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Bactrian Gold Findings Show Ancient Greek Presence in Asia Predated Alexander

Scythian belt, bactrian gold ancient Greek
Bactrian gold discoveries in Asia reveal ancient Greek civilization marks that predate Alexander the Great’s conquests. Credit: No machine-readable source provided CC BY-SA 3.0 /  Wikimedia Commons

Ancient Greek gold findings in Central Asia provide concrete evidence of the existence of Greek civilization in the region. This predates the conquests of Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC.

Archaeological treasure from excavations of the Tillya Tepe Necropolis in modern day Afghanistan includes artifacts dating back to 1,600 years prior to the campaign of the great conqueror, Alexander the Great.

The discovery was made in 1978 by a team of archaeologists led by Victor Sarigiannides, a Russian of Pontic Greek descent.

What is referred to as Bactrian Gold is a collection of approximately 20,600 artifacts. Gold offerings, gold and silver coins, ornaments, medallions, exquisite jewelry, and a crown were discovered in six graves of five women and one man. These date back to between the first century BC and the first century AD.

Other than more obvious influences in the region, the particular findings had elements of Greek, Indian, and Chinese culture. Experts have compared the Tillya Tepe treasure and the findings therein to Tutankhamen’s tomb in terms of value.

Hellenism Prior to Alexander the Great

The renowned archaeologist Sarigiannides claimed that the ancient Greek gold findings indicate the influence of Hellenism in the area. According to his theory, there is evidence that connects the Oxus civilization with the Minoan-Mycenaean civilization.

At the same time, he theorized that Zoroastrianism first appeared in the region in palaces and altars accompanied by evidence of pyro-worship. During rituals, a narcotic substance made of opium, hemp, and ephedra was used.

Sarigiannides’ theory was further developed following the discovery of over two hundred settlements dating to the Bronze Age and early Iron Age in 1990. The largest was the capital city Gonur Tepe, founded at the end of the third millennium BC. The settlement survived until around 1600 BC.

Characteristic of the city was a central palace protected by fortified walls with rectangular towers. Outside these walls, on the eastern side, the earliest known fire temple was discovered. It predates Zoroaster by at least fifteen hundred years. Sacrificial temples had been set up along the southern and western parts of the walls.

Bactrian Gold
More than 20,000 artifacts of ancient Greek gold dating between 100 BC and 100 AD, including necklaces, belts, medallions, and even a crown. Credit: H Sinica / CC-BY-SA-2.0 / Wikimedia Commons

The Adventure of Bactrian Gold

In 1988, The National Museum of Afghanistan was forced to hide the famous Bactrian Gold of Tillya Tepe found in the north of Afghanistan and other valuable archaeological artifacts. Museum officials worried the items would be destroyed or looted, as the country was in the midst of a civil war.

These artifacts remained hidden throughout the war and survived the Taliban ransacking of the museum in 2001, when thousands of artifacts were destroyed. After the fundamentalists were ousted by the US-led military campaign, authorities found the Bactrian treasure still intact. In 2021, however, the Taliban took control of Kabul again, and the treasure is now missing.

Who was Victor Sarigiannides?

Victor Sarigiannides, the founder of the Greek gold treasure trove in Afghanistan, was born on September 23, 1929 in Tashkent—formerly the Soviet Union but now Uzbekistan—to Pontic Greek parents.

In 1952, he graduated from the Central Asian State University in Tashkent, and in 1961, he received a master’s degree in Near and Middle Eastern Archaeology from the Moscow Institute of Archaeology.

victor sarigiannides
Greek-Russian archaeologist Victor Sarigiannidis in the Margiana expedition. Credit: Wikipedia/hceebee CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Sarigiannides played an active role in archaeological excavations in Central Asia and Afghanistan. He and his team brought to light the Royal Necropolis of Tillya Tepe. The treasure trove in Tillya Tepe was considered the “discovery of the century.” The findings from the site were housed in the State Museum of Afghanistan.

Findings in the “golden tomb” proved the existence of cultural influences from various regions such as Greece, Iran, India, Egypt, China, and Siberia. For example, Aphrodite with wings and a dot on the forehead is one of the elements that spoke to a rather broad meeting of cultures in the area. Greeks, Indians, and locals alike worshipped winged deities.

The Hellenistic kingdom of Bactria, or Greco-Bactrian Kingdom as historians refer to it, flourished in the area for two centuries following the death of Alexander the Great. In the last thirty years of his life, Victor Sarigiannides made the largest archaeological excavations in the Karakum Desert in Turkmenistan.

There, he discovered the Margian Kingdom, which ruled at the end of the third millennium BC. It had, up until that time, been completely unknown to the international scientific world.

The Greek-Russian archaeologist introduced a new theory in terms of the formation of early Hellenistic culture in Central Asia and the existence of a culture identical to that of Bactria. This is also associated with the Minoan-Mycenaean culture.

Overall, Sarigiannidis contributed decisively to the emergence of elements of Greek culture in the wider Black Sea region and to the discovery of Greek roots in present-day Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. With his findings, Sarigiannides proved that Hellenism spread to the East and Central Asia 1,600 years prior to the campaign of Alexander the Great.

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