Ai-Khanoum (Aï Khānum, also Ay Khanum, lit. “Lady Moon” in Uzbek), possibly the historical Alexandria on the Oxus (Greek: Αλεξάνδρεια η επί του Ώξου), also possibly later named اروکرتیه or Eucratidia) was one of the primary cities of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom. Previous scholars have argued that Ai Khanoum was founded in the late 4th century BC, following the conquests of Alexander the Great. Recent analysis now strongly suggests that the city was founded c. 280 BC by the Seleucid emperor, Antiochus I Soter. The city is located in Takhar Province, northern Afghanistan, at the confluence of the Panj River and the Kokcha River, both tributaries of the Amu Darya, historically known as the Oxus, and at the doorstep of the Indian subcontinent.
On a hunting trip in the 1960s, the Afghan Khan Gholam Serwar Nasher discovered ancient artefacts of Ai Khanom and invited Princeton-archaeologist Daniel Schlumberger with his team to examine Ai-Khanoum. It was soon found to be the historical Alexandria on the Oxus, also possibly later named اروکرتیه or Eucratidia), one of the primary cities of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom. Some of those artefects were displayed in Europe and USA museums in 2004. The site was subsequently excavated through archaeological work by a French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan (DAFA) mission under Paul Bernard between 1964 and 1978, as well as Soviet scientists. The work had to be abandoned with the onset of the Soviet–Afghan War, during which the site was looted and used as a battleground, leaving very little of the original material. In 2013, the film-maker David Adams (photojournalist) produced a six part documentary mini-series about the ancient city entitled "Alexander's Lost World".
The choice of this site for the foundation of a city was probably guided by several factors. The region, irrigated by the Oxus, had a rich agricultural potential. Mineral resources were abundant in the back country towards the Hindu Kush, especially the famous so-called "rubies" (actually, spinel) from Badakshan, and gold. Its location at the junction between Bactrian territory and nomad territories to the north, ultimately allowed access to commerce with the Chinese empire. Lastly, Ai-Khanoum was located at the very doorstep of Ancient India, allowing it interact directly with the Indian subcontinent.
Numerous artefacts and structures were found, pointing to a high Hellenistic culture, combined with Eastern influences. "It has all the hallmarks of a Hellenistic city, with a Greek theatre, gymnasium and some Greek houses with colonnaded courtyards" (Boardman). Overall, Aï-Khanoum was an extremely important Greek city (1.5 sq kilometer), characteristic of the Seleucid Empire and then the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom. It seems the city was destroyed, never to be rebuilt, about the time of the death of the Greco-Bactrian king Eucratides around 145 BC.
The mission unearthed various structures, some of them perfectly Hellenistic, some other integrating elements of Persian architecture:
Various sculptural fragments were also found, in a rather conventional, classical style, rather impervious to the Hellenizing innovations occurring at the same time in the Mediterranean world.
Of special notice, a huge foot fragment in excellent Hellenistic style was recovered, which is estimated to have belonged to a 5-6 meter tall statue (which had to be seated to fit within the height of the columns supporting the Temple). Since the sandal of the foot fragment bears the symbolic depiction of Zeus' thunderbolt, the statue is thought to have been a smaller version of the Statue of Zeus at Olympia.
Due to the lack of proper stones for sculptural work in the area of Ai-Khanoum, unbaked clay and stucco modeled on a wooden frame were often used, a technique which would become widespread in Central Asia and the East, especially in Buddhist art. In some cases, only the hands and feet would be made in marble.
Various inscriptions in Classical, non-barbarized, Greek have been found in Ai-Khanoum.
One of these economic inscriptions relates in Greek the deposit of olive oil jars in the treasury:
The last of the dates on these jars has been computed to 147 BC, suggesting that Ai-Khanoum was destroyed soon after that date.
Numerous Greco-Bactrian coins were found, down to Eucratides, but none of them later. Ai-Khanoum also yielded unique Greco-Bactrian coins of Agathocles, consisting of six Indian-standard silver drachms depicting Hindu deities. These are the first known representations of Vedic deities on coins, and they display early Avatars of Vishnu: Balarama-Samkarshana and Vasudeva-Krishna, and are thought to correspond to the first Greco-Bactrian attempts at creating an Indian-standard coinage as they invaded northern India.
Various artefacts of daily life are also clearly Hellenistic: sundials, ink wells, tableware. An almost life-sized dark green glass phallus with a small owl on the back side and other treasures are said to have been discovered at Ai-Khanoum, possibly along with a stone with an inscription, which was not recovered. The artefacts have now been returned to the Kabul Museum after several years in Switzerland by Paul Bucherer-Dietschi, Director of the Swiss Afghanistan Institute.
The presence of olive oil jars at Ai-Khanoum indicates that this oil was imported from the Mediterranean, as its only possible source would have been the Aegean Basin or Syria. This suggests important trade contacts with the Mediterranean, through long and expensive land routes.
Several Indian artefacts were found among the archaeological remains of Ai-Khanoum, especially a narrative plate made of shell inlaid with various materials and colors, thought to represent the Indian myth of Kuntala. Also, numerous Indian punch-marked coins were found.
In Ai-Khanoum remarkable Greek coins were also found, of one of the last Greco-Bactrian kings, Agathocles of Bactria (ruled 190-180 BCE). They are Indian-standard square coins bearing the representations of Indian deities, which have been variously interpreted as Vishnu, Shiva, Vasudeva, Buddha or Balarama. Altogether, six such Indian-standard silver drachmas in the name of Agathocles were discovered at Ai-Khanoum in 1970. Some other coins by Agathocles are also thought to represent the Buddhist lion and the Indian goddess Lakshmi.
According to John Boardman, Ai-Khanoum may have been one of the conduits for some art influence into ancient India, though these influences and their sources are "not always properly identified or yet identifiable". There are three competing scholarly views: one originated by early scholars such as Percy Brown where Indian architecture was due to immigration of western craftsmen, second by later scholars such as John Irwin who favor mostly indigenous inspiration and third such as S.P. Gupta who favor a combination. Persia, states Boardman, did not have a stone tradition of its own that can be traced, but there is evidence that "Persian bases of a plain half round torus" combined with Corinthian capitals existed there, and there is evidence that India had an intricate wooden architecture tradition about the same time. It is possible that Ai-Khanoum, a Greek city of Bactria in 3rd-century BCE, could have provided the conduit to connect the Hellenistic and Indian artists. However, Persepolis fell about 80 years before the first Buddhist stone architecture appeared, which leaves the question whether knowledge was preserved over the generations between Persepolis to the west of Ai-Khanoum and the Mauryans to its east.
Many Seleucid and Bactrian coins were found at Ai-Khanoum, as were ten blank planchets, indicating that there was a mint in the city. Ai-Khanoum apparently had a city symbol (a triangle within a circle, with various variations), which was found imprinted on bricks coming from the oldest buildings of the city.
The same symbol was used on various Seleucid eastern coins, suggesting that they were probably minted in Ai-Khanoum. Numerous Seleucid coins were thus reattributed to the Ai-Khanoum mint rather recently, with the conclusion that Ai-Khanoum was probably a larger minting center than even Bactra.
The invading Indo-European nomads from the north (the Scythians and then the Yuezhi) crossed the Oxus and subdued Bactria about 135 BC. It seems the city was totally abandoned between 140 and 120 BC following the Yuezhi invasion. There is evidence of huge fires in all the major buildings of the city. Ai-Khanoum was likely affected as many nomadic invasions passed through across through the Hindu Kush passes. In 1838 a Lieutenant Wood heard local people refer to the site as "Barbarrah". As with other archaeological sites such as Begram or Hadda, the Ai-Khanoum site has been pillaged during the long phase of war in Afghanistan since the fall of the Communist government.
The findings are of considerable importance, as no remains of the Greco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek civilizations had been uncovered in the East (beyond the abundant coinage) until this discovery, which led some to speak of a "Bactrian mirage."
Ai-Khanoum was a center of Hellenistic culture at the doorstep of India, and there was a strong reciprocal awareness between the two areas. A few years after the foundation of the city, around 258 BC, the Indian Emperor Ashoka was carving a rock inscription in Greek and Aramaic addressed to the Greeks in the region, the Kandahar Edict of Ashoka, in the nearby city of Kandahar.
The discovery of Ai-Khanoum also gives a new perspective on the influence of Greek culture in the East, and reaffirms the influence of the Greeks on the development of Greco-Buddhist art.