[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 Oxus to winter in Bactra. Arrival of reinforcements from Macedonia.]
In early autumn 329 BC, as soon as he could manage health wise, Alexander marched to Maracanda in the hope to find Spitamenes and avenge the recent cruel ambush of his envoys. Alexander was never in for half measures and he proved it once again, covering the distance of a good 180 miles from Alexandria-Eschate to Maracanda in three days and nights, the fastest march of his life (an average of some 45 miles a day!). He must have had an iron constitution to travel at such high speed after suffering the discomforts of dysentery and his recent wounds. The loss of the 2,000 good men in Maracanda must have hit him hard.
Spitamenes meanwhile had attacked Maracanda a second time, but as soon as he was informed of Alexander’s approach he quickly withdrew. Alexander set in the pursuit, but his enemy’s lead was too great. In this process, Alexander passed the ghostly battlefield where his troops had lost their lives a few months earlier and arranged for a decent burial. In his anger he ordered to sweep the entire valley of the Polytimetus River, modern Zeravshan still running past Samarkand. His instructions were clear, every house and every village should be taken down, all the crops burnt and any person that sympathized with Spitamenes should be killed. I wonder how many questions the enraged Macedonians bothered to ask before killing…
These measures only put more oil on the fire with the Bactrians and the Sogdians. Most of their towns were now in ruins, the population wiped out, they had nothing to lose and their only hopes laid with Spitamenes. Personally I think it is about this time that the new Great King realized that warfare in this part of his empire was entirely different from his well-planned, well-drilled and well-executed battlefields!
With the fast approaching winter at his doorstep, Alexander left 3,000 men on guard in Bactria and retired to Bactra where enough provisions had been stored to sustain the severe winter months. The good news must have been that the highly needed and long expected reinforcements finally arrived from Macedonia, 22,000 fresh Greek mercenaries sent out by Antipater. A welcome boost to manpower and moral, no doubt.
I just can’t believe that I now have arrived in Samarkand myself, the Maracanda of the Greeks and the Afrasiab of antiquity! The very name rings like Baghdad, Babylon or Persepolis an unknown world as far as I’m concerned somewhere in the Orient. No wonder, for Samarkand is one of the oldest cities in the world, although opinions differ widely when it comes to dating its origins. However we are certain that the Persian Achaemenids ruled the local tribes from the 6th to the 4th century BC. With the arrival of Alexander the Great in 329 BC, Maracanda occupied a key position and became an important business centre thanks to its location with is impregnable citadel surrounded by a more than ten kilometers long city wall, which in later centuries even kept the Arabs out. But the arrival of the Islam could not be stopped, nor the hordes of Genghis Khan. Golden times blessed the city when Tamerlane declared Samarkand the capital of his empire that reached from the Bosporus to the Indus. Today’s treasures of Samarkand are to be found in the mosques, madrassa’s and mausoleums Tamerlane left us, unique beauties that are luckily added to the World Heritage List of the UNESCO. Inevitably, Samarkand is also closely linked to the Silk Road being situated on the crossroad of two main routes, one running from Persia in the west to China in the east, the other running south towards India. As I said before, Alexander must have followed these same roads since they ran in fact on top of the Royal Roads built by the Great Kings over the centuries to connect their many palaces and to quickly move their armies through this huge empire.
No trace of Alexander is to be found in today’s Samarkand. I’ll have to go to neighboring Afrasiab that was constantly inhabited till the Mongols arrived here in 1220, and leveled the proud city upon explicit orders of Genghis Khan. Those who survived these terrors fled the premises and chose to settle at the edge of the foothill and this is where today’s Samarkand is still shining. I’ll be visiting Afrasiab, of course. [See: Part 10, Afrasiab, ancient Samarkand]
A year later, Alexander is back for another sweep-up along the Polytimetus and its tributaries in a demonstration of his power and that of his army. Strangely enough and in spite of his harsh actions, legends about Alexander still flourish in this part of the country where an Alexander River (Iskander Darya) flows out of an Alexander Lake (Iskander Kül). It is believed that he built a golden dam to create the lake and that gold particles can still be panned further downstream. Another story tells how Alexander and his trusted horse Bucephalus rise from the lake with every full moon to cross the sky (Michael Wood and Frank Holt).
Click here to read Episode 9 of Central Asia