Archive | February 2017

Nota bene 


This, as I probably don’t need to tell you, is a banknote.

To be specific, it’s a 10-afghani banknote printed in 2004 (my thanks to Dr Amelia Dowler of the BM for that astonishingly precise piece of identification), and it’s been hanging about in my wallet since my last trip to Afghanistan in 2011.

What I hadn’t noticed in all that time, and only did notice when Roh Yakobi drew my attention to it last week, was the emblem in the top right corner, above the picture of the building (the mausoleum of Ahmad Shah Durrani, considered the founder of Afghanistan, in Kandahar). Here’s a close-up:

This is the seal of Da Afghanistan Bank, the central bank of Afghanistan established in 1939 (1318 in the Iranian/Afghan solar calendar). But alongside the name of the bank in Pashto, in Arabic script at the top and Latin script at the bottom, there’s a text in Ancient Greek, ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΜΕΓΑΛΟΥ ΕΥΚΡΑΤΙΔΟΥ, “Of the great king Eucratides.”

Eucratides was a Greek king of Bactria (roughly northern Afghanistan) in the second century BC (rough dates 170-145BC). What’s represented in the centre of the seal is in fact one of his coins. Here’s a silver tetradrachm of Eucratides with the same design:

@Rani nurmai

This blog is essentially my best attempt to answer a question that Roh Yakobi put to me, a very good question: what on earth is a two-millennia-old coin image of a Greek king doing on a modern Afghan banknote?

To start with the coin design, and Eucratides. The image on the bank note is the “reverse” of the coin. On the “obverse” is an image of the king himself, in a cavalry helmet and cloak, but on this side, surrounded by Eucratides’ name and titles, we see two galloping horsemen in conical hats, holding palms and long stabbing spears. Their equipment associates them with Macedonian military tactics (the Greek kings of Bactria were all inheritors directly or indirectly of Alexander conquests in the region) and the cavalry for which Bactria was famous. But the star over each of their heads identifies them as Castor and Pollux, the Dioscuri or divine sons of Zeus by Leda. The pair are saviour gods, helpers of humanity in crisis.

Eucratides, like all the Greek rulers in the borderlands of India, is a shadowy figure. He may have seized power in Bactria; certainly his reign seems to have been a very violent one, his campaigns potentially extending as far as N.-W. India, and his death may have come at the hands of his own son. Apollodorus of Artemita (at Strabo 15.1.3) calls him “ruler of a thousand cities”; one in particular we know was called Eucratidia, and it may be the same as the remarkable archaeological site of Ai Khanum in N.-E. Afghanistan. Then again, and this is the story with almost all the information we have about Eucratides, it may not.

In between fighting and founding/retitling cities, Eucratides minted some very innovative coins (which are the most tangible evidence we have about him): the description of himself as “Great” on this one is one such innovation, and almost certainly indicates that his grip on power was in reality highly vulnerable. “The coins of Eucratides I or Great, are very numerous, and of very spirited execution,” wrote Charles Masson, the nineteenth-century deserter-cum-antiquarian, as he fossicked around Begram, north of Kabul, the site of the great city of Kapisa/Alexandria ad Caucasum before it hosted an airbase. But the most famous example of Eucratides’ coinage is the so-called Eucratidion, at 169.2g. the largest gold coin surviving from Antiquity. This was bought in London by a French dealer in 1867 from a man who had carried it from Bukhara in a pouch secreted in his armpit. It is now housed in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.


Image from Gallica Digital Library.

A celebrated design, then, and quite a common archaeological find in Afghanistan. We still need to explain its presence on the note, but the first step is to establish why Da Afghanistan Bank, when it was founded in 1939, adopted this design. The answer offers a fascinating insight into Afghanistan’s perception of itself at that moment.

The establishment of an Afghan central bank was part of a bigger project to modernize Afghanistan under the Musahibun regime of Zahir Shah (king of Afghanistan from 1933 to 1973). Taking as its models European nations and “advanced” Islamic countries like Iran and Turkey, Afghanistan was giving itself the institutions of a developed state. Responding to the wave of nationalism in the world of the 1930s, in the words of Robert D. Crews in his excellent book Afghan Modern, “Afghans faced the test of demonstrating their right to belong in this world of nation states by articulating a national language, culture and past” (p.156). This could take the form of national financial institutions, and also of discriminatory policies against non-Muslims, especially Jews (dangerous notions of Aryan ancestry were also in the air). But a 2,000-year-old coin image, too, contradictory as it may seem, could symbolize progress in thirties Afghanistan.

The explanation of this lies in the archaeological work undertaken in Afghanistan in the previous two decades. Archaeology had properly begun in Afghanistan with the agreement between King Amanullah (another modernizer) and the French government in 1922 to establish the Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan (DAFA). By the late thirties, as Nile Green explains (“The Afghan discovery of Buddha: civilizational history and the nationalizing of Afghan antiquity,” International Journal of Middle  Eastern Studies 49 (2017), 47-70), the discoveries of French archaeologists at such sites as Begram and Hadda (of which the publications began to appear in numbers in the mid-thirties) were starting to secure the interest of the Afghan leadership. The National Museum of Afghanistan, which moved into its new premises in the administrative district of Darulaman in Kabul in 1931, was being turned, mainly by these French discoveries, into one of the richest collections in the world. In 1937, according to the French chargé d’affaires, “The excavations at Begram have been visited by several ministers … the king himself visited the exhibition mounted at the Kabul museum.”

We need to appreciate what a dramatic change this represented in Afghan attitudes to their past, an emphasis on pre-Islamic cultures, Buddhist as well as Greek, which superseded and sidelined Afghanistan’s Islamic heritage, hitherto the focus of Afghan historiography and national identity. This new emphasis was facilitated by the activities of DAFA, but it also represented Afghanistan’s attempt to align its own historical identity with what Green calls the “civilizational norms” of the developed world that it aspired to join. By highlighting its Greek heritage, Afghanistan could claim a share of the classical origins of Europe and the West. A state-owned bank represented civilization and modernity in the 1930s, but so did a coin with Greek writing on it.

Green’s article focuses on a key personality in these cultural developments, Ahmad Ali Kuhzad, an Afghan archaeologist who had worked with DAFA and subsequently in a series of Persian publications communicated the insights gained by the French into ancient Afghan history to the Afghan elite and beyond. I suspect Kuhzad was more directly involved in this design than I can now establish. There’s a Kuhzad publication from 1938/1317, Maskukat-i Qadim-i Afghanistan, Ancient Coins of Afghanistan, which I’m trying to get my hands on, but which I’m fairly confident will contain lots of images of Eucratides coins when I do.

So that’s how Eucratides made it onto the seal of the State Bank, and it tells us a lot about Afghan aspirations in the 1930s. But we still have to explain how he made it onto the notes.

That happened in 1979, but in this instance I suspect the Bactrian Greeks had a less to do with the development. Take a look at these four Afghan bank notes (images all from Banknote World), the first of Zahir Shah in 1967:


The second is of Daoud Khan (1977), Zahir Shah’s cousin, who deposed him in 1973 and established a republic:


The third is from 1978, and was printed by the communist government of Nur Muhammad Taraki and Hafizullah Amin, which had overthrown and killed Daoud:


Finally from 1979/80, and this is the first note to have Eucratides on it (although he has stayed there ever since), a note issued by the communist government of Babrak Karmal, installed by the Soviets after they had intervened and overthrown Amin:


Each of these notes has a “national” emblem on it. On Zahir Shah’s it’s a long-established symbol of Afghanistan, a mosque containing minbar (pulpit) and mihrab (the niche indicating the direction of Mecca). Daoud replaces that with an symbol for the Republic of Afghanistan, an eagle. But the image of Taraki’s regime is a big departure, retaining the corn sheaves that surround Zahir Shah’s and Daoud’s emblem, but containing within just the name of their faction of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, خلق (Khalq), meaning “People”. It is this image that is superseded by the seal of Da Afghanistan Bank when Karmal’s alternative faction of the Communist Party,  پرچم(Parcham, “Banner”), is installed by the Soviets.

The Taraki/Amin regime was exceptionally brutal (there is a moving article about its crimes by Nushin Arbabzadah here), and the radical and precipitate reforms it attempted to impose on Afghanistan provoked the uprising that turned into the ten-year resistance to the Soviet occupation. It was with the immediate aim of deposing Amin (who had in the meantime got rid of Taraki) that the Soviets stepped in at the end of 1979. All this meant that Karmal’s regime had every reason to distance itself from its fellow communists and from their uncompromisingly partisan approach, and I think this best explains their adoption of the seal of the Afghan central bank in place of the Khalq emblem, a gesture implying at the same time economic prudence (though all of these notes have the name of the bank prominently somewhere) and a national project more broadly-based than narrow factional interests.

But Eucratides also offered Parcham a non-Islamic motif. Zahir Shah’s mosque was of course overtly Islamic; Daoud’s republican eagle still had a minbar and mihrab represented on its chest. In the 1930s an Ancient Greek king had represented civilization and development. Here he represents secularism, I suspect, as well as the Afghan nation. It’s odd that a king’s name and a pair of saviour gods could do any such thing, of course, but what the Greco-Roman world can be used to endorse is endlessly surprising.

Very useful to me when writing this was a deleted BBC Persian article on Afghan banknotes that Roh Yakobi found: there’s a scan of it here. Most of the information I’ve discovered about Eucratides and his coinage I owe to Frank L. Holt’s book on Afghan numismatics, Lost World of the Golden King, another excellent read. He somewhat unsportingly points out toward the end of the book (p.209) that the Greek lettering on the banknote is slightly misspelt, replacing the delta in Eucratides’ name with a lamda: ΕΥΚΡΑΤΙΛΟΥ, not ΕΥΚΡΑΤΙΔΟΥ.

I am nevertheless even more attached to the Afghan banknote in my wallet after Roh’s revelation than I was before.

Talking to God


The emperor Domitian (r.) smites enemies & communes with the gods, from the temple of Khnum at Esna. Photo @ Olaf Tausch

A short blog, the fruit of my efforts to beat insomnia with night-time reading entirely unrelated to my work.

So I’ve been reading Graeme Wood on supporters of ISIS, and after that Penelope Wilson on hieroglyphs, rather different kinds of book but I recommend both. What caught my attention in each of them was a linguistic phenomenon I find intriguing, the impulse people can feel to take language, this practical tool we use to navigate around our world, and transmute it into something more exalted: a medium for addressing the divine.

I didn’t know until I read Wood’s book that Salafi Muslims cultivate an archaic style of spoken Arabic, a form of the language reflecting their desire to emulate the very earliest generations of Islam, al salaf al salih, the pious forefathers. Rejecting contemporary forms of Arabic brings them closer to the Prophet and the Quran, closer to God’s revelation. Wood describes having his colloquial Arabic corrected by an Egyptian Salafist (p.33):

Ahmad took me to lunch at a chicken restaurant where we ate well and he, over my objection, paid the bill out of his student stipend. He corrected my Arabic over and over, studiously transposing the street dialect that came most easily to me with the high register favored by Salafis. Chicken was not firakh, but dajaj. Any time I pronounced the letter jim with a hard g, in the Egyptian way, he corrected it to the more classical j as in “Juliet”: “Jamal,” not “Gamal,” was the name of the dead Egyptian strongman Nasser. The letter qaf, instead of vanishing without a trace as in normal Egyptian speech, had to be pronounced deep in the throat, where the soft palate meets the tongue: qalam [pen], not alam. My language was getting purer, word by word and bite by bite.

Qalam is the Greek word kalamos in fact, but never mind.

Still in Egypt, albeit a few centuries earlier, another thing I didn’t appreciate was how significant the “hiero-” (“sacred”) bit of “hieroglyphs” was. From Wilson (p.18) I learned that the Ancient Egyptian word for this pictorial writing was medu-netjer, meaning “words of god,” and that the primary function of hieroglyphic script was to enable communication between Egyptians and their gods. This wasn’t a different form of language, of course, so much as an esoteric way of representing that language (though if I understand rightly, hieroglyphs were also associated with an archaic and ossified form of the Egyptian language).

By way of illustration, Wilson memorably describes the different audiences targeted by the three texts on the Rosetta Stone (p.31):

Greek (for the ruling administration of the day), hieroglyphs (for the gods), and Demotic (for everyone else).

She also rather beautifully encourages us to imagine that the hieroglyphs accompanying images of human activity and speech covering tombs might become audible: “the tombs would be full of noise, and the chatter of hundreds of people” (p.46). Again, if I understand correctly, the things depicted are summoned into existence by being named in hieroglyphic form. The hieroglyphs secure from the gods an Afterlife for the dead person as rich as the life they have departed. For the dead, I suppose, the tomb with its images and hieroglyphs in effect is that wonderful new life.

I hope I’ve got that right, because a) I find it frankly and gloriously mind-blowing, and b) it’s the main motivation for this blog. And while the whole idea was to be reading stuff at bedtime that was unrelated to work, I couldn’t help thinking about Greco-Roman things, too.

If the Greeks and Romans had anything like hieroglyphics or Quranic Arabic, linguistic ways of communing with God, it might be the dactylic hexameter. This is a verse form, and as Paul Fussell wrote in his classic book on the matter, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, one of the essential effects of couching language in verse, making prose poetry, is to raise its register (p.12):

meter, by distinguishing rhythmic from ordinary statement, objectifies that statement and impels it toward a significant formality and even ritualism.

But if all metre is a “ritual frame”, as Fussell calls it, for the language it encloses, there are more and less elevated kinds of metre, and in antiquity the highest form of communication was that done in dactylic hexameters. That included conveying the utterances of the gods. In fact it was believed that the hexameter was invented by the Pythian priestess at Delphi (Pausanias 10.5.7), to be the vehicle for the oracles that the god Apollo shared with humanity.

A more familiar function of the hexameter, though, is as the medium for another kind of divine narrative, epic poetry. This is poetry describing, typically, a heroic world of superior humans, but represents divine speech in at least two ways. First, part of the greatness of the heroes of epic was the ease with which they communed with gods, who aided them and appeared and spoke to them. The epic world is one governed by the gods, and in Homer and Virgil and other epic poets we often see the gods discussing among themselves how events on earth should unfold. Secondly, though, this made the task of the epic poet a daunting one, since they needed inspiration sufficient to be able to relate the deeds and words of the very highest beings. Conventionally epic poets would claim that their poem was itself divine speech. “Tell me of the man of many wiles, Muse,” is how Homer’s Odyssey begins, and “Sing of the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, goddess,” the Iliad.

“Speeches of the gods” could even be shorthand for epic poetry. In Odes 3.3 Horace closely imitated the epic poet Quintus Ennius, Virgil’s great predecessor at Rome, and a speech that Ennius gave to Juno in a Council of the Gods in the first book of his epic poem Annales. At the end of his poem Horace admits that in formal terms he’s seriously broken the rules, putting this epic material in one of his own lyric poems:

Non hoc iocosae conveniet lyrae;

quo, Musa, tendis? Desine pervicax

referre sermones deorum et

magna modis tenuare parvis.


This will not suit the light-hearted lyre!

Where are you heading, Muse? Cease in your wilfulness

to report the speeches of gods and

diminish great matters in small measures!

Why? Because the only proper habitat for gods and their awe-inspiring utterances is the heroic measure, the hexameter.

More to my godless taste, I have to admit, is Juvenal’s take on this whole issue. In his fourth satire Juvenal lays into the emperor Domitian, describing the measures taken by the tyrant to get a huge turbot cooked. The poem is a parody of an epic (which doesn’t survive) by Statius on Domitian’s military exploits in Germany; like almost all Roman satire it is written, like epic, in hexameters, an outrageous act of misappropriation by satire which established it once and for all as epic’s disreputable twin.

At 34-6 Juvenal parodies the conventional epic evocation of the Muse, the plea for access to divine knowledge.

incipe, Calliope. licet et considere: non est

cantandum, res uera agitur. narrate, puellae

Pierides, prosit mihi uos dixisse puellas.


Begin, Calliope! And do please sit down: there’s no call

for singing, these are real events were dealing with. Tell the story, maidens

of Pieria, and may I profit from having called you maidens.

Brutal stuff, but that’s satire. He summons the Muse Calliope (the Muse of epic, the grandest of them all), then makes a nasty joke about the Muses’ sexual morality. I’m more interested in the first line and a half, because in them Juvenal carries out an expert demolition of this divine medium. Incipe, Calliope is authentically epic, but as he tells Calliope to stop taking it so seriously the verse form collapses, too. Some brilliantly shabby versification follows: non est is a useless, unemphatic cadence to the line, and res uera agitur deliberately obscures by elision another important structural element of the heroic hexameter, its central caesura.

A less technical way of putting it is that Juvenal starts line 34 in epic mode, as he should when a god is being addressed, but then collapses into all-too-human prose. I find the aspiration that we feel to speak the language of the gods fascinating, but I find Juvenal’s utter refusal to respect it most refreshing, too.