Ai Khanum


Ai Khanum: town founded by one of the successors of Alexander the Great in Afghanistan.

The ruins from Ai Khanum
The ruins from Ai Khanum

From literary sources, we can deduce that an Alexandria on the Oxus (or: in Oxiana) was founded, probably by Hephaestion, during Alexander the Great's campaigns in Bactria and Sogdia (329-327). Possibly, this was a refoundation of an older, Persian city, and was settled with Greek and Iranian veterans, together with native serfs: this was, in any case, the normal way to found a European city in the Far East.

Perhaps, this city was identical to Ai Khanum in Afghanistan. (A more likely candidate is Kampyr Tepe in Uzbekistan.) "Ai Khanum" means "Lady Moon" in Uzbek (an alternative translation is "Face in the Moon", because people over there recognize a female face on the moon.)

Among the Greek settlers in Ai Khanum were Thessalian cavalrymen, which appears to be confirmed by the following inscription:

These wise words of ancient men are set up,
utterances of famous men, in holy Delphi.
Clearchus copied them carefully and set them up,
shining from afar, in the sanctuary of Cineas:
Inscription from Cineas' monument
Inscription from Cineas' monument

As a child, be orderly,
As a youth, be self-controlled,
As an adult, be just,
As an old man, be of good counsel,
When dying, be without sorrow.

The Cineas mentioned has a Thessalian name. As the city's official founder (ktistes), he received a sanctuary on the market (a heroön).

Ai Khanum is about 2 km long and 600 m wide and was excavated by French archaeologists. Parts of it look surprisingly like a Greek city, including temples, a heroön, an administrative palace, colonnaded courts, a main street, a city wall, a gymnasium (sport school), houses, Corinthian columns, several free-standing statues, and a theater with 5,000 seats. Other parts are more native in nature. The citadel in the south, which is on a 60 m high loess-covered natural mound, has not been investigated yet, although it must have had massive walls and high towers.

Ai Khanum, map
Ai Khanum, map

Among the finds are Greek and Indian coins, several inscriptions, sundials, jewelry, a famous silver disk showing the Phrygian goddess Cybele, the Greek god Helios, and an Iranian fire altar.

Ai Khanum is situated on the confluence of the mighty Amudar'ya (the ancient Oxus) and the Kokcha rivers. Across the valley is a spectacular wall of steep rocks. The city became rich because it controlled the trade in lapis lazuli, but it was also situated on the Silk road. One of the Bactrian kings, Eucratides I (c.170-c.145) honored the city by calling it after himself, Eucratidia. The city's wealth attracted enemies, and it was sacked by Sacae nomads in c.135 BCE, and later by the Yuezhi nomads (who later founded the Kushan empire in the Punjab).

This page was created in 2006; last modified on 6 August 2020.