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 Drangiana/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)

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Alexander in Bukhara (Central Asia 10)

[9 - 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)].

After spending the night in Khiva, I once again have to cross the Oxus River but this time over a solid bridge to reach the main road to Bukhara and Samarkand. The view of the river is about the same as before, only from higher up, but still as impressive! No wonder Arrian stated that this is the widest river in Asia after the Indus.

This road is absolutely awful, more like a track in the heart of Africa than the main road. An entirely new road is under construction but the new sections have not been opened to traffic. I have all the time in the world to inspect the red desert sands stretching out in low rolling hills as far as the eye can see. The only greens are meager tiny bushes kept short by the everlasting wind that swept the arid land for eons. My thoughts drift away to Alexander, of course, who had to cross this kind of empty space time and again like he did on his way from Bactra to Termiz on the south side of the Oxus River or on his way to the Jaxartes River and the Scythians further to the northeast.

Bukhara, although hardly mentioned in Alexander’s campaigns, certainly must have played an important role. Some say the city was founded by Alexander, but it already existed 4,000 years ago and was used throughout the ages as a crossroad for trade between east and west. We know more of Bukhara as being a meeting point on the famous Silk Road, but that Silk Road only followed older trading routes which under Persian rule were already heavily used. Other major cities along that trade route included Bactra (Balkh), Alexandria-in-Areia (Herat), Alexandria-Margiana (Merv), Maracanda (Samarkand), Termiz, Nasaf (Karshi) and Khorezm (Khiva), amazingly enough, all of them within the borders of Bactria and Sogdiana. It is not hard to imagine the caravans with traders, envoys and travelers treading over these sandy roads. They definitely were adventurous, brave and strong men. It is quite evident that Alexander used these same roads whenever possible and he definitely will have appreciated them to their right value as economic and military assets.

As to the city of Bukhara proper, I assume that Alexander reinforced the city walls, turning it into a stronghold as its strategic value will not have been lost on him. Even after his death, this region knew golden times when Seleucos, one of Alexander’s generals and successors, laid the basis for the later Greco-Bactrian Empire, which in turn led to the Kushan Kingdom. Trade was, throughout the centuries, a most rewarding lifeline in this region.

I don’t expect to find traces of Alexander’s presence in Bukhara, and I don’t. The only location that I can connect to him is the Citadel, whose foundations go back to the 4th century BC. But as houses were built on top of other houses over the centuries, the citadel now stands about twenty meters high sheltering the city remains of Tamerlane’s time.

But all is not lost, for I find quite unexpectedly my own private Alexander. Walking through the main street of old Bukhara with all the handicraft shops, I stop at a table where an artist is painting what I see as Persian miniatures. Such delicate work, fine drawings, strong colors with bold touches of gold, I engage a conversation with the young man. He explains that these are Uzbek miniatures and not Persian ones, pointing to the typical headdress and decoration of the men’s robes. Well yes, now I see the difference. In the exhibition rack next to him, my eyes suddenly stop at a familiar picture … Iskander and Roxane, I ask? The artist’s face brightens up, yes it is indeed! How do you know? I don’t remember where I saw it, in which book or exhibition. In any case, this is the piece. How appropriate to find it here, in the heart of Central Asia, in Roxane’s homeland! Of all places! It is beautiful work, painted on old silk paper and I’m afraid to ask the price. I can’t resist, of course, and I go home with my precious miniature, and for a moment I’m in the very presence of Alexander and his beautiful bride!


According to Frank Holt (Alexander the Great and Bactria), it is most probable that Alexander went to Merv to found his Alexandria-Margiana but sources are unclear about when and how. Robin Lane Fox is sending Craterus to Merv instead with a detachment of the army in the spring of 328 BC. David Engels mentions that Alexander founded the city. The problem is that the antique writers focused on Alexander exclusively but at times couldn’t single out Alexander’s personal expedition in his complex campaign through Bactria and Sogdiana. Since Ptolemy actively participated in nearly all the skirmishes, pursuits and sieges, and that both Arrian and Curtius generally based their story on Ptolemy’s account, they seem to be the most trustworthy historians to follow, although modern writers have tried in vain to straighten out history. Pierre Briant is his recent book Alexander the Great and his Empire situates Margiana a few miles east of the Derbent’s Iron Gates, but the confusion may still be greater than expected since Leonid Sverchkov (Ancient Civilizations from Scythia to Siberia) is looking for two distinct cities, Margania as named by Curtius and Margiana as referred to by Pliny. Good luck!

After Bukhara, I’m once again on the main road to Samarkand, i.e. the old Silk Road. It is common knowledge that this road was dotted with stopping places where merchants and travelers could spend the night finding forage for the animals and accommodations for themselves. Every 30-40 kilometers or so there was a caravanserai offering the weary traveler a place to spend the night, to trade his goods or maybe to enjoy the comforts of a hamam. In fact, it is a system copied from the glory days of the Persian Empire and I am convinced that whenever possible or available, Alexander followed these same roads, making use of the same facilities. So, when I stop at the 11th-century caravanserai of Baboti Malik, I have no difficulty picturing what such a station must have looked in his days.

The place is rather isolated, more in the middle of nowhere than alongside a major route. This caravanserai is in a pretty poor state; only the façade has been re-erected while all the other outer and inner walls are only reconstructed to approximately one meter high. Still, it gives a good overview of the layout, although I have in mind the well-preserved building of Kervansaray in central Turkey, especially because of the central octagonal base of what once was the top lantern which impressed me immensely. But here it is the location rather than the caravanserai itself that strikes me for it is easy to imagine what a safe-haven such a place must have been to the traveler through these hostile lands.

On the other side of the road is the ever needed water reservoir, the Sardova from the 14th century – an impressive vaulted construction that shelters the water from dust and pollution while offering a clean spot to drink and to water the animals. To me, it is obvious that this entire construction stands over an old well that has been used over the centuries by local sheep and cattle herders, as well as by the merchants on this busy east-west road. It gives a clear image of the welcome stops Alexander may have encountered during his many desert crossings.

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