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Map of Zabulistan, 7th-10th-century
Map of Zabulistan, 7th-10th-century

Zabulistan (Persian: زابلستان, Zābulistān, Zābolistān, Zāwulistān or simply زابل Zābul, Pashto: زابل Zābəl), was a historical region in southern Afghanistan roughly corresponding to the modern provinces of Zabul and Ghazni.[1][2] Following the Ghaznavid rule (977–1186), "Zabul" became largely synonymous with the name of its capital and main city, Ghazni.

By the tenth century, Islamic sources mention Zabulistan as part of the Khorasan marches, a frontier region between Khorasan and India.[1] In the Tarikh-i Sistan, finished around 1062 CE, the author regards Zabul as part of the land of Sistan, stretching from the Hamun Oasis all the way to the Indus River.[3]

Today, the modern Afghan province of Zabul and the Iranian city Zabol take their names from the historical region. Zabulistan has become popularized as the birthplace of the character Rostam of Ferdowsi's Shahnameh, in which the word "Zabulistan" is used interchangeably with "Sistan", which was another historical region, located in present-day eastern Iran (Sistan and Baluchestan Province) and southwestern Afghanistan (Nimruz, Helmand and Kandahar).[4]


Zābulistān (Persian: زابلستان) which is the Persian name of the region, literally means "the land of Zābul". The etymology of the name Zābul has been marred with speculation. The German historian Marquart, proposed the word, including its uncommon Medieval variant Jāwulistān (Persian: جابلستان) as being a variation of the Sanskrit term.[5] Others have speculated that the word zābul might be an abbreviation of zūnbīl, a supposed royal title of the region known from Arabic sources, earlier read as rutbīl, and now used to refer to a local dynasty of Zamindawar now called the Zunbils. This notion however currently stands on loose ground, and Minorsky holds that the consonant resemblance between these two words look merely fortuitous.[5]

Jāguḍa (Sanskrit: जागुड), meaning saffron,[6] was the Sanskrit name of the region. It is also regarded as being referred to by this name in 644 CE by the Chinese traveling monk Xuanzang in the Chinese transliteration Tsau-kü-ta.[5]


The earliest detailed description of Zabulistan comes from the Great Tang Records on the Western Regions, written by the travelling monk Xuanzang in the early seventh century. He places the country of Tsau-kü-ta (Jāguḍa) between the Great Snowy Mountains (the Hindu Kush) and the Black Range (probably the Sulaiman mountains), bordering the country of Vrjisthāna in the north, Kāpiśī to its north-east and Kaikānān to its east.[7] While the Chinese pilgrims never explored the south or west of the region, it is known from later Arabic accounts that Zabulistan at this time was bordered by Turan to its south and Rukhkhudh to its west.

"The country of Jāguda is more than seven thousand li in circuit, and its capital city, named Hexina (Ghazni), is over thirty li in circuit; but the capital is sometimes located in the city of Hesaluo (Guzar), which is also over thirty li in circuit, both cities being strongly fortified in invulnerable positions. The mountains and valleys are rich in natural resources, and the cultivated farmlands, divided by ridges, are high and dry. Crops are sown in proper seasons. Winter wheat is abundant, and vegetation is luxuriant with profuse flowers and fruits. The soil is good for growing aromatic turmeric, and it produces the hingu herb (Ferula asafoetida), which grows in the Rama-Indu Valley. In the city of Hesaluo there are gushing springs, the water of which flows to all sides, and the people make use of it for irrigation. The climate is severely cold with much frost and snow." - Xuanzang, 644 CE[7]

During the Medieval Islamic era, the region is continuously mentioned in geographical works such as Istakhri's Kitab al-Masalik (930-933 CE), the Hudud al 'Alam (982 CE), Qazvīnī's Nuzhat al-Qulub etc.[8] As a dry region among the Khorasan marches, famous for its fruits, good hunting grounds and fine pastures.[9] The region is likewise described by Zahir ud-Din Babur in the early sixteenth century in his memoirs the Baburnama, which he roughly equates with the Timurid province of Ghazni. At this time, the region of Ghazni is described as bordering Kabul in its northeast, Zurmat to its east and Kandahar to its southwest.

"Ghazni, in the third clime, is also known as Zabul. Zabulistan consists of this province, and some consider Kandahar to be in Zabulistan. Ghazni is fourteen leagues southwest of Kabul. Those who take the road leave Ghazni at daybreak and arrive in Kabul in the afternoon, whereas the thirteen league road between Kabul and Adinapur (near modern Jalalabad) is so poor that no one can do it in a day. It is a miserable province. The river is a four- or five mill stream. The city of Ghazni and another four or five villages are watered by it, while another three or four others are irrigated by subterranean aqueducts. The grapes and melons of Ghazni are better than those of Kabul; the apples are also good and are taken to Hindustan (India). The agriculture is laborous because new soil must be brought in every year for whatever amount of land is planted. The yield, however, is better than that of Kabul. They plant madder, the best crop, all which is taken to Hindustan." Zahir ud-Din Babur, 1504-6 CE


Pre-Islamic period[edit]

The first mentions of the region coincides with its takeover by the Iranian Huns in the 4th century. Initially being conquered by the Alkhan, then the Nezaks in the 5th century.[3] The region fell to the Turk Shahis in the 7th century, then being controlled by a collection loose suzerains of the Hindu Shahis to the 10th century. According to Andre Wink:

It is clear however that in the seventh to ninth centuries the Zunbils and their kinsmen the Kabulshahs ruled over a predominantly Indian rather than a Persianate realm. The Arab geographers, in effect, commonly speak of 'that king of al-Hind ... (who) bore the title of Zunbil'.[10]

The region was finally conquered and Islamized by the Ghaznavids after 961 CE.[11]

The Alkhans[edit]

The first mentions of the word Zabul is from coinage of what's known as "the early anonymous clan-rulers". These were late fourth-century tribal chiefs and possibly former governors of the Sasanids from the north of the Hindu Kush, who following the course of the Kidarites, declared independence from Sasanid dominance. By 384/5 CE, they controlled Kāpiśī and Gandhara, and started minting their own characteristic coins in the formerly Sasanian mint.[12] A set of these anonymous coins including some of the coins of king Khingila I, the first of Alkhan kings known by name, bore the legend Shāh Zāwbul Ālkhān (Bactrian: ϸαυο ζαοβλ αλχανο) translated as 'King of Zabul Alkhan'.[13] This suggests Alkhan control of the Zabulistan region southwest of modern Kabul from an early time of Alkhan dominance in the region.[3] Alkhan power, primarily based in the Kapisa and Gandhara valleys, was seldom concentrated with one king alone, as shown by the variety of Alkhan coins minted simultaneously in the different regions of the empire's control, which by 484 CE reached all the way to Mawla in Central India.[14] Northern Zabulistan is understood to have remained under nominal control of the Alkhan rulers of Kāpiśī, with the rest remaining under nominal Sasanid rule until Peroz I's defeat by the Hephthalites in 484 CE, which facilitated the takeover of Zabulistan by the new independent ruler Nezak Shah.[citation needed]

The Nezaks[edit]

Following the collapse of Sasanid control in Tokharistan in 484 CE, and with Alkhan coinage expanding into the Indian subcontinent, numismatic evidence accounts for the consolidation of a new dynasty in Kapisa and Zabul. The Nezak Shah dynasty, identified through their unique coin designs and the Pahlavi Nezak Shah stamp (previously interpreted by Göbl as Napki MLK) on their coins, supposedly opened a mint in Ghazni (which's coins are identified by Göbl as the š-group of Nezak coinage) following 484 CE. Later, they managed to also consolidate their rule over Kāpiśī, where they overtook the local mint around the first quarter of the 6th-century CE (whose coins are identified by Göbl as the ā-group). Unlike the contemporary Hephthalites and Alkhan, they did not use a tamga, but instead donned a golden winged bull-headed crown as their primary signifier.[3]

Sometime after 532 CE, after Mihrakulas devastating defeat against Yasodharman at Mawla, Alkhan power is understood to have subsequently returned to the Gandhara and the Kāpiśī valleys, thereby having to confront the Nezaks. Whether this encounter was mostly peaceful or hostile is currently unknown, but has been recorded in part among numismatic evidence, from Alkhan coins minted in Gandhara with the characteristic Nezak bull-headed crown over an otherwise typically Alkhan design, to the overstriking of Nezak coins in the second half of the 6th century by the Alkhan ruler Toramana II.[3] At around the same period, the Sasanians under Khusro I (r. 531-579) briefly reestablished their control of Balkh, and probably also Zabulistan, which is supported by a Sasanian administrative seal found there from the same period.[13] Succeeding Sasanian control of Zabulistan by the end of the 6th-century, a new group of coins are struck with an š-mint (Zabul) brand and in a design reminiscent of both Alkhan and Nezak coinage, though ultimately missing the bull-headed crown of the Nezaks and struck with the Alkhan tamga, while the Nezak ā-coinage is retained in Kāpiśī. This new issue is known as the Alkhan-Nezak Crossover, and which dynasty continued to issue coinage from the Ghazni-mint until the middle of the 7th century.[13]

The Rutbils and the Kabul Shahis[edit]

The region of southern Afghanistan was first invaded by Muslim Arabs from Zaranj in what is now Nimruz Province. From there they marched toward Bost, Kandahar, Zabulistan, and reached Kabul. In 683 Kabul revolted and defeated the Muslim army.[15]

According André Wink:

"In southern and eastern Afghanistan, the regions of Zamindawar (Zamin I Datbar or land of the justice giver, the classical Archosia) and Zabulistan or Zabul (Jabala, Kapisha, Kia pi shi) and Kabul, the Arabs were effectively opposed for more than two centuries, from 643 to 870 AD, by the indigenous rulers the Zunbils and the related Kabul-Shahs of the dynasty which became known as the Buddhist-Shahi. With Makran and Baluchistan and much of Sindh this area can be reckoned to belong to the cultural and political frontier zone between India and Persia. It is clear however that in the seventh to the ninth centuries the Zunbils and their kinsmen the Kabulshahs ruled over a predominantly Indian rather than a Persian realm. The Arab geographers, in effect commonly speak of that king of "Al Hind" ...(who) bore the title of Zunbil."[16]

According to C. E. Bosword:

"One of the most important aspects of the early Saffarid policy of significance for the spread of Islam in Afghanistan and on the borders of India long after their empire had collapsed, was that of expansion into eastern Afghanistan. The early Arab governors of Sistan had at times penetrated as far as Ghazana and Kabul, but these had been little more than slave and plunder raids. There was a fierce resistance from the local rulers of these regions, above all from the line of Zunbils who ruled in Zamindavar and Zabulistan and who were probably epigoni of the southern Hepthalite or Chionite kingdom of Zabul; on more than one occasion, these Zunbils inflicted sharp defeats on the Muslims. The Zunbils were linked with the Kabul-Shahs of the Shahi dynasty; the whole river valley was at this time culturally and religiously an outpost of the Indian world, as of course it had been in the earlier centuries during the heyday of the Buddhist Gandhara civilization."[17]

The Kabul Shahis are generally split up into two eras: the Buddhist Shahis and the Hindu Shahis, with the change-over thought to have occurred sometime around 870 CE. The kingdom was known as the Kabul Shahan or Ratbelshahan from 565 CE to 670 CE, when the capitals were located in Kapisa and Kabul, and later Udabhandapura, also known as Hund,[18] for its new capital.[19][20][a] The kingdoms of Kapisa-Gandhara in modern-day Afghanistan, Zabulistan and Sindh (which then held Makran) in modern-day Pakistan, all of which were culturally and politically part of ancient India since ancient times,[21] were known as "The Frontier of Al Hind".

Saffarid invasion and the Ghaznavids[edit]

"We are told that it was only in 870 AD that Zabulistan was finally conquered by one Yakub who was the virtual ruler of the neighbouring Iranian province of Siestan. The king was killed and his subjects were made Muslims."[22]

The Hindu Shahis under Jayapala, is known for his struggles in defending his kingdom against the Ghaznavids for the control over Zabulistan and the surrounding region. Jayapala saw a danger in the consolidation of the Ghaznavids and invaded their capital city of Ghazni both in the reign of Sebuktigin and in that of his son Mahmud, which initiated the Muslim Ghaznavid and Hindu Shahi struggles.[23] Sebuk Tigin, however, defeated him, and he was forced to pay an indemnity.[23] Jayapala defaulted on the payment and took to the battlefield once more.[23] Jayapala, however, lost control of the entire region from Zabulistan to between the Kabul Valley and Indus River.[24]

However, Jayapala's army was hopeless in battle against the Ghaznavid forces, particularly against the young Mahmud of Ghazni.[24] In the year 1001, soon after Sultan Mahmud came to power and was occupied with the Qarakhanids north of the Hindu Kush, Jayapala attacked Ghazni once more and upon suffering yet another defeat by the powerful Ghaznavid forces, near present-day Peshawar. After the Battle of Peshawar, he committed suicide because his subjects thought he had brought disaster and disgrace to the Shahis.[23][24] Jayapala was succeeded by his son Anandapala,[23] who along with other succeeding generations of the Shahis took part in various unsuccessful campaigns against the advancing Ghaznavids but were unsuccessful. These Ghaznavid victories in these wars resulted in the Islamization of Zabulistan and the surrounding regions.[23]


Hindu and Buddhist period[edit]

During Hindu and Buddhist period Zabulistan is known to have been a place of various religious cults and practices, with Ghazni being an old stop on the silk and spice trade flowing between Tokharistan and India. Chinese monk Xuanzang recorded numerous Buddhist stupas and monasteries supposedly built by Ashoka and several dozen Hindu temples, which were demolished by Islamic invaders around 653/54 CE.[25] Xuanzang also made an account of Zabul (which he called by its Sanskrit name Jaguda), which he describes as mainly Hindus, though also respecting Mahayana Buddhism, which although in the minority had the support of its royals. In terms of other cults, the god Śuna,[26] is described to be the prime deity of the country.[7]

Newly excavated Buddhist stupa at Mes Aynak in Logar Province. Similar stupas have been discovered in neighboring Ghazni Province, including in the northern Samangan Province.

Although they worship various gods, they respect the Triple Gem. There are several hundred monasteries with more than ten thousand monks, all of whom study Mahayana teachings. The reigning king is a man of pure faith who inherited a throne handed down through many generations. He has engaged himself in performing meritorious deeds and is intelligent and studious. There are more than ten stupas built by king Asoka. Deva-temples number several tens, and the heretics, who are in the majority, live together. Their disciples are extremely numerous, and they worship the god Śuna.

- Xuanzang, The Great Tang Records on the Western Regions, 644 CE[7]


He goes on to describe the god as residing on top of a mountain in Zabul called the Śunāsīra mountain, where people came "from far and near and high and low", even attracting kings, ministers, officials and common people of regions where different customs were observed, to pay homage and make donations.[7]

They either offer gold, silver, and rare gems or present sheep, horses, and other domestic animals to the god in competition with each other to show their piety and sincerity. Therefore, gold and silver are scattered all over the ground, and sheep and horses fill up the valley. Nobody dares to covet them, for everyone is eager to make offerings to the god. To those who respect and serve the heretics and practice asceticism whole-heartedly, the god imparts magical incantations, of which the heretics make effective use in most cases; for the treatment of disease, they are quite efficacious.[5]

- Xuanzang, 644 CE

The god Śuna is again mentioned in Islamic sources in the recounting of the Saffarid conquest of Zabulistan, in the Arabic rendering Zūn (Arabic: زون). These sources mention two temples, one at Zamindawar and one at Sakkawand. The temple at Sakkawand was sacked and plundered in 870 CE.[27][28]

"It is related that, Amru Lais conferred the governorship of Zabulistan on Fardghan and sent him there at the head of four thousand horses. There was a large place of worship of the God Zhun in the country, which was called Sakawand, and people used to come on pilgrimage to the Idols of that place. When Fardaghan arrived in Zabulistan he led his army against it, took the temples broke the idols in pieces, and overthrew the idolators. Some of the plunder he distributed among the troops, the rest he sent to Amru Lais."[29]

"Fardaghan, the governor of Zabulistan region around Ghazni under Amr ibn Layth, plundered Sakawand, a place of pilgrimage to God Zhun, which was within the kingdom of the Shahis."[30]

"The activities of the Saffarid brothers on the Indian frontier attracted special attention in the Caliphate thanks to the care they took to send exotic presents from the plunder to the Abbasid court. Yaqub, for instance, at one time sent fifty gold and silver idols from Kabul to the caliph Al-Mutamid who dispatched them to Mecca. Another set of Idols lavishly decorated with jewels and silver, sent by him, Amr in 896 from Sakawand (a place in the Logar valley between Ghazni and Kabul which the sources describe as a pilgrimage centre dedicated to God Zhun), caused a sensation in Baghdad on account of their strangeness."[31]

Sakawand a pilgrimage centre[edit]

Sakawand was a major centre of Hindu pilgrimage.[27][28]

"It is related that, Amru Lais conferred the governorship of Zabulistan on Fardghan and sent him there at the head of four thousand horses. There was a large place of worship of the God Zhun in the country, which was called Sakawand, and people used to come on pilgrimage to the Idols of that place. When Fardaghan arrived in Zabulistan he led his army against it, took the temples broke the idols in pieces, and overthrew the idolators. Some of the plunder he distributed among the troops, the rest he sent to Amru Lais."[29]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Keay 2000, p. 203: The Hindu Shahis, and in the late ninth century great was [their fame] ... in 870 Kabul itself was captured [lost] ... But in the Panjab they consolidated their kingdom and established a new capital first at Hund.


  1. ^ a b Minorsky 2015, p. 112.
  2. ^ Leyden & Erskine 1921, p. 8.
  3. ^ a b c d e Rezakhani 2017, p. 115.
  4. ^ Minorsky 2015, p. 110.
  5. ^ a b c d Minorsky 2015, p. 346.
  6. ^ Definition of jāguḍa n.d.
  7. ^ a b c d e Li 1995.
  8. ^ Minorsky 1937, p. 165.
  9. ^ Mustawfi 1919.
  10. ^ Wink 1996, pp. 112–114.
  11. ^ ḠAZNĪ – Encyclopaedia Iranica.
  12. ^ (1).
  13. ^ a b c Vondrovec 2014.
  14. ^ (2).
  15. ^ The Gupta Empire and India (320 AD – 750AD) n.d.
  16. ^ Wink 2002, p. 112.
  17. ^ Bosworth 1975, p. 111.
  18. ^ Sehrai, Fidaullah (1979). Hund: The Forgotten City of Gandhara, p. 2. Peshawar Museum Publications New Series, Peshawar.
  19. ^ The Shahi Afghanistan and Punjab, 1973, pp. 1, 45–46, 48, 80, Dr D.B. Pandey; The Úakas in India and Their Impact on Indian Life and Culture, 1976, p. 80, Vishwa Mitra Mohan – Indo-Scythians; Country, Culture and Political life in early and medieval India, 2004, p. 34, Daud Ali.
  20. ^ Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1954, pp. 112 ff; "The Shahis of Afghanistan and Punjab", 1973, p. 46, Dr D.B. Pandey; The Úakas in India and Their Impact on Indian Life and Culture, 1976, p. 80, Vishwa Mitra Mohan – Indo-Scythians.
  21. ^ Mehta, Jaswant Lal, "Advanced Study in The History of Medieval India Vol 1", pp31
  22. ^ Medieval India Part 1 by Satish Chandra Page 17
  23. ^ a b c d e f Holt, Lambton & Lewis 1977, p. 3.
  24. ^ a b c Ameer Nasir-ood-deen Subooktugeen.
  25. ^ (3).
  26. ^ Morgenstierne 2003.
  27. ^ a b Mishra 1972, pp. 42–43.
  28. ^ a b Elliot 1953, p. 20.
  29. ^ a b Jamiu-l-Hikayat of Muhammad Uffi Page 175 from The History of India told by its own Historians H M Elliot and Dowson Volume 2
  30. ^ Majumdar 1964, p. 113.
  31. ^ Wink 2002, p. 124.


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