The chrestic Buddha of Mes Aynak
Rescuing this site in what was Greco-India has gained much valued support. Before it is erased - either by mining or the Taliban - I will address the question: how is a large, Buddhist centre based around such a rich copper mine, and on the fabulously-wealthy Silk Road?
First, an introduction:
Mes Aynak (Pashto: مس عینک, meaning "little source of copper", from 'ayn = source) is a site 25 miles (40 km) southeast of Kabul, Afghanistan, located in a barren region of Logar Province. The site contains Afghanistan's largest copper deposit, as well as the remains of an ancient settlement with over 400 Buddha statues, stupas and a 100-acre (40 ha) monastery complex.The pale blue section arcing around the mining and civic sections (in the illustration, right) is where the religion structures were placed.
What we have is a major Buddhist site producing copper and taking part in trade.
HistoryAs the name suggests, the presence of copper at Mes Aynak has been known about for some time, while the site's archaeological wealth has been known about since exploration by Russian and Afghan geologists in 1973-4. The earliest Buddhist remains date from the Kushan Gandhara era, although these gradually give way to T'ang Chinese and Uyghur influences. Mes Aynak was at the peak of its prosperity between the fifth and seventh century AD, a period of slow decline began in the eighth century and the settlement was finally abandoned 200 years later.
1. Aynak Information Package, Afghanistan Geological Survey and the British Geological Survey, 2005The Kushan empire appears on maps very largely where is the Indo-Scythian empire, i.e. the region conquered by Alexander and then settled by Greeks: Greco-India. Who exactly are the Kushans is unknown; they look to me to be very similar to the Scythians and if they were to be branches of the same tribe/family, I would not be surprised.
2. Dalrymple, William (31 May 2013) Mes Aynak: Afghanistan's Buddhist buried treasure faces destruction guardian.co.uk
Left: Standing Buddha, ancient region ofGandhara, eastern Afghanistan, 1st century CE.
Many of the stylistic elements in the representations of the Buddha point to Greek influence: the Greco-Roman toga-like wavy robe covering both shoulders (more exactly, its lighter version, the Greek himation), the contrapposto stance of the upright figures (see: 1st–2nd century Gandhara standing Buddhas), the stylicized Mediterranean curly hair and topknot (ushnisha) apparently derived from the style of the Belvedere Apollo (330 BCE), and the measured quality of the faces, all rendered with strong artistic realism. A large quantity of sculptures combining Buddhist and purely Hellenistic styles and iconography were excavated at the Gandharan site of Hadda. The 'curly hair' of Buddha is described in the famous list of 32 external characteristics of a Great Being (mahapurusa) that we find all along the Buddhist sutras. The curly hair, with the curls turning to the right is first described in the Pali canon; we find the same description in e.g. the "Dasasahasrika Prajnaparamita".The Kushans had diplomatic contact with imperial Rome; so much Roman gold was paid eastwards that eventually the imperial court restricted trade; the British archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler used Roman coins to date cultural layers in India. Greco-India - not the Subcontinent - refers to what the ancients called India, a practise which confuses many today.
Greek artists were most probably the authors of these early representations of the Buddha, in particular the standing statues, which display "a realistic treatment of the folds and on some even a hint of modelled volume that characterizes the best Greek work. This is Classical or Hellenistic Greek, not archaizing Greek transmitted by Persia or Bactria, nor distinctively Roman".
So Buddha first appears as a Greek, in full, human form in the late 1st-century; about a century later, a new genre of religious literature appears, describing the travels of Greek philosopher miracle-workers, converting royalty in the east, usually Greco-India. The home of this genre was along the western end of the Silk Road, Edessa. This is where, I think, also came the first gospel account.
The Kushan Buddha is, I think, a result of Chrestian resurrection, in which a cultic hero is resurrected by the same Greek magic as used by Cleopatra VII to become Isis, and by Hadrian to resurrect Antinous.
Similarly, Mes Aynak was a monastic centre tied intimately to the economic activities of copper and trade, just as Egyptian monasteries were associated with production (wine, pottery and glass) and trade (including the slave routes to Sub-Saharan Africa); also early monasteries of Western Europe - often based on Roman villas using slave labour - owned by local royal families. That is, monasticism of the early-modern era shares important characteristics wherever they are and no matter to which religion they belonged. When not Chrestian, they are chrestic.
Buddha has the same halo as we see for saints and divine rulers in the west.
A halo (from Greek ἅλως, halōs; also known as a nimbus, aureole, glory, or gloriole) is a ring of light that surrounds a person in art. They have been used in the iconography of many religions to indicate holy or sacred figures, and have at various periods also been used in images of rulers or heroes. In the sacred art of Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity, among other religions, sacred persons may be depicted with a halo in the form of a circular glow, or in Asian art flames, around the head, or around the whole body, this last often called a mandorla. Halos may be shown as almost any colour, but as they represent light are most often depicted as golden, yellow, white, or red when flames are depicted.
|Mahasena on a coin of Huvishka|
The halo and the aureola have been widely used in Indian art, particularly in Buddhist iconography where it has appeared since at least the 1st century AD; the Kushan Bimaran casket in the British Museum is dated 60AD (at least between 30BC and 200AD). The rulers of the Kushan Empire were perhaps the earliest to give themselves haloes on their coins, and the nimbus in art may have originated in Central Asia and spread both east and west.I therefore see the Kushans as a branch of the Indo-Scythians, and allied with imperial Rome.
|Silver denarius of Tiberius (14-37 CE) found in India. Indian copy of the same, 1st century CE. Coin of Kushan king Kujula Kadphises copying a coin of Augustus.|