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Lost World of the Golden King: In Search of Ancient Afghanistan

Frank L. Holt
Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 1
Pages: 368
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1ppw75
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  • Book Info
    Lost World of the Golden King
    Book Description:

    Drawing on ancient historical writings, the vast array of information gleaned in recent years from the study of Hellenistic coins, and startling archaeological evidence newly unearthed in Afghanistan, Frank L. Holt sets out to rediscover the ancient civilization of Bactria. In a gripping narrative informed by the author's deep knowledge of his subject, this book covers two centuries of Bactria's history, from its colonization by remnants of Alexander the Great's army to the kingdom's collapse at the time of a devastating series of nomadic invasions. Beginning with the few tantalizing traces left behind when the 'empire of a thousand cities' vanished, Holt takes up that trail and follows the remarkable and sometimes perilous journey of rediscovery.Lost World of the Ancient Kingdescribes how a single bit of evidence-a Greek coin-launched a search that drew explorers to the region occupied by the tumultuous warring tribes of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Afghanistan. Coin by coin, king by king, the history of Bactria was reconstructed using the emerging methodologies of numismatics. In the twentieth century, extraordinary ancient texts added to the evidence. Finally, one of the 'thousand cities' was discovered and excavated, revealing an opulent palace, treasury, temple, and other buildings. Though these great discoveries soon fell victim to the Afghan political crisis that continues today, this book provides a thrilling chronicle of the search for one of the world's most enigmatic empires.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95374-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-xii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  4. PREFACE
    (pp. xix-xxii)
  5. Introduction: A Lost Civilization
    (pp. 1-6)

    What person doesn’t dream of stumbling across the trail of some lost civilization in a little-known land like Afghanistan? Those dedicated to the study of ancient Bactria have been doing so for nearly three hundred years.¹ Along the banks of the Amu Darya and the foothills of the Hindu Kush, Bactria once thrived as an independent kingdom ruled by the descendants of Western colonists.² These wayward Greeks, remnants of Alexander the Great’s army, waged incessant wars with their neighbors and with each other, growing richer all the while. They minted the largest gold and silver coins in the world, governed...

  6. CHAPTER ONE The Adventure Begins: Checklist Numismatics
    (pp. 7-26)

    Jean Foy Vaillant (1632–1706) could not endure another four months of slavery in the hands of Algerian pirates, so he took matters into his own mouth. The desperate Vaillant was in the midst of a dangerous numismatic journey when, about to be captured again, he swallowed his cargo of ancient gold coins.¹ This gallant French physician had developed an insatiable interest in old Greek and Roman medals soon after he was shown a hoard freshly dug from a farm near Beauvais.² Vaillant quickly became famous as one of the first savants to demonstrate the value of coins for the...

  7. CHAPTER TWO A Dangerous Game: Framework Numismatics
    (pp. 27-49)

    The trickle of Bactrian coins into the elite collections of Europe during the eighteenth century surged into a torrent early in the nineteenth. These finds accumulated rapidly as consolation prizes in the so-called Great Game of political and military intrigue in Central Asia, a high-stakes contest immortalized by Rudyard Kipling, the Nobel laureate of British imperialism.¹ Ancient Bactria, the lost world between Parthia and India, had become nascent Afghanistan, the strategic terra incognita separating czarist Russia from British India. Into that mysterious land, each side dispatched explorers, spies, soldiers, and scientists who shared the dangers with unaligned misfits of all...

  8. CHAPTER THREE The Gold Colossus: Novelty Numismatics
    (pp. 50-66)

    On July 18, 1867, a golden “monster” migrated from its home under the armpit of a murderer into a royal new residence in Paris.¹ That change of address is one of the most sensational stories in the annals of numismatics. Taking its place among the rarest treasures of the Bibliothèque Impériale (now the Bibliothèque Nationale), this huge coin became known as the Eucratidion in honor of the ancient king displayed on one side, with his name and titles wrapped around an image of the galloping Greek-hero twins, the Dioscuri, on the other (fig. 10). Weighing 169.2 grams and spanning the...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR Telling Tales: Narrative Numismatics
    (pp. 67-88)

    At the very outset of the twentieth century, a young British barrister on the eve of a serious breakdown indulged his passion for a subject far outside his profession. William Woodthorpe Tarn (1869–1957; see fig. 13) loved Hellenistic history. He had studied classics at Cambridge and traveled throughout mainland Greece and the islands before settling, at his father’s request, upon a career at law.¹ His practice proved a great success, but it could never displace his enthusiasm for ancient history. Tarn’s avocation blossomed into an article on the Oxus trade route published in 1901, and another treatise the following...

  10. COLOR PLATES
    (pp. None)
  11. CHAPTER FIVE Wanted—One Greek City: Archaeology
    (pp. 89-112)

    Coins suggest a world of mints and markets, a land where the kings and queens who were displayed on their money must have lived in palaces and cities, where the armies paid by this cash built and guarded fortresses, where the deities honored on these metal disks were worshipped in temples, and where the merchants who relied on this currency maintained warehouses, workshops, and homes. The exponential rise in the number of Bactrian coins recovered from Central Asia had long created the expectation of these related finds, as well as the tools, tombs, inscriptions, and other objects of an ancient...

  12. CHAPTER SIX Letters Here and There: Epigraphy
    (pp. 113-134)

    Historians have a strong predisposition to favor the written word. The Greek letters on Bruce’s tetradrachm, not its other features, first led Bayer to associate it with Bactria; his next step was inevitably to scan all of ancient literature to learn more about the king and his kingdom. Thereafter, the little inscriptions on coins constituted the only immediate hope of expanding that knowledge, one royal name at a time, during the pursuit of framework numismatics. Wanting more words, explorers naturally fantasized that someday one of them might stumble upon a long text etched in stone, perhaps a royal decree or...

  13. CHAPTER SEVEN A Perfect Storm: Rescue and Revisionist Numismatics
    (pp. 135-159)

    Over the past thirty years (1980–2010), the ongoing political and military crisis in Afghanistan has forced many scholars to explore the unfortunate but necessary methodologies of rescue numismatics. Hand in hand with the despoliation of archaeological remains during this period (see chap. 5, above), vast troves of numismatic evidence have been dispersed or destroyed by a perfect storm of poverty and lawlessness in league with supply and demand. Some sense of this problem can be gleaned by reviewing the offerings of Bactrian and Indo-Greek coins in sales catalogues over the past thirty years, where nearly ten thousand newly found...

  14. CHAPTER EIGHT A New Beginning: Cognitive Numismatics I
    (pp. 160-183)

    In 1941, three pioneers perished at the height of their professions. Edward T. Newell was at the time one of the world’s greatest numismatists; Sir Arthur Evans was its most celebrated archaeologist, and Professor James Westfall Thompson was the prolific sitting president of the American Historical Association. What is most striking about their passing is the subsequent history of their respective fields over precisely the same period. Today, numismatics remains very much Newellian in its methods and interests. The ghost of Newell could feel quite at home reading a recent journal or book in his area of expertise, written likely...

  15. CHAPTER NINE Coins and the Collapse of Civilization: Cognitive Numismatics II
    (pp. 184-210)

    In the autumn of 1962, a freshly plowed field in the town of Rawa Mazowiecka yielded an unexpected find.¹ Near the picturesque castle ruins, a silver drachm minted over two millennia earlier in Afghanistan emerged incongruously from the soil of central Poland.² No one knows how this coin of Menander I Soter got there, or when—such are the mysterious travels of money.³ But in its movements beyond the mint, a coin like this reflects additional human behaviors besides those of its makers, from transporting, spending, losing, hoarding, defacing, reissuing, wearing, imitating, and counterfeiting to collecting and perhaps studying. There...

  16. Conclusion: The Lost World of the Golden King
    (pp. 211-220)

    Nearly seven hundred years ago, Bactria existed as a more or less mythical land kept alive by the imaginations of Renaissance poets. Some four hundred years later, it was still little more than a mere tally of kings who conquered, coined, and died. One of those kings, Eucratides the Great, set Bactrian studies on a new course when a coin bearing his name finally came to light. We may recap the progress made over the next centuries by using this king as a paradigm. Many great minds have pondered the problem of the Golden King and his lost world, each...

  17. NOTES
    (pp. 221-296)
  18. SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 297-328)
  19. ILLUSTRATION CREDITS
    (pp. 329-330)
  20. INDEX
    (pp. 331-343)