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 60 to 90 meters (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.”