Friday, August 8, 2008
The European Face of Afghanistan
Samsheen’s friends clearly relish the opportunity to harass him about his European countenance. I noticed him immediately when he was standing with a group of Afghans whose features otherwise corresponded with my expectation of the typical Afghan visage: slim, elongated faces with stark noses, brown skin and dark eyes framed by black hair. But Samsheen is fair, with light green eyes. He’s even balding. Surely, I thought, this guy must be a distant relative of mine. His Afghan friends were thinking the same, as they pushed Samsheen over to me exclaiming “Look! He is European face! He does not look like Afghan.”
If you look survey the Afghan population, you will notice in a minority of the people what geneticists call the phenotypic expression of Western genes: light skin, pale eyes, occasionally red hair. These features may have entered the Afghan population when the Greeks, under Alexander the Great, marched across Afghanistan and then left Westerners in south Asia to administer the new territories. Alexander’s Hellenistic empire eventually fragmented, but the Greeks already settled in the far eastern province of Bactria, in present-day northern Afghanistan, maintained their culture and influence – and their European physical features. Archaeologists have long speculated that the spectacular ancient city of Balkh in northern Afghanistan was a Greek stronghold and a center of Hellenistic culture on the eastern frontier of Alexander’s empire. Excavations as Balkh have never uncovered conclusive evidence that the city once was a thriving, transplanted Greek city; but the French in 1963 found the lost metropolis of Ai Khanum in northeastern Afghanistan, and its ruins contain traditional Greek structures such as a gymnasium, theatre and a temple to Zeus.
Archaeologists studying Ai Khanum determined that the city perished in flames in the second century B.C. Further study of the site ended abruptly in 2000 when the ruling Taliban reburied the site with bulldozers, perhaps as a practical exercise in the exorcism of history and the non-Islamic foundations of Afghanistan shortly before they blasted the enormous, fabulous and irreplaceable Buddha statues carved into a sheer cliff wall in Bamiyan. But the Taliban were only the latest of a seemingly endless procession of fanatics hell-bent on pillaging Afghanistan and displacing its people. Ai Khanum probably fell to invading Scythians from middle Asia who swept south and west into territories ruled by Greeks and Persians.
The Greeks who presided over Bactria for a few centuries most likely had NOT invited the indigenous peoples into the local baths and Hellenistic festivals the ruling Greeks had replicated on the eastern Asian frontier; so when the Scythians came marauding from the north, the locals provided scant cover for their rulers, and many scholars believe the Greek population of Bactria literally took to the hills. Academics surmise the Greeks quickly scattered and hid among the population of the rugged Hindu Kush mountains and its myriad hidden valleys, evading the invading hordes further north and mixing into the indigenous population as if they had always belonged. It must have been carpet-bagging on a grand scale, as if every aspiring politician in the US suddenly moved into New York State seeking acceptance and eventual office.
Until the late 1800s, most people in northeastern Afghanistan adhered not to the Islam that infatuates the rest of the country, but to polytheistic religion practices very similar to those of the ancient Greeks. (Most Afghans, until fairly recently, referred to the area as Kafiristan, or The Land of Infidels.) When scholars considered that fact, along with the existence of entire villages of light-eyed, tow-headed residents in the area, they concluded that the fair-featured Afghans of today are descendents of the invaders who marched with Alexander, or the Greek Bactrians who ruled in northern Afghanistan afterward. Linguists might argue that the tribal language of the area has a foundation that predates the Indo-Aryan tongues that dominated the region, thus pegging the people as possibly the original inhabitants of the area: Not transplanted Greeks, but inhabitants of the area for time immemorial, and a people who never bothered to join their neighbors in the pre-historic migrations to Europe. But today the popular belief among educated Afghans is that the flaxen-haired among them are the progeny of Alexander and his followers.
Samsheen himself has no idea where his family tree is rooted. He told me he is from Kabul, not northeastern Afghanistan, and that most men in his family look like him. He seemed a bit uncomfortable with the attention I paid to his physical features, but he did smile when I informed him that we might be distant cousins, and that his male-pattern balding in the West would be considered a sign of intelligence and virility.