Bagram: The Lost City of Kapisa
It was the capital of the Kingdom of Kamboja, the site of a fabled city founded by Alexander, and one of the capitals of the great Kushana Emperor, Kanishka. In modern times, the ancient city of Kapisa slumbers under an American airbase in Bagram, Afghanistan. What secrets does it hold?
In 1833, Charles Masson arrived at what the Macedonians and Greeks once called ‘the edge of the known world’. A deserter from the British Indian Army, Masson had spent a few years hiding out and exploring North-West India, Afghanistan and Iran. Now here he was, gazing at the Topdara Stupa, just north of Kabul in Afghanistan.
Rising from the rugged landscape and built on a mountainous plateau, the stupa must have been an arresting sight. Masson described it as perhaps “the most complete and beautiful monument of the kind in this region”. He then proceeded to bore into it and left it partially gutted, till it was restored by an Afghan cultural heritage organisation in 2016.
Masson was in search of a mythical destination – Alexandria in the Caucasus, one of the fabled cities established by Alexander during his conquest of the East. He found it at Bagram, a stone’s throw from the Topdara Stupa, in July 1833.
Topdara Stupa is less than 20 km from the modern-day town of Bagram, currently an important American airbase, and before that, the site of a large Soviet Army base during their occupation of Afghanistan. But the history of Bagram goes back all the way back to the arrival of Alexander, in the 4th century BCE, and even before that, to the Kamboja Mahajanapada (‘great republic’ of Kamboja) of the 6th century BCE.
Bagram was originally the site of a city named Kapisa, the capital of the Kingdom of Kamboja, which was first mentioned in the works of an Indian scholar and grammarian Panini in the 5th century BCE. He refers to a famous wine made there, called ‘Kapisayana’, made from grapes known throughout the region.
Kamboja was one of the 16 Mahajanapadas (great kingdoms or great republics) of ancient India, which stretched all the way from Kamboja to Gandhara (in present-day Pakistan) to the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent. As Kamboja was a Mahajanapada of nomads it is very difficult to say much.
Alexander arrived in Kapisa, then an Achaemenid city, in 329 BCE, during his invasion of the region, which is today a part of Afghanistan. Unbeknownst to him, he founded a new city atop the ancient city of Kapisa, and he called it Alexandria in the Caucasus. The Macedonian army arrived here while they were in hot pursuit of the last claimant to the Achaemenid throne, Artaxerxes V Bessus. They made an unexpected detour into the Gandhara region, another Mahajanapada, and reached the ‘Valley of Cophen’ (Kabul Valley).
This region was at the crossroads of important trade routes and, to a conqueror like Alexander, was of vital significance as it gave him access to new lands. To the east lay India, to the north-west across the Hindu Kush Mountains was Bactria, and to the north-east through the Panjshir Valley was Drapasca (a key satrapy of the Achaemenid state). Alexander needed a strong base here to ensure the smooth flow of men and goods. So he added 3,000 Macedonians to the 4,000 local inhabitants and, on the site of the Achaemenid city of Kapisa, he established the city of Alexandria in the Caucasus.
The city remained a very important Greek settlement for the next 300 years. Hiuen Tsang, who passed through almost 1,000 years after Alexander, mentions the city built by the Macedonians. He also mentions the snow-clad mountains which the Greeks called the ‘Caucasus’ (In Classical times, the Hindu Kush Mountains were called the ‘Caucasus’, but different from the Caucasus Mountains between Europe and Asia).
The Greeks identified the mountains as a place where in a cave Prometheus, the Titan, and a God of Fire, was chained for all eternity. Eratosthenes of Cyrene (275 – 192 BCE), a well-known Greek author and scientist of his time, writes that Alexander’s men even identified a cave as the exact location. The Greeks under Alexander were probably influenced by a local Achaemenid legend that these mountains were ‘higher than an eagle flies’, the eagle being Simurgh, the protector of Prometheus.
The legend became so popular that three centuries later, Pompey the Great (1st century BCE) a Roman general is supposed to have visited the Caucasus in search of the mountain. The story acquired so much mileage that Hiuen Tsang refers to Kapisa and the Cave of the Eagle – a cave where an eagle had once conversed with a mountain (the Caucasus peak overlooking Kapisa) that wanted to be the tallest in the world.
According to historians, Alexander had made it clear that Alexandria in the Caucasus was to be the capital of the Paropamisadae (the Greek name for the Achaemenid satrapy of Parupraesanna, also often used as a name for the people of the province), and references subsequently in the Milindapanha (a Buddhist text that details a series of questions asked by the Indo-Greek King Menander/Milinda to the Buddhist sage Nagasena in the 2nd century BCE), suggest that it existed in the 2nd century BCE.
W W Tarn, one of the greatest Bactrian-Greek historians, says the city was called ‘Alexandria-Kapisane’ and it was situated on one of the great crossroads of the era – it was the gateway to India and the capital of the Paropamisadae. The patron deity was originally the Elephant God, who was replaced with Zeus with the coming of the Macedonians. Zeus is seen on the coins of the Bactrian-Greek King Eucratides (171-145 BCE).
After Alexander, Kapisa became a part of the Seleucid Empire and was not ceded to Chandragupta Maurya (reigned c. 321-297 BCE) by Seleucus Nicator. Emperor Ashoka (r. 269 – 232 BCE), grandson of Chandragupta, finally extended his rule here. Early in his reign, Ashoka refers to this land as a neighbouring province and only later includes the Paropamisadae as a part of his dominions.
We don’t know what happened after Ashoka but in the early 2nd century BCE, the region became part of the Bactrian-Greek kingdom and was definitely a part of the kingdom of Demetrius the First (200-180 BCE). Demetrius, who styled himself as the ‘Second Alexander’, was a mighty king and a patron of Buddhism and is known in Buddhist texts as ‘Dhammamita’.
In the image above, showing Zeus of Kapisa, the three-headed Hecate, a Greek goddess, in the outstretched right hand of Zeus is, according to W W Tarn, ‘Hecate of the 3 directions’. Tarn believes she personifies the city of Alexandria-Kapisa, which lies on a three-way crossroads. Renowned linguist Janos Harmatta, who has been working with Greek and Parthian linguistics, believes the image of the City-Deity of Kapisa is the ultimate amalgam of Persian, Greek and Indian religious traditions and is the result of parallel cults coming together syncretistically to establish themselves and continue into the Kushana period (2nd century BCE to 1st century CE).
Alexandria-Kapisa was a capital city of the Indo-Greek kings of South Asia. It is supposed to be the birthplace of Menander I Soter (2nd century BCE), protagonist of the Milindapanha and who ruled one of the largest Indo-Greek kingdoms and whose territories extended as far away as eastern Punjab.
During Menander’s time, Alexandria-Kapisa was a thriving centre of Buddhism and it is from here that the great Greaco-Buddhist monk, Yona Mahadhammarakkhita, led 30,000 monks to the city of Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka for the foundation ceremony of the Ruwanwelisaya Maha Stupa built by King Dutugamini over the Ramagrama relics of the Buddha in the mid-2nd century BCE.
Archaeological excavations at Bagram have revealed a lot of corroborating evidence in the form of Greek and Greek-origin artifacts, which include some of the most beautiful examples of Greek glass found in South Asia. These are now on display in Musee Guimet in Paris. The Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan (the French archaeological delegation, which carried out numerous archaeological excavations in Afghanistan in 1936-1940) had excavated a number of sites in the Kabul Valley, and Bagram was one of them. The site has also revealed a fantastic hoard of ivories known as the Bagram Ivories.
These are ivory panels which were perhaps a part of wooden boxes or a throne/chair, and were the external cladding of these wooden items. The hoard is also the source of some exquisite ivory statuettes, reminiscent of Pompeii Lakshmi, which is believed to be of Gandharan origin as seen from the Kharosthi ‘la’ inscribed on its base. Perhaps the figurine originated in Bagram.
The ivory panels have exquisite images of Buddhist toranas, Shalabhanjikas (semi-divine nymphs of the trees), donor couples, and scenes that seem to have been transferred directly from the Great Stupa at Sanchi. A number of Chinese lacquer-ware bowls were also found as were fragments of furniture.
After the Indo-Greeks, Kapisa became a part of the Kushana Empire (60 CE – 230 CE) and was for some time one of the capitals of Emperor Kanishka (128-150 CE) in the 2nd century CE. The Kushanas or Yuezhi gradually moved into Gandhara through the lands of the Shakas and finally displaced the last of the Indo-Greeks and established twin capitals, at Pushkalavati (now Peshawar in Pakistan) and Kapisa (Bagram in Afghanistan).
It is from these capitals that, after consolidating power under Wema Kadphises, that his son Kanishka expanded the Kushana Empire into Northern and Central India, finally creating a new capital at Mathura (in Uttar Pradesh). Bagram flourished under the Kushanas. It was to Kapisa that Kanishka supposedly brought his royal hostages after conquering Yarkhand and Khotan in Central Asia.
In 225 CE, after the death of Emperor Vasudeva, the Kushana Empire split into two – the Eastern and Western – and Bagram became part of the Western Kushana Empire. During the next 200 years, the region was controlled by at least three political entities, which impacted Kapisa in many different ways.
In 224 CE, Ardashir V of the Kingdom of Pars (present-day area of the province of Fars in Iran), the last descendants of the Achaemenid kings of ancient Persia, threw off the yoke of the weak Parthian monarch, Artabanus IV in the Battle of Hormozdgan. He crowned himself Emperor Ardashir I of the Sassanian Dynasty that he founded and set out to consolidate his empire.
The Western Kushanas soon became tributaries of the Sassanians, and as governors had trade relations with the Gupta Empire in neighbouring India.
In the later part of the 3rd century CE, the Kushanshahs under Hormizd (274-293 CE) broke away from the Sassanid Empire and created their own state, with Hormizd at the helm. This dynasty was known as the Kushano-Sassanian Dynasty. It resulted in a very interesting Kushano-Sassanian synchronicity, especially with Hormizd imitating the Kushana coins with an image of Oesho (the Kushana name of the Indian deity Shiva) on the reverse.
In 365 CE, the last of the Kushanshahs was defeated by Kidara I of the Kidarites, who were in all probability the Red Huns. Kidara I then took on the title of ‘Kushahshah’. The Kidarites were finally destroyed by a combination of the Sassanians and the Hephthalites or White Huns.
Next, Kapisa was the capital of the Hindu Shahi kings of the Kabul Valley. They had ruled from here from the 4th century CE to 794 CE, after which they moved their capital to Kabul, till 870 CE. Historian and archaeologist V A Smith calls the Early Shahis a “cadet branch of the Kushanas”. Their rule saw the first invasions by Arab armies in the late 7th century CE.
In 870 CE, the Early Shahis, who appear to have been staunch Buddhists, were replaced by the Hindu Shahi Dynasty founded by the Brahmin Vazir of the last Early Shahi king. Kapisa now slowly receded in importance and became a small town. It became a part of the Hindu Shahi Dynasty, and in 1026 CE, this dynasty was finally conquered by the Safavid Dynasty of Persia.
Bagram, which merely means a ‘settlement’, then became a nondescript place. The Ghaznavids, Ghurids, Khwarazamshahs and the Qarlughids all ruled over the Kabul Valley in succession. It was subsequently a part of the Delhi Sultanate of Northern India during the Khalji period (1290-1320 CE). It then fell to Timur Lang, the Chagatai Turco-Mongol founder of the Timurid Empire (1370-1405 CE).
In 1504 CE, the entire Kabul Valley fell to the Mongols under Babur, who went on to found the Mughal Empire in India in 1526 CE. Babur loved the Kabul Valley and is, in fact, buried here. Kabul continued to be a very important subah or province of the Mughal Empire, and Abu’l Fazal calls it “one of the two gateways to Hindustan”. Finally, in 1747 CE, Kabul became the capital of Afghanistan.
Bagram returned to the spotlight only when an airport was built here in the 1950s. The airport was enlarged in the 1980s during the Soviet foray into Afghanistan. It was secured in 2001 during the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and continues to be the largest airbase of the US forces in Afghanistan.
Sadly, the airport and its adjoining complex sit squarely on top of the ancient city of Alexandria-Kapisa and it is no longer possible to carry out any further investigations.