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)

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Jaxartes River and the Iron Gates (Central Asia 6)

[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.]

On my travel across Uzbekistan, I happen to drive on the road from Samarkand to Tashkent, which inevitably passes through the Gates of Tamerlane or Iron Gates, i.e. the only way to go east from Samarkand – now as it was in antiquity. This narrow passage is just wide enough to let the Sanzar River run through, flanked by a railroad and our main road. The lush grasses along the river offer good grazing grounds for a handful of cows and goats – a timeless picture, no doubt. In short, this pass is worth of Thermopylae, an easy place to defend.

It is obvious that history has been written here over the centuries and Alexander was no exception. Spirits from the past still seem to haunt the present carried by the winds squeezed at increasing speed between these steep rocky walls. On either side of the pass, these same walls once carried two Persian inscriptions; one telling about Ulugbek’s campaigns (the grandson of Tamerlane); the other about the brutal murder of Abdullah Khan, son of Iskandar Khan. Luckily both panels have been removed and placed in the care of the museum because the walls are desperately defaced with horrible screaming graffiti. Isn’t there a law against this? There is, but nobody seems to reinforce it. A dreadful sight for such a historic location!

It should be noted that there are two places in Uzbekistan labeled as “Iron Gates”. There is this one, on the road out of Central Asia to the east and there is a place south of Samarkand near Derbent which I mentioned above when Ptolemy went in pursuit of Bessus (I have not seen it for myself). Useless to mention that this adds to the confusing in locating Alexander’s path through Bactria and Sogdiana.


We drive on through Jizzak, an uneventful place. Further north we unexpectedly have to take a detour because of the intricate jigsaw puzzle borderline with Kazakhstan. The main road runs right through that foreign enclave, a complicated situation with customs and passport control we rather avoid by driving around it. We loose precious time, as far as I’m concerned for when we finally reach the Jaxartes River, of which I had such high hopes, it is pitch dark. The beams of the bridge flash by against a black void where the Jaxartes is said to run. What a disappointment that is.

This is one of the places of which we know for sure that Alexander was here and now I can’t see it! In the summer of 329 BC, he entered Maracanda, but not for long as he badly needed to secure the borders of his newly acquired empire which the Persians had set along the Jaxartes River (Syr Darya). On this occasion, he must have passed through these very same Iron Gates and the city of Jizzak to reach the Jaxartes which I didn’t see. So much for tracing Alexander in this corner of Uzbekistan!

[Click here to see all my pictures of the Iron Gates]
Click here to read Episode 7 of Central Asia .

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Alexander Meeting the Branchidae on his march to Maracanda (Central Asia 5)

[4 - Encounter with the Branchidae, emigrants from Miletus which Alexander massacred because of treason.]

Alexander first arrived in Maracanda in late June 329 BC in pursuit of Bessus who had proclaimed himself to King Artaxerxes V after killing Darius III. On his way, he unexpectedly met a group of Greek-speaking people and was told that they were the Branchidae, a group of emigrants who had fled Miletus a good hundred years before.


In the 5th century BC, the Branchidae ruled the Temple of Apollo in Didyma (which belonged to Miletus). They were in charge of the temple's money and during Xerxes’ conquests of Greece, taking their responsibilities seriously they refused, at first, to hand over this money, but eventually, they gave in – meaning in fact that they took the side of Persia. When the Greeks came out victorious from that Persian War in 479 BC, the Branchidae had reason enough to fear revenge from their compatriots. Their pro-Persian attitude forced them to ask for Persian protection and that is how the Branchidae packed their belongings and migrated east to Central Asia – the end of the world as was generally accepted.

As a consequence, the Temple of Apollo at Didyma was left unattended, the sacred waters dried up and the oracle fell silent, till Alexander arrived there in 331 BC on his way from Miletus to Halicarnassus. He always had deep respect for the gods and maybe more so for the oracles. When he visited the temple, history tells us that the sacred waters started to flow again. With the spring, the oracle came back to life and as we know the first prophecy went directly to Alexander predicting his victory at Gaugamela and the death of Darius III.

But this happened two years ago and many, many miles before … Now Alexander finds himself in the middle of Central Asia and is happily welcomed by Greek-speaking people. Curtius remarks that although the Branchidae have maintained their ancestral customs, they had already degenerated from their native tongue and had become bilingual (which is exactly what happens to Bactria after Alexander’s death where it takes about that same time for the population to become “Hellenized”). To the men in the army, it must have felt like a homecoming so far from home and initially the surrender of the Branchidae is generally accepted, till many feel that the Pan-Hellenic cause has been betrayed. Arrian, strangely enough, does not mention this episode, but the facts have been reported by Callisthenes who was present at that time. He wrote that after the festivities and warm welcomes, Alexander gave orders to kill the entire population, raze their town to the ground and even uproot the trees and vines, burning the very roots. What the Branchidae had done was considered as the betrayal of their country and what it stood for, maybe even sacrilege.



I look around at the desolate terrain with sparse houses, some cattle roaming freely over the dusty lands. A few trees, some green shrubs where water must be flowing, not very enticing. The Branchidae must have found a good location, an oasis with plenty of water for their crops. I wonder if we will ever find any trace of this paradisiacal setting where such atrocities have happened.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Alexander the Great and Bactria by Frank Holt

A striking title, if you pay attention to the details, Alexander the Great AND Bactria (ISBN 9004086129), while one would expect to read Alexander the Great IN Bactria. There is a good reason for that.

Although the title includes only Bactria, one should see this book in the broader context of Bactria + Sogdiana, generally reunited under the label of Central Asia. Beside his Introduction, Frank Holt divides his book in three distinct parts: before the arrival of Alexander; during Alexander’s occupation; and what became of the area after his death. All in all a far from easy task.

I was aware of Frank Holt’s account of Alexander’s campaign through today’s Afghanistan in Into the Land of Bones, a fascinating and captivating voyage in the wake of the Macedonian King. I expected to find the same in this book about Bactria, but this is an entirely different ballgame.

In Alexander's days, Bactria 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, and Arrian and Curtius were no great help either as they managed to give contradictory accounts using Bactria and Sogdiana randomly. As it turns out, modern historians are not more successful in their endeavours. 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.

So far, I had a rather confused view of Central Asia and I was hoping that Frank Holt would shed some light on the subject. In a way he did, as besides Strabo, Arrian and Curtius, he closely analyzed all available ancient authors like Pliny (National History), Claudius Ptolemy (Geography), Ammianus-Macellus (on Persia), and Stephanus the Byzantine (Ethnika). Yet in spite of his thorough study, and consulting other modern writers the end result is rather disappointing. Facts and dates are so much intertwined that there seems to be no way to clarify the situation.

I assume that this explains why Frank Holt talks about Alexander AND Bactria instead of Alexander IN Bactria. It makes sense. Pending new discoveries, new excavations, and new theories, Frank Holt is the best we have for now to get a good overall view of Bactria and Sogdiana, roughly of Central Asia.

The book is not easy to come by, the latest print dates back to 1989, but it is an extremely useful tool for those who want to understand the complexity and the genius of Alexander’s maneuvers. After all, he spent three years of his short life in Central Asia – three years out of the ten during which he marched through Asia!

Saturday, April 7, 2012

What is Persian music like?

According to the announcement, it should be a kind of variation on Arabic music, i.e. the music as played in the Arabic speaking countries ranging from North Africa to Western Asia. It seems that pure Persian music has been lost in time, only to surface again mingled with the melodies which the Islam spread from Baghdad to Cordoba in the wake of its conquests. After the fall of these proud cities, we had to wait till the 19th century for a revival which is still developing today.

The “Degocha Ensemble” which I am about to hear, consists of a male singer, accompanied by a drum (tombak), a string instrument (târ) and a reed flute (nay). For some reason however, the flute player was not available and the nay has been replaced by another string instrument, the name of which I didn’t catch.

Sitting in one of the front rows, I have all the time to take a closer look at these peculiar instruments. The leader of the group plays the târ. This instrument has the shape of a calabash. About 1/3 of this gourd has been cut off lengthwise to which a rather long handle has been attached to support the six strings. It is played like a guitar and sounds like its remote brother, but warmer I would say. The other string instrument is smaller and is played held upright on the knee of the musician. It looks as if it is made from the calabash’s bottom and counts only four strings. The drum is bigger than I would expect, maybe 50 cm in diameter and its wooden barrel has the elegant shape of a huge chalice.


Musique persane 1ere partie door shadok2006

The music sounds very different from what I have ever heard. It calls for visions of arid plains where any sound resonates in the overall stillness of the landscape while at other times, images of Persepolis come to my mind with dancing girls entertaining the king and his court. Maybe King Darius (and Alexander the Great) once listened to some similar melodies, who knows? There definitely are Ottoman influences in this music with an occasional string of notes related to music from the Maghreb. Musicologists have taken the trouble to explain that the rhythm varies from 10/8 to 3/8; well, I'm not going to figure that out! The singer has quite a lot to tell and I regret that I can’t understand his story. Somehow, he reminds me of a bard travelling from one place to the next, telling his tale. Why didn’t we receive a translated text? Even a summary would have been helpful.

After this inspiring and captivating performance, I make this remark to the gentleman sitting next to me. He kindly confirms that he understands the language, well most of it. According to him, the songs were poems from the 11th century, mostly about love and lost loves (of course). With a deep sigh, he expresses his hope to return to Iran one day. I take a closer look at him for nothing betrays his eastern origin, an Iranian with pale blue eyes and light hair? I can’t help but smiling for I have thoughts of the Macedonian army veterans left behind in Persia by Alexander the Great. Well, why not?