Archaeological investigations on the history of religion in Central Asia
Bactria is the ancient Greek name of the country on both sides of the Oxus, known today as Amu Darya. It covered the South of what is now Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and the North of Afghanistan. The area is bounded to the North by the Gissar mountains, to the East by the Pamir and to the South by the Hindu Kush, to the West there is the Karakum desert. Bactria used to be wealthy: the plains of the tributary streams of the Oxus are very fertile, the alluvium of the Oxus contains gold, and the land participated in the trade with lapis lazuli and other gemstones.
Bactria formed part of the Persian empire since the middle of the 6th century BC. Because of its wealth, it was one of the most important satrapies of Persia. Following the conquest by Alexander the Great in 329/327 BC, Bactria was exposed to the influence of Mediterranean culture. Politically it stayed unstable. At first the country belonged to the Seleucid kingdom, which took over control of the eastern part of Alexander's empire. In the middle of the 3rd century BC the governor of Bactria transformed his satrapy into an independent kingdom, the so called Greco-Bactrian kingdom. This kingdom existed about hundred years, until nomadic people of northern provenance, identified in Chinese texts as Yuezhi, invaded Bactria c. 130 BC and settled down. At the beginning of the first century AD the Kushan gained prominence over the other Yuezhi tribes. They created the Kushan empire and expanded their territory to the South and East. In the first half of the 2nd century AD the Kushan empire extended over the Hindu Kush into the region traditionally known as Gandhara and farther into India. As rulers of this large empire the Kushans controlled the southern rout of the Silk Road.
The sanctuaries in ancient Bactria are very important for research on the mutual influence of Iranian-Bactrian and Greek culture. Previous work tried to identify the worshiped gods and to determine whether they are indigenous, Greek or syncretistic deities. In contrast, this archaeological research project focuses on history of ritual. It is based upon votive offerings which were discovered in the sanctuaries and which are considered as relics of rituals.
The finds from the Oxus Temple in modern-day Tajikistan, which is the only sanctuary in Bactria in use from the Hellenistic into the Kushan period, form the basis for an investigation into votive practice at other Bactrian ritual sites. To what extent did the votive customs of the 3rd and 2nd century BC reflect Iranian traditions? And was Greek influence, established for other aspects of the culture, evident also in votive practice? In addition the project will investigate the development of votive customs until the end of the 3rd century AD. A key question in this regard is how the socio-political change in the course of the conquests of Bactria by the nomadic Yuezhi c. 130 BC affected religious concepts. The aim is to cast some light on the nature of the Greek-oriental cultural mix in Bactria, and to chart its transformation under nomadic influence by focusing on the example of votive practices.
Several temples of the Hellenistic period and the subsequent Kushan period have been excavated in Bactria since the 1960s. It has proved impossible, however, to adequately determine the character of these ritual sites either by analysis of the building forms and spatial structure, or by evaluating the scanty literary and epigraphic sources that survive. In view of this, an investigation of the many votive offerings found there promises to yield better results.
The Oxus temple was excavated from 1976 to 1991 by Igor R. Pičikjan of the South Tajik archaeological expedition, headed by Boris A. Litvinskij. The results of the excavations and some of the discovered objects were published in preliminary reports and monographs. Although the former excavators have published a final report they could not finish the publication of the small finds. Since 1998 A. Drujinina from the Academy of Sciences of Tajikistan is going on with the excavations. The focus of this work is on the settlement surrounding the temple, but there are some new trenches and re-examinations in the temenos and in the lateral wings of the temple.
The small finds from the Oxus temple were re-examined and fully documented in 2003 and 2004. This documentation is the basis for the research in votives and ritual practice which started in autumn 2006.
The project is carried out in cooperation with the current leader of the excavations at the Oxus temple, Dipl. Arch. Anjelina Drujinina (email@example.com) and with the Museum of Antiquities of the Akhmadi Donish Institute for History, Archaeology and Ethnography, Academy of Sciences of Tajikistan.
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