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 OR Termez, Afghanistan) - 328 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)

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Discovering Forts Alexander might have known (Central Asia 9)

[8 - In Spring 328 BC, Alexander splits up his army in five sections. Hephaistion cleans up the Panj River Valley, Ptolemy the Vaksh River Valley, Perdiccas the Karfernigan, Coenus the Surkhan and Alexander marches to Maracanda where his generals will join him afterwards.]

Alexander used his winter in Bactra to evaluate the complex resistance he has been facing in Sogdiana. Killing Bessus had made him King of Persia but as it turned out not the ruler of Sogdiana where Spitamenes and his warlords led a full scale guerilla war. Alexander had to learn to face this new kind of warfare and had to make drastic changes in his tactics and in his army set-up. He decided, once across the Oxus, to split his forces in five columns, as each of them would mop up the valleys between the outstretched fingers of the Pamir Mountains. His faithful friend Hephaistion would handle the Panj River Valley on today’s border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan; Ptolemy would take care of the Vaksh River Valley originating in Kyrgyzstan as the Kyzyl-Suu, passing Dushanbe and emptying into the Amu Darya; Perdiccas would lead his men along the Karfernigan River, the longest of Kyrgyzstan and last tributary to join the Amu Darya; Coenus would subdue the people along the Surkhan River in southern Uzbekistan also running into the Amu Darya; and Alexander would ride to Maracanda to rendezvous with all his generals afterwards. Unfortunately, historians only relate about Alexander, dismissing any details about the accomplishments of his generals.

They took several forts perched high amidst the Central Asian plains, roughly east of Derbent on the southern edges of the Pamir Mountains into western Tajikistan When I am in Khiva, I have the opportunity to visit some of such forts. It is my chance to get an idea of what this episode must have meant in Alexander’s life. The road takes me north, on the other side of the main road Urgench-Tashkent near Beruni, towards Bostan. This is still within reach of the Oxus and its irrigation canals watering the cotton fields. We make an unexpected stop alongside the road for a steady look at the Kyzyl Kala, i.e. the Red Fort, just beyond the fluffy cotton stacks. It is a near-square construction of 65 x 63 meters that once stood two stories high - not difficult to guess even from this distance. Soldiers from neighboring Toprak Kala were stationed there, I’m told, spending alternatively one week inside these walls, one week at Toprak Kala and one week working in the fields. Time-wise it belongs to the 1st-8th century as part of the Kingdom of Khorezm.

Now Khorezm deserves some explanation for most of us never heard of this kingdom, which may find its origin in the fact that it has so many different spellings: Chorasmia, Khwarezmia, Khwarizm, Khwarazm, Khorezm, Khoresm, Khorasam, Harezm, Horezm, and Chorezm. Pick you choice!

The land was inhabited as early as 3,000 BC and is said to be colonized by an Iranian hero in 1292 BC. When Alexander arrived here some thousand years later, it was governed by the Persian Achaemenids together with Bactria and Carmania. Arrian in his Anabasis mentions that the king of the Chorasmians, Pharasmanes, visited Alexander at his court in Bactra in great style “with 1,500 mounted troops. He told Alexander that his territory had common frontiers with the Colchians and the Amazon women, and that if Alexander should ever contemplate an invasion of those countries with the object of reducing the various peoples in that part of the world as far as the Black Sea, he was willing to act as his guide and to provide all the necessary supplies for his army.” It is one of those paragraphs we tend to dismiss amidst all the events Alexander is being confronted with in 328 BC. It is evident that he had no intention at all to march back West as his plans for India were by now drawn up. So “he thanked Pharasmanes for his offer and concluded a pact of friendship with him, adding that an expedition to the Black Sea was not at the moment convenient…” [Arrian, Book 4, 15-16]. This being said, it is clear that this Kyzyl Kala survived the largely independent days of the later Parthian and Seleucian dynasties, and those of the Sassanid rulers as well. How exciting to stand in a place with such rich history! Of course, Islam took over and leaders like Genghis Khan and Tamerlane swarmed down over these lands as well, but that is beyond this part of the story.

Back to my own itinerary, the landscape soon becomes very desolate and that is no surprise since I’m in the middle (well, middle…) of the Kyzylkum, the Red Desert, which I first discovered from my precarious airplane. We drive on for quite a while as distances are proportionate to the land, as always. I enjoy the comforts of an air-conditioned bus, while Alexander and his army had to trudge through these sands and spiny shrub on foot. Sturdy men, no doubt.

Toprak Kala, meaning Clay-Fort, lies in the middle of the Ellik Kala oasis as part of a city of which I see no remains. This fort is much larger than the previous one, 500 x 350 meter, with walls reaching up to 8-9 meters, but I find the site in poor condition, the earthen walls have suffered badly from eons of exposure and erosion. One of the wooden doorposts still carries an inscription but I cannot even figure out in what language it is written. Russian archeologists have counted three hundred rooms in the palace on the northwestern side, discovering wall fresco’s and polychrome statues of Zoroastrian gods as well as documents from the royal archives written in the Khorezm language (1st-4th century). A few vaulted corridors are in fact the most striking elements that remain today.

About twenty kilometres further down the road, the fort of Ayaz Kala stamps its presence on the flat landscape. It was part of a series of forts very much like the Roman Limes, built to protect the agricultural lands against the nomads’ invasions. From the top of its one hundred meters high hill it has a commanding view over the surrounding land. It measures 180 x 150 meters and dates from the 4th/early 3rd century BC, meaning this is the kind of fort Alexander must have been confronted with. And I am going to climb to the top, ploughing through the loose sands as if walking in the dunes, what an experience!

Once I have reached the inside of the fort, I’m totally taken by surprise as it has not just one outer wall but two walls with in between them a vaulted passageway approximately two meters wide. Each wall is about ten meters high and at its base at least 2.2 to 2.4 meters thick. What a defence that must have been! During the 3rd century AD these walls were enhanced and fortified by forty-five semicircular watchtowers at 10-15 meters interval. As a fort, this construction was used till the first century but after that it remained a safe-haven for the local population till far into the Middle-Ages. The flat top of this hill has been stretched to its limits and covers an area fit for a small town. The entrance gate was built in the shape of a labyrinth and was consequently highly defendable. How ingenious!

Under me, between this fort and the road, lays a lower hill of about forty meters high with on its top another, much smaller fort. This was the residence of King Afrig and was at the time connected by a suspension bridge to the next rocky outcrop crowned with a citadel to defend the king’s palace. This is all more recent, 7th/8th century and functioned till the 13th century. These walls are clearly round and oval in shape, quite original I would say. From what I hear the movie about Genghis Khan was shot at this location – has anyone seen it?

The view alone is worth the climb. The wind feels like a storm up here and I’m not surprised to learn that the locals called this place Windy Fort. I’m still within the flat valley floor of the Oxus and in the distance I can see the blue waters of Akcha-Kul Lake on one side and to the left the sharp outlines of yet another fort. This one, shaped as a parallelogram of 260 x 180 meters dates from the 1st/2nd century AD, but remains in the north-eastern corner are said to be much older, 5th/4th century BC. So, yet another fort from Alexander’s days! The outside walls were not as thick as up here, a mere 7.5 meter and the watchtowers were entirely circular. According to the archaeologists, the fort was mainly used during the 1st century as a garrison but it may also have served as a shelter for the tribes’ leaders or even as a temporary residence for the local population in case of trouble. Those who want to learn more about these forts can visit this interesting link of the UNESCO.

It goes without saying that this entire setting in this specific desert area is giving me a precious insight of the forts Alexander the Great had to besiege during his campaign. Besides, who dares to say he never was here? It is not because nothing is put down in our history books that nothing has happened here …

Click here to read Episode 10 of Central Asia 
To see all the pictures of the differents forts, click here

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