October 27, 2001

If you're like me, you probably have trouble remembering the difference between the camel with one hump and the camel with two. The dromedary, from the Greek root 'to run', comes from Africa, and has one hump. The Bactrian, with two humps, comes from Balkh, in western Asia. But just what and where is Bactria?

At the far eastern edge of the Middle East, beyond the Caspian Sea, Bactria first comes into the record as a province of the Persian Empire, about a millennia before the birth of Mohammed, six centuries before that of Christ. Legend attributes its founding to Balkh ibn Saman ibn Salam ibn Ham ibn Noh, which when 'ibn' is translated to 'son of', makes Balkh a great-great-grandson of Noah. Not too shabby a pedigree for a region. The province also makes claim to being the birthplace of the prophet Zoroaster, 'Zarathustra' in the German, an approximate contemporary of Balkh. When Alexander the Great passed this way in 327 BC, after fighting the Persians at Aornus, he founded a city he called Bactra; its kingdom became known to the west as Bactria. It was here in his new city that he married a local princess, Roxana. Alexander proved to be only the first of many tourists to take in the local sights. Sakas and Kushans, nomads from the steppes north of India, invaded in the second century BC., bringing Buddhism with them, fusing it with the Greek culture left by Alexander. They in turn were succeeded by Ephthalites, or White Huns, from beyond the Himalayas around 400 AD, who destroyed the Buddhist culture.

The next lone traveler, a Chinese monk by the name of Hsuan Tsang, defied a ban against foreign travel, sneaked out of China in the second quarter of the seventh century, and traveled along the bandit-infested Silk Road trade route, collecting old Buddhist scriptures. At Balkh he found a flower-filled town made up of over 100 monasteries, where close to 3,000 monks constituted the westernmost reaches of Buddhism. Noting the frontier crudeness of the worshippers and their unrefined brand of his religion, the pious monk must have felt like an Anglican minister suddenly plopped down into the midst of a tent revival meeting. He would move on, returning to China in 643. Soon afterwards an expansion of the Persian Empire back into the region paved the way for the spread of Islamic culture.

Some three hundred years later another seeker passed through, perhaps only in his imagination. The Arab geographer Ibn-Haukal was not looking for manuscripts, but attempting to vicariously track down the landing site for Noah's Ark. He studied travelers' notes which mentioned the clay ramparts of the city, which enclosed both a castle and a mosque, but learned nothing useful about the founder's great-great grandfather. Later travelers were not as benign. Ghengis Khan crossed the Oxus River (today's Amu Darya) in 1220, leveled the city, and massacred the inhabitants. Timur (Marlowe's Tamerlane) sincerely flattered him a century or so afterwards. When Marco Polo passed through in the late 1400s he marveled at the extent of the city's ruins. A succession, often born in violence, of Islamic regimes has continued down to our own time.

If you were to haul yourself up onto the back of your Bactrian camel and travel 14 miles to the east today, you'd find yourself in the current provincial capital. Mazar-i-Sharif. Afghanistan. I wouldn't advise it anytime soon, however.

For Classical 91.5 and 90-point-3, this is David Minor


NOTE: For those who might wonder what happened to Roxana Alexander the Great after his death, she returned to Macedonia to team up with her mother-in-law Olympias to retain control of the empire for Aleaxndar's young son Alexander Aegus. Roxana and Olympias were both murdered in the ensuing power grab by Alexander's generals.



For centuries China has marketed her silks and spices to the West by way of the Silk Road, passing over the top of India and through Afghanistan. One of thr earliest travelers was the Bhuddist monk Hsuan Tsang (spelled Xuan Zang on our URL of the week site; if interested in seeking more on him you should search under both spellings). The site's sponsor, the University of Maine at Farmington has an illustrated page on the Silk Road, exploring the route through the millennia. You'll also find the well-known Terra-cotta Soldiers of the Qin Dynasty. All at http://violet.umf.maine.edu/~mshea/China/xian.html . The University has a program that sends students to China to teach English. You can learn about the program and find many other links to Chinese subjects at their main page http://hua.umf.maine.edu/China/china.html .



© 2001 David Minor / Eagles Byte