History of Civilizations of Central Asia, Vol II, The development of sedentary and nomadic civilizations: 700BC to AD250 edited by Janos Harmatta. pp.572. Unesco 1994. 44
History of Civilizations of Central Asia, Vol III, The crossroads of civilizations: AD250 to 750 edited by B.A.Litvinsky. pp.569. Unesco 1994. 44

The Unesco history of Central Asian Civilizations contains six volumes. Each volume is available from a specialist outlet (see the Unesco web page). In the United Kingdom the books can be ordered through HMSO (Her Majesties Stationary Office) bookshops. will take an order Volume III but say that it hasn't been released to them yet.

The introduction states one of Unesco's aims is 'to develop and to increase the means of communication between ... peoples and to employ these means for the purposes of mutual understanding and a truer and more perfect knowledge of each other's lives'. 'Central Asia' it says 'is a region whose cultural heritage has tended to be excluded from the main focus of historical attention', the purpose of the six volume work is to redress the balance. The project launched by Unesco, for volumes II and III, included five areas in which studies were to be promoted. Most important here was 'the archaeology and history of the Kushan Empire'. These two volumes contain the culmination of those studies.

Each volume consists of twenty essays on diverse subjects, sandwiched between a short introduction and conclusion by the general editor. The majority of essays on the Kushan period appear in the second volume, though essays on the empire after the second century are to be found largely in the third volume. Of the individual chapters only eight in the second volume and three in the third volume directly refer to the Kushan period but others touch upon them in passing and provide context. Volume II precedes discussion of the Kushan period with notes on Greeks, Parthians, Sacas and prehistory; Volume III follows the discussion of the Kushan succesors with details of the Sassanians, Turkish and Arab presence.

The introduction and conclusion, of the second volume, deal in large part with the Kushan period. A volume written from many perspectives by many scholars requires something to tie together the disparate elements. Unfortunately the introduction and conclusion are really too short and too general. Harmatta gives precedence to his own opinions while failing to comment on those of the other scholars represented in the volume. The whole volume fails to come together as a coherent work. The tone is too dense and academic and the connection between chapters too flimsy to make it easy for a general reader to follow. The debates between scholars, which might have been examined in the conclusion are only touched upon as individual writers feel necessary. It is fair to say that the introduction and conclusion alone are not responsible for a lack of coherence, but they would have been the easiest place to solve the problem.

The narrative chapters first, starting with the Yu-Chi and their migrations by Enoki, Koshelenko and Haidary. Enoki et al. provide an adequate introduction to the movements of the Yu-Chi but the chapter suffers from being written in rather dense prose, disagreements between the authors on the invasion of Bactria, and overemphasis on arguments based on deriving quite complicated etymologies for tocharian. The original associations of Tocharian and Yu-chi were made not on the basis of linguistics but careful cross checking based on the locations of the groups involved (see Tarn's Greeks in Bactria). Application of these techniques to sources as disparate as China and Italy whose information was in most cases at second hand is dubious, and the conclusions drawn arguable. Puri in the chapter 'The Kushans' has the task of sketching a narrative for the most studied section of Kushan history from Kajula to Vasudeva. The chapter is well written but unsurprisingly Puri has to dedicate extensive space to the chronology of the Kushan kings and to the date of Kanishka. He makes a conservative estimate of Kanishka's date, sometime between 100AD and 150AD. Puri continues to touch upon foreign relations and administration but hasn't enough room to more than scratch the surface. Dani, Litvinsky and Zeimal provide three chapters on the eastern Kushans, Kidarites and the Kushano-Sassanians. The three chapters (all in volume III) provide an excellent introduction to a period not often covered in works on the Kushans. They succeed admirably in touching upon many of the major sources of evidence for the period. The treatment is perhaps no more adequate than Puri's but covers fresh ground and is more stimulating.

The rest of the essays deal with particular aspects of the empire. Mukhamedjanov's chapter on the 'economy and social system' of the empire is amongst the best essays in the volumes. The section on agriculture brings together a wide range of recent archaeology in the region. The conclusion that 'during the Kushan period, farming developed and large areas of land were brought under cultivation' is justified by detailed evidence and the implications of the irrigation systems quite extensive. His coverage of coins and trade is scanty and is already so widely detailed in the literature as to be superfluous. Litvinsky also draws on archaeology for his essay 'Cities and urban life in the Kushan period'. His conclusion that the cities were a cosmopolitan, bustling society will not be a surprise, his overview of guilds, traders and the bazaar are a step towards a social history of the Kushan period that is badly needed. Some will question his use of literary Indian sources but his conclusions seem tenable. Pugachenkova gives an admirable summary of the art of Mathura, Gandhara and Bactria. Like authors who had to deal with coins and with Kanishka the area has been so extensively written on that it is hard for anything more than a summary to be provided. Harmatta provides two chapters, the first is a narrative of religion under the Kushan kings and the second an examination of inscriptions. His religious chapter provides an alternative chronology to Puri's for the Kushan kings. Most important is his conclusion that it is Kanishka the second who should be associated with Buddhist tradition throws a great deal of chronological work in doubt, if it is correct. The second of Harmatta's chapters on the Kushans is superb. It covers inscriptions from Bactria in the Kushan period. He includes transcriptions and translations in detail as well as considerable comment. It should be noted that many scholars identify Wima Takto with the Ooema Takpiso of the inscriptions and not Wima Kadphises. The inscriptions are however collected here and examined in detail for the first time in a major publication. He also touches upon Sanskrit and Sogdian inscriptions.

The whole book is finished with an excellent set of bibliographies and a detailed index. It fails to fulfill the rather grandiose first aim of Unesco, as the book is not accessible to a wide range of people, both in it's academic tone and considerable expense. The second aim was to develop Kushan studies. Some profit from the renewed studies is visible in the work on cities, society and trading. Much of the work on art, religion, kings and political history is simply summary of older work. The whole volume touches upon debates and arguments in the Kushan period, though only touches. In many ways this failure to delve deeper is the most frustrating aspect of both volumes. The wide range of work in the volume makes the whole a valuable guide to the opinions of modern Kushan scholars despite its failings. Until a systematic general study of the period is published either as a comprehensive multi-volume work or as an undergraduate text this work is worth buying for anyone who has an interest in Kushan history but who has little access to modern scholarship.

On a further note, the most informative aspect of the books is the continued failure of scholars to resolve a political history of the Kushan empire. In imitation of older fields of study in ancient history the first areas to be explored are the art and then the politics of the empire. In other areas of ancient history this has resulted in long lists of dates, of kings, of governors, of wars, rebellions etc. Unfortunately in Kushan history this looks increasingly impossible. In 1960 a London conference was held on the date of Kanishka in the hope of providing the key date, which it was believed would allow the construction of a list of kings. The conference concluded a range of dates between AD78 (supported by Tarn) and AD128 (Marshall) but gave no definite conclusions. Despite thirty years of scholarship and the discovery and translation of many more coins the range of dates remains just as wide. AD78 appears to have been largely abandoned, but a date of 144AD has been revived (by Puri) and others support a date of 115AD (Narain). The matter is confused as Kanishka II has been suggested as the king of Buddhist tradition (Harmatta) and this has necessitated a revision of the later kings. After a hundred years of work it remains to find in the political history of the Kushan empire even a basic level of agreement.

The most interesting and successful sections of the two volumes were those that have been dedicated to social history. Litvinsky and Mukhamedjanov succeed in advancing knowledge of the way people lived in the Kushan empire. Social history has become increasingly fashionable in recent years, we are now much more interested in how 'people' lived rather than what a particular king did. The evidence for the Kushan period, Indian literature (poetry and religion), disparate fragments from inscriptions and pottery, archaeology, is suitable for generalization and combination in talking about groups. To say that people in the second century lived in a cosmopolitan society seems to be quite acceptable in social history but kings and wars are meaningless without dates and details. The lack of progress in political history is clear from the state of these essays and it implies a need for a change of direction. Social, economic and cultural studies of the Kushan empire are long overdue and deserve more attention by scholars.

Contents Page Buddhism and Gandhara



Gandhara, Memory of Afghanistan


The Date of Kanishka Ancient India and Ancient China: Trade and Religious Exchange