Aï Khanoum, 1968-1973

One archaeological milestone this year is the centenary of the founding of the Délégation archéologique française en Afghanistan (DAFA) in 1922. Their century of research has included investigations at Aï Khanoum, a Hellenistic city on the banks of the Oxus River in northern Afghanistan. Its (later) name means ‘Lady Moon’, after an Uzbek princess said to have lived on the acropolis. It was not until the 1960s that the site’s true nature was revealed, and, like its name, royalty forms part of the story.

In 1961, King Zahir Shah was on a hunting trip in the area when Aï Khanoum villagers showed him a carved stone. He informed Daniel Schlumberger, then director of DAFA, who saw that this piece was a Corinthian capital. And so, in 1964, Schlumberger came to lead the first excavations at the site, which would confirm this was a Greek royal city.

Aï Khanoum is thought to have been founded around 300 BC as part of Greek and Macedonian efforts to colonise the region of Bactria. Once part of the Persian Empire, the region would become an independent Graeco-Bactrian state around 250 BC. Though a Hellenistic city, there were innovations in Aï Khanoum’s architecture. Known as the ‘temple with niches’, the main temple – seen here on the left during excavations led by Paul Bernard – did not follow the familiar Greek models. As well as the external niches visible on this shading wall, it had a flat roof and a floorplan more indebted to architecture from central Asia and Mesopotamia than that of the Greek world.

The 1968 photograph on the right is of the portico of the palace’s great courtyard. This too had a flat roof, adorned with many Grecian antefixes with vegetal designs. The large column bases and capitals show Greek influence, but the layout of the complex – with groupings of courtyards and buildings according to function – owes much to the Persian palaces of the Achaemenids, such as at Susa.

Around 145 BC, the palace was burned and the treasury plundered by nomads, marking the end of the Greek city.

Images: © MNAAG, Paris, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image musée Guimet.
DAFA’s work is explored in the exhibition Afghanistan: shadows and legends, at the Musée national des arts asiatiques – Guimet, Paris, from 26 October to 6 February 2023 (www.guimet.fr).