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.
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.
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.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 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.
Bamiyan, in central Afghanistan, was a Buddhist center with towering statues that dominated local cliffs before they were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.
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.
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 climateand 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.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. 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, archaeologists take a longer view of history.
Afghanistan has the resources to thrive once the country stabilizes, 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. But 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.
Afghanistan is a tough place, but 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.