SOAS University of London

Department of the Languages and Cultures of the Near and Middle East

Bactrian chronology

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The results of SOAS's "Bactrian chronology project" throw dramatic new light on the early history of Afghanistan.

Bactrian, the principal language of pre-Islamic Afghanistan, was virtually unknown until the discovery during the last two decades of more than 150 documents written on parchment, cloth and wood in a cursive script ultimately derived from Greek. These documents, which have been deciphered and translated by Professor Nicholas Sims-Williams of SOAS, include legal contracts, letters, and Buddhist texts. They belong to the 4th-8th centuries C.E., an obscure but eventful period in the history of the region, when Afghanistan was repeatedly invaded by foreign powers: by the Sasanian dynasty of Iran; by Turks and other nomadic peoples from the north and east; and finally by the Muslim Arabs and Persians, who brought Islam to a land where Buddhism and Zoroastrianism had previously been the dominant religions. All these events find their echo in the Bactrian documents, which offer sensational new information on the political and social history of ancient Afghanistan, naming previously unknown rulers, providing the earliest reference to the Afghan people, and revealing local customs such as polyandry (the marriage of a woman to several men simultaneously).

The "Bactrian chronology project", which is directed by Professor Nicholas Sims-Williams and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, was set up in 2004 with the aim of establishing the relative and absolute chronology of these documents and thus providing a firm framework for the interpretation of their rich historical content. About a quarter of the Bactrian documents are dated, but in an unknown era. One of the major achievements of the project has been to determine that the starting-point of this era was the foundation of the Sasanian dynasty in 223 C.E. In many cases, it is now possible to calculate the exact year, even the exact day, on which a document was written.

The successful completion of the project was marked by an international workshop hosted by the Ancient India and Iran Trust in Cambridge. The opening session, on Friday 25th January 2008, included presentations by the three members of the project team, as well as other distinguished scholars from the UK and abroad, and ended with a reception at which two new books were launched: the second volume of Bactrian documents from Northern Afghanistan by Nicholas Sims-Williams; and Arabic documents from Early Islamic Khurasan by Geoffrey Khan.

Bactrian Documents from Northern Afghanistan by Nicholas Sims-Williams is published in two volumes by The Nour Foundation in association with Azimuth Editions (Oxford 2000; London 2007). The first volume, hailed as a "philological and linguistic masterpiece" by Professor Helmut Humbach (in BSOAS 65, 2002, p. 418), contains legal and economic documents. The second volume contains letters and Buddhist texts.