Lost World of the Golden King, in search of ancient Afghanistan by Frank Holt (ISBN 978-0-520-27342-9) is the latest book by this author who has an unparalleled knowledge of Bactria, a country often neglected by and unfamiliar to most historians.
I absolutely enjoyed his earlier books: Into the Land of Bones, Alexander the Great and Bactria and Alexander the Great and the Mystery of the Elephant Medallions, as no one knows Bactria more intimately than Frank Holt. He was my mental guide and support source when I visited Uzbekistan (see several articles under the label: Central Asia), so I couldn’t skip reading this latest update of his.
As always, his work is very precise and consistent. After Alexander’s conquests in 329-327 BC, the country somehow kept many of its invested Greek influences, eventually giving birth to the Greco-Bactrian kingdom followed by the Indo-Bactrian rule. However, after repeated and devastating attacks by its nomad neighbors, the empire of “a thousand cities” vanished and from the tenth century onwards only the name of Bactria survived. We had to wait till the eighteenth century when a Greek coin was unearthed and the first explorers started their search.
Frank Holt follows them step by step, all through the 18th and 19th century, analyzing their assessments and holding their conclusions against today’s still sparse knowledge about the Bactrian Kingdom. Not all the coins carry an inscription with the name of their Basileus and those who do so don’t specify if we are looking at Eucratides I or II, Demetrius I or II, or Diodotus I or II, while on the other hand, we still have no way to put them conclusively in their correct chronology. The studies of these earlier explorers have their merit, of course, but archeology has evolved since then, new techniques have been applied and the entire study of numismatic evidence has progressed.
Meanwhile, one of the “thousand cities” has been located and excavated extensively by Paul Bernard (1964-1978) till modern wars put everything on hold and destroyed his painstaking work. By now Ai-Khanoum at the far northern border of today’s Afghanistan has made headlines and most of his precious finds have found shelter inside the walls of several museums (see the exclusive and still travelling exhibition, Afghan Gold Treasure)
Frank Holt uses the excavation results and artifacts from Ai-Khanoum to reconstruct as much as possible of Bactria, whose most famous king was Eucratides. His huge golden “Eucratidion”, was the very first coin that rose from Bactria’s ashes. Sporadic texts and inscriptions, together with the various hoards add further information but also raise more questions.
All in all, the reader will get a fresh look at Bactria, its kings, and heritage. Beside a full chapter about the mining and minting techniques including the knowledge involved, Frank Holt’s book offers a wealth of information about every possible aspect of life after the campaign of Alexander the Great in the furthest northeastern corner of his empire.