Ariana, Khorasan and Afghanistan

Ali Ahmad Jalali
June 10, 2018

The territory of today’s Afghanistan straddles the geographic boundaries of three main regions. It encompasses the converging space and dividing verges of Central Asia, the Middle East and South Asia with historical connections to China. Its identity as a state is based less on geography and more on history. Throughout its long history the country has served as the buffer between expanding empires or the collision space between competing regional powers.

Afghanistan contains the key strategic lands of the ancient Ariana, an extensive geographic area between Persia and the Indian Subcontinent. Ariana means the “land of Aryans” and has its roots in Zoroastrianism’s Avesta. It is also believed that the designation is the Greek name for greater Iran which covered a far wider expanse than today’s Iran – the name adopted for Persia by the Pahlavi dynasty in 1935. The limits of Ariana are not exactly defined by ancient geographers. Ariana is not mentioned by the Greek historian Herodotus (484-425 BC) or Geographer Ptolemy (90-168 AD). Greek Geographer Eratosthenes (276-194 BC), known for being the inventor of the first map of the world based on the available geographic knowledge of his time, identifies a large territory named Ariana which he places between Mesopotamia and India. He defined the Indus River as the eastern border of Ariana while it was bounded to the north by what he called the Tauros Mountains.[i] The southern border of Eratosthenes’ Ariana was formed by the sea while its western limits included the lands between Carmania and the Caspian Sea.[ii]

But the prominent Greek geographer Strabo (64 BC-24 AD) and Roman author Pliny (23-78 AD) defined the boundaries of Ariana with certain clarity.[iii] Strabo describes its eastern boundary as the River Indus and its southern boundary as the Indian Ocean from the mouth of the Indus to the Persian Gulf. The western limit of Ariana is identified in two different ways: in one case it is marked by a line drawn between the Caspian Sea to Carmania (Kerman) and in another case the boundary is described as a line separating Parthia from Media and Carmania from Persia that includes the whole of Yazd and Kerman but excludes Fars.[iv] The northern boundary is the Paropamisus Mountains (Hindu Kush) which is the continuation of the massif that forms the northern limit of India. However, Strabo includes some of the eastern Persians, the Bactrians and Sogdians as part of the people of Ariana living in north of the mountains apparently because of the affinity of their language. Therefore, Ariana is said to have comprised the provinces of Parthia (the country between Herat and the Caspian), Aria (Herat), Carmania (Kerman), Bactria (Balkh), Margiana (Murgab-Merv), Hyrcania (Gorgan), Drangiana (Sistan), Gedrosia (Makran), Arachosia (greater Kandahar) and Paropamisus Mountain (Hindu Kush).[v] This includes the eastern extremities of the Iranian plateau, the entire modern-day Afghanistan, east and south of Iran, Tajikistan, parts of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and northwestern Pakistan.

During the Islamic period Afghanistan was the essential part of Khorasan, a variously-defined area located east and northeast of the Kevir desert in eastern Iran covering northern Afghanistan and parts of Central Asia. The space has been differently defined in terms of geography, administrative divisions and cultural affinities of the people living there. Geographically, Khorasan covered the area bounded by the Oxus River to the north, the Kevir Desert in central-eastern Persia to the west and the Hindu Kush Mountain to the south. It was an area with four main provincial centers: Balkh, Merv, Herat and Nishapur. Administratively Khorasan boundaries surpassed its geographic space and extended to the north to Transoxiana between the Oxus and Jaxartes rivers, with Samarkand and Bukhara its major cities; and to the south the area south of Hindu Kush encompassing Sistan, Zabulistan and Kabulistan which geographically was considered the Indian borderland.[vi] Culturally, Khorasan covered even a much larger area where the inhabitants shared distinctive cultural affinities and extended from eastern Persia to the Indus River. It was in this context when Babur wrote in early 16th Century that “just as Arabs call every place outside Arab (Arabia) Ajam, so Hindustanis call every place outside Hindustan, Khorasan. There are two trade-marts on the land routes between Hindustan and Khorasan; one is Kabul, the other Qandahar. To Kabul caravans come from Kashghar, Ferghana, Turkistan, Samarkand, Bukhara, Balkh, Haissar and Badakhshan. To Qandahar, they come from Khorasan.”[vii]

Afghanistan (the land of the Afghans) is the modern name of the country internationally identified since the 18th century when Ahmad Shah Durrani, a Pashtun leader of the Abdali tribal confederation founded the Afghan empire and unified the territories between the Oxus and the Indus rivers into a multi-ethnic state. However, centuries before Afghanistan became a state with political identity, it was a geographic designation of the land where the Afghan (Pashtun) tribes were settled from ancient times. Historically the name “Afghan” mainly designated the Pashtun people which are the largest ethnic group in Modern Afghanistan.

Afghans as a distinct people was mentioned as Abagan and Apakan in the 3rd century inscription of the Naqsh-i-Rustam temple in Shiraz, Iran, engraved during the rule of the Sassanid emperors Shahpur I (242-272) and Shahpur III (309-379).[viii]

In a 6th century study titled Brhat-Samhita written by the Indian astronomer Varaha Mihira, Avagana (Afghana) as a people and as a land are recorded in several passages.[ix]

A century later, the Chinese pilgrim, Hieun-Tsang, who traveled in south and central Asia in the years 629-645, indicated that on his return journey from India, after crossing the Indus in the modern Sind province, he travelled northwest across the mountainous territory to what he called A-Po-Kan (Afghan) and thence he traveled northwest to Tsao-Ka-Pa (Arachosia) or Tsao-Li (Zawoli?) with its capital named Ho-Si-Na (Ghazna). It seems the territory had encompassed the Gomal Valley, the Afghan Paktia and Paktika provinces extending to Ghazni (Ho-Si-Na), Zabul and Kandahar. Then he turned north to the Kabul Valley and traveled across the Hindukush through the Khawak Pass to Andarab.[x] Further, in a description of the countries in the region, Hieun-Tsang records a mountainous principality of “In-Po-Kien” or “A-Po-Kien” located about two hundred li (about 100 kilometers) southeast of Badasthana (Badakhshan).[xi]

The 10th century anonymous Muslim author of Hudud al-‘Alam speaks, in several passages, of a people called Afghans who lived near Gardez and in the Nangrahar area.[xii] Abu Rayhan al-Biruni (973-1048), an 11th century Muslim Scholar and polymath, referred to the Afghans as people of various tribes living on the western frontier mountains of the Indus River[xiii] while the 14th century Moroccan traveler, Ibn Battuta, who visited the region in 1333, wrote that Afghans are living even in Kabul and “they hold mountains and defiles and possess considerable strength and are mostly highwaymen. Their principle mountain is called Koh Suleiman (Suleiman Mountain).”[xiv]

Afghanistan as a geographic name is cited in Islamic sources at least since the 14th century.[xv] This area has been defined as the territories between the Indus River and the Hindu Kush Mountains with its center at the Suleiman Mountains in the south east of modern Afghanistan. In the 16th century, Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire in India and his descendants referred to the traditional ethnic Pashtun territories between the Hindu Kush Mountains and the Indus River. A British traveler, George Forster, who visited Kabul during Timur Shah’s reign, describes the country as Afghanistan and refers to Kabul as “the capital of a great empire.”[xvi] In the 19th century, Afghanistan rulers adopted the name Afghanistan for the entire Afghan Empire after it was used in various treaties between the British India and the Qajarid dynasty of Persia. Afghanistan as the official name of the state was internationally recognized before it was commonly used in all parts of the country. According to the 19th century British author Henry Bellew, Afghanistan was understood as a land bounded on the east by the Indus River from Gilgit to the Sea, on the south by the Arabian Sea, on the west by the Persian Kerman and Khorasan and on the north by the Oxus River (Amu Darya). “The name Afghanistan, as applied to the region thus defined,” he wrote, “is not commonly known, or so used by the people of the country itself, either in whole or in part. It is the name given to the whole region in a general way by its neighbors and by foreigners from the appellation of the dominant people inhabiting the country and appears to have originated with the Persians in modern times only.”[xvii] Actually, the recognition of Afghanistan as the name of the state is rooted in the unification of the territories between the Oxus and Indus under the Durrani Empire in the middle of the 18th century.

(Excepts from Ali A Jalali’s “A Military History of Afghanistan from the Great Game to the Global War on Terror.” University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, 2017

— Published with permission from author.



[i] A mountain range Eratosthenes assumed extended from the western seas all the way to India in straight line dividing Asia lengthwise into two parts, making one the northern part and the other the southern.

[ii] Erastothenes’ Geographica, fragments collected and translated with commentary and additional material by Duane W. Roller, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2010. pp. 42-43, 96, 100-101

[iii] Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography, William Smith (ed), vol. 1, Boston 1870 pp. 210-211

[iv] Strabo, Geography, translated by Horace Leonard Jones, Harvard University Press, London, Book XV. 2. 1-2

[v] Strabo, Book XV.2. 8-9. Also Horace Hayman Wilson, Ariana Antiqua-A Descriptive Account of the Antiquities and Coins of Afghanistan, London 1841, PP.120-122

[vi] Aruzi-i-Samarqani, a Persian poet and prose writer of the 12th Century who spent most of his time in Khorasan and Transoxiana locates Laghman (east of Kabul) as part of Sind (India) and a district of Ghazna. See Nizami-i Aruzi-i Samarqandi, Chahar Maqalah (four discourses), ed. Mohammad Qazwini, Sada-i-Ma’asir Publisher, 12th edition, Tehran 2003, p. 29

[vii] Babur Nama, translated by Annette S. Beveridge, Sange Meel Publication, Lahore, 1987, p. 202

[viii] Archeological Recollections vol. 4, Printed in Shiraz in 1959, op. cit. in Abdul Hay Habibi notes on Afghan and Afghanistan, and author’s conversation with him in 1960s

[ix] Brihat Samita of Vahara Mihtra, translated into English by N. Chindambaram, Matura, South Indian Press, 1884, pp. 75, 96-97

[x] Thomas Watters et al. ed. On Yuan Chwang’s Travels in India, Vol. II, Royal Asiatic Society, London, 1906, pp. 298-303

[xi] Memoires sur les Contrees Occidentales, traduit du Sanscrit en Chinois en l’an 648par Hioun-Thsang et du Chinois en Francais par M. Stanislas Julien, Tome second, Paris, 1858, pp. 198-200

[xii] Anonymous Author from Jawzjan (983 AD), Hudud al-Alam (the Limits of the World), Tehran, p. 379

[xiiiii] Al-Biruni, Abu Rayhan, Albiruni’s India, translated and edited by Edward Sachau, Rupa Publishers Company, Delhi, 2005, vol. 1, p. 279

[xiv] Ibn Battuta, The Adventures of Ibn Battuta, ed. Ross E. Dunn, University of California Press, Berkley, Los Angeles, London, 1989, pp. 175, 178, 184, 186

[xv] Saifi Herawi, Saif ibn Mohammad ibn Ya’qub al-Herawi, Tarikh Nama-i-Herat, ed. M. Zubair Siddiqi, Calcutta, 1943, pp. 111, 188-192; 201-207, 213-221

[xvi] Forster, George, A Journey from Bengal to England through the North Part of India, Kashmir, Afghanistan and Persia and into Russia by the Caspian Sea, vol. 2, the East India Company, London 1798, p. 70

[xvii] Bellew, H.W. An Inquiry Into the Ethnography of Afghanistan, London 1891, pp. 3-4