Boundary of the Kushan empire, c. 150
The Kushan Empire (c. 1st- 3rd centuries) was a state that at its height, about 105 - 250, stretched from Tajikistan to the Caspian Sea to Afghanistan and down into the Ganges river valley. The empire was created by Tocharians from modern Xinjiang, China. They had diplomatic contacts with Rome, Sassanian Persia and China, and for several centuries were at the center of exchange between the East and the West.
The name Kushan derives from the Chinese term, traditionally transliterated Guishang, that described a branch of the Yuezhi: a loose confederation of Indo-European peoples speaking versions of the Tocharian language. They were the easternmost Indo-Europeans, who had been living in the arid grasslands of the Tarim Basin in modern-day Xinjiang, until they were driven west by the Xiongnu in 176-160 BCE.
The Yuezhi reached the Hellenic kingdom of Greco-Bactria, in the Bactrian territory (northernmost Afghanistan and Uzbekistan) around 135 BCE, and displaced the Greek dynasties there, who resettled in Indus basin (in present day Pakistan) in the western part of the Indo-Greek Kingdom.
A multi-cultural Empire
In the following century, charismatic leaders welded the group into a tight confederation. Gradually wresting control of the area from the Scythian tribes, the Yuezhi expanded south into the region traditionally known as Gandhara (An area lying primarily in Pakistan's Pothowar, and NWFP region but going in an arc to include Kabul valley and part of Qandahar in Afghanistan) and established twin capitals near present-day Kabul and Peshawar then known as Kapisa and Pushklavati respectively.
The Kushans adopted many elements of the Hellenistic culture of Bactria, where they had settled. They adapted the Greek alphabet to suit their own language and soon began minting coinage on the Greek model.
Silver tetradrachm of Kushan king Heraios (1
CE) in Greco-Bactrian style, with horseman crowned by the Greek goddess of victory Nike.
Greek legend: TVPANNOVOTOΣ HΛOV - ΣΛNΛB - KOÞÞANOY "The Tyrant Heraios, Sanav, of the Kushans".
Heraios was probably the first of the Kushan kings. He may have been an ally of the Greeks, and he shared the same style of coinage. Heraios was probably the father of Kujula Kadphises.
At the beginning of the 1st century, during the reign of Kujula Kadphises, the Kushans suffered a strong setback, as a large part of their empire was invaded by the Parthians. The Parthian leader Gondophares established an Indo-Parthian Kingdom that was to last until the end of the century. By around 75, however, the Kushans had regained most of their territory.
Gold coin of Kushan emperor Kanishka I
) with a Hellenistic representation of the Buddha
(except for the feet spread apart, Kushan style), and the word "Boddo" in Greek script
The rule of Kanishka I, the third Kushan emperor, who flourished for at least 28 years from c. 127, was administered from two capitals: Purushapura (now Peshawar in northern Pakistan) and Mathura, in northern India. The Kushans also had a summer capital in Bagram, where the "Begram Treasure", comprising works of art from Greece to China, has been found.
The rule of the Kushans linked the seagoing trade of the Indian Ocean with the commerce of the Silk Road through the long-civilized Indus Valley. At the height of the dynasty, the Kushans loosely oversaw a territory that extended to the Aral Sea through present-day Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan into northern India.
The loose unity and comparative peace of such a vast expanse encouraged long-distance trade, brought Chinese silks to Rome, and created strings of flourishing urban centers.
Cultural exchanges also flourished, encouraging the development of Greco-Buddhism, a fusion of hellenist and Buddhist cultural elements, that was to expand into central and northern Asia as Mahayana Buddhism. Kanishka is renowed in Buddhist tradition for having convened a great Buddhist council in Kashmir. This council is attributed with having marked the official beginning of the pantheistic Mahayana Buddhism and its scission with Nikaya Buddhism. Kanishka also had the original Gandhari vernacular, or Prakrit, Mahayana Buddhist texts translated into the high literary language of Sanskrit. Along with the Indian king Ashoka, the Indo-Greek king Menander I (Milinda), and Harsha Vardhana, Kanishka is considered by Buddhism as one of its greatest benefactors.
The art and culture of Gandhara, at the crossroads of the Kushan hegemony, are the best known expressions of Kushan influences to Westerners.
Contacts with China
In the middle of the 2nd century, the Kushan empire under king Kanishka expanded into Central Asia and went as far as taking control of Kashgar, Khotan and Yarkand, which were Chinese dependencies in the Tarim Basin, modern Xinjiang.
As a consequence, cultural exhanges greatly increased, and Central-Asian Buddhist missionaries became active shortly after in the Chinese capital cities of Loyang and sometimes Nanjing, where they particularly distinguished themselves by their translation work. They were the first promoters of Hinayana and Mahayana scriptures in China, greatly contributing to the Silk Road transmission of Buddhism.
From the 3rd century the Kushan empire began to fragment.
Around 225 Vasudeva I died and the Kushan empire was divided into western and eastern halves. Around 224-240, the Sasanians invaded Bactria and Northern India. Around 270, the Kushans lost their territories on the Gangetic plain.
Remants of the Kushan empire were ultimately wiped out in the 5th century by the invasions of the White Huns, and later the expansion of Islam.
Main Kushan rulers
- Pre-Islamic period of Afghanistan
- Greco-Bactrian Kingdom
- Indo-Greek Kingdom
- Indo-Parthian Kingdom
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- Sarianidi, Victor. 1985. The Golden Hoard of Bactria: From the Tillya-tepe Excavations in Northern Afghanistan. Harry N. Abrams, New York.
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- Watson, Burton. Trans. 1961. Records of the Grand Historian of China: Translated from the Shih chi of Ssu-ma Ch'ien. Chapter 123: The Account of Ta-yüan, p. 265. Columbia University Press.
There is also an unrelated Kushan Empire in the PC game series "Homeworld."