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)

Monday, March 19, 2012

A view of the Karakum and Kyzylkum Deserts (Central Asia 2)

[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 Persian King Darius III]

In the early morning I’m being directed to board the plane that will take me from Tashkent in eastern Uzbekistan to Urgench, approximately 300 km south of the Aral Sea and squeezed halfway between the Oxus River and the border of Turkmenistan – in fact nearly at the end of the Uzbek world.

My bi-plane is not very reassuring and looks very much like a fixed-up engine coated with successive layers of paint to cover up the presumed crust of rust underneath. I hesitate to climb on board and even ask the welcoming stewards if this plane is truly safe. Well, they are not going to deny that – after all, they will be taking off with me. I am crowded in with another twenty brave travelers. Inshallah!

Instead of the promised one hour flight, this plane takes double that time but once I have accepted that my destiny was in the hands of Zeus, Zoroaster, and Mohammed, I am starting to enjoy my ride. This being such a small plane, it has the advantage of flying at a lower altitude so that I can follow its route across the landscape below. It is like reading a map at life-size scale! The Kyzylkum, meaning Red Desert soon shows its monotonous terrain and my thoughts almost immediately drift back to Alexander the Great and his army crossing similar stretches of desert.

As so often, he has my deepest respect. Watching these endless sandy hills enhanced with rare green dots of long grasses and entirely stripped of trees, I can only have admiration for Alexander’s courage and determination when he covered the fifty miles of “pebbled desert” to reach the banks of the Oxus River after he left Bactra in the spring of 329 BC. He and his army faced unbearable heat among shifting sand dunes where daytime temperatures easily ran above the 40 degrees centigrade. There was a dramatic shortage of water and in an unforgiving attempt to quench their thirst, the soldiers in their despair broke into the provisions of wine and oil, which made things only worse. It is said that when Alexander reached the Oxus he ordered to light huge bonfires to signal his men in the right direction. Survivors went back with water to help their comrades, others simply died on the spot after drinking too much of the tempting river water. We do not know how many men Alexander lost during this journey but rumors have it that the figures ran higher than the losses he suffered during any of his battles. That should tell us a lot.

With the map on my knees, I follow the patchy desert as it unfolds under me, wondering how different this Kyzylkum can be from the Karakum on the south side of the Oxus River which Alexander crossed. I decide it has to be minimal – a different color, a different texture with more pebbles and maybe a little less “green”, but as barren and hostile as what I see here. From time to time there is a tiny lake or some marshlands but clearly not enough water for anyone to settle in the area for I see no constructions and no roads, except the straight line of the main road which I’ll take later on and which connects Nukus-Urgench to Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent beyond.

At last, the landscape turns green with square irrigated fields and narrow shiny canals turning increasingly larger as my plane sets in its descent. Water definitely makes the whole difference. Rows of whitish houses and high-rise buildings appear in straight lines and squares among the lush green lands till a wide meandering river appears. I’m sure this must be the Oxus flowing in lazy curves dotted with sandbanks and flanked by the fertile green parcels, cotton no doubt. Such a wide river, which Alexander has crossed on more than one occasion. I feel at least as excited about this view as when I first saw the Euphrates River. If only those rivers could speak…!

My rickety plane lands without any problem and I continue my trip by bus to Khiva, a true treasure filled with Tamerlane’s legacy which is another story altogether.

[Click here to see all the pictures of the desert]
Click here to read Episode 3 of  Central Asia

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