great to the British Empire of the 19th century, Afghanistan has proved to be nearly impossible to permanently conquer. The region’s climate and landscape have earned it the bitter nickname “Graveyard of Empires.”
 
“First of all is that it is right smack dab in the center of Asia, and what that means is the climate is continental,” Hiebert says. “Continental climate means that it is not buffered by the ocean’s currents. So it is really cold in the winter, and it’s really hot in the summer. It’s a pretty tough place to be.”
 
Historically, the region’s climate and landscape have also made it difficult for Afghans to unify. 
 
“Because the valleys are the main sort of thoroughfares, the country itself is kind of fractured,” Hiebert says. “There’s a lot of inter-valley competition. There is fighting.”
 
New Silk Road
 
Despite the civil and foreign wars that have defined modern Afghanistan for more than 30 years, Hiebert says he and other archaeologists take a longer view of history.
 
“There is chaos and everything like that,” he admits. “[But] it is not at all the perspective of an archaeologist who is looking over the past 5,000 years.”
 
Afghanistan has the resources to thrive once the country stabilizes, Hiebert says. He points out that one of the largest underground copper deposits in the world was just found in Afghanistan.
 
Afghanistan has other natural resources that may contribute to a new Silk Road. 
 
“We like to think that the 21st century is the century where those old networks are going to be re-established,” Hiebert says. “It’s not silk anymore. It’s oil and gas.”
 
Still, the archaeologist says, it may take Afghanistan years to recover from its long-running war and turmoil. 
 
“Let me leave you with this thought,” Hiebert says. “Afghanistan is a tough place, but you know what? Europe was tough after World War II. How long did it take after four years of social disruption in Europe? It took a long time to repair and recover. How long do you think it will take Afghanistan, that has had over 30 years of civil war? It is not going to happen overnight.”

Vocabulary

Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry

agriculture

Noun

the art and science of cultivating the land for growing crops (farming) or raising livestock (ranching).

Encyclopedic Entry: agriculture

Alexander the Great

Noun

(356-323 BCE) Greek ruler, explorer, and conqueror.

archaeology

Noun

study of human history, based on material remains.

Encyclopedic Entry: archaeology

artifact

Noun

material remains of a culture, such as tools, clothing, or food.

beacon

Noun

guiding landmark or signal, especially one in an elevated position.

Buddhism

Noun

religion based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha).

buffer

Noun

a cushion or shield.

chaos

Noun

complete confusion and disorder.

cliff

Noun

steep wall of rock, earth, or ice.

Encyclopedic Entry: cliff

climate

Noun

all weather conditions for a given location over a period of time.

Encyclopedic Entry: climate

conquer

Verb

to overcome an enemy or obstacle.

cosmopolitan

Adjective

familiar or comfortable all over the world, or to people from all over the world.

culture

Noun

learned behavior of people, including their languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods.

current

Noun

steady, predictable flow of fluid within a larger body of that fluid.

Encyclopedic Entry: current

desert

Noun

area of land that receives no more than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of precipitation a year.

Encyclopedic Entry: desert

dominate

Verb

to overpower or control.

empire

Noun

group of nations, territories or other groups of people controlled by a single, more powerful authority.

equidistant

Adjective

equally distant between two points.

facilitate

Verb

to help or make easier.

fracture

Verb

to break.

geography

Noun

study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.

Encyclopedic Entry: geography

herding

Noun

practice of caring for roaming groups of livestock over a large area.

Encyclopedic Entry: herding

inscription

Noun

record that has been cut, impressed, painted, or written on a hard surface.

intimidating

Adjective

frightening, overwhelming, or discouraging.

juncture

Noun

critical point in time or space.

landscape

Noun

the geographic features of a region.

Encyclopedic Entry: landscape

Maghreb

Noun

region in North Africa made of five countries: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Mauritania.

Mediterranean basin

Noun

land that surrounds the Mediterranean Sea.

military

Noun

armed forces.

mineral

Noun

inorganic material that has a characteristic chemical composition and specific crystal structure.

National Geographic Fellow

Noun

experts who provide the National Geographic Society with consultation on projects, education and outreach, and environmental and public policy.

natural resource

Noun

a material that humans take from the natural environment to survive, to satisfy their needs, or to trade with others.

navigation

Noun

art and science of determining an object's position, course, and distance traveled.

Encyclopedic Entry: navigation

network

Noun

series of links along which movement or communication can take place.

oasis

Noun

area made fertile by a source of fresh water in an otherwise arid region.

Encyclopedic Entry: oasis

oil

Noun

fossil fuel formed from the remains of marine plants and animals. Also known as petroleum or crude oil.

permeate

Verb

to penetrate or pass through every part of something.

perspective

Noun

representation of volume or depth on a flat surface.

ruin

Noun

remains of a destroyed building or set of buildings.

silk

Noun

soft, strong fiber spun by some moth larvae, spiders, and other animals.

Silk Road

Noun

ancient trade route through Central Asia linking China and the Mediterranean Sea.

stabilize

Verb

to anchor or make strong and reliable.

strategic

Adjective

important part of a place or plan.

Taliban

Noun

radical Islamic movement that led Afghanistan from 1996-2001.

thoroughfare

Noun

major road or highway.

thrive

Verb

to develop and be successful.

topography

Noun

study of the shape of the surface features of an area.

trading post

Noun

place established in a remote or unsettled region, where goods may be bought and sold.

Credits

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Writer

Stuart Thornton

Editors

Jeannie Evers
Kara West

Producer

Caryl-Sue, National Geographic Society

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