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BACTRIA The region between the Hindu Kush Mountains and the river Amu Darya (Oxus) is called Bactria. Its old capital, Bactra, was located near the present city of Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan. Another important center of this area is Balkh, a town 15.5 miles (25 km) to the west of Mazar-e-Sharif. The Mughal prince Aurangzeb ended his attempt to reconquer the homelands of his dynasty in Fergana and Samarkand at Balkh.

Bactria had been coveted by conquerors throughout history, since it served as an important link between East and West. The Persian kings had tried to control this region, and Alexander the Great captured it on his march toward India. In subsequent years it was ruled by the Greeks, and later by the Scythians. The Silk Road passed through this area, connecting China with Europe. Traveling traders needed transport animals, the sturdy two-humped camels (Camelus bactrianus) of the region that were so well suited for this purpose.

While the area around the ancient town of Bactra was the heart of Bactria, its territorial dimensions varied a great deal over the course of time. In the best of times it would include the northern part of Afghanistan and all of present Tajikistan. Under Darius it was the eastern bulwark of the Achaemenid empire. For some time it was the heartland of the Kushan empire, which then expanded so as to include a large part of northern India. It remained of strategic importance for many centuries, until the Mongols swept through it in the early thirteenth century. It then lost much of its pivotal position. In modern times it became once more of importance in the "Great Game" when Tsarist Russia penetrated Central Asia. With the capture of Merv in 1884, the Russians came very close to the region of Bactria, and the British tried their best to keep Afghanistan firmly under their control. Being far from Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, this region has in recent times emerged as the stronghold of warlords who cannot be easily controlled by Afghanistan's government.

Dietmar Rothermund

See alsoAfghanistan ; Alexander the Great ; Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier


Barthold, Wilhelm. Turkestan Down to the Mongol Invasion. 2nd ed. London: Luzac, 1958.

Ligabue, Giancarlo, and Carl C. Lamberg-Karlovsky. Bactria: An Ancient Oasis Civilization from the Sands of Afghanistan. Venice: Enrizzo, 1989.

Rawlinson, Hugh G. Bactria: The History of a Forgotten Empire. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 2002.

Tarn, William W. The Greeks in Bactria and India. 2nd ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1966.

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Bactria (băk´trēə), ancient Greek kingdom in central Asia. Its capital was Bactra, present-day Balkh in N Afghanistan. Before the Greek conquest, the region was an eastern province of the Persian Empire. It prospered as the area for transmitting Siberian and Indian metals and goods to the Persians. When Alexander the Great invaded the Persian Empire, the Bactrians, under Bessus, resisted stoutly, but they were subdued in 328. Bactria took on Greek culture, became quasi-independent, and theoretically remained part of the Seleucid empire. In 256 BC, Diodotus I was made satrap, and a little later he assumed complete independence. His successor, Euthydemus, successfully resisted attempts (208–206 BC) to bring Bactria back into the empire. Euthydemus' son Demetrius made Bactria a powerful state. The Seleucid ruler, Antiochus IV, sent Eucratidas into Bactria, and Eucratidas in 167 BC brought about the death of Demetrius but was himself slain in 159 BC Menander, Demetrius' general, continued to exercise power until his death in 145 BC Bactria later (c.130 BC) became part of the Kushan empire. It was subjugated by the Ephthalites in the 5th cent. and partially by the Turks in the 6th cent.

See H. G. Rawlinson, Bactria: The History of a Forgotten Empire (1912, repr. 1969); W. W. Tarn, The Greeks in Bactria and India (2d ed. 1951); A. K. Narain, The Indo-Greeks (1957, repr. 1962).

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Bactria an ancient country in central Asia, corresponding to the northern part of modern Afghanistan. Traditionally the home of Zoroaster, it was the seat of a powerful Indo-Greek kingdom in the 3rd and 2nd centuries bc.