It is often said that “history repeats itself.” The recent history of Afghanistan confirms that view.  The scheduled withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Afghanistan in 2014 recalls the withdrawal of Soviet military forces from that country in 1989.  The United States in 2001, like the Soviet Union in 1979, dispatched her Armed Forces to Afghanistan to defeat Islamic extremists.  The United States, like the Soviets before, then became engaged in a decade-long war against Islamic extremists, often fighting the same enemy—the Haqqani Network, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Pashtun tribesmen.  Now the United States, like the Soviets two decades earlier, is withdrawing forces from Afghanistan without having defeated the Islamic extremists militarily or politically.

But what of Afghanistan?  Both a pawn and a prize in the power politics of the Cold War and the post-Cold War world, she has been reduced to a wasteland inhabited by a traumatized population.  Lost is the remarkable history of this remarkable land.

Afghanistan has had a profound impact on world civilization disproportionate to the size of the country or her population.  And that history needs to be told.  Afghanistan has been central to the development and dissemination of three civilizations—Hellenistic, Buddhist, and Islamic.  Her influence still resonates with the latter two.

Afghanistan is a relatively “modern” country, having been established in 1747.  She is just 36 years older than the United States.  Her “birth” was a result of the unintended consequences of the 18th-century revolution in commerce through sea power.  For millennia, trade between Europe and Asia had been conducted by land routes collectively known as the Silk Road.  These stretched from China to the Mediterranean and converged in Afghanistan, where a trunk line went south into India.

Historically, various empires controlled parts of the Silk Road, which provided them with revenues for their coffers.  These revenues were collected as taxes on traveling merchants, and on the towns that sprung up along the way, which provided travelers with food, drink, clothing, shelter, supplies, and services.  These cities included Aleppo, Antioch, Damascus, Kermanshah, Ray, Nishapur, Merv, Bukhara, Samarkand, Herat, Kabul, Peshawar, Kashgar, Urumchi, and Liqian.  By the 1700’s, much of the Silk Road ran through three empires: China, India, and Persia.

The advent of modern sailing ships allowed for trade via the sea lanes—in greater volume, more frequently, in less time, and for less cost.  Soon, these sailing ships had a monopoly on trade between Europe and Asia.  As the economic importance of the Silk Road declined, revenues fell, undermining the strength and stability of India and Persia.  Those empires now had less money to support large armies to defend the integrity of imperial borders and buy the loyalty of tribal leaders in the frontier zones.  These factors, added to the assassination of the Persian king Nadir Shah, led to the demise of his empire and the explosion of the Pashtuns onto modern history in search of gold and glory.  They carved out their own empire—Afghanistan—from the eastern portions of the Persian Empire and the northwestern parts of the Indian Empire.  Some historians speculate that it could have been a rival to the Ottoman Empire, from which it was separated by Shia Persia, as a legitimate political authority for Sunni Muslims.  But within 140 years, internal dissension in Afghanistan, the reestablishment of Persian political and military power under the Zand dynasty, and the second Anglo-Afghan war (1878-80), reduced its territorial size, confining Afghanistan to her current borders.

But the people—the Pashtuns, in particular—predate Afghanistan.  They have been in the region between 2,000 and 3,000 years.  In 330 b.c., Alexander the Great wrote about them.  In a.d. 646, the Chinese traveler Hiven Tsiang wrote about them.  In a.d. 1330, the Muslim chronicler Ibn Battuta wrote about them.  They wrote of the Pashtuns’ fierce independence, martial valor, and unswerving loyalty to their code of honor, the Pasthunwali.

It is within these 1,600 years, between Alexander the Great and Ibn Battuta, that this land and this people would profoundly affect the course first of Hellenism, then of Buddhism, and finally of Islam.

In 334 b.c., Alexander the Great invaded the Persian Empire—at the time, the greatest empire the world had ever known.  He conquered it in six months.  It took him three years to pacify Afghanistan.  Alexander sought to create a world empire based on Hellenistic civilization—the civilization of Greek language, philosophy, arts, and sciences.  To achieve this he founded more than 70 cities, which he called Alexandrias, across his empire.  These were to be beacons of Hellenism throughout the land.  In Afghanistan, Alexander created five such cities.  They were Alexandria Arachosia (Kandahar), Alexandria Ariana (Heart), Alexandria in the Caucasus (Bagram), Alexandria on the Oxus (Ai-Khanoum), and Alexandria Prophthasia (Farah).

When Alexander died, his empire was divided among his generals.  Seleucus received the lion’s share, obtaining lands that are today Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan.  His dynasty, the Seleucid (312-64 b.c.), transported Greek colonists from the Aegean and settled them in Afghanistan.  They were to serve both as a physical barrier against nomadic invasions and as a demographic presence to advance Hellenism throughout the land.

By 256 b.c., the vast eastern region—with such ancient names as Aria, Arachosia, Bactria, Drangiana, Ferghana, Khwarzem, Margiana, Paropamisadae, Sogdiana, and Transoxiana—broke away from the Seleucid Empire.  Together, these lands constituted an independent state called the Kingdom of Greco-Bactria.  It was the easternmost extent of Hellenistic civilization.  And it achieved the highest levels of Hellenism, equal in grandeur to the Greek homeland.  Greco-Bactria thrived because of the revenues it derived from its control of those strategic parts of the Silk Road, which ran into China and India.

By the Silk Road, Greco-Bactria expanded the physical boundaries of Hellenistic civilization further, creating the separate Greco-Indian Kingdom.  From Tajikistan in Central Asia to the Deccan in central India, from eastern Iran to western China, the extent of Hellenistic civilization in the heart of Asia was approximately the size of Western Europe.

Of the successor states to Alexander the Great’s empire, the Greco-Bactrian and Greco-Indian kingdoms were the last Hellenistic states to fall.  Rome conquered the Greek homeland in 146 b.c.; the Seleucids, confined to Syria, in 65 b.c.; and Ptolemaic Egypt in 31 b.c..  Greco-Bactria fell to nomadic invaders, the Kushans, in 125 b.c..  But the Greco-Indian kingdoms, which were founded in 180 b.c., endured until a.d. 10.  The Kushans, in turn, became partly “Hellenized” and preserved a semi-Hellenistic state within the borders of the Greco-Bactrian and Greco-Indian kingdoms, until a.d. 230.

Greek and Indian, Hellene and Hindu, the Greco-Bactrian/Greco-Indian kingdoms lived cheek by jowl with India.  Trade in commodities and ideas flourished, including Buddhism, which originated in India.  When Buddhist monks or merchants wished to proselytize or trade with China, they had to travel the Silk Road, controlled by the Greeks.  Through such emissaries, the principles of Buddhism became familiar to the Greeks, who eventually adopted the religion.

When a people convert to a new religion, conversion is easier if they find something familiar in it.  For Greco-Bactrians, the teachings of Buddha on the physical and metaphysical nature of reality were similar to the teaching of famous Greek philosophies—the Cynics, Skeptics, Sophists, Stoics, Democritus, Pythagoras, and Pyrrhonism.

The Greeks then adapted Buddhism to Hellenistic traditions.  In India, Buddha was not portrayed in human form.  Rather, he was represented by a symbol—often the Dharmacakra, or wheel of life.  This is depicted as a stylized chariot wheel with varying number of spokes—8, 12, 24, or 31—each number representing a different aspect of Buddhist teaching.  The Greeks, however, had always represented their Olympian gods in human form, in statues and bas-reliefs.  They continued this practice when they converted to Buddhism; they “Hellenized” Buddha.  Their statues of the Buddha show a man tall and thin, with a full head of hair, and wearing fine vestments.  While representing the Buddha, the statue is of a typical Greco-Bactrian man.  The hairstyle and robes are distinctly of Greek origin and design.

In addition, Greek gods and heroes were incorporated into the “Hellenization” of Buddhism: Atlas; Boreas; the Wind God, Triton, son of the Sea God, Poseidon; Tyche, goddess of destiny; centaurs and cherubs.

In Buddhism, an important figure is Vajrapani, protector of the Buddha.  For the Greeks, this person evoked Herakles (Roman, Hercules) who was protector of Hera, queen of the gods and goddesses of Olympus.  Therefore, when Greco-Bactrians portrayed Vajrapani in human form, they crafted traditional sculptures of Herakles with lion skin and club, and called the figure Vajrapani.  Use of Herakles to symbolize Vajrapani was transmitted across Asia and can be seen in the muscular Nio guardians of Buddha in Japan.

This Greek interpretation of Buddhism was transmitted to and adopted by China, Korea, and Japan.  This “Hellenized” Buddhism, in turn, influenced the evolution of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese cultures.

Islam arrived in Afghanistan as a result of the Arab armies’ invasion and conquest of the Persian Empire in 644.  Afghanistan, the eastern portion of that empire, was not subjugated until 870, and the conversion of the population to the new religion was completed around 1000.

At that time, Islam had already divided between Sunni and Shia.  Originally, this schism was a political dispute over the question of the leadership of the Muslim community following the death of Muhammad.  The Sunnis asserted a candidate must be pious, with knowledge of the Koran, and elected by the community.  The Shi’ites insisted any candidate must also be a blood descendant of the Prophet.  But both emphasized the Koran as a clear, rational exposition of Allah’s law.  Many people, however, desired a more intimate and emotional connection with their deity.  This existed in Islam in the practices of a small group of mystics called Sufis.

Again, if a people find something familiar of their old religion in the new, it makes conversion easier.  The goal of Buddhism is Nirvana, complete annihilation of self and union with the cosmos.  The goal of Sufism is complete annihilation of self and union with Allah.

It is this expression of Islam that was embraced.  Afghanistan became a principle center of Sufi teaching and learning, enhancing the potency and popularity and legitimacy of Sufism in Islam, which influenced the further development and expansion of Islam.  Afghan Sufism facilitated the spread of Islam into India.

And there was a reverse flow of Sufism from Afghanistan into the heart of Islam in the Middle East.  In this process, it influenced the evolution of the cultures of Persians, Arabs, and Turks.  Sufi ideas were most frequently expressed through the medium of poetry, in Persian—which, though the lingua franca of the eastern portions of the Muslim empire, had been reduced to the purposes of administration and commerce.  Sufi use of Persian reestablished the Persian language as a literary language and source of some of the world’s greatest mystical poetry.  Sufism then took root in the Arab world.  Baghdad, capital of the Muslim empire, became a primary center of Sufi teaching and learning.  When the Ottoman Empire gained hegemony over the Middle East in the 16th century, Sufism became an integral part of Turkish culture and society.  In Ottoman times, Sufism was an important element in the spread of Islam to sub-Saharan Africa, the Balkans, and the Caucasus.  And Sufism transcended the Sunni-Shia schism.  There are Sunni Sufis as well as Shia Sufis.

All of this—the profound impact on the development and diffusion of Hellenistic, Buddhist, and Islamic civilizations; the dramatic influence, thereby, on the evolution of the Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Persian, Arabic, and Turkish cultures—all derived from Afghanistan.

Reading about the ongoing tragedy of Afghanistan, it is important to remember this is also a land and people that, for more than a millennium and a half, achieved intellectual glory, cultural grandeur, and the elevation of the human spirit.  May this “lost” history, and not the events of the recent past, be the foundation upon which the future of Afghanistan is built.