Friday, May 8, 2020

Roman trading partners: The Kushans

Gandhāra was an ancient region in the Peshawar basin in the north-west of the ancient Indian subcontinent, corresponding to present-day north-west Pakistan and north-east Afghanistan. The centre of the region was at the confluence of the Kabul and Swat rivers, bounded by the Sulaiman Mountains on the west and the Indus River on the east.
Gandhara was conquered by the Achaemenid Empire in the 6th century BCE. Conquered by Alexander the Great in 327 BCE, it subsequently became part of the Maurya Empire and then the Indo-Greek Kingdom. The region was a major centre for Greco-Buddhism under the Indo-Greeks and Gandharan Buddhism under later dynasties. Gandhara attained its height from the 1st century to the 5th century CE under the Kushan Empire.
The Kushans moved into Gandhāra from Central Asia after the fall of the Parthian dynasty about 75 CE. The Kushan dynasty had diplomatic contacts with the Roman Empire, Sasanian Persia, the Aksumite Empire and the Han dynasty of China and was at the center of trade relations between the Roman Empire and China.
Ambassadors from the Kushans who met with the Roman Emperor Hadrian are described in the Historia Augusta. According to Aurelius Victor and Appian, Hadrian's successor, Antoninus Pius also received Bactrian, Indian, and Hycanian ambassadors thought to be from Kushan. Archaeologists who uncovered the famous Begram Treasure in the summer capital of the Kushan Empire reported finding a considerable amount of goods imported from the Roman Empire especially various types of glassware.
The Kushan empire fragmented into western and eastern kingdoms in 225 CE. The Western Kushans (in Afghanistan) were soon subjugated by the Persian Sasanian Empire and lost Sogdiana, Bactria, and Gandhara to them. The Sassanian king Shapur I (240–270 CE) claims in his Naqsh-e Rostam inscription possession of the territory of the Kushans as far as "Purushapura" (Peshawar), suggesting he controlled Bactria and areas as far as the Hindu-Kush or even south of it. The Sasanians replaced the Persian vassals with their own administrators. But, Hormizd I Kushanshah, the brother of a ruling Sasanian satrap, led a rebellion against the Sasanians and reestablished an independent kingdom under his rule.
Then in the 4th century CE, the Guptas, an Indian dynasty pressed from the east and Shapur II regained control of large territories in the areas as well. The last of the Kushan and Kushano-Sasanian kingdoms were eventually overwhelmed by invaders from the north, known as the Kidarite Huns. The remnants of Kushan culture under the Kidarites in the northwest were ultimately wiped out in the end of the 5th century by the invasions of the Alchon Huns (sometimes considered as a branch of the Hephthalites), and later the Nezak Huns.
This door guardian or Dvarapala, is interesting because of its more realistic depiction of a warrior instead of the majority of idealized or mythological figures used as guardians in Hindu, Buddhist and Jaina shrines. Perhaps this is a result of earlier exposure to Hellenistic art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art said similar armored guardian figures were found flanking a doorway of a monastery at the Gandharan site of Thareli. They found it interesting that the monks chose to integrate such non-Buddhist deities into the embellishment of their monastic residences. The appearance of such protectors probably can be linked to the growing importance of the war god Skanda in the late Gandharan tradition.

Image: Door Guardian (Dvarapala), 4th century CE, ancient Gandhāra (modern Pakistan) courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
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