Bactrian (Αριαο, Aryao, [arjaːu̯ɔ]) was an Iranian language which was spoken in the Central Asian region of Bactria (in present-day Afghanistan and Tajikistan) and used as the official language of the Kushan and the Hephthalite empires.
|Era||300 BC – 1000 AD|
|Greek script |
Official language in
|Kushan Empire |
Bactrian, which was written predominantly in an alphabet based on the Greek script, was known natively as αριαο /arjāu̯ɔ/ ("Arya"; an endonym common amongst Iranian peoples). It has also been known by names such as Greco-Bactrian, Kushan or Kushano-Bactrian.
Under Kushan rule, Bactria became known as Tukhara or Tokhara, and later as Tokharistan. When texts in two extinct and previously unknown Indo-European languages were discovered in the Tarim Basin of China, during the early 20th century, they were linked circumstantially to Tokharistan, and Bactrian was sometimes referred to as "Eteo-Tocharian" (i.e. "true" or "original" Tocharian). By the 1970s, however, it became clear that there was little evidence for such a connection. For instance, the Tarim "Tocharian" languages were part of the so-called "centum group" within the Indo-European family, and were most closely related to the Anatolian languages, whereas Bactrian was a satemised Iranian language.
Bactrian is a part of the Eastern Iranian areal group, and shares features with the extinct Middle Iranian languages Sogdian and Khwarezmian (Eastern) and Parthian (Western), as well as with the modern Eastern Iranian languages Pashto, Yidgha, and Munji. Its genealogical position is unclear. According to another source, the present-day speakers of Munji, the modern Eastern Iranian language of the Munjan Valley in northeast Afghanistan, display the closest possible linguistic affinity with the Bactrian language.
Following the conquest of Bactria by Alexander the Great in 323 BC, for about two centuries Greek was the administrative language of his Hellenistic successors, that is, the Seleucid and the Greco-Bactrian kingdoms. Eastern Scythian tribes (the Saka, or Sacaraucae of Greek sources) invaded the territory around 140 BC, and at some time after 124 BC, Bactria was overrun by a confederation of tribes belonging to the Great Yuezhi and Tokhari. In the 1st century AD, the Kushana – one of the Yuezhi tribes – founded the ruling dynasty of the Kushan Empire.
The Kushan Empire initially retained the Greek language for administrative purposes, but soon began to use Bactrian. The Bactrian Rabatak inscription (discovered in 1993 and deciphered in 2000) records that the Kushan king Kanishka (c. 127 AD) discarded Greek (Ionian) as the language of administration and adopted Bactrian ("Arya language"). The Greek language accordingly vanished from official use and only Bactrian was later attested. The Greek script however remained and was used to write Bactrian.
In the 3rd century, the Kushan territories west of the Indus river fell to the Sasanians, and Bactrian began to be influenced by Middle Persian. Next to Pahlavi script and (occasionally) Brahmi script, some coinage of this period is still in Greco-Bactrian script. Beginning in the mid-4th century, Bactria and northwestern India yielded to the Hephthalite tribes. The Hephthalite period is marked by linguistic diversity and in addition to Bactrian, Middle Persian, North Indo-Aryan and Latin vocabulary is also attested. The Hephthalites ruled their territories until the 7th century when they were overrun by the Arabs, after which the official use of Bactrian ceased. Although Bactrian briefly survived in other usage, that too eventually ceased, and the latest examples of the language date to the end of the 9th century.
Among Indo-Iranian languages, the use of the Greek script is unique to Bactrian. Although ambiguities remain, some of the disadvantages were overcome by using heta (Ͱ, ͱ) for /h/ and by introducing sho (Ϸ, ϸ) to represent /ʃ/. Xi (Ξ, ξ) and psi (Ψ, ψ) were not used for writing Bactrian as the ks and ps sequences do not occur in Bactrian. They were however probably used to represent numbers (just as other Greek letters were).
The Bactrian language is known from inscriptions, coins, seals, manuscripts, and other documents.
Sites at which Bactrian language inscriptions have been found are (in North-South order) Afrasiyab in Uzbekistan; Kara-Tepe, Airtam, Delbarjin, Balkh, Kunduz, Baglan, Ratabak/Surkh Kotal, Oruzgan, Kabul, Dasht-e Navur, Ghazni, Jagatu in Afghanistan; and Islamabad, Shatial Bridge and Tochi Valley in Pakistan.  Of eight known manuscript fragments in Greco-Bactrian script, one is from Lou-lan and seven from Toyoq, where they were discovered by the second and third Turpan expeditions under Albert von Le Coq. One of these may be a Buddhist text. One other manuscript, in Manichaean script, was found at Qočo by Mary Boyce in 1958.
Over 150 legal documents, accounts, letters and Buddhist texts have surfaced since the 1990s, several of them currently a part of the collection of Nasser Khalili. These have greatly increased the detail in which Bactrian is currently known.
The phonology of Bactrian is not known with certainty, owing to the limitations of the native scripts.
|Stops||Voiceless||π [p]||τ [t]||κ [k]|
|Voiced||β, ββ [b]?||δ, δδ [d]||γ [g]|
|Fricatives||Voiceless||φ [f]||θ [θ]?, σ [s]||ϸ [ʃ]||χ [x]||χο [xʷ]||υ [h]|
|Voiced||β [v]||δ [ð]?, ζ [z]||ζ [ʒ]?||γ [ɣ]|
|Nasals||μ [m]||ν [n]|
|Approximants||λ [l]||ι [j]||ο [w]|
A major difficulty in determining Bactrian phonology is that affricates and voiced stops were not consistently distinguished from the corresponding fricatives in the Greek script.
The status of θ is unclear; it only appears in the word ιθαο 'thus, also', which may be a loanword from another Iranian language. In most positions Proto-Iranian *θ becomes /h/ (written υ), or is lost, e.g. *puθra- > πουρο 'son'. The cluster *θw, however, appears to become /lf/, e.g. *wikāθwan > οιγαλφο 'witness'.
ϸ continues, in addition to Proto-Iranian *š, also Proto-Iranian *s in the clusters *sr, *str, *rst. In several cases Proto-Iranian *š however becomes /h/ or is lost; the distribution is unclear. E.g. *snušā > ασνωυο 'daughter-in-law', *aštā > αταο 'eight', *xšāθriya > χαρο 'ruler', *pašman- > παμανο 'wool'.
The Greek script does not consistently represent vowel length. Fewer vowel contrasts yet are found in the Manichaean script, but short /a/ and long /aː/ are distinguished in it, suggesting that Bactrian generally retains the Proto-Iranian vowel length contrast.
It is not clear if ο might represent short [o] in addition to [u], and if any contrast existed. Short [o] may have occurred at least as a reflex of *a followed by a lost *u in the next syllable, e.g. *madu > μολο 'wine', *pasu > ποσο 'sheep'. Short [e] is also rare. By contrast, long /eː/, /oː/ are well established as reflexes of Proto-Iranian diphthongs and certain vowel-semivowel sequences: η < *ai, *aya, *iya; ω < *au, *awa.
An epenthetic vowel [ə] (written α) is inserted before word-initial consonant clusters.
Original word-final vowels and word-initial vowels in open syllables were generally lost. A word-final ο is normally written, but this was probably silent, and it is appended even after retained word-final vowels: e.g. *aštā > αταο 'eight', likely pronounced /ataː/.
The Proto-Iranian syllabic rhotic *r̥ is lost in Bactrian, and is reflected as ορ adjacent to labial consonants, ιρ elsewhere; this agrees with the development in the western Iranian languages Parthian and Middle Persian.
Bactria (); or Bactriana was a historical region in Central Asia. Bactria proper was north of the Hindu Kush mountain range and south of the Amu Darya river, covering the flat region that straddles modern-day Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and parts of Northern Pakistan. More broadly Bactria was the area north of the Hindu Kush, west of the Pamirs and south of the Tian Shan with the Amu Darya flowing west through the center.Bactrian
Bactrian may refer to
Bactria (satrapy), under the Achaemenid Empire
Balkh (; Pashto and Persian: بلخ, Balkh; Ancient Greek: Βάκτρα, Báktra; Bactrian: Βάχλο, Bakhlo) is a town in the Balkh Province of Afghanistan, about 20 km (12 mi) northwest of the provincial capital, Mazar-e Sharif, and some 74 km (46 mi) south of the Amu Darya river and the Uzbekistan border. It was historically an ancient centre of Buddhism, Islam, and Zoroastrianism and one of the major cities of Khorasan, since the latter's earliest history.
The ancient city of Balkh was known to the Ancient Greeks as Bactra, giving its name to Bactria. It was mostly known as the centre and capital of Bactria or Tokharistan. Marco Polo described Balkh as a "noble and great city". Balkh is now for the most part a mass of ruins, situated some 12 km (7.5 mi) from the right bank of the seasonally flowing Balkh River, at an elevation of about 365 m (1,198 ft).
French Buddhist Alexandra David-Néel associated Shambhala with Balkh, also offering the Persian Sham-i-Bala ("elevated candle") as an etymology of its name. In a similar vein, the Gurdjieffian J. G. Bennett published speculation that Shambalha was Shams-i-Balkh, a Bactrian sun temple.Buddhism in Afghanistan
Buddhism in Afghanistan was one of the major religious forces in the region during pre-Islamic era. The religion was widespread south of the Hindu Kush mountains. Buddhism first arrived in Afghanistan in 305 BC when the Greek Seleucid Empire made an alliance with the Indian Maurya Empire. The resulting Greco-Buddhism flourished under the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom (250 BC-125 BC) and the later Indo-Greek Kingdom (180 BC - 10 AD) in modern northern Pakistan and Afghanistan. Greco-Buddhism reached its height under the Kushan Empire, which used the Greek alphabet to write its Bactrian language.
Lokaksema (c. 178 AD), who travelled to the Chinese capital of Luoyang and was the first translator of Mahayana Buddhist scriptures into Chinese, and Mahadharmaraksita who, according to the Mahavamsa (Chap. XXIX), led 30,000 Buddhist monks from "the Greek city of Alasandra" (Alexandria of the Caucasus, around 150 km north of today's Kabul in Afghanistan), to Sri Lanka for the dedication of the Great Stupa in Anuradhapura. The Greco-Bactrian King Menander I, (Pali) "Milinda," ruled 165 BC - 135 BC, was a renowned patron of Buddhism immortalized in the Buddhist text the Milinda Panha.
The famous Persian Buddhist monastery in Balkh in northern Afghanistan, known as Nava Vihara ("New Monastery"), functioned as the center of Central Asia Buddhist learning for centuries.
The Buddhist religion in Afghanistan started fading with the arrival of Islam in the 7th century but finally ended during the Ghaznavids in the 11th century.Ghor Province
Ghōr (Pashto/Persian: غور), also spelled Ghowr or Ghur, is one of the thirty-four provinces of Afghanistan. It is located in Hazarajat region in central Afghanistan, towards the north-west. The province contains ten districts, encompassing hundreds of villages, and approximately 657,200 settled people. Firuzkoh, (called Chaghcharan until 2014) serves as the capital of the province.Iranian literature
Iranian literature, or Iranic literature, refers to the literary traditions of the Iranian languages, developed predominantly in Iran and other regions in the Middle East and the Caucasus, eastern Asia Minor, and parts of western Central Asia and northwestern South Asia. These include works attested from as early as the 6th century BC. Modern Iranian literatures include Persian literature, Ossetian literature, Kurdish literature, Pashto literature, and Balochi literature, among others.Kanishka
Kanishka I (Sanskrit: कनिष्क), or Kanishka the Great, an emperor of the Kushan dynasty in the second century (c. 127–150 CE), is famous for his military, political, and spiritual achievements. A descendant of Kujula Kadphises - founder of the Kushan empire - Kanishka came to rule an empire in Bactria extending from Turfan in the Tarim Basin to Pataliputra on the Gangetic plain. The main capital of his empire was located at Puruṣapura in Gandhara, with another major capital at Kapisa.
His conquests and patronage of Buddhism played an important role in the development of the Silk Road, and in the transmission of Mahayana Buddhism from Gandhara across the Karakoram range to China.
Earlier scholars believed that Kanishka ascended the Kushan throne in 78 CE, and that this date was used as the beginning of the Saka calendar era. However, historians no longer regard this date as that of Kanishka's accession. Falk estimates that Kanishka came to the throne in 127 CE.Kushan Empire
The Kushan Empire (Ancient Greek: Βασιλεία Κοσσανῶν; Bactrian: Κυϸανο, Kushano; Kuṣāṇa Sāmrājya; BHS: Guṣāṇa-vaṃśa; Chinese: 貴霜帝國; Parthian: Kušan-xšaθr) was a syncretic empire, formed by the Yuezhi, in the Bactrian territories in the early 1st century. It spread to encompass much of Afghanistan, and then the northern parts of the Indian subcontinent at least as far as Saketa and Sarnath near Varanasi (Benares), where inscriptions have been found dating to the era of the Kushan Emperor Kanishka the Great. Emperor Kanishka was a great patron of Buddhism. He played an important role in the establishment of Buddhism in the Indian subcontinent and its spread to Central Asia and China.
The Kushans were one of five branches of the Yuezhi confederation, a possibly Iranian or Tocharian, Indo-European nomadic people who migrated from Gansu and settled in ancient Bactria. The Kushans possibly used the Greek language initially for administrative purposes, but soon began to use Bactrian language. Kanishka sent his armies north of the Karakoram mountains, capturing territories as far as Kashgar, Khotan and Yarkant, in the Tarim Basin of modern-day Xinjiang, China. A direct road from Gandhara to China remained under Kushan control for more than a century, encouraging travel across the Karakoram and facilitating the spread of Mahayana Buddhism to China.
The Kushan dynasty had diplomatic contacts with the Roman Empire, Sasanian Persia, the Aksumite Empire and Han Dynasty of China. While much philosophy, art, and science was created within its borders, the only textual record of the empire's history today comes from inscriptions and accounts in other languages, particularly Chinese.The Kushan empire fragmented into semi-independent kingdoms in the 3rd century AD, which fell to the Sasanians invading from the west, establishing the Kushano-Sasanian Kingdom in the areas of Sogdiana, Bactria and Gandhara. In the 4th century, the Guptas, an Indian dynasty also pressed from the east. The last of the Kushan and Kushano-Sasanian kingdoms were eventually overwhelmed by invaders from the north, known as the Kidarites, and then the Hepthalites.Kushan coinage
In the coinage of the North Indian and Central Asian Kushan Empire (approximately 30-375 CE) the main coins issued were gold, weighing 7.9g., and base metal issues of various weights between 12g and 1.5g. Little silver coinage was issued, but in later periods the gold used was debased with silver.The coin designs usually broadly follow the styles of the preceding Greco-Bactrian rulers in using Hellenistic styles of image, with a deity on one side and the king on the other. Kings may be shown as a profile head, a standing figure, typically officiating at a fire altar in Zoroastrian style, or mounted on a horse. The artistry of the dies is generally lower than the exceptionally high standards of the best coins of Greco-Bactrian rulers. Continuing influence from Roman coins can be seen in designs of the late 1st and 2nd century CE, and also in mint practices evidenced on the coins, as well as a gradual reduction in the value of the metal in base metal coins, so that they become virtual tokens. Iranian influence, especially in the royal figures and the pantheon of deities used, is even stronger. Under Kanishka the royal title of "King of kings" changed from the Greek "ΒΑΣΙΛΕΥΣ ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΝ" to the Persian form "ϷAONANOϷAO" (Shah of Shahs).Much of what little information we have of Kushan political history derives from coins. The language of inscriptions is typically the Bactrian language, written in a script derived from Greek. Many coins show the tamga symbols (see table) as a kind of monogram for the ruler. There were several regional mints, and the evidence from coins suggests that much of the empire was semi-independent.Munji language
The Munji language, also known as Munjani, Munjhan and the Munjiwar language, is a Pamir language spoken in Munjan valley in Badakhshan Province in northeast Afghanistan. It is similar to the Yidgha language, which is spoken in the Upper Lotkoh Valley of Chitral, west of Garam Chashma in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan.Historically, Munji displays the closest possible linguistic affinity with the now-extinct Bactrian language.The Garam Chashma area became important during the Soviet–Afghan War. During the invasion, the Soviets were unable to stop the flow of arms and men back and forth across the Dorah Pass that separates Chitral, in Pakistan, from Badakshan in Afghanistan. The two dialects spoken in the area of Mamalgha Valley and the area of Munjan Valley differed, being the northern and southern dialects. The language has moved to parts of Chitral, after the War in Afghanistan forced the Munji-speaking people to flee to safer areas.Nava Vihara
The Nava Vihāra (Sanskrit: नवविहार "New Monastery", modern Nawbahār, Persian: نوبهار) were two Buddhist monasteries close to the ancient city of Balkh in northern Afghanistan. Historical accounts report it as flourishing as an important centre of Buddhism between the seventh and eleventh centuries CE. It may have been founded considerably earlier, perhaps in or after the reign of the Kushan emperor Kaniṣka, in the second century CE.Nomadic empire
Nomadic empires, sometimes also called steppe empires, Central or Inner Asian empires, are the empires erected by the bow-wielding, horse-riding, nomadic peoples in the Eurasian steppe, from classical antiquity (Scythia) to the early modern era (Dzungars). They are the most prominent example of non-sedentary polities.
Some nomadic empires operated by establishing a capital city inside a conquered sedentary state, and then by exploiting the existing bureaucrats and commercial resources of that non-nomadic society. As the pattern is repeated, the originally nomadic dynasty becomes culturally assimilated to the culture of the occupied nation before it is ultimately overthrown. Ibn Khaldun described a similar cycle on a smaller scale in his Asabiyyah theory. A term used for these polities in the early medieval period is khanate (after khan, the title of their rulers), and after the Mongol conquests also as orda (horde) as in Golden Horde.Oesho
Oesho (Bactrian Οηϸο) was a Kushan deity represented on Kushan coins. He was apparently one of the titular deities of the dynasty.
By the time of the Kushan emperor Ooishki (Bactrian Οοηϸκι; often Romanised as Huvishka), who reigned in 140–180 CE, Oesho and the female deity Ardoksho (Ardoxsho; Ardochsho; Ardokhsho) were the only deities appearing on Kushan coins.
Connections to several contemporaneous deities worshipped by neighbouring cultures have been suggested.
During the Kushan era, Oesho was often linked to the Hindu concept of Ishvara, which was embodied by the god Shiva; Oesho may share the same etymology as Ishvara and/or represent a variant of the word in the Bactrian language spoken by the Kushans.
Similarities have retrospectively been identified with the Avestan Vayu.
Some later representations, evidently influenced by Greco-Bactrian culture, depict Oesho with a trident that is similar to the trident of Poseidon.Rabatak inscription
The Rabatak inscription is an inscription written on a rock in the Bactrian language and the Greek script, which was found in 1993 at the site of Rabatak, near Surkh Kotal in Afghanistan. The inscription relates to the rule of the Kushan emperor Kanishka, and gives remarkable clues on the genealogy of the Kushan dynasty.San (letter)
San (Ϻ) was an archaic letter of the Greek alphabet. Its shape was similar to modern M, or ϡ, or to a modern Greek Sigma (Σ) turned sideways, and it was used as an alternative to Sigma to denote the sound /s/. Unlike Sigma, whose position in the alphabet is between Rho and Tau, San appeared between Pi and Qoppa in alphabetic order. In addition to denoting this separate archaic character, the name "San" was also used as an alternative name to denote the standard letter Sigma.Shatial
Shatial is a transit station with archaeological significance on Karakoram Highway in Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan.Sho (letter)
The letter ϸ (sometimes called sho or san) was a letter added to the Greek alphabet in order to write the Bactrian language. It was similar in appearance to the Anglo-Saxon and Icelandic letter thorn (þ), which has typically been used to represent it in modern print, although both are historically quite unrelated. It probably represented a sound similar to English "sh" ([ʃ]). Its conventional transliteration in Latin is "š".
Its original name and position in the Bactrian alphabet, if it had any, are unknown. Some authors have called it "san", on the basis of the hypothesis that it was a survival or reintroduction of the archaic Greek letter San. It closely resembles, perhaps coincidentally, a letter of the Greek-based Carian alphabet which may have also stood for [ʃ]. The name "sho" was coined for the letter for purposes of modern computer encoding in 2002, on the basis of analogy with "rho" (ρ), the letter with which it seems to be graphically related. Ϸ was added to Unicode in version 4.0 (2003), in an uppercase and lowercase character designed for modern typography.Xionites
Xionites, Chionites, or Chionitae (Middle Persian: Xiyōn or Hiyōn; Avestan: Xiiaona; Sogdian xwn; Pahlavi Xyon) are Romanisations of the ethnonym of a nomadic people who were prominent in Transoxania, Bactria and Iran during the 4th and 7th centuries CE.The Xionites appear to be synonymous with the Huna peoples of classical/medieval India, and possibly also the Huns of European late antiquity. It is unclear whether the Xionites were connected to a people named in Ancient China as the Xunyu (Hünyü 獯鬻; Wade–Giles Hsünyü), Xianyun 猃狁 (Wade–Giles Hsien-yün) and Xiongnu (匈奴 Wade–Giles Hsiung-nu). (While some sources use names such as Hunas, Huns and Xiongnu interchangeably, this remains controversial.)
They were first described by the Roman historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, who was in Bactria during 356-57 CE; he described the Chionitæ as living with the Kushans. Ammianus indicates that the Xionites had previously lived in Transoxiana and, after entering Bactria, became vassals of the Kushans, were influenced culturally by them and had adopted the Bactrian language. They had attacked the Sassanid Empire, but later (led by a chief named Grumbates), served as mercenaries in the Sassanian army.
Within the Xionites, there seem to have been two main subgroups, which were known in the Iranian languages by names such as Karmir Xyon and Spet Xyon. The prefixes karmir ("red") and speta ("white") likely refer to Central Asian traditions in which particular colours symbolised the cardinal points. The Karmir Xyon were known in European sources as the Kermichiones or "Red Huns", and some scholars have identified them with the Kidarites and/or Alchon. The Spet Xyon or "White Huns" appear to have been the known in India by the cognate name Sveta-huna, and are often identified, controversially, with the Hephtalites.