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Kandahar of the Arab Conquest

S W Helms

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Old Kandahar is a large, impressive ruin field near Afghanistan’s modern ‘second’ city, bearing the same name. For years the site has been central to many arguments about the most ancient geography and history of the region. It has been identified with an Alexandria/ Alexandropolis, referring to the conquest of Alexander the Great.

For the Islamic period the excavations on behalf of the Society for Afghan Studies have revealed some striking new evidence, particularly for the period of the Arab Conquest during the later 7th and early 8th century. This paper outlines some of these emerging new arguments and suggests some tentative additions to the long story of the toponymy of Central Asian cities.


Much of the early Islamic history of the eastern regions – as-Sind is shrouded in mystery and described in legends. An account, for example, quoted by Ferrier (1857), may be taken as an apocryphal reference to the fortunes of the Arab conquerors of Old Kandahar:

In the year of the Hegira 304 (AD 916), in the Caliphat of Moktader, in digging for the foundation of a tower at Kandahar, a subterranean cave was discovered, in which were a thousand Arab heads, all attached to the same chain, which had evidently remained in good preservation since the year Hegira 70 (AD 689) for a paper with this date upon it was found attached by a silken thread to the ears of the twenty-nine most important skulls, with their proper names.

Similarly, the only certain account of the Arab conquest of al-Qunduhar, which must be Old Kandahar, comes from al-Baladhuri (futuh al-buldan) who died in AD 892, mentally deranged after drinking the juice of the anacardia (baladhur), hence his name. This is quoted as an etiological legend (Enyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd ed.). According to al-Baladhuri the general ‘Abbad ibn Ziyad raided the frontier of aI-Hind from Sijistan (Seistan) in the time of the Umayyad Caliph Mu’awiya’ (AD 661-80) ‘as far as the river Hindmand’ (Murgotten 1924: 212) which probably refers to the Hilmand (the Erymandus of Pliny VI, 61,92; the Haetumant and so on). Ziyad ‘crossed the desert until he came to al-Kunduhar’ (Murgotten 1924: 212), travelling eastwards from ‘Kish’ (cf. al-Istakhri and ibn Hauqal below) across the semi-arid land between the Khash-rud and the Hilmand/ Arghandab confluence about the region of Bost.

AI-Qunduhar of Baladhuri is the earliest mentioned name that our city was to bear for most of its consequent Islamic history. Etymologically there is a problem here that is relevant throughout the city’s most ancient history: that much can be read into a name, and nothing. In Murgotten’s translation, ‘Abbad ibn Ziyad saw at al-Qunduhar ‘the high turbans of the natives, and had some made like them. [In consequence of this] they are called ‘abbadiyah.’ Yet the Arabic has been read in another way: that the city was renamed ‘Abbadiya, after its conqueror (Rawlinson 1849:127; 1873:213; Rescher 1917-23; cf. at-Tabba 1959: 210).

Whether the city was renamed or merely continued as al-Qunduhar famed for its tall turbans, all that we can glean from this and other accounts of the Conquest is that the city did not then feature as an important centre. Bost, Herat, Ghazni and Kabul among others still known today are listed, but with the exception of Baladhuri, never al-Qunduhar. That name does not reappear until the Ghaznavid period and then only in poetry, some of which was written specifically for those Seljuk rulers during the early 11th and late 12th centuries (Wallbrecht in Fischer et al. 1976: 295ff.).

Figure 1: South-central Afghanistan. Click to Enlarge.

Still on the etymological side of the problem: how far back in the city’s history can one take its name? The allegation that Kandahar (Pushtu) or Qandahar (Arabic and Farsi) comes somehow from Alexander the Great (via Iskandarabad for example) has been long rejected. That somehow one can make Kandahar out of (Helms 1982) may be possible, but rather far-fetched at present. The stem Kand  or Kund, as in many Central Asian city names (Samarkand, Tashkent, etc.) variously meaning fortress or simply place, can in the first place add little more than typifying a durable and common practice. Its source in Avestan literature  ‘fortress’ in Iranian epics, or Old Iranian kan (to dig) kand(a), Avesta kanta, Sogdian kanth or Choresmian kath from katha, meaning perhaps ‘fortress’ merely underlines this while adding little of real applicable historical value (Vogelsang 1981 and pers. comm.).

Returning to early Islamic sources, Mas’udi’s (died AD 956) note on Kandahar in the Indian Kingdom of Gandhara is perhaps still the best origin for our city’s long-lived Islamic name. He says ‘it was from this Kandahar that the name was carried to the settlement of the Gandharians on the banks of the Arghastan’ which afterwards became famous as the modern Kandahar. This Indian Kandahar, according to al.Baladhurl (futuh al.buldan: 445) was taken by Hisham ibn ‘Amr at-Taghlibi, the governor of Sind under the Abbasid al-Mansur. Hisham threw down the

‘Budd’ and built a mosque in its place, repeating perhaps an act that caused the Gandharians to flee westwards when the capital of Gandhara was captured by the Hephtalites, according to the Chinese pilgrim Sung-yun who visited the region about AD 520. Thus, the begging bowl of Buddha in the Wais shrine of Kandahar could be regarded as a relic of those times and the existence of a Buddhist Stupa and Vihara at the summit above Old Kandahar take on even more meaning for this period.

So far as the Conquest is concerned – to reiterate – Old Kandahar is not noted while other places are. Arachosia, the most ancient name known of the province now called Kandahar (and occasionally also Seistan), or ar-Rukhkhaj (see below), was taken by ‘Abd ur-Rahman via several cities such as Bost (or Bust) which later became mints (under the Saffarids). It was not until the destruction of Bust by the Ghorid ‘Ala ad-Din Jahan in AD 1150 that Kandahar again rose to importance, at least in name, as al-Qunduhar. Shams ad-Din II, the Kast ruler of Herat, is stated by Khwandamir to have besieged Kandahar about 1278, suggesting that by that time Kandahar was once again a capital city.

The subsequent history of the city is one of continual sieges and changes of government. It was conquered about AD 1383 by Timur (Sharifudin Ali 1723), who bestowed it upon his grandson Pir Muhammad. It was part of the Kingdom of Husain Baikhara of Herat and the name Kandahar first appears as a mint on his coins. Under HIusain, the Arghun chief Dhu ‘I-Nun Beg obtained the governorship of Zamindawar and made Kandahar his capital. Babur drove Nun Beg’s son Shah Beg Arghun out of the city in AD 1507 (Leyden 1921; Beveridge 1922), but Shah Beg retook it only to lose it again to Babur in 1522. An inscription commemorating this victory can still be seen above the Chihil Zina at the northern end of the Qaitul Ridge at Old Kandahar (Darmesteter 1890). Thereafter Kandahar remained in Mughal hands although always regarded by the Safawids as properly belonging to Khorasan. In 1535 the Persians unsuccessfully besieged the city. Kamran had succeeded Babur in Kabul and Kandahar, and his brother Humayan besieged Kandahar with the aid of a Persian army and after its fall made it over to his allies. But then, typically, he re-took the city for himself. Early in Akbar’s reign Tahmasp Shah took Kandahar (1556) but Akbar re-took it in 1594. Then, finally, the Persians invested the city and took it from Jahangir in 1621 and, but for a short Mughal interval when Shah Jahan’s army occupied the city in 1637, Kandahar remained in Persian hands from 1648 onwards under Shah Abbas II. There were two other major sieges, both unsuccessful and, according to the records, typical of Afghan conflicts and prodromic of the later British troubles in 1842. The city remained under the Safawi Monarchy until the rise of the Ghilzai tribe under Mir Wais, which resulted in the invasion of Persia. Mahmud (Ghilzai) became Shah of Persia and the city of Kandahar was ruled by his brother Husain – who cal1ed it Husainabad – until finally it was totally destroyed by the vengeance of the Persians under Nadir Shah in 1738 (Lockhart 1938). The population of the conquered city was forced to move to Nadir Shah’s erstwhile siege camp to the east which was called Nadirabad. The final disposition of settlements is illustrated quite accurately in a contemporary manuscript page (Arne 1947).

After the events of 1738 this ‘circum-urbation’ continued with the foundation of what was to become the modern Kandahar. In about 1747 Ahmad Shah Durrani had laid out a typical 18th-century grid-iron town some kilometres to the north of Nadirabad which he called Ahmadshahi: ‘ashraf ‘ul-bilad or ‘the foremost of cities’. Kandahar was the capital of Afghanistan until 1774, when Timur Shah moved the centre of government to Kabul. Since that time Kandahar has been the so-called second city of Afghanistan and the capital of the province bearing the same name: a fact that may be relevant in terms of a pattern for reconstructing the long sequence of names back as far as the Achaemenid period. The city, when it was important enough to be called thus, was either named after its most recent conqueror and retained that name for as long as he or his dynasty held power, or it bore a more general name, perhaps related to ethnic content, which was also the name of the province.

Kandahar often lay astride a boundary: from the earliest recorded history (Old Persian Harahuvatis/Arachosia and India), through the Greek-Mauryan period, to the Indo-Scythian/ Indo-Parthian-Kushan times, up to the Persian-Mughal conflicts of the 17th century onwards – up to even very recent history when the interests of Russia and America met symbolically at Kandahar, where the Russian concrete of the trunk road changes to American asphalt.


Excavations at Old Kandahar under the auspices of the Society for Afghan Studies began in 1974 and continued until 1978 (Whitehouse 1978; McNicoll 1978; Helms in prep., 1978, 1979a, 1979b, 1982) when the history of Afghanistan took another, predictable turn. The first two seasons were limited to specific tasks: the first a cut through the eastern fortifications, the second a series of unrelated sondages. Results from these two preliminary essays complement the subsequent work of three seasons, the cut by Whitehouse being the most useful for the earlier, pre-Islamic military architecture of the city. McNicoll’s sondages uncovered a large amount of later Islamic material (Crowe 1978).

Figure 2 Old Kandahar, showing areas of excavation. Click to Enlarge.

Excavation strategy demanded extensive exploration in depth as well as selective clearance around some of the major architectural features still visible on the surface. Most of the information uncovered pertains to the early historical stages of the site: that is to say, even the most monumental remains — with the exception of the Buddhist monument – belong to the pre-Achaemenid period through the Achaemenid/Greek era up to the Indo-Parthian domination of the region. The architecture of these periods dictated the shape of the city up to its final destruction in 1738. Thus sadly very little of the area belonging to the later history of the city was examined. Yet enough was done to indicate very broadly certain changes in the fortune of the city throughout its history. We can now say, quite confidently, that its floruit came early on, well before the advent of Islam. Indeed it seems that after about the 3rd century (AD) Kandahar became a lesser city, something that in retrospect appears to be indicated in the documentary history cited above.

Kandahar revived a little during the later Islamic period; its final form – no longer at our ruin field – earning the somewhat undeserved name ‘the foremost of cities’, cited as such by many European travellers, one of whom may have witnessed its splendour during the Mughal sieges of the middle of the 17th century (Tavernier 1676). At that time the city’s importance – as so often before – lay in its geographical position: on the easiest road between (Mughal) India and (Safawid) Persia, at the crossroads also of the route north past Ghazni to the western spur of the Hindu Kush (Kabul) and the network of roads to Bactria and the Central Asian Steppes (Transoxiana) and the Indus Valley past Jalalabad. It is this position that can be discerned on the earliest map of the region, the Tabula Peutingeriana of the greater later Roman world.

There was probably always a settlement of one kind or another at the site of the ruin field; from its first foundation well before the eastward campaigns of the Achaemenids (Cyrus and particularly Darius about 520 BC) up to the triumph of Nadir Shah and beyond. For the Islamic period as for those preceding – we are dealing with certain geographical and environmental constants: the situation of Old Kandahar surrounded by well watered orchards and fields that made Kandahar the garden or oasis of Afghanistan’s south, just as Jalalabad is the garden of the east. These constants made the region about Kandahar potentially prosperous and its capital – which for the most part was Old Kandahar – a vital possession and as often therefore a ruin field.

In surveying the Islamic history of the city, a history that represents nearly half the time of Kandahar’s existence, one must recognize some serious limitations, of which two are paramount. The total destruction of much of the later levels at the site during the many sieges and subsequent reconstructions, especially since 1738, has left precious little evidence. Second, the evidence that has been recovered is still largely undigested. This preliminary account should therefore be regarded in this light. Only the very surface of some very interesting yet vexing questions can be presented at this time. For that reason I have limited myself to a survey of our evidence by setting its key discoveries against the necessarily cursory summary of known documentation, and limit myself further to the period up to the Ghaznavid dynasty. Kandahar’s history thereafter is less problematical.


The later history of Kandahar may be divided somewhat arbitrarily into five broad sections: the very nebulous period between the clearly stratified deposits in the city and the first definitely Islamic layers, the Conquest period from about AD 650 onward, the period of Ghaznavid rule, the Mongols and finally the see-sawing politics following the conquest by Babur at the beginning of the 16th century.

اړوند پوسټونه

The first period concerns roughly eight hundred years in terms of stratigraphy – there appears to be a ‘gap’- and about the same amount in terms of documentary evidence. In various trenches the latest pre-Islamic layers belong to the beginning of the Sasanian dominance in the region (coins of Ardeshir and Shapur and Shapur I: up to ca. AD 250); the earliest dated Islamic ones to the Ghaznavid period, represented by a coin of Maudud (1041-8). On the documentary side we might cite Isidore of Charax’ Parthian Stations, written towards the end of the 1st century (AD), as the best-known geographical source marking the (near-) end of the pre-Islamic occupation as excavated so far. The far end of the ‘gap’ may be represented by the various accounts of the Conquest (al-Baladhuri; Yaqut) written some years after the events in question: aI-Baladhuri in the 10th century and Yaqut in the 13th. This is the barest evidence in the strictest ‘archaeological’ and historical senses: and yet there is more, to close the ‘gap’. There is also the striking phenomenon of toponymy. Isidore speaks of          (Isid. � 19), that is ‘a city populated by Greeks, called Alexandropolis’ [or Alexandria — cf. Tarn 1951; Fischer 1967; Bernard 1974, among others] the capital of the province Arachosia near a river named Arachotos. In the Conquest stories we read variously of ar-rukhkhaj/-rukhkhadh (Ibn Rusta: 105) and ruhwadh (Muqaddasi: 50,292) = Arachosia = (among other spellings) Harahuvatis. At the very least, then, the region about Kandahar retained its name throughout: over 1,500 years. Whether the ruin field was a city – or even occupied is another matter. Al-Qunduhar, as we saw, appears only once in the records.

The only admissible evidence – in the strictest sense – concerning the ca. 800-year ‘gap’ to hand so far comes from several graves excavated by McNicoll (1978) which produced silver drachms of Kobad I current in the 6th century (MacDowall 1978: 51). These graves lay in area S which, for various reasons, we now regard as an extra-mural area, at least throughout the pre-Islamic history of Kandahar (Fig. 2). At this stage, then, all that can be said is that the evidence points to a drastic reduction in both the political importance and the population of the city sometime after the beginning of the Sasanian period. This is reflected in the apparent lack of a definite name for the settlement, even if one accepts the Indo-Parthian name  as a potential identity, even if we quote again the Islamic sources regarding the Gandharians about the 5th century.

Two additional and very tentative items of evidence might be noted. Ceramic finds from a deep sounding on the Citadel (area C) appear to narrow the ‘gap’. The beginning is about the same as elsewhere at the site, but the end may be as early as the 9th century, that being the earliest date one might give to lustre wares of which one small example was found. A second indication of at least some continuity on the provincial level is a connection between Isidore’s  (� 19) in Arachosia and the Nestorian bishopric of Roukout during the 6th century (Chabot 1902: 343, 681). Altogether this is not much more than reiterating that although life continued in the countryside, at the ruin field very little has remained to give us a history.

Yet al-Qunduhar specifically and ar-rukhkhaj generally do feature in the accounts of the Islamic Conquest of Afghanistan from about AD 650 onwards: and as a not insignificant obstacle to progress east and north. The apocryphal story quoted in the beginning of this essay aside, that of ibn Ziyad; if al-Baladhuri was indeed speaking of our Kandahar, which is likely  – notes a number of Muslim casualties and goes on to quote ibn Mufarrigh (Murgotten 1924: 213):

How many a footprint in the jungles and the land of India,
And tunics of the unburied slain
In Qunduhar. Yea, of these whose scroll was sealed
In Qunduhar, none brought back the news.

Figure 3: 7th-century Conquest of Persia. Click to Enlarge

From other campaigns of the 7th century we often read about the hard progress of the Islamic forces under the leadership of various governors of Seistan against local semi-autonomous enclaves, the best documented of which are the Shahis. For example ‘Abd ‘ur-Rahman ibn Samurah, after conquering Bust, went next to Khushshak, which is probably Kushk-i-Nakhud on the river of the same name, whose people capitulated. He goes on to ar-Rukhkhaj. Murgotten translates this section as ‘He met with opposition, but overcame it and conquered the city’ (my italics). The Arabic text (cf. at-Tabba 1959) unfortunately does not mention a ‘city’ as such; if it did we would have a definite name for our ruin field in the time of Uthman (ca. 644-56). ‘Abd ‘ur-Rahman then advances to Dhabulistan (or Zabulistan), whose inhabitants had broken a treaty, and thence to Kabul. This and other stories (i.e. Ratbil) give us a lively historical background of the region between Bost and Kabul, presumably along the road as it still runs today, which was then called tariq ar-rukhkhaj (the road of ‘Arachosia’) for at least its middle section about our ruin field.

But can our excavations add anything substantial to this history, having admitted to an embarrassing ‘gap’ in occupation on the urban sector of the site?

We were very fortunate in discovering a large hoard of coins sealed into the plaster of a miniature stupa. This structure was the devotional focus of the main shrine room in the Vihara which, with its still impressive Stupa, dominates the heights south of Old Kandahar. This area was ultimately incorporated into the city, probably long after Babur’s conquest. The Buddhist monument became a gun-position then.

The hoard is still being studied (MacDowall in prep.), but several signal aspects can already be presented as definitive evidence regarding precisely the nebulous period of the so-called ‘gap’. Moreover, this evidence is remarkably picturesque and poignant from a strictly political historical view. It is also opposite in rounding out the long confrontation and partial fusion of some of the world’s great religions at Old Kandahar, which may have begun with Zarathustra, the Greek pantheon (Fraser 1979), the Buddha, the Nestorian Church and finally the confrontation and for a time coexistence of Gautama and Muhammad.

Over a hundred coins in the hoard represent what until now have been called ‘hunnish rulers’ of the 7th and 8th centuries (Goebl 1968), whose coinage copied later Sasanian types both in the style of the ruler’s portrait and the depiction of the fire altar on the obverse side. We might now be able to add more. One coin of the Umayyad Caliphs was found stratified with the hoard. A second Umayyad coin appeared beneath a collapsed roof (with Buddhist paintings) in an annexe of the Vihara. In addition to this most useful evidence a Chinese coin fragment appeared in the hoard. This has been tentatively ascribed to the range of the Sui dynasty (580-612) to the T’ang dynasty (618-906). Altogether this numismatic evidence gives us a date about the late 7th to early 8th century, that is to the period of the Islamic Conquest of Persia and Afghanistan. The major currency – which includes the mysterious Napki Malik represents one of the semi-autonomous enclaves probably centred somewhere between Kabul and Bost. A similar currency is now known from the Italian excavations at Tepe Sardar (Ghazni) (MacDowall pers. com.).

Historically these rulers in conflict with the advance of Islam have been the Hindu Shahis who, in turn, were competing with Turkic entities, the Turki Shahis. These latter numbered among their kings individuals whose names carry a common root: Vrahitigin and Tigin Shah, for example. They were Buddhists who also venerated Hindu gods. Moreover they appear to be part of the almost timeless demographic pattern of Central Asia since according to al-Biruni they were Turks of Tibetan origin descendant over sixty generations from Kanik, Kanishka of the Kushan dynasty, who in turn were the (Lesser) Yueh Chih from the north-eastern Central Asian steppes. The same pattern repeated itself some centuries after the Islamic Conquest in the Mongol conquest beginning with Gengis Khan.

A little before this, however, about the beginning of the 8th century, central/southern Afghanistan became dependent on Zabul, presumably the Dhabulistan/Zabulistan quoted above. It is, therefore, our preliminary supposition that the hoard from Kandahar’s Buddhist monument might belong to these very rulers of Zabulistan and that the settlement below the shrine survived, perhaps as a lesser town than before, for the time being.

Subsequent history of central/southern Afghanistan is represented in the Turki Shahis already noted above, who were succeeded by the Hindu Shahis ruling from Kabul. Yaqub took Kabul in 870 and more or less marked the beginning of at least general religious stability. Strong Islamic rulers established themselves at Ghazni after one Aluptegin took the fort there in 962. He was a Turkish slave and by name at least related to the Turki Shahis. He was succeeded by his general Sebuktegin (977-97) in a domain that was to become the Ghaznavid Empire.

Here we may be able to link this albeit vague chain of events and its series of political entities more directly to Kandahar. Maps of Western Asia retain the name of an Islamic city enticingly close to Kandahar up to the 18th century (Fischer 1967:191) and that city name is Tecniabad/Tiginabad/Takinabad: the city of Tigin or Takin. Might this not be a foundation or rather re-naming of a city controlled by the Turki Shahis? or a little before that by Turkic rulers, perhaps including those of Zabulistan? Islamic sources might provide further localization.

Figure 4: Islam Atlas – surat Sijistan.

The earliest geographical compilation referring to the landscape during the 9th and 10th centuries – that is, as close to the time under discussion as we can get – is an atlas of the Islamic world, based on various itineraries (cf. Miller 1926). There the name ar-rukhkhaj appears together with iqlim rukhkhaj – specifically ‘region’ or ‘district’ of ‘Arachosia’ – as well as the unequivocal identification of Bust -Banj(a)way-G(h)azna on a map of Seistan (surat Sijistan) (Fig. 4). Al-Qunduhar is not mentioned.

The 10th-century writer al-Istakhri (died 951) describes the route from Bost to Ghazna in al-masalik wa’l-mamalik as follows: Bost to Banjaway, the capital of ar-Rukhkhaj (my italics), four days and then one more day to Takin-abad.

If Banj(a)way is identified with the modern place Panjway (cf. Fischer 1967: (?Old Iranian = ‘five rivers flow to Sarasvati’, Sarasvati = Arghandab just as the name Panjab denotes such a system further east), some 20 kilometres west of Old Kandhar, Takin-abad/Tiginabad lies one march beyond, which is very close indeed to our ruin field, perhaps no more than 10 kilometres further east. I have taken roughly equal distances per day and this is not necessarily a hard rule since slightly longer marches can be derived from other itineraries. Thus Baihaqi, writing in the 11th century, gives the route from Ghazna to Herat: Ghazna to Tiginabad ten days, Tiginabad to Bost four days — and now no mention of Banj(a)way.

Figure 5 illustrates how Old Kandahar is very nicely ‘bracketed ‘ by the two itineraries. But given such basically inaccurate measurements, can one really make a definite identification?

Probably not: although our coin hoard has made the idea of Takin-abad/Tiginabad as an important southern Turkic city close to our ruin field more than likely. Furthermore, as I noted earlier, there is a remarkable conservatism in the various place-names of the immediate region about Old Kandahar; or rather, a striking thematic continuity.

Figure 5 Kandahar region (tariq ar-rukhkhaj); itineraries of al-Istakhri and Baihaqi. Click to Enlarge.

To conclude this preliminary survey of the early Islamic period at Old Kandahar, let us take this question of toponymy a step further. Marquart and De Groot (1915) suggested a relation between Banj(a)way and Takin-Abad in the dual ar-rukhkhajain in a verse by Abu’l-‘Udafir (cf. Ibn Hurdadhbah and al-Mas’udi). Banj(a)way and Takin-abad/Tiginabad could have been twin cities or even twin capitals of the province or district of ar-Rukhkhaj. On the other hand they could represent cities on either side of a boundary: Zabulistan to the east and Seistan to the west. And, finally, one could advance the argument that this abundance of related names may all have applied to our ruin field at one time or another and when conditions changed have been transferred to lesser settlements nearby, the names transmitted less through political motivation than simply folk memory, In this way one might repeat another of Fischer’s (1967) lists of names, all of which share the root ‘white’: Isidore’s ‘white India’, the 18th-century ‘white city’ (Arne 1947), Ispingaj or ‘white place’ of al-Idrisi (ca, AD 1154) = Asfijai or Asfanjay (Atlas of Islam: Surat Sijistan) and even the Chinese Chih-p’an (AD 1267 -71: cf. Herrmann 1922), With Pottinger’s (1817) Ispeentigh we might tighten the ‘toponymical circle’ about Old Kandahar and equate tigh with tigin.


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