Spyridon Loumakis

Spyridon Loumakis (Concordia University): “Oxus-Wakhsh: A Local River God in Hellenistic Bactria”


In modern Takht-i Sangin, on the Uzbekistan-Afghanistan borders, along the river Amu Darya (Gr. Oxus, Bact. Wakhsh), a large temple complex has been excavated by Russian archaeologists, which bears little resemblance to typical ancient Greek religious architecture. However, this building has provided us with significant evidence for the cult of the local river god Oxus through Greek inscriptions from the time of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom. A famous stone altar base with a standing Marsyas on top, fragments from a stone perirrhanterion on the temple’s entrance and a bronze caldron preserve dedicatory inscriptions mentioning god Oxus. All names of the devotees are Iranian, but the “epigraphic habit”, god Marsyas[1], the caldron and the perirhanterion are a clear reference to a Greek understanding of the ritual and the cult.

The popularity of the local cult of Oxus can be seen in the amount of examples of Oxus-based theophoric names found in Aramaic documents from Bactria, dated from 353 to 324 BCE, possibly from the archive of the satrap of Bactria, and in the epigraphic data from the Hellenistic city of Aï Khanoum in Bactria (before the mid second c. BCE). In addition, we know from ancient Greek authors that Oxy-atres was the name of Darius III’s brother (Arrian, Anabasis 7.4; Strabo, Geography 12.3.10), that Oxy-dates was a high royal Persian, imprisoned by Darius III, and later appointed satrap of Media by Alexander III (Arrian, Anabasis 3.20; 4.18) and that Oxy-artes was one of the four powerful noblemen of Bactria who resisted the advance of Alexander III’s army (Arrian, Anabasis 3.28; 4.18-21; 6,.5; 7.4; 7.6; Diod. Sic., Historical Library 2.6.2).

This paper will try to show that this unique temple, which mixes Hellenistic and local Iranian religious traditions in many levels (sacred setting, ritual, cult) was extremely significant for the eastern most border of the Hellenistic world in central Asia, based on three arguments: (a) on the temple’s variety and richness of offerings (more than eight thousand excavated objects of alabaster, clay, terra cotta, bone, ivory, semiprecious stones, glass, textiles, iron, bronze, silver and gold), (b) on its monumental proportions, which manifest the concentration of great political and economic power, and (c) on the abundance of arms dedicated to the temple, probably the biggest assemblage in the entire Central Asia, with different types of offensive and defensive armour, from Hellenistic, Middle Eastern and Sarmatian-Scythian origins. It will also argue that the temple was a visual marker of the borders between two imagined worlds, between the civilized and the barbarian world, between urbanism and nomadism, as defined in the works of Demodamas and Patrocles, members of the intellectual elite of the court of kings Seleucos I and Antiochus I.

[1] Marsyas was a Greek river god of Anatolian provenance, and also a tributary of the major river Meander in western Asia Minor. Paul Bernard had argued that this Marsya-like depiction may be attributed to the presence of Greek colonizers from the valley of Meander brought to Central Asia by king Antiochus I Soter (281-261 BCE).



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