“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.
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.”
In 2003, Dr. Fredrik Hiebert was among a group of archaeologists who witnessed the rediscovery of the “Bactrian hoard,” a bounty of 20,000 gold, silver, and ivory objects that had been hidden in Afghanistan’s presidential palace in Kabul 15 years earlier. Read more about the Bactrian hoard here.
the art and science of cultivating land for growing crops (farming) or raising livestock (ranching).
(356-323 BCE) Greek ruler, explorer, and conqueror.
study of human history, based on material remains.
material remains of a culture, such as tools, clothing, or food.
guiding landmark or signal, especially one in an elevated position.
religion based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha).
a cushion or shield.
complete confusion and disorder.
steep wall of rock, earth, or ice.
all weather conditions for a given location over a period of time.
to overcome an enemy or obstacle.
familiar or comfortable all over the world, or to people from all over the world.
learned behavior of people, including their languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods.
steady, predictable flow of fluid within a larger body of that fluid.
area of land that receives no more than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of precipitation a year.
to overpower or control.
group of nations, territories or other groups of people controlled by a single, more powerful authority.
equally distant between two points.
to help or make easier.
study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.
practice of caring for roaming groups of livestock over a large area.
record that has been cut, impressed, painted, or written on a hard surface.
frightening, overwhelming, or discouraging.
critical point in time or space.
the geographic features of a region.
region in North Africa made of five countries: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Mauritania.
land that surrounds the Mediterranean Sea.
inorganic material that has a characteristic chemical composition and specific crystal structure.
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experts who provide the National Geographic Society with consultation on projects, education and outreach, and environmental and public policy.
a material that humans take from the natural environment to survive, to satisfy their needs, or to trade with others.
art and science of determining an object's position, course, and distance traveled.
series of links along which movement or communication can take place.
area made fertile by a source of fresh water in an otherwise arid region.
fossil fuel formed from the remains of marine plants and animals. Also known as petroleum or crude oil.
to penetrate or pass through every part of something.
representation of volume or depth on a flat surface.
remains of a destroyed building or set of buildings.
soft, strong fiber spun by some moth larvae, spiders, and other animals.
ancient trade route through Central Asia linking China and the Mediterranean Sea.
to anchor or make strong and reliable.
important part of a place or plan.
radical Islamic movement that led Afghanistan from 1996-2001.
major road or highway.
to develop and be successful.
study of the shape of the surface features of an area.
place established in a remote or unsettled region, where goods may be bought and sold.