Interview: From Bactria to Taxila–New e-Resource on Ancient Central Asia

Central Asia can be thought of as the “core region” of the Eurasian continent, stretching from the Caspian Sea to western China, the rugged mountains of Pakistan to the extensive steppes of southern Russia. Misunderstood, understudied, and oftentimes a front line between empires and geopolitical rivals, ancient Central Asia rarely receives the attention afforded to neighboring India, China, and Persia.

Sensing the need for a composite resource focused solely on this compelling part of the world, Antoine Simonin, a long time contributor to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, built From Bactria to Taxila to fill this glaring void on the web. In this interview, James Blake Wiener of the Ancient History Encyclopedia, speaks to Antoine about the launch of his new e-resource webpage and why Central Asia is “off the radar” for most ancient historians and specialists.

JW: Hello Antoine! It is a pleasure to be speaking with you on behalf of the Ancient History Encyclopedia with regard to your recently launched e-resource: From Bactria to Taxila. As you are a fellow member of the AHE community, I am pleased to be speaking with you in order to learn more about your interests and perspectives on Central Asia.

I wanted to begin by asking you how you became fascinated with the age of Antiquity, ancient Central Asia, and the indelible legacy of the Hellenistic era to the East and West? As I understand, you are an alumnus of the University of Strasbourg (France) and are also drawn to numismatics. Did your love of coins transport you to this unique part of the world?

AS: Hello James! I have to say that, in fact, coins brought me to Central Asia as Central Asia did my passion for numismatics. I took a fantastic course in numismatics during the last year of my bachelor’s degree in which I was asked to give a talk. As I always was interested by little known cultures and states, I choose to talk about Indo-Greek coinage, without very knowing much about them!

This is when I began to discover ancient Central Asia and the usefulness of coinage studies because, with the extreme paucity of sources we have for this area, coins become most important to the study of every aspect of “post-Alexander” Central Asia. My talk convinced me to write my master’s thesis on a related subject: “Hellenism and Acculturation Phenomena in Central Asia through Numismatics, 250 BCE – 150 CE.” En français: <<Hellénisme et acculturations en Asie Centrale à travers la numismatique (250 av.  J.-C. – 150 ap.  J.-C.)>>.

I should add that I also had the chance to work on several coins from diverse collections during those last three years, including some Indo-Greek and Parthian ones. All of this contributed to keep myself in love with both coins and ancient Central Asia.

JW: Antoine, Central Asia is an area understudied and misunderstood in the West, East Asia, and even the Middle East–why do you believe this is the case and how can From Bactria to Taxila redress this lack of understanding?

AS: As its name suggests, Central Asia is often understood as a midpoint between Near-Eastern and Indian states and cultures. The main problem is that, in ancient times, we have found no “Central Asian” Herodotus or Justinus to explain what happened there. We have a few accounts from Greek and Roman authors, and later Chinese ones, but they all are biased in the way in which they relate the events and customs of ancient Central Asia. Furthermore, Indian authors were more interested in religious topics and so few historical sources were imparted by them to posterity.

The chief kind of sources we should have would be archaeological ones, especially epigraphic. Unfortunately, Central Asia has endured a great deal of political upheaval over the centuries, and it still does today. Just think about the fact that the main centers of Indo-Greek states, Bactria and Taxila, are respectively in present-day Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. What artifacts we discover from Central Asia are sadly more likely to be from the black market or personal collections, than from organized or sanctioned excavations.

The main consequence is that it is very difficult to understand what happened in this broad and culturally diverse area. That’s why, even if this area is still understudied in a certain way, a lot of papers are written and most major topics are still discussed in academia. “From Bactria to Taxila,” in consolidating research and resources, is meant to enable a comprehensive understanding of ancient Central Asia. Its main aim is also to facilitate the work of specialists, in order for researchers not to miss any important source they could use, if only for historiography.

JW: Could you tell our readers and users a little bit more about From Bactria to Taxila?  What are its chief aims and features, and what inspired you to create this distinctive resource?

AS: “From Bactria to Taxila” is a site designed to make the work of centralization. The Internet, as it is by now, is full of resources to anyone interested in ancient times. The only problem is that those resources are maintained in every corner of the web so, basically, you could easily miss some open resource which might be of interest to you.

I can speak from experience and must say that to discover a useful article online, some weeks before the end of my master’s degree, was kind of frustrating! That’s what I want to eliminate through the creation of From Bactria to Taxila.

Every topic of interest that is available on the net for free and that encompasses Central Asia from Alexander’s time to the end of antiquity will appear there. Resources (articles, books, definitions, maps, sources) are listed in large bibliographies according to the type of source. Each one has its own post, in order to link keywords to them. In this way, one can conduct research by keywords with broad meaning. Moreover, my site has the option of performing a “classical search,” by entering the words or phrases you want, in a search.

These three approaches to research are designed to decrease the maximum potential of missing something that could be of interest to you. After seeing many “catalog-like” websites, it seems to me that having only one search tool is not enough to better facilitate the research process. Curiously, coin databases that I came across convinced me to build the site the way that I have; the best e-resources on coins, like ACSearch, allow this kind of research (by keywords, related items, and collections).

JW: Although From Bactria to Taxila has only been existence for a brief time, can you share with us your “grand vision” for the site? Do you have any special plans or direction for the site within the immediate future?

AS: With the amount of resources on the site growing everyday, even three research tools will not be enough at some point. One thing to do will be to think again about keywords: I will probably make posts grouping resources on specific themes that are too specific to be used as keywords. I am thinking about state-related topics, like one listing all resources on Apraca kings, for example, or some on precise sites like Aï Khanum. I also have another aim in sight: some colleagues and I are currently, and have been for some months, working on a larger project that also entails ancient history. I cannot speak about it for now, but be sure you will be told about it when it will be finished!

JW: We cannot wait to hear about it, Antoine. Thank you so much for your time and consideration! Congratulations on your efforts and thanks for sharing your wonderful site with all of us. You are providing a fantastic service to the “ancient history” community of scholars, archaeologists, and enthusiasts. 

AS: Thank you James for arranging this interview and for your kind words. I take this opportunity to congratulate you and all the AHE team for the fantastic tool you made! As I have been following it since its inception, I have witnessed all the progress that has been made and it’s a real pleasure to see this encyclopaedia growing over time!

  • Antoine Simonin was one of the first contributors to the Ancient History Encyclopedia. He earned his MA, Sciences de l’Antiquité, from the University of Strasbourg (France), in 2011 and is a specialist in the fields of numismatics, ancient Central Asia, and Hellenistic culture. In addition to his contributions to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, Simonin has also been an active participant and member of the Europa Barbarorum Project. His most recent enterprise is From Bactria to Taxila–a website which provides an extensive listing of resources related to the study of ancient Central Asia from the time of Alexander the Great through Late Antiquity.
  • James Blake Wiener is a Director and the Public Relations Manager of the Ancient History Encyclopedia, providing a continuous listing of must-read articles, exciting museum exhibitions, and interviews with experts in the field. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor, James is a freelance writer and who is keenly interested in cross-cultural exchange. Committed to fostering increased awareness of the ancient world, James welcomes you to the Ancient History Encyclopedia and hopes that you find his news pieces and interviews to be “illuminating.”
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James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director at Ancient History Encyclopedia. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor, James is chiefly interested in cross-cultural exchange, world history, and international relations. Aside from his work at AHE, James is an avid Arabist, devotee of romance languages (French, Portuguese, and Spanish), reggaetoñero, and fan of ice hockey.