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)

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Catching Bessus near today’s Shahrisabz (Central Asia 4)

[3 - Although it was Ptolemy who is said to ride to Nautaca to collect Bessus taken prisoner by local warlords in late June 329 BC, Alexander also crossed the Pamir Mountains between Maracanda and modern Shahrisabz as Nautaca is called now.]


Nautaca is one of those controversial places where history has lost its trail but most likely it matches modern Shahrisabz or Shahr-i-Sabz, which during the Middle-Ages was also called Kashka (claimed by some to be Karshi). In any case only a rough 50 kilometers separate both towns, both halfway between the Oxus River and Samarkand and I’m not going to settle this matter but stick to Shahrisabz as the Uzbeks generally do. [Edward Rtveladze points out that Nautaca has to be situated on the ancient site of Uzunkir, nine kilometres northwest of modern Kitab]. In any case, this is where the story of Bessus unfolds, the official satrap of Bactria and Sogdiana as well as self-proclaimed King Artaxerxes V, who was caught at Nautaca that I will follow here – with Alexander, of course.

Bessus, moving in his own satrapy, must have felt pretty secure but the truth was entirely different as his self-proclaimed kingship sent out confusing signals to his subjects who now had to choose between King Artaxerxes V and King Alexander. Who was their rightful king? The Bactrians and Sogdians may not have cared much for the faraway King of Persia but the fact remained that Bessus had killed Darius. The news of Alexander’s army marching in pursuit of the Bactrian usurper had evidently not gone unnoticed. Even to Bactrian standards, a king’s murderer had to be avenged and the population eventually chose the side of Alexander. Applying his scorched earth policy, Bessus had ordered all the food and fodder to be stored within the city walls. It is important to realize this for when these cities welcomed Alexander they gave him free access to the food supplies that had been stashed there. This was certainly not what Bessus had intended or expected.

Meanwhile Alexander was marching north, leaving the Oxus River behind him when scouts reported that Bessus had been located. Allied local warlords Spitamenes and Dataphernes managed to capture him and immediately sent word to Alexander, ready to hand him over. This event took place near Nautaca, i.e. at Shahrisabz. Ptolemy was sent to collect Bessus at high speed as Alexander feared that the usurper might be killed before he could punish him properly for regicide. It is said that Ptolemy covered the 170 miles in four days, following the Shirabad River, passing the Iron Gates at Derbent, meaning that he covered an average distance of 42.5 miles a day! Poor horses! Alexander meanwhile rode on to Maracanda.

Arrian tells us that when Ptolemy got hold of Bessus, he sent a messenger to Alexander asking how he should present the prisoner to him. Alexander replied that he wished him to be stripped of his clothes and led in a dog-collar, a sign of disgrace. He should be standing on the right of the road along which he and his army would pass. When Alexander arrived on the spot he asked Bessus why he had so shamefully treated Darius, his king and kinsman and why he had murdered him. Bessus’ defense was weak: he wanted to favor Alexander and save his life and that of the men who had remained faithful to him. Bessus was then whipped and sent to Bactria, eventually handed over to Oxyathres, the brother of Darius III who had become one of Alexander’s highest-placed Persian officers in order to be appropriately punishment the Persian way. Plutarch and Diodorus suggest however that Bessus was tied to two bound together trees, to be subsequently ripped apart when the binding was cut, but it seems more likely that in the end he was crucified like a common murderer.

Whatever truly happened, Alexander was now the one and only King of Persia, the King of Kings. The entire Empire was his to rule.


While the Macedonians were here in Nautaca , most of them got fresh horses as their own mounts were worn out after the forced marches across the Hindu Kush and the desert to the Oxus. It must have been an interesting experience to exchange their fine European or Arabian horses for these shorter Turkmen beasts which were blessed with high strength and endurance. Something to think about. I wonder if I’ll be seeing any horse-herds in the area…


My treat today is a drive over the Pamir Mountains between Samarkand and Shahrisabz, the birthplace of Tamerlane and the place where he was buried although a splendid tomb was built in his honor in Samarkand. The name of Shahrisabz is very well chosen since it means “green city” in Persian. It lies in the fertile valley of the Kashkadarya River where cotton is grown, a pleasant place to live. It always held a soft spot in Tamerlane’s heart …

Soon after leaving Shahrisabz and the irrigation range of the river, I meet a few last cultivated fields and fruit trees before reaching barren land. From my high seat in the bus, I stare over the landscape, not an easy terrain. Thinking of Ptolemy and his men dragging Bessus through these open spaces cannot have been without danger. There always could be a faithful tribal leader willing to risk his life to set Bessus free. Houses are sparsely spread over the sandy country where goats, sheep, and a few donkeys and occasional cows bravely roam in search of something edible. From time to time there is a small pond where shepherds bring their flock to drink and in the distance I see flashes of green where there must be enough water for trees to grow or to irrigate some isolated crops.
Suddenly my bus comes to a halt. What’s happening? I see plenty of cars and vans both on and alongside the road either trying to park or to move on; lots of people, men, women and children randomly walking around or sitting on the ground; pack animals sullenly trudging in between… This is market-day, I’m told. Oh yes? In the middle of the road? Of course not. There is a nicely fenced market place surrounded by brick walls but from the looks of it, is has busted out of its joints. People, mostly men, walk by with heavy plastic bags; the cars are stuffed to the brim ready to explode with bales, crates, bags, packs, boxes, carpets, etc. Just stuff it inside! Yet nobody is shouting, no loud protests, no magnifying gestures - amazing! This is simply how things are done over here, it seems. Since I have nothing better to do while our bus carefully tries to drive on, one inch at the time, I pick up my camera to illustrate my words. Nobody would believe me otherwise. A few women sit alongside the road next to piles of fluffy rough wool, freshly shaved off the sheep and goats, white, black or grey – pick your choice. In the shadow of an electric pole, resting on top of a few plastic bags filled with today’s purchases, a young boy is enjoying his apple. What a strange world.


Slowly the Pamir Mountains (old Oxian or Sogdian Mountains) rise up from the horizon, somehow looking exactly as I imagined them to be: rough, rocky and barren, the western end of a knot of several mountain chains like the Hindu Kush and the Karakoram. They count amongst the highest peaks of the world reaching easily above the 7,000 meters with eternal snow, I am told but fail to see.

I really feel being on Alexander’s trail out here, heading like him towards Samarkand. It is so incredibly exciting to be travelling along the same route he and his army took, along which Ptolemy dragged Bessus, where the Macedonians drove their newly acquired horses; a road well-know to the Bactrian and Sogdian tribal leaders, men like Spitamenes, Dataphernes and Catanes. In fact, this is a road Alexander must have taken several times since he spent two winters in Bactra (Balkh) after campaigning in Central Asia the rest of the year.

[Click here to see all the pictures of Shahrisabz]
Click here to read Episode 5 of  Central Asia

Monday, March 26, 2012

Alexander Crossing the Oxus River (Central Asia 3)

[2 - Alexander crossed the Oxus River (today’s Amu Darya) on his way to Samarkand, probably around Termiz although the exact location is still being debated (see David EngelsAlexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonia Army” and Robin Lane Fox in “Alexander the Great” as opposed to the latest discoveries made by E.V. Rtveladze]

I am in for more surprises than I could have suspected when the next day I am taken on a drive north out of Khiva. The bus stops on the south bank of the Oxus River (Amu Darya) where a series of abandoned boats is spanning the river. Only passenger cars are allowed on these pontoons and pedestrians like me, of course. What an unexpected bonus this is!


When Alexander reached the Oxus in June 329 BC after his perilous march through the desert, he found that Bessus had burnt the bridge behind him. My crossing point, although similar, is much further downstream than Alexander’s which is generally accepted to have taken place near or shortly below Termiz, just opposite today’s border with Afghanistan. As we know Alexander was not at all discouraged by this setback of burnt bridge and he certainly was not short of creative ideas. He made his army swim across the Danube during the first year of his kingship, and so he did here ordering his men to sew their leather tents into bags that could be stuffed with anything that would float. Five days later the entire army and all the horses had safely landed on the opposite river bank. An exploit by itself, I think as I purposely tramp over the shiny metal sheets of the decks, fully taking in the view over the fast flowing river and picturing Alexander giving directions and shouting orders from the sandy banks. What an experience! I sniff up the air as if to catch a lost remnant from those heroic days. The last part of the pontoon is dispersed and the road leads through the swept-up dunes of some sandbanks that are touching the mainland. Crystal-clear water mirrors the rare reeds of the quiet pools, and in the distance away from the ever eroding currents I notice some bushes and trees. Once I’ve reached firm ground, I can’t help looking back over the shimmering river. So wide, so peaceful, so inviting, and so life-giving. So, this is what the mighty Oxus River looks like! I feel this must be the absolute climax of my entire trip, although I have barely started!

It also occurs to me that in Alexander’s days the river must have been much wider. We are told by ancient sources that the Oxus was six stadia wide, approximately 1,100 meters and too deep to wade through. I have no idea how to measure the width of the river here but I know that nowadays most of the water goes to irrigation, especially for growing cotton. In the Soviet era this crop was highly developed and in my eyes even overdeveloped, drawing so heavily on the water supply from the faraway Hindu Kush that the river no longer empties into the Aral Sea, which in turn is drying up. This is a story by itself that goes back to last century when countries like Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan were mere provinces of the URSS who tried to give each one of them a fair share of the river. When these provinces became independent states after the fall the Soviet Union twenty years ago, they found themselves stuck with these frontiers that run rather randomly with mutual enclaves creating what I call a jigsaw puzzle. None of the countries is inclined to concede terrain to his neighbor and attempts to exchange certain parcels of land against others to create more consistent borders are not materializing. Meanwhile the Soviets have taken their cotton machines with them and the Uzbeks, not willing or not able to revert to other crops, simply continue to grow this water-consuming cotton and pick it by hand.

[Click here to see all the pictures of the Oxus River]  
Click here to read Episode 4 of  Central Asia

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

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Alexander in Bactria and Sogdiana (Central Asia 1)

Getting ready for a tour of Uzbekistan, my thoughts inevitably turn to Alexander the Great for this is the territory of Bactria and Sogdiana where he spent nearly three years of his life – almost one third of his time in Asia. That tells a great deal about the difficulties he encountered in this part of the world. Alexander's kingship lasted twelve years, of which the first two years were needed to settle the affairs in Macedonia and Greece before crossing over to Asia. This means that he conquered the mighty Persian Empire and most of the then known world in only ten years. Consequently, the three years he spent in Central Asia are highly important in his Asian campaign.

We generally follow Alexander out of Greece, skirting the coast of today's Turkey and facing the Persian armies at the Granicus, at Issus and finally at Gaugamela. After that, most fights seem only to be skirmishes, but I now find out that the truth is very different. In fact, I'm amazed to learn how much has happened in the years 330 BC to 327 BC. Those years alone are worth a lifetime experience – that is to any ruler but Alexander the Great, of course. 


To make things easy, I situate Uzbekistan north of Afghanistan which is well-known through the news media, but for the sake of good order additional logistic information is required. To the southwest of Uzbekistan we find Turkmenistan, to the north Kazakhstan and in the east Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan both entwined with Uzbekistan like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. These borders are pretty well drawn but that was not always the case and definitely not in Alexander’s time. Bactria then was at the far end of the known world where nobody “civilized” wanted to go and where nobody really knew where it started or where it ended. Even a meticulous geographer as Strabo got confused between Bactria and Sogdiana on many occasions.

But to me, this is Alexander country all the same and I am determined to find out as much as I can. Not an easy task, even with the help of Arrian and Curtius who manage to give contradictory accounts using Bactria and Sogdiana randomly. As it turns out, modern historians are not more successful in their endeavors. Rivers are not exact frontiers but seem rather to bring the desert peoples together, and the same goes for mountains where passes serve to commute between different peoples instead of separating them. In the end, I find that the analytical approach of David Engels in his “Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army” makes most sense. Pending new discoveries, new excavations, and new theories, this is what I’ll go by.

To begin with, we have a serious number of facts and names about Alexander’s whereabouts in that remote region, but matching them with modern locations is a huge task that is still ongoing. Based mostly on Arrian’sAnabasis and Quintus Curtius’ ”History of Alexander who both used Ptolemy’s account since he participated in the campaign, I do have a series of useful facts and figures:

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 the Persian Great King Darius III.

2. Alexander crossed the Oxus River (today’s Amu Darya) on his way to Samarkand, probably around Termiz although the exact location is still being debated (see David EngelsAlexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonia Army” and Robin Lane Fox in “Alexander the Great” as opposed to the latest discoveries made by E.V. Rtveladze)

3. Although it was Ptolemy who is said to ride to Nautaca to collect Bessus taken prisoner by local warlords in late June 329 BC, Alexander also crossed the Pamir Mountains between Samarkand and modern Shahr-i-Sabz as Nautaca is called now.

4. On the way, there is the encounter with the Branchidae, emigrants from Milete which Alexander massacred because of treason.

5. Alexander moved to the end of the Persian Empire on the Jaxartes River (modern Syr Darya) through the Iron Gates (the only road east out of Maracanda), over Jizzak and Uratube.

6. In July 329 BC, Alexander was building his Alexandria-the-Furthermost, modern Khodjend in Tajikistan, while taking seven Sogdian cities, including Cyropolis. Alexander was seriously wounded.

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 the Oxus to winter in Bactra. Arrival of reinforcements from Macedonia.

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

9. Till August 328 BC Alexander is busy subduing the Sogdians once again. In mopping up the Polytimetus Valley (today’s Zeravshan River), 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).

10. In Autumn 328 BC, the head of Spitamenes is 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.

11. Early 327 BC Alexander attacks the Sogdian Rocks of Ariamazes and Sisimithres (= Chorienes). Arrian and Curtius disagree on the location and on the chronology.

12. Maybe the most important event is Alexander’s marriage with the beautiful Roxane, daughter of a local Bactrian warlord.

Plenty of history to track down and I’m confident that my imagination will do the rest. After all, since no writer neither from antiquity nor from modern times has managed to sift out facts from fiction, I feel entitled to draw my own conclusions based on what I’m going to see – why not?

For those who are not entirely familiar with history at this stage of Alexander’s campaign, let me place it briefly into context.

It all started when the Great King Darius fled from the Battlefield of Gaugamela and Alexander set in the pursuit from Ecbatana in mid-July 330 BC, covering a rough 645 km in only eleven days in spite of the summer heat – an exploit on its own. It was however the Bactrian ruler Bessus who captured Darius and left him more dead than alive alongside the road to die just before Alexander caught up with him. Bessus, feeling strong and powerful by his deeds didn’t hesitate to proclaim himself King of Persia under the name of Artaxerxes V. This meant that Alexander, although he had been victorious at Gaugamela, still had to eliminate Bessus/Artaxerxes if he wanted to be the true King of Persia.

Before winter made the high passes of the Hindu Kush impassable, Bessus crossed the mountains north into Bactria, using the policy of scorched-earth in an attempt to make it impossible for Alexander to follow him. But evidently he underestimated Alexander's determination and stubbornness!

With his 32,000-strong army, Alexander led the way, not along the shortest route across the Hindu Kush as Bessus had expected, but over the 3,550 meter high Khawak Pass, the longest but lowest pass that provided the best chances for forage. In spite of this practical choice, he and his army had to march through snow drifts and biting winds, suffering from snow-blindness, altitude sickness and chronic fatigue and it took them 17 days to cover the 47 miles. It is not difficult to picture everybody’s relief when they finally reached the green fertile valleys of Bactria and made camp in Bactra (Balkh in today’s Afghanistan) where they found plenty of provisions since because of his scorched earth policy, Bessus had all the food and forage stored within the city walls – a true bonus for Alexander as the city opened its gates to him!

After his men enjoyed a well-deserved rest, Alexander moved north towards the Oxus River in late June 329 BC, still on Bessus' trail. Instead of frostbites and bitter cold, he now was stumbling through an inhospitable and waterless desert, the Karakum. This is about where I pick up Alexander’s trail…

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Afghan Campaign by Steven Pressfield


The Afghan Campaign (ISBN 38551641X) is a captivating and interesting story about two boys who leave their Macedonian homeland to join Alexander the Great in his conquests on the eastern front.

They start their journey on the eastern Mediterranean where they enlist in the army. They learn what is means to fight in formation and under strict discipline on their march in the wake of Alexander, who constantly keeps moving ahead of them further to the east.

The story really picks up when the boys reach Afghanistan and join the veteran troops chasing Bessus and later on trying to catch Spitamenes. They suffer dearly crossing the freezing Hindu Kush and empty scolding deserts. They witness and barely survive the massacre of their Macedonian unit that was supposed to parley with Spitamenes in Samarkand. They meet up with tribal Afghans, Bactrians and Sogdians, giving us an insight in their way of life, their love for horses and blood feuds. It might all have happened just yesterday. And since this is a historical novel, we don’t lose track of Alexander’s movements up front, his tactics and his policies.

The book climaxes with the wedding plans of one of the boys with an Afghan girl, set against the huge wedding party Alexander is organizing for himself and the daughter of the Bactrian warlord Oxyartes, Roxane.

Steven Pressfield clearly knows what he is talking about, the landscape, the heat and the cold, the starvation, the constant harassment of the enemy and the unquestionable support of the boy’s mates in combat. All in all, a very vivid recount of Alexander’s conquest seen through the eyes of simple boys who become men far too quickly, but who above all are soldiers entirely devoted to their King.