Settlements > Ay-Khanum



Alexander III the Great was a powerful conqueror whose vast empire spread from Greece all through central Asia. Circa 329-327 B.C., he conquered an area on a plain in northern Afghanistan near Tajikistan between the Amu-Darya and Kokcha rivers. On this virgin soil, a city of wealth was built called Ay-Khanum.

It is a fantastic example of a Graeco-Bactrian city during the Hellenistic era and syncretism of multiple cultures. The city was short-lived as it was deserted by 146 B.C, which was possibly due to circumstances that included the death of King Eucratides, who was thought to have been the last ruler of Ay Khanum, and the arrival and invasion of the Yüeh-chih tribes.

After the abandonment of the Greek settlement, Ay Khanum was virtually forgotten about until it was discovered in 1961 by the Afghan king, Mohammad Zaher Chach, who found it while out on a hunting trip. Excavation began three years later in 1964 by a French team, which was led by Paul Bernard. The dig ended in 1978 due to tensions caused by the Taliban that made excavation impossible to continue.

Ay Khanum Origins

City Layout

The set up of the city is very interesting. It was built on never before occupied land in an area that had great natural borders, which the city designers used to their advantage. They did this by extending the borders of the city in a triangular fashion to the Oxus River, the Kokcha River, and a natural hill that measured to about 60m high. In all, the city is 2km x 1.5km.

The entirety of the city, like most Greek cities during the Hellenistic era, was surrounded by a large wall that was made of unbaked bricks. The part of the city that lacked natural defenses, in the northern tip of the lower town, was secured by a wall that was 7m thick with large rectangular towers that measured 19m x 11m. This was where defensive actions would ideally be enacted.

The interior of the town was separated into two different sections: an acropolis formed on top of the hill and a lower town. On the southeast side of the acropolis, there was a citadel that provided a place to secure the citizens in case of an attack—it was likely used as a last resort. At the foot of the acropolis is an arsenal that is at the edge of the main street. It is relatively large, measuring 140m x 110m.

Most of the buildings were located in the lower town and they were built in the Greek style. This was likely due to the easy accessibility of water from the canals built on the plain and that it was not as windy below the hill. The lower town may have had a main road, but it did not adhere to a traditional Hellenistic grid, which was most likely due to the palace that was the center of Ay Khanum because it is thought that it was a royal city.

The palace was the main feature in Ay Khanum spanning 350m x 250m and taking over the whole southern section of the lower town. To make room for the palace and to keep the other buildings from being too close to one another, the main road was redirected so that it would be separated from the lower town. It was on a raised piece of land near the bottom of the acropolis.

There were some rare parallel streets in the lower town where some residential mansions were located in the southwestern corner near the meeting of the Oxus and Kokcha Rivers. These mansions all had courtyards and gardens. In the center of the lower city, there lays a shrine called the Heroon of Kineas that was likely dedicated to the founder of Ay Khanum.

Hellenistic Architecture

The architecture in Ay Khanum is a good example of Graeco-Bactrian syncretism; when Greek culture mixes with central Asian culture. The palace is one of the best examples to look at for Graeco-Bactrian architecture. The walls of the palace are made of unbaked brick, like the wall surrounding the city. The roofs on some of the palace buildings are flat, in the fashion of oriental buildings and are made from earthly material.

The roofs are slightly different on the main buildings; they have a Greek influence because there are Greek-style tiles bordering the roof for decoration. The three main Greek influences are Ionic, Doric, and Corinthian, as shown through the columns in the palace. A specific example of this are the stone Corinthian columns located in the courtyard on the north end of the palace.

There are also more columns behind the southern portico where there is a vestibule with eighteen Corinthian columns that are three rows deep. In the west courtyard in the palace, there are examples of Doric columns where there are four porticos with sixty of these columns. Décor also included terracotta antefixes and Greek palmette for lining the roofs. In all, the palace structure is mainly influenced by Iranian and central Asian cultures other than the decorations that were directed influenced by the Greeks.


Temples are another architecturally significant feature of syncretism at Ay Khanum. Three different temples were found at the site and none of them were influenced by the Greek style. Inside the temples, there are step podiums, which are common in Iranian and Central Asian sanctuaries of the Achaemenid period. On the inside these places of worship are walls that are enhanced with indented recesses. The overall shape of the temples also suggest syncretism of religions—possibly the mixture of local cults and the Greek religion.

One of the main temples is found on the main street. It is extremely large with its size being approximately 20m x 20m, raised on a three-stepped base. On one of the entrances of the temples, there is a cult picture that shows obvious cultural syncretism in religion. There was also a sanctuary uncovered at the southwestern end of the acropolis that showed no evidence of Greek influence at all. This may have been a place of worship for locals who were not Greek that worshipped the forces of nature.

Social Structures

Gymnasiums and theatres were also found at the site, which follows Greek tradition at the time. Greeks had these institutions as a part of their education that focused on both the intellectual and physical well-being. The gym was built in the traditional Greek manor; it is a large courtyard surrounded by porticos and various buildings. Inside one of the gymnasium, there is a statue of the Greek deity Hermes, who is the god of traders and speakers of athletes.

The theatre that was uncovered was also built in the traditional Greek fashion. It is in the shape of a semi-circle with a radius of 42m and a height of 7m. This theatre has a seating capacity of approximately 5,000 people and also has royal box seating that is halfway up the tiers.

It is likely that Greek plays were played at this theatre due to an engraving that showed the traditional comic mask of the slave cook that is carved on the Oxus fountain. This was the one anomaly in the theatre that separated it from Greek tradition. Typically, Greeks tried to maintain an equal and democratic society, whereas this demonstrated a strong hierarchy with social classes.


Another unique architectural feature to look at is the mausoleums that are located outside the walls of Ay Khanum and within them. At Ay Khanum, the dead were buried outside of the city walls in mausoleums. These buildings were made up for each family with multiple vaulted chambers that were on either side of a central passage. Like most of the building in Ay Khanum, the mausoleums are made up of unbaked bricks. These structures are rectangular-shaped and half submerged in the ground. The mausoleums were built in the Greek fashion and what makes them so interesting is that they are the first to be found in Central Asia.

Mausoleums were not meant to be built within the city, but there are two that are located within the city walls. They are smaller versions of the mausoleums found outside of Ay Khanum. They were found near the entrance to the palace, which indicates their importance. It is thought that they are honorary burials because only honorary burials were allowed to be placed within city walls.


During the excavation, before the war in Afghanistan, there was an abundance of artifacts found. One of the main things found was various types of coins. Some coins that were uncovered showed signs of syncretism. On coins that are of Amyntas and Hermaeus, Indo-Greek king Hermaios is represented as Zuess-Mithra and is wearing a Persian cap.

He is also surrounded by a ray of light. Zeus is one of the most important Greek deities, and showing him with a Persian cap on his head is a definite sign that there were various cultural influences. Another example of syncretism in Ay Khanum as found on coins was found on a copper coin of Menander. On the coin, there is a picture of a wheel, which is the universal sign of kingship in India.

Another type of coin that was found was the coins of Euthydemus that were uncovered in what is likely a temple. Then, there are coins that were found in the palace treasury that imply that there was trade with northwestern India and Bactria. Trade is evident because the coins are Indian coins with punch marks and Indo-Greek drachms of Agathocles.

Another common artifact was pottery of sorts. There are about thirty vases found that are inscribed with financial records. There were also hundreds of thousands of pot sherds, which are broken pottery fragments, and among them was a stamped handle of an amphora. Pot sherds from black glazed pottery were also found that has origin from the west, indicating trading with the west as well—this is likely due to the fact that Greece is in the west. Some pot sherds that were found have writing inscribed on them that are supposed to form sentences but they are all broken up before one can be completed.

An interesting and very important find was found in the treasury at Ay Khanum. It is a large brick (53cm x 49cm x 9cm) that is stamped with a Greek monogram and a Brahmi character, Jha. Jha is found in the Asokan Edicts thirteen times. It is odd that Jha appears on this brick with the Greek monogram because Bactria was not part of the Asokan Empire.

A theory for why it appears on the brick is that Indian craftsmen may have contributed to the construction of the palace at Ay Khanum. The brick is also important because it is inscribed with information that could explain a few things about the end of the city itself. It says “year 24,” which is the known end of Eucratides reign. This may imply things about his reign but it never actually mentions Eucratides himself.

Papyrus Scrolls

On September 18, 1977, another thought-provoking artifact was found in room 107 of the palace treasury. Located in this room was a fragment of a philosophical treatise, or at least the remains of the fragment. The original ink text was written on papyrus that was 19cm x 6.6cm.

Now, all that is left of it is a few fibers and the ink that transferred into the earthen wall. On the papyrus were some columns with twenty-eight lines. There is no exact date on the papyrus, but it does mention third to mid century B.C. Here is an excerpt of Column three:

After the treatise was translated, it could be concluded that the identification of the speakers is unknown and that the people involved are talking as equals in a dialogue.

Some other artifacts found at Ay Khanum were artistic items made from the development of skilled portraiture. It can be seen on a range of items from coin engravings to terra-cotta statue busts. All kinds of portrait-type objects were created for different purposes that were utilitarian, decorative, or votive. Retrieved were some terra-cotta statues of local deities, bone statuettes of nude goddesses, and a gilded silver plaque that depicts a scene with the Greek goddess Cybele.


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