Alexandria's founded by Alexander

Alexandria's founded by Alexander the Great (by year BC): 334 Alexandria in Troia (Turkey) - 333 Alexandria at Issus/Alexandrette (Iskenderun, Turkey) - 332 Alexandria of Caria/by the Latmos (Alinda, Turkey) - 331 Alexandria Mygdoniae - 331 Alexandria (Egypt) - 330 Alexandria in Areia (Herat, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria of the Prophthasia/in Dragiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Arachosia (Kandahar, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Caucasus (Begram, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria of the Paropanisades (Ghazni, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria Eschate or Ultima (Khodjend, Tajikistan) - 329 Alexandria on the Oxus (Ai-Khanoum, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria in Margiana (Merv, Turkmenistan) - 326 Alexandria Nicaea (on the Hydaspes, India) - 326 Alexandria Bucephala (on the Hydaspes, India) - 325 Alexandria Sogdia - 325 Alexandria Rambacia (Bela, Pakistan) - 325 Alexandria Oreitide - 325 Alexandria in Opiene (confluence of Indus & Acesines, India) - 325 Alexandria on the Indus - 325 Alexandria Xylinepolis (Patala, India) - 325 Alexandria in Carminia (Gulashkird, Iran) - 324 Alexandria-on-the-Tigris/Antiochia-in-Susiana/Charax (Spasinou Charax on the Tigris, Iraq) - ?Alexandria of Carmahle? (Kahnu)

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Catching Bessus near today’s Shahrisabz (Central Asia 4)

[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 Maracanda and modern Shahrisabz as Nautaca is called now.]


Nautaca is one of those controversial places where history has lost its trail but most likely it matches modern Shahrisabz or Shahr-i-Sabz, which during the Middle-Ages was also called Kashka (claimed by some to be Karshi). In any case only a rough 50 kilometers separate both towns, both halfway between the Oxus River and Samarkand and I’m not going to settle this matter but stick to Shahrisabz as the Uzbeks generally do. [Edward Rtveladze points out that Nautaca has to be situated on the ancient site of Uzunkir, nine kilometres northwest of modern Kitab]. In any case, this is where the story of Bessus unfolds, the official satrap of Bactria and Sogdiana as well as self-proclaimed King Artaxerxes V, who was caught at Nautaca that I will follow here – with Alexander, of course.

Bessus, moving in his own satrapy, must have felt pretty secure but the truth was entirely different as his self-proclaimed kingship sent out confusing signals to his subjects who now had to choose between King Artaxerxes V and King Alexander. Who was their rightful king? The Bactrians and Sogdians may not have cared much for the faraway King of Persia but the fact remained that Bessus had killed Darius. The news of Alexander’s army marching in pursuit of the Bactrian usurper had evidently not gone unnoticed. Even to Bactrian standards, a king’s murderer had to be avenged and the population eventually chose the side of Alexander. Applying his scorched earth policy, Bessus had ordered all the food and fodder to be stored within the city walls. It is important to realize this for when these cities welcomed Alexander they gave him free access to the food supplies that had been stashed there. This was certainly not what Bessus had intended or expected.

Meanwhile Alexander was marching north, leaving the Oxus River behind him when scouts reported that Bessus had been located. Allied local warlords Spitamenes and Dataphernes managed to capture him and immediately sent word to Alexander, ready to hand him over. This event took place near Nautaca, i.e. at Shahrisabz. Ptolemy was sent to collect Bessus at high speed as Alexander feared that the usurper might be killed before he could punish him properly for regicide. It is said that Ptolemy covered the 170 miles in four days, following the Shirabad River, passing the Iron Gates at Derbent, meaning that he covered an average distance of 42.5 miles a day! Poor horses! Alexander meanwhile rode on to Maracanda.

Arrian tells us that when Ptolemy got hold of Bessus, he sent a messenger to Alexander asking how he should present the prisoner to him. Alexander replied that he wished him to be stripped of his clothes and led in a dog-collar, a sign of disgrace. He should be standing on the right of the road along which he and his army would pass. When Alexander arrived on the spot he asked Bessus why he had so shamefully treated Darius, his king and kinsman and why he had murdered him. Bessus’ defense was weak: he wanted to favor Alexander and save his life and that of the men who had remained faithful to him. Bessus was then whipped and sent to Bactria, eventually handed over to Oxyathres, the brother of Darius III who had become one of Alexander’s highest-placed Persian officers in order to be appropriately punishment the Persian way. Plutarch and Diodorus suggest however that Bessus was tied to two bound together trees, to be subsequently ripped apart when the binding was cut, but it seems more likely that in the end he was crucified like a common murderer.

Whatever truly happened, Alexander was now the one and only King of Persia, the King of Kings. The entire Empire was his to rule.


While the Macedonians were here in Nautaca , most of them got fresh horses as their own mounts were worn out after the forced marches across the Hindu Kush and the desert to the Oxus. It must have been an interesting experience to exchange their fine European or Arabian horses for these shorter Turkmen beasts which were blessed with high strength and endurance. Something to think about. I wonder if I’ll be seeing any horse-herds in the area…


My treat today is a drive over the Pamir Mountains between Samarkand and Shahrisabz, the birthplace of Tamerlane and the place where he was buried although a splendid tomb was built in his honor in Samarkand. The name of Shahrisabz is very well chosen since it means “green city” in Persian. It lies in the fertile valley of the Kashkadarya River where cotton is grown, a pleasant place to live. It always held a soft spot in Tamerlane’s heart …

Soon after leaving Shahrisabz and the irrigation range of the river, I meet a few last cultivated fields and fruit trees before reaching barren land. From my high seat in the bus, I stare over the landscape, not an easy terrain. Thinking of Ptolemy and his men dragging Bessus through these open spaces cannot have been without danger. There always could be a faithful tribal leader willing to risk his life to set Bessus free. Houses are sparsely spread over the sandy country where goats, sheep, and a few donkeys and occasional cows bravely roam in search of something edible. From time to time there is a small pond where shepherds bring their flock to drink and in the distance I see flashes of green where there must be enough water for trees to grow or to irrigate some isolated crops.
Suddenly my bus comes to a halt. What’s happening? I see plenty of cars and vans both on and alongside the road either trying to park or to move on; lots of people, men, women and children randomly walking around or sitting on the ground; pack animals sullenly trudging in between… This is market-day, I’m told. Oh yes? In the middle of the road? Of course not. There is a nicely fenced market place surrounded by brick walls but from the looks of it, is has busted out of its joints. People, mostly men, walk by with heavy plastic bags; the cars are stuffed to the brim ready to explode with bales, crates, bags, packs, boxes, carpets, etc. Just stuff it inside! Yet nobody is shouting, no loud protests, no magnifying gestures - amazing! This is simply how things are done over here, it seems. Since I have nothing better to do while our bus carefully tries to drive on, one inch at the time, I pick up my camera to illustrate my words. Nobody would believe me otherwise. A few women sit alongside the road next to piles of fluffy rough wool, freshly shaved off the sheep and goats, white, black or grey – pick your choice. In the shadow of an electric pole, resting on top of a few plastic bags filled with today’s purchases, a young boy is enjoying his apple. What a strange world.


Slowly the Pamir Mountains (old Oxian or Sogdian Mountains) rise up from the horizon, somehow looking exactly as I imagined them to be: rough, rocky and barren, the western end of a knot of several mountain chains like the Hindu Kush and the Karakoram. They count amongst the highest peaks of the world reaching easily above the 7,000 meters with eternal snow, I am told but fail to see.

I really feel being on Alexander’s trail out here, heading like him towards Samarkand. It is so incredibly exciting to be travelling along the same route he and his army took, along which Ptolemy dragged Bessus, where the Macedonians drove their newly acquired horses; a road well-know to the Bactrian and Sogdian tribal leaders, men like Spitamenes, Dataphernes and Catanes. In fact, this is a road Alexander must have taken several times since he spent two winters in Bactra (Balkh) after campaigning in Central Asia the rest of the year.

[Click here to see all the pictures of Shahrisabz]
Click here to read Episode 5 of  Central Asia

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