Ecclectica: The Ancient Greeks in Afghanistan
 The Ancient Greeks in Afghanistan

The Ancient Greeks in Afghanistan and Their Probable Descendants Today in Nuristan, Afghanistan and in the Kalash People, Pakistan

By Michael Issigonis

Today, the region called Nuristan is one in a chain of ethnic refuge areas along the Hindu Kush, or the Indian Caucasus, named as such by Alexander the Great, located in northeast Afghanistan.

This is the home of a unique group of mixed European-Indian tribal peoples now called Nuristanis, people of the only Afghanistan province to have resisted Islam for centuries. The British established the "Durand Line" in 1893, a boundary creating the new countries of the British Protectorate (India) and Afghanistan. Nuristan was originally meant to be included in India.

When the Islamic rulers declared war on the Nuristanis, the British provided all necessary weapons to the Afghan army, thus contributing to the annihilation of Nuristanis and their subsequent forced conversion to Islam.

The male survivors were taken as prisoners to Kabul, a city whose ancient Greek name was Kofin, meaning the place were bees accumulate, or the place of honey, or a place rich in food supplies. Here, the men were forced to join the army. The women that survived were taken into the harems.1

After the occupying armies left, the more isolated Nuristanis reverted to their old religions and customs because they did not find in their invaders' qualities worth imitating.

The other Nuristanis who submitted to Islam are such devout Moslems that they were the first citizens of the country to successfully revolt against the Soviet occupation. It is unknown how many of them have joined the Taliban.

Alexander the Great

The expedition of Alexander the Great (327-325 B.C.) into what is now Afghanistan has been well documented. He laid the foundations of many cities, some bearing his own name. With the passage of time, some names were changed by newcomers to the area who could not pronounce Greek names. In this way, Kandahar is Alexander's name, Herat is Alexandria Areion, and Ganzhni is Alexandria Gazhaka, among others.

However, Alexander was not the first Greek coming to India. Legends hold that Dionysos, the god of wine, led an expedition into India several thousand years earlier. He and his companions were so amazed at the size of the then unnamed Indus river that he named it the Son of God (In-Dios). He established a settlement at Nyssa (Jalalabad) where he found Mediterranean plants growing such as ivy and grapes, possibly the only place in Asia where these plants grow. According to legends, Dionysus and his companions continued the journey eastwards and it is possible they reached the Yunnan province in China.

In Yunnan today the numerous minorities who are unlike the Chinese in appearance have preserved religion and customs, including wine-making, similar to the customs of the ancient Greeks.2

Indo-Greek Kingdoms

After Alexander, several Greek Kingdoms were created covering most of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and parts of India that lasted for 3 centuries. The inhabitants were called Indo-Greeks. Only one ancient city has been excavated so far and it lies on the shores of the Amu Darya River. The city exhibits temples, a gymnasium, a palace, numerous buildings, and a huge theatre sculpted on the side of a hill with a superb view of the river valley and the tall mountains of what is now Tajikistan across.

These kingdoms ventured into India and expanded as far as the eastern parts of the Indian peninsula. Place names are still preserved today.

However, the legacy of these kingdoms outlasted the kings in culture and art that are still admired.

Greek techniques of stone and metalworking began to be used in India, Greek coins began to appear in the bazaars, and settlements of Greek type were found as urban islands in the sea of Indian native villages. The most important example of Greek influence in India is the upsurge of Buddhist art in Gandhara during the early Christian era, since called the Gandhara Art. This Greco-Indian school of art played a catalytic role in the development of Asian art. By creating the image of Buddha with the features of Apollo and wearing an ancient Greek tunic, the artists established an art religious in its meaning, but naturalistic and humanistic in its forms.

Examples can be admired today in the museums of Taxila, Peshawar, Swat, and Lahore, in the giant Buddha statues that were recently blown apart by the Taliban without a vigorous opposition from the civilized world.

One important piece of ancient art that is still "alive" today is the amazing over-abundance of coins of the Indo-Greek kings which are continually being unearthed by Afghan farmers and provide sometimes their only source of income after they are sold in the bazaars of Pakistan. These coins represent some of the finest coin-making of all time. They depict the kings on one side with some ancient Greek god or goddess on the other.

The abundance of gold supplies from Central Asia for several centuries before the arrival of the Greeks resulted in the minting of numerous coins as well as some enormous coins. In Afghanistan, one can find the largest gold and the largest silver coins ever minted. The silver coins had a diameter of 65 mm.! In some of the coins they incorporated nickel with a technique only known to the Chinese at that time.

Precious Stones

Northeastern Afghanistan has been a supplier of precious stones since at least 5,000 B.C., and its ancient name was simply " the vault" or Valaskia. The precious cargo was making its way through the so-called "Silk Route" to ancient Persia, Greece, and Rome, and later to the Byzantines, Europeans and now mostly to the Americans. In fact, the name Kalash is the ancient Greek name for lapis lazuli, possibly the only place on earth where it exists in abundance. The area is also rich in emeralds, rubies, spinel and others that provide a substantial share of the world production even during years of war, when the income from these stones becomes essential for the survival of the Afghan people.

The Kalash People

The Kalash people of northwestern Pakistan are unique in their customs and religion. Although surrounded by Moslems in all directions (Pakistan is essentially a Moslem state), they believe in ancient Greek gods and goddessess such as Zeus, Aphrodite, Hestia, and Apollo. Their language is principally a mixture of Sanskrit and Greek. They grow grapes and make wine (an illegal action in an Islamic country) and their diet is rich in fruits, vegetables and nuts. Unlike their neighbors who sit on the ground, they use stools and chairs and their carpentry is decorated with Macedonian stars and "suns".

The Kalash people are virtually the only tourist attraction in Pakistan. However, the Kalash do not depend on tourism for survival; it is quite the opposite. The building of infrastructure to accommodate all those tourist "invaders" has brought an unprecedented pollution that the Kalash did not have to face during the 2000 years of isolation.

Recently, a group of Greek teachers have been raising money and spending their summer vacations among the Kalash for the last 7 years in an attempt to improve their standard of living. Some of the projects that the teacher volunteers have accomplished include the following: a primary school at an elevation of some 3 km, which is regarded the largest primary school building in Pakistan; water pipes for the supply of running water; a house for new mothers; landscaping and providing resource materials and pharmaceutical supplies. In this way the volunteers have contributed immensely to the preservation of the Kalash.

In the 19th century the British officers and scholars in India kept a romantic belief that, like the lost tribes of Israel, also a lost tribe of Europe of Alexander's Greeks may have survived somewhere in Afghanistan. The popular movie entitled "The Man Who Would Be King" starring Sean Connery was based upon that legend.

Other Greek Influences

Other remnants of the ancient Greek influence in the area are the characteristic "double-hat" or kausia, the ancient Macedonian hat, the Macedonian cloak or sari as worn by most women today and the polo on horseback, Pakistan's national sport. It was practiced by the Macedonian troops in the days of Alexander due to an unusual "present" given to Alexander by the great Persian king Darius.

When Alexander invaded the outlining areas of the Persian Empire and demanded taxes from Darius, the king refused, so Alexander threatened to invade. The king then sent him a bat with a ball so that the young Alexander can play ! "Those would be more appropriate to a novice than the arms of battle," thought the King. Alexander replied : "The ball is the Earth and I am the bat". A year later, Darius lost the battle and he was dead the following year.


1 The spread of Islam in Asia Minor and southeastern Europe from about 1,000 A.D. to the beginning of the 20th century had similar effects on the millions of its inhabitants : genocide with torture and slavery for the survivors. This became effective because the attackers had secured the help of the "superpowers" at the time who were gaining commercial benefits while assisting the spread of Islam. The recent adventure in Afghanistan will probably turn out to have different effects than the "official" aim of the operation. [back]

2 The name Yunnan simply means Greek or Ionians, the ancient tribe that migrated eastwards for reasons of trade. The inhabitants of countries east of Greece refer to the country as Yunan or Yunnan. On the other hand, to the west all countries refer to the country as Greece. The ancient Romans introduced this name when they came into contact with "Greek" colonists from a place called Grea. However, the "Greeks" call themselves Hellenes, from the country Hellas.[back]


1. Distributed information by "The Friends Of The Kalash", 1995 to 2001
2. Issigonis, M. Map of New Hellas (Afghanistan & Pakistan ) with original Greek names, 1994
3. Narain, A.K. The Indo-Greeks, 1962
4. National Geographic Magazine, Oct. 1981
5. Plutarch, Book III
6. Tarn, W.W. The Greeks in Bactria and India, 1984
7. Toynbee, A.J. Between Oxus and Jumna, 1961
8. Woodcock, G. The Greeks in India, 1966, Faber and Faber

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