Getting ready for a tour of Uzbekistan, my thoughts inevitably turn to Alexander the Great for this is the territory of Bactria and Sogdiana where he spent nearly three years of his life – almost one-third of his time in Asia. That tells a great deal about the difficulties he encountered in this part of the world. Alexander's kingship lasted twelve years, of which the first two years were needed to settle the affairs in Macedonia and Greece before crossing over to Asia. This means that he conquered the mighty Persian Empire and most of the then known world in only ten years. Consequently, the three years he spent in Central Asia are highly important on his Asian campaign.
To make things easy, I situate Uzbekistan north of Afghanistan which is well-known through the news media, but for the sake of good order, additional logistic information is required. To the southwest of Uzbekistan we find Turkmenistan, to the north Kazakhstan and in the east Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, both entwined with Uzbekistan like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. These borders are pretty well drawn but that was not always the case and definitely not in Alexander’s time. Bactria then was at the far end of the known world where nobody “civilized” wanted to go and where nobody really knew where it started or where it ended. Even a meticulous geographer as Strabo got confused between Bactria and Sogdiana on many occasions.
But to me, this is Alexander country all the same and I am determined to find out as much as I can. Not an easy task, even with the help of Arrian and Curtius who manage to give contradictory accounts using Bactria and Sogdiana randomly. As it turns out, modern historians are not more successful in their endeavors. Rivers are not exact frontiers but seem rather to bring the desert peoples together, and the same goes for mountains where passes serve to commute between different peoples instead of separating them. In the end, I find that the analytical approach of David Engels in his “Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army” makes the most sense. Pending new discoveries, new excavations, and new theories, this is what I’ll go by.
1. Alexander marched his army from Bactra (Balkh in today’s Afghanistan) with heavy losses through the Karakum Desert to reach the Oxus River in pursuit of traitor Bessus, who proclaimed himself king after killing the Persian Great King Darius III.
2. Alexander crossed the Oxus River (today’s Amu Darya) on his way to Samarkand, probably around Termiz although the exact location is still being debated (see David Engels “Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonia Army” and Robin Lane Fox in “Alexander the Great” as opposed to the latest discoveries made by E.V. Rtveladze)
3. Although it was Ptolemy who is said to ride to Nautaca to collect Bessus taken prisoner by local warlords in late June 329 BC, Alexander also crossed the Pamir Mountains between Samarkand and modern Shahr-i-Sabz as Nautaca is called now.
4. On the way, there is the encounter with the Branchidae, emigrants from Milete which Alexander massacred because of treason.
5. Alexander moved to the end of the Persian Empire on the Jaxartes River (modern Syr Darya) through the Iron Gates (the only road east out of Maracanda), over Jizzak and Uratube.
6. In July 329 BC, Alexander was building his Alexandria-the-Furthermost, modern Khodjend in Tajikistan, while taking seven Sogdian cities, including Cyropolis. Alexander was seriously wounded.
7. In early autumn of 329 BC, Alexander marched to Maracanda in three days and nights to see Spitamenes vanish in thin air. He re-crossed the Oxus to winter in Bactra. Arrival of reinforcements from Macedonia.
8. In Spring 328 BC, Alexander splits up his army in five sections for a clean-up operation. Hephaistion sweeps the Panj River Valley, Ptolemy the Vaksh River, Perdiccas the Karfernigan, Coenus the Surkhan and Alexander marches to Maracanda where his generals will join him afterwards.
9. Until August 328 BC Alexander is busy subduing the Sogdians once again. In mopping up the Polytimetus Valley (today’s Zeravshan River), Alexander probably went as far as Bukhara and even Merv in today’s Turkmenistan where he founded his Alexandria Margiana (it seems no “Alexandria” was ever founded without the king being present).
10. In Autumn 328 BC, the head of Spitamenes is brought to Alexander. The army is being divided between Bactra (Balkh), Nautaca and Maracanda (Samarkand) because Spitamenes had destroyed the winter provisions in Bactra. Alexander spent the winter of 328/327 BC in Maracanda-Afrasiab. Murder of Cleitos.
11. Early 327 BC Alexander attacks the Sogdian Rocks of Ariamazes and Sisimithres (= Chorienes). Arrian and Curtius disagree on the location and on the chronology.
12. Maybe the most important event is Alexander’s marriage with the beautiful Roxane, daughter of a local Bactrian warlord.
Plenty of history to track down and I’m confident that my imagination will do the rest. After all, since no writer neither from antiquity nor from modern times has managed to sift out facts from fiction, I feel entitled to draw my own conclusions based on what I’m going to see – why not?
For those who are not entirely familiar with history at this stage of Alexander’s campaign, let me place it briefly into context.
It all started when the Great King Darius fled from the Battlefield of Gaugamela and Alexander set in the pursuit from Ecbatana in mid-July 330 BC, covering a rough 645 km in only eleven days in spite of the summer heat – an exploit on its own. It was, however, the Bactrian ruler Bessus who captured Darius and left him more dead than alive alongside the road to die just before Alexander caught up with him. Bessus, feeling strong and powerful by his deeds didn’t hesitate to proclaim himself King of Persia under the name of Artaxerxes V. This meant that Alexander, although he had been victorious at Gaugamela, still had to eliminate Bessus/Artaxerxes if he wanted to be the true King of Persia.
Before winter made the high passes of the Hindu Kush impassable, Bessus crossed the mountains north into Bactria, using the policy of scorched-earth in an attempt to make it impossible for Alexander to follow him. But evidently, he underestimated Alexander's determination and stubbornness!
With his 32,000-strong army, Alexander led the way, not along the shortest route across the Hindu Kush as Bessus had expected, but over the 3,550-meter high Khawak Pass, the longest but lowest pass that provided the best chances for forage. In spite of this practical choice, he and his army had to march through snow drifts and biting winds, suffering from snow blindness, altitude sickness, and chronic fatigue and it took them 17 days to cover the 47 miles. It is not difficult to picture everybody’s relief when they finally reached the green fertile valleys of Bactria and made camp in Bactra (Balkh in today’s Afghanistan) where they found plenty of provisions since because of his scorched earth policy, Bessus had all the food and forage stored within the city walls – a true bonus for Alexander as the city opened its gates to him!
After his men enjoyed a well-deserved rest, Alexander moved north towards the Oxus River in late June 329 BC, still on Bessus' trail. Instead of frostbites and bitter cold, he now was stumbling through an inhospitable and waterless desert, the Karakum. This is about where I pick up Alexander’s trail…