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Origins of the Afghans

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Chieftain
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    Posted: 24-Jul-2005 at 19:09

Origins of the Afghans

Today Afghanistan is a nation of many different ethnic groups (Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazaras, Turkmen, etc), and all their citizens referred today as Afghans.   The country was carved out of the imperial thrust of two great super powers, Czarist/Bolshevik Russia to the North, and British India to the south and east.

Historically, the term has been applied to the ethnic group known today as the Pashtuns (also known as Pakhtuns, Pathans).  The word Pashtun and the word Afghan are used interchangeably throughout history.

The Origin of the Word Afghan

H.W. Bellew's Mountaineers Theory:

The name Albania, it seems clear was given to the country by the Romans.  Albania means "mountainous country", and its inhabitants were called Albani, "mountaineers" ...the Latin Alban is apparently the source of the Armenian Alwan, which is their name for these Albani.  The Armenian Alwan, Alvan or Alban, though ordinarily pronounced indifferently, is written in the Amrenian character with letters which, being transliterated, read as Aghvan or Aghwan; and this word, pronounced Alvan, etc. in Armenia, in the colloquial dialect of their eastern neighbors is changed to Aoghan, Avghan, and Afghan.

Horsemen Theory:

The Sanskrit word Ashva-kan, which means horsemen (Ashva is similar to Aspa, which both mean horse in Iranian tongues).  The word Ashvakayan was used by the Hindu Historian Panini in his book Ashtadyai (Ustadyai in Persian form) back around the 5th century BC.  It has also appeared in other records in different forms:

Sanskrit - Ashva-ka
Panini - Ashvakayan
Ancient Temple inscription - Avakan
Brahta - Samhita - Avagan
Ferdousi's Shahnama - Avagan
King Shapur III records - Abgan/Apkan
Sassanian Records - Abgan
Hiuen Tsang - Apokien

The Ashvakan were known as horsemen, and were described as living presently exactly where Afghans are found today, and were known for their horse-breeding, nomadic, and also trading culture.  This nomadic/horsemen culture was also mentioned by the other appelation of the Afghans, the Pakhtuns.  The word Avagan is similar to the way Afghans pronounce this word.  Pakhtuns/Afghans call themselves "Awghans/Avghans" and not Afghans. 

Pakhtun-Afghan Relationship

As I have said before, Pashtun and Afghan are used interchangeably.  This nomadic/horsemen culture was also witnessed by Herodotus in the country he knew as Paktyke.   The country of Paktykae (in Greek, "Y" is pronounced with "U" and hence we get Paktuka) was mentioned by Herodotus.  Afghans today mention the border regions around Afghanistan and today's Pakistan as Pukhtunkhwa

Herodotus mentioned their country in the vicinity of Gandhara, which is not today's Kandahar, but the Kabul-Jalalabad-Peshawar Valley area.
 
Herodotus says in Book 3:102:
 
 "...these (Paktuans) live to the north and in the direction of the north wind as compared with the remaining Indians, and their way of life is almost the same as that of the Baktrians (Paktra/Bactria)...they are the most warlike..."

He also earlier states that they made a portion of the Persian army:
 
Book 3:93 - "From Paktuike and the Armenians...the sum drawn was 400 talents.  This was the 13th satrapy."

In other quotes, he mentions other nomadic tribesmen with intriguing names that are very similar to Afghan tribes today.  One of them mentioned are the Aspasi.  Again, the word "Aspa" is used here.  Modern scholars link this tribe to the Yosufzai.  It is common among Afghans to call this tribe "Esepsi" and not Arabic/Persianized Yosufzai. 

Muslim and other Classical Sources:

Al Biruni's Tarikh al Hind (referring to the period around 1000 AD) mentions 'rebellious' Afghans as 'Hindus', but he himself never trekked into the tribal lands, but only passed by them.  The first Muslim references to Afghans are to be found in the Hudud al Alam of 982AD (372 H).  That speaks of a village in Gardez as being inhabited by Afghans.  It also speaks of a King in "Ninhar" which is obviously Ningrahar (Eastern Afghan province),  who shows a public display of conversion to Islam, even though he has over 30 wives which were described as "Muslim, Afghan, and Hindu" Wives.  The distinction between Muslim, Hindu, and Afghan is very intriguing.  Because this shows that that they were not considered Muslim, nor Hindu, but rather something else.  Afghans today are very superstitous and believe in spirits, demons, and witches as they had before the emergence of Islam.
 
Al-Utbi, the Ghaznavid chronicler says that recruitment for his army was answered by Afghans and the 'Khalaj' (Khalji/Ghalji).  According to him, he enlisted "thousands."  With these armies he twice defeated the Hindushahi King Jaipal in Laghman and Ningrahar, and drove him out of the upper Kabul valley, capturing immense treasures and nearly 200 elephants.  His impact into India was largely in part due to levies raised from Afghan tribes, whose homes were so close to Ghazni, and his enlistment of thousands of Afghans and Ghalji was also partly because of his own memory that in his time so many of his own tribal followers were motivated to embrace Islam.  Another reason for the conversion might also be the proximity of Ghazni to the Afghan frontier. Al Utbi further sites that Afghans and Ghalji made a part of Mahmuds army and was sent on his expedition to Balkh.  

The Afghans also created quite a few dynasties in India, including the Khilji, Sori, Lodhi dynasties.

Who Are the Afghans?

There are many theories as to the origins of the Afghans.  One of them traces them to Semitic origins, while others trace them to Aryans.  The real truth behind their origins is not that cut and clear.  The region known as Afghanistan has been invaded by countless hordes of Central Asian nomads, each of them leaving their impact in the region, and on its peoples.  I will delve a little into their origins as traced by classical and modern scholars.

Jewish/Semitic Origins Theory

This classical theory is based on Niamatulla's Makhzan-i-Afghani and Hamdulla Mustaufi's Tarikh-i-Guzida: one of Prophet Ibrahim's descendents, Talut (or Saul) had two sons, one of whom was named Irmiya or Jeremia. Irmiya had a son named Afghan, who is supposed to have given the name to the Afghan people. Tareekh-e-Sher Shahi states that Bakht Nasr who invaded Jerusalem and destroyed it, expelled Jewish tribes, including sons of Afghan, from their homeland. During the days of the Babylonian captivity when the Jews were scattered, one of the tribes settled in the Hari Rud area of modern (south) Afghanistan. Pathan legend states that they accepted Islam during the time of the Prophet when a group of their kinsmen (Jews) living in Arabia sent word to them that the true Prophet of God as prophesied in their scriptures had appeared in Mecca. The Afghans, the story goes, sent a delegation to Arabia headed by one Imraul Qais who met the Prophet, embraced Islam, came back and converted the entire tribe to the new religion. The Prophet was so pleased with Qais that he gave him the name of Abdur Rashid, called him Malik (king) and Pehtan (keel or rudder of a ship) for showing his people the path of Islam.

This theory was propagated by Jewish scholars, but most modern scholars reject this was created by Afghans to explain their forgotten pagan past.  The only tribe of Afghans that have some similarity to Jews are the Apridi tribes of the Khyber region.  Apridi has a name that is very similar to the "Aparutae"  Aparu, being the regional name for Hebrews in ancient times.  This tribe was mentioned by Herodotus as well.  If there were any lost Israelite tribes in Afghanistan, they would soon be swept under the wind by massive migrations by Central Asian nomads from the steppes, most prominent of all the Sakae.

Pakhtuns/Afghan Language and their Relationship with the Saka

My understanding is that Afghans are descendants of not only Scythians (most likely Amurgian Scythes from Ferghana Valley) who invaded the region in their prominent years, but actually descendants of Sakae nomads who entered the region BEFORE the Aryans arrived on the scene, ie. Tocharians.   The Scythians were the original settlers of Paktra/Bactria.  This was concluded by French and Russian archaeologists in the early 20th century after they found Scythian relics buried in Bactria that were dated older than the Persian.  Its also been cited by the Iran Chamber Society:
 
"The original population of Bactria were largely Scythian. Apparently the Aryans who came over and took control, formed a military aristocracy over a technologically less developed people - as was the case with early Greeks, Romans and Gauls."

This also explains their language as well.  Pashto is considered and eastern Iranian languags, most eastern Iranian languages are spoken in the Hindu Kush/Pamir mountain range.  The Pamirs were occupied by Scythians who migrated south from Ferghana.  One characteristic of Eastern Iranian languages is their replacing of the letter "D" with the letter "L."

Here are some simple examples:

Farsi - Padar (Father)
Pashto - Pilar

Farsi - Didan (To see)
Pashto - Lidal

Farsi - Diwaneh (Crazy)
Pashto - Liwaneh

The Scythian rulers of Gandhara are known from their coins (numismatic evidence) as having the exact same habit.

In ancient Kharoshti inscriptions:

"Spalagadama" (spada=army, ga diminutive, dama=leader, cf. Latin dominus);
"Spala Hura" (spada=army, ahura=spirit, god, cf. Ahuramazda);
"Chastana" (cf. Pashto chashtan, Pakhtu tsakhtan=master, husband).

Being an Eastern Iranian langauge, Pashto has similarities with ancient Bactrian language, as well as other easter Iranian languages with people classified as "Mountain Tajik" and in Kohistan as "Kamboja." 

Finally, if one is not satisfied as to whether the Afghans are descendants of the Saka/Scythians, one only has to ask an Afghan what does "Saka/Sakae" mean in Pashto, and they will tell you, a blood brother.

The perceptive man is he who knows about himself, for in self-knowledge and insight lays knowledge of the holiest.
~ Khushal Khan Khattak
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