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)

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Afrasiab, ancient Samarkand (Central Asia 11)

[10 - In Autumn 328 BC, the head of Spitamenes was brought to Alexander. The army is being divided between Bactra (Balkh), Nautaca and Maracanda (Samarkand) because Spitamenes had destroyed the winter provisions in Bactra. Alexander spent the winter of 328/327 BC in Maracanda-Afrasiab. Murder of Cleitos.]

Maracanda is the Greek name for today’s Samarkand, but the real name in antiquity was Afrasiab and I’m terribly excited to know that I can still visit its remains. It is an important city in Alexander’s relentless marches up and down Central Asia, one of those crossroads he just had to take. It is here that he murdered Cleitos and it is here that he received the head of Spitamenes – speaking about the irony of Fate.

Afrasiab occupies 220 hectares mostly hidden beneath an 8 to 12 meter thick layer of soil, with at the very bottom “the adobe houses of the Sogdians” as mentioned in the Avesta. Since the end of the 19th century, periodic excavations have taken place, mostly by Russian archaeologists who moved the most precious finds to the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg; lesser items went to a newly built adjacent museum.

As I said before, this city was situated at the crossroads merchants used between India, China and Europe, and it is no surprise to find that it was blessed with wide streets and high defensive walls, while the houses showed all the wealth that came with living in such a location. One example is to be found in the wall fresco’s that have been moved to the nearby museum, a unique testimony of the rich cultural exchanges between east and west. As if to underline the extensive trade connections, we see pictures of envoys from China, Turkey and India, all carrying precious gifts like elephants, ostriches, panthers, women, and weaponry. A detailed research has been made by the University of Halle in Germany – most interesting!

The entrance to Afrasiab is right next to the small but exquisite museum. My path goes straight uphill and when I reach the top, the extent of the old city reveals itself, it’s huge! Where should I start? I find no reference point to go by, maybe behind the next hill? According what I saw at the museum, I should be able to recognize the palace from which the precious fresco’s where rescued as well as remains of the city walls. I’m walking over a stone road but can’t judge if this pavement is old or new. Suddenly the road ends near the top of a hill. Clearly some excavations have taken place in the depth below me, but most remains have been hidden from sight by the wind-swept sands and low bushes. Strange but at the same time rather exciting as I discern the contours of modern Samarkand above the horizon. That reminds me that it were the Mongols who leveled the proud city upon explicit orders of Genghis Khan in 1220, after which the horrified survivors chose to settle at the edge of this foothill, i.e. where today’s Samarkand is still shining.

At this point I decide to keep to the right, towards the city walls and the palace - a pure gut feeling, but the terrain is treacherous and a deep V-shaped valley demands a detour. The sun is low and I have to shade my eyes to find a proper path to go down and back up again on the other side. To my left I discover a large square space that could indicate the agora surrounded by straight running hills through which the archeologists have cut several corridors, apparently to sample the successive layers. On the agora itself, shifting sands and erosion have erased all traces of buildings or walls, it seems.

I have the site entirely to myself and I thoroughly enjoy the peaceful stillness in which spirits of the past can come alive any time. The sound of a bell followed by bleating makes me aware of a small heard of goats, cared for by a lonely shepherd who only speaks Russian. I now have reached the modern road to the airport, which triggered the discovery of old Afrasiab. The sun is setting ever lower and long shadows clearly define any minute change in the landscape. Unexpectedly I find the remains of the so-called palace from the 3rd-2nd century, which I recognize from the scale-model at the museum. The golden evening sun even lights up the fort. What a feast!

It occurs to me that it must have been around here that Alexander's murder of Black Cleitos took place. This happened during one the banquet nights where wine ran profusely and poets praised and glorified Alexander’s exploits, going as far as fueling the king’s pretension of divinity and denigrating his achievements in favor of his father’s, King Philip II. Every veteran in the assembly felt he had done more than his share – why should Alexander receive all the glory, especially when brought by a poet who never took part in any fight. These veterans (who had served under Philip) shared the glorifying words in favor of Philip, and it was Cleitos, still faithful to his old king who spoke up in name of all of them. He not only praised Philip but also his own person, reminding his comrades that he was the one who saved Alexander’s life at the Granicus. Tempers ran high, fired by the wine and the latest hardships in hostile Sogdiana, and Cleitos’ vehement words caught on. We should not forget that Cleitos had just recently been “promoted” to satrap of Sogdiana since old Artabazus (the father of Alexander’s mistress Barsine) had requested to be relieved from his function. Cleitos resented the appointment. To him it was a pure punishment having to spend the rest of his days in this remote country at the end of the world. Heated discussions followed, while more wine was flowing; strong words and insults filled the air. This was more than the usual Macedonian brawl and Cleitos’ words were more than passionate. Alexander looked around for a weapon to silence the insults, but some generals intervened to hush Cleitos and took him outside. Like a Jack-in-the-box he re-entered the room, sadly before the king had time to calm down. More shouts and new insults flew back and forth; Alexander called for his bodyguards. The king by now was beside himself and impatiently snatched the spear from the nearest bodyguard and ran Cleitos through. Historians all tell us how Alexander grieved for three days, refusing all food and water.

So much history has been written on the very soil I am standing on. Oh, if only the stones and the dust could talk! The fading light of this sunset with its long shadows seems to add to this eerie atmosphere. What a place to be!

My senses slowly return to the present. I have to get back but I am not sure behind which hill I can find the museum from where the road will lead me back to my hotel downtown. Is it more to the right or to the left? It seems I have underestimated the distance for it is taking me more time than I thought, but drifting away to the very presence of Alexander made me loose track of time. Then I notice a cow, a nice brown animal that strangely enough commands a dozen of sheep and goats by bellowing them back to their home stable. Well, have you ever! Instead of the museum I arrive at the cemetery next to a mosque. From there I reach the Siab River, the very one that gave its name to this city. The banks are particularly green after my stroll through barren hills and the fast running water with the wild ducks is particularly refreshing. From here I easily find my way back.

At this stage of his campaign, Alexander had learned to spread his army in view of the coming winter months, especially now when Spitamenes had destroyed his winter provisions in Bactra. According to some sources, Alexander spent the winter of 328/327 BC in Maracanda-Afrasiab; others state that a larger force was posted in Maracanda to keep an eye on northern Sogdiana and that Alexander himself moved to Nautaca (Shahrisabz). Large detachments of soldiers were left among the natives to forage for themselves while preventing Spitamenes at the same time from getting access to any source of supplies. With the king’s troops occupying key positions in this wide web, Spitamenes had to fall into the trap sooner or later. The plan paid off. Just like Spitamenes had once betrayed Bessus, he was now betrayed by the Scythians, who had reconsidered their alliance. They simply chopped off his head and brought it to Alexander. Curtius, however, has a different story to tell. He insists that Spitamenes wife delivered the head of her husband to Alexander, being tired of the constant moves and the dangers she had to face all these years at his side.

[Click here to see all the pictures of Afrasiab]
Click here to read Episode 12a of Central Asia.

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