Alexander the Great never reached his goal of conquering all the inhabited earth. This was simply beyond his army’s endurance. But he did get as far east as ancient Bactria, in modern Afghanistan. More than two thousand years later, archaeologists have begun to recover evidence of Greek settlers Alexander left behind at a village called Ai Khanoum. Unfortunately, much of what remains in this remote area of war-torn Afghanistan is being looted from the site and plundered from museums. The tale is nonetheless heroic, even if it ends in tragedy.
History, it is said, is a huge mirror, a reflection of who we were and are. If so, archaeology is the painstaking recovery of pieces of that fragile looking glass, and the life of Alexander the Great (356–323 B.C.) represents but a tiny sherd of that mirror.1
Archaeologists have turned up Alexander’s traces in Egyptian temples, Apulian vases, Etruscan reliefs, Pompeian mosaics, Gandharan sculptures and medieval medallions—as well as in a village in Afghanistan. Perhaps someday they will “unearth” his image from the remains of the opulent Alexander Suite in Donald Trump’s Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City.
Over and over, succeeding generations of Greek heroes, Roman imperialists, saintly medieval kings and modern totalitarian dictators have recognized reflections of their own glory in Alexander’s grand, panoramic career.2
The Alexander I see was neither a ruthless monster nor a poster-boy for world peace and brotherhood.3 He was cultured and charismatic but also cunning and cruel. He grew up in a dangerous world of war and intrigue that gave no quarter to real or imagined weakness. His native Macedonia in northern Greece embraced the old warrior code of Homer’s Iliadand Odyssey: No challenge went unanswered, no insult passed unpunished. Men fought hard, hunted recklessly and drank epically—monarchs most of all.
Macedonian kings did not order their armies into battle; they led them. Alexander, like his father Philip II, bore the conspicuous scars of brutal combat as badges of leadership. A mutilated eye, arm, collarbone and leg distinguished Philip among friends and foes. Alexander endured wounds to the head, neck, shoulder, chest, thigh, leg and ankle. Never safe, the threat of assassination also haunted these restless heads of state. Alexander witnessed the murder of his father during a royal procession in 336 B.C.; in later years, his mother, two wives and son would also be killed. Every one of Alexander’s relatives died at the hands of assassins.4
Although bred for battle, Alexander nonetheless received the finest education possible under the tutelage of the philosopher Aristotle. The young heir-apparent proved himself a devoted student of Greek culture, and as king he was a lavish patron of the arts. He built or refurbished many shrines and temples, founded cities (usually named Alexandria) and vied to outdo the deeds of his avowed ancestors, both mortal and divine: Zeus, Herakles, Achilles.
That Alexander set out to conquer Greece’s traditional enemy, the Persian Achaemenid Empire,a should come as no surprise. The conquest of Persia had been his father’s unfulfilled dream, and the promise of gold and glory fired the ambitious young king’s imagination. But the magnitude of Alexander’s successes—the swiftness and decisiveness of his victories—remains shocking even after 23 centuries.
Backed by a shaky coalition of Greek city-states, Alexander led an army of 37,000 troops against Persia in the spring of 334 B.C. He soon rocked the cradle of civilization with astonishing victories: the Battle of Granicus in 334, the Battle of Issus in 333, the Siege of Tyre in 332 and the Battle of Gaugamela in 331. In just four years, Alexander overran and occupied the rich territories of the modern Middle East, including Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Iran. The Persian “King of Kings,” Darius III, lay dead, his palaces plundered and his armies—which had always outnumbered Alexander’s—scattered. At the age of 26, Alexander had become the mightiest, wealthiest and most celebrated conqueror of all time.5
But he did not stop there. Although his army was anxious to return home to Greece, Alexander decided to push ever eastward toward the fringes of the then-known world. How he drove his men through the hardships to come remains a mystery of military science.
For the next three years (329–327 B.C.), Alexander’s forces struggled desperately to win control of Bactria, the harsh, inhospitable region of modern Afghanistan.6 At times, weather seemed the Greeks’ worst enemy. A lack of provisions and waist-deep snows in the Hindu Kush mountains compelled the men to eat their baggage animals raw; howling blizzards in the Pamir Mountains actually froze many Greeks where they stood or slept. In summer the burning plains of Bactria claimed more lives than any battle fought by these long-suffering troops. Dehydration and brackish water debilitated everyone, including Alexander.
All the while, the local peoples put up fierce resistance. First led by Bessus, a kinsman of the dead King Darius, and later more ably by one of Bessus’s generals named Spitamenes, the native populations engaged the Greeks in a new style of warfare—the hit-and-run guerrilla combat that still works so well in Afghanistan. In 328 B.C., while Greeks back home gathered to celebrate the 113th Olympic Games, Alexander’s army competed in a much grimmer contest 3,000 miles away. They stormed mountain fortresses and chased mobile insurgents all over the region. The Greek soldiers faced stern opposition, with enemies coming at them from all sides; it was like trying to put out a forest fire that kept breaking out in different areas. In an essay on Alexander, the Greek historian Plutarch (c. 46–120 A.D.) chooses a different metaphor:
But if the spirit of Alexander had not been great, had not drawn strength from virtue, had not defied Fortune, then would he not have wearied and given up marshalling and arming his troops, besieging cities, chasing down subjects in numerous revolts, desertions, and riots, pursuing faithless kings to Bactra, Maracanda, and Sogdiana as if he were cutting off the heads of the Hydra which always grew back in renewed wars.7
Under the strain, some of Alexander’s men became mutinous and the king himself cracked: He murdered a Macedonian general named Cleitus the Black—who had once saved his life in battle—simply for insulting him at a dinner party.8
To retain control of the region, Alexander settled his men in military colonies at strategic points in Bactria. These soldiers lamented their orders, which required them to spend their careers living so far from the sun-splashed beaches and balmy climate back home in Greece. In 327 B.C. Alexander finally enjoyed a change of fortune. Spitamenes’s own exhausted troops (or his unhappy wife, as one source reports) betrayed him and delivered his head to the Greek camp.9 Seizing the moment, Alexander married the daughter of a captured Bactrian leader, Oxyartes, to win favor among the disheartened locals. His young bride, Roxanne, may seem a romantic figure, but she was a mere pawn queened by her father and husband in a move toward peace in central Asia. Leaving behind 13,500 reluctant soldier-settlers to garrison Bactria, Alexander headed east once again.
In 326 B.C., Alexander’s troops encountered yet another hostile world in northwest India. The monsoons swamped the invading army and made the five great rivers of the Punjab nearly impassable. On the far side of one of these raging torrents, the Hydaspes River, the forces of a defiant rajah named Porus lay in wait. His elephant corps, the panzers of the ancient past, complicated Alexander’s task immensely but did not stop the Greeks. Alexander outmaneuvered the Indians, ferried his main army across the river under cover of rain and darkness, and overwhelmed Porus with a surprise dawn attack. After a harrowing fight punctuated by the screams of trampled men and trumpeting elephants, the Indian forces collapsed and Porus was captured.
Unexpectedly, Alexander rewarded the rajah’s bravery by restoring his throne, a rare outcome indeed for an ancient battle. Many historians consider the Battle of the Hydaspes to be Alexander’s greatest victory and compare it to the Norman invasion of Britain or (conversely) the Allied landing at Normandy.10 It turned out to be the last major battle of Alexander’s career. Soon thereafter his weary Greeks begged to turn back. Alexander’s personal goal, reaching the end of the inhabited earth, obviously lay far to the east across the Indian subcontinent, well beyond the limits of his army’s endurance. Grudgingly, the 30-year-old king settled on a less grandiose plan: He would build a fleet and subdue the Indus Valley as far south as the Indian Ocean, then divide his forces and return by land and sea to Babylon.
Still leading by fearless example, Alexander suffered grievously during these last campaigns. Attacking the town of Multan in India, he was the first man over the wall and sustained a life-threatening arrow wound to the chest. Afterward, on his arduous trek westward across the bleak Gedrosian Desert, the king refused water in order to share the suffering of his men. This march cost many lives and left a rare stain on his exemplary record of logistical planning.11
Some modern scholars insist that these hardships drove Alexander to despair, even dementia.12 He put to death some of the high-ranking officials in his imperial government, ordered the Greeks to worship him as a god, mourned excessively the death of his dearest friend, Hephaestion, compelled many of his generals to marry Persian noblewomen and dreamed of improbable conquests across Africa, Asia and Europe. Although his body was battered by war, his mind raced ahead to envision a supranational world under his divine power. Then, swiftly and unexpectedly, Alexander sickened and died in Babylon, probably the victim of either typhus or malaria.13 He was only 32 years old. According to tradition, his final prophetic words were, “I foresee a great funeral contest over me.”
Alexander had single-mindedly carved out an empire ranging from the Adriatic Sea to the borders of India. His ambitious generals gradually killed off all the conqueror’s kinfolk, including Roxanne and her royal son Alexander IV, so that the empire could be whittled into new dynastic kingdoms: Antigonid Macedonia, Seleucid Syria, Ptolemaic Egypt, Attalid Pergamum, Diodotid Bactria and others. Alexander’s remarkable conquests and untimely death gave birth to a new epoch, called the Hellenistic Age (323–30 B.C.); its civilization has generally been considered more like ours than any other in history. We can see in that ancient world similar patterns of imperialism and colonialism, and a comparable array of social and ethnic tensions. Then, as now, economies boomed, scientific discoveries dazzled the public, cults and astrology flourished, and people sought personal liberation. According to one modern scholar, the Hellenistic Age confronts us with “an overpowering sense of déjàvu.”14
There is, however, one notable blind spot in this mirror of history. We can see with some clarity the Mediterranean and Mesopotamian regions of Alexander’s old empire, but the eastern edge has long eluded us.15 Ancient texts tell us simply that Alexander’s legacy in Bactria and India was a troubled one. After Alexander’s death, the unhappy Greeks who had settled in Bactria tried to pack up and leave their posts, but they were compelled to stay under penalty of death by Alexander’s generals, among them Seleucus, the founder of the Seleucid dynasty. In 318 B.C., further east, Greek settlers assassinated Porus (the rajah whom Alexander had conquered and then returned to power), leaving Seleucus little choice but to trade India back to the natives for 500 war elephants. The literary sources tell us little more; they provide only a fantastic image of Greek merchants and mercenaries adrift in central and south Asia—a land beyond history where fierce griffins flew, strange rivers oozed oil and honey, native peoples ate their aging parents, and giant ants heaped up mounds of gold. Ancient geographers and poets wrote of a thousand lost cities in this neverland of monsters and missing Greeks. In the 13th century A.D., Marco Polo sought the lost cities in vain; Chaucer imagined one of their kings, Emetrius, as a man who rode a splendid steed “like Mars,” attended by an entourage of lords, lions and leopards.
When Englishmen arrived in the 19th century to play out the infamous “Great Game” between Czarist Russia and British India, they found the hoary ghosts of Alexander and his army everywhere in Afghanistan. Tribesmen in remote valleys claimed to be the direct descendants of the ancient Greeks; even the ancestors of their horses, it was said, had been sired by Alexander’s famous steed, Bucephalus. Lakes and towns bore many variations of the ubiquitous name Iskendar (Alexander), as did such leaders as Sha Sikander Khan. These tireless legends even trickled into Rudyard Kipling’s tale “The Man Who Would Be King.” Not long ago, a Tadjik native told me about an amateur archaeologist who took a skull he had found to a local museum. “Alexander’s,” the man proudly informed the curator. Pleased by the museum’s eagerness to display his find, the man quickly returned with a smaller skull. “Alexander’s, too,” he reported, “only a little younger!”
Alexander himself will never be found in Afghanistan (the king’s mummy, with one head only, was actually entombed in Alexandria, Egypt). But what of his lost colonists in the Alexandrias of central Asia? What became of the Greeks forced to build a new life in that far-off land?
The scientific search for them began in earnest with the foundation of the Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan (DAFA) in 1922. Alfred Foucher, a French expert on the Greco-Buddhist art found in Gandhara, guided this mission in the belief that Alexander’s colonies in Bactria were the obvious missing link in the evolution of Greek-style art in ancient India (See Rekha Morris, “Imagining Buddha”). Hellenistic cities must have survived in central Asia long after Alexander was gone, but where were they? Foucher excavated in vain. No traces of Greek cities or monumental art turned up anywhere in Afghanistan, forcing the exhausted archaeologist to declare 20 years later that he had been chasing a “mirage.”16 Others continued the search until finally, in 1961, the mirage lifted and revealed a significant piece of the mirror of history near a village named Ai Khanoum.
On a royal hunt in a remote corner of his realm, King Muhammad Zahir Shah of Afghanistan spotted a strange outline in the dry soil between two rivers. Looking down from a hillside at this confluence of the Amu Darya (ancient Oxus) and Kochba rivers, the king could see traces of a well-planned ancient city: A wall and defensive ditch stretched from the hill to the Oxus, broken only by a gateway leading to the main street inside the settlement. The shapes of many large buildings bulged underneath the thin carpet of dirt, and at least one Corinthian column rose up like a signpost of Hellenistic civilization. Here, at last, was Alexander’s elusive legacy in the East.
In 1965, the DAFA commenced full-scale work at Ai Khanoum that continued until the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. During those years, under the very fortunate direction of French archaeologist Paul Bernard, archaeologists wrested the remarkable story of Hellenistic Bactria from the ruins of Ai Khanoum.17
The Greek founder of this colony, which may have been called Alexandria Oxiana,b was a man named Kineas, whose fourth-century B.C. shrine and tomb stood in the heart of the city. Kineas may have been one of Alexander’s soldiers, sent to settle this strategic fortress on the frontiers of Bactria. There are indications of an attack on the site soon after Alexander’s demise, perhaps part of the disturbances that took place when Greek settlers attempted to abandon Bactria. Fifty years later, under the aegis of the Seleucid dynasty, a major building phase began. True to Greek cultural traditions, the later citizens of the city enjoyed a large theater, a gymnasium with a pool, and quantities of olive oil and wine. Papyrus for writing was transported from Egypt.
These ancient Greeks built large, luxurious private homes and a great sprawling palace. Their Greek names and political titles appear on tombstones and government records. To preserve Greek values in this alien land, an Aristotelian philosopher copied the Delphic Maxims in Greece and carried them all the way to Bactria. An inscription found at Ai Khanoum explained to the colonists that these maxims were the wise counsel of earlier Greeks as codified by priests at the sacred site of Delphi. Their closing lines convey the idea of this Hellenic creed “blazing from afar”:
As a youth, be self-controlled.
As an adult, be just.
As an elder, be wise,
As one dying, be without regrets.18
Ancient Ai Khanoum must also have been visited by numerous itinerant merchants and nomads, from both East and West. Archaeologists have found a few ostraca (texts inscribed on potsherds) in Aramaic, a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew that the Persians used for administrative purposes. (Aramaic also influenced the development of contemporary Indian scripts, such as Kharoshthi.)
What of the Bactrians themselves, the natives who fought Alexander and outnumbered the Greek immigrants? Are they reflected in the mirror of history as equal partners at Ai Khanoum or as an exploited underclass? The archaeological record reflects a picture that is disturbingly similar to the ghettos and barrios of our own cities. The Bactrians (ancestors of today’s Tadjik peoples) huddled in single-room houses—well away from the guarded mansions and public buildings of the Greek ruling class. Some Bactrian names appear in lists of the city’s officials, but only in the very lowest ranks and always under Greek supervisors.
Coins minted at Ai Khanoum and other Bactrian sites give us the first real evidence of cultural integration. On these coins, the Greeks introduced images of native deities and even inscriptions in local languages. Square coins, like those favored in India, were also minted. The more valuable the coin, the more purely Greek it tended to be, and some of this money was precious indeed. The largest gold and silver coins ever minted in the ancient world came from the Greek kings of Hellenistic Bactria.
The Bactrian kings condensed as much information as they could onto these portable billboards: royal names, titles, portraits, regalia, religious patronage, dynastic connections and military victories. Their coin inscriptions reveal that new dynasties continued to arise in Bactria. In about 250 B.C., the region rebelled against the Seleucids and established itself as an independent Greek kingdom under Diodotus I and II, an ambitious father and son who fell in turn to Euthydemus I and his family. This next dynasty flourished and carried Greek power back into India, retracing and then surpassing Alexander’s original conquests. One Euthydemid king, Agathocles, honored Alexander’s memory with a special coin. In the second century B.C., the usurper Eucratides—the first Greek king to call himself “the Great”—defeated the Euthydemids, but was then assassinated by his own son around 150 B.C.
All of this in-fighting weakened Hellenistic Bactria. As a result, 200 years after the reign of Alexander, the Greek settlements along the Oxus River were overwhelmed by nomadic invaders from the north.19 The settlement at Ai Khanoum was among the first to be abandoned, its inhabitants fleeing into the mountains or moving south into India.
Lost for 2,000 years, these Hellenistic settlements are vanishing once again—this time, forever.20 In war-ravaged Afghanistan, the tangible traces of Alexander’s legacy are being systematically destroyed. Ai Khanoum lies looted, its buildings cratered into a lunar landscape by clandestine digging, its treasures trucked away for sale. Artifacts excavated by the DAFA and “safely” stored in the National Museum at Kabul have also been plundered; some of these antiquities are now being publicly auctioned on the World Wide Web to collectors in Europe and America.21 So once again the fragile mirror of history has been shattered; its sherds swept up by the greedy among us. We may at least be grateful to archaeology for providing us with a fleeting glimpse of a tumultuous era hauntingly similar to our own.
I dedicate this article to the unsung heroes of the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage.
Frank Holt, a professor of history at the University of Houston