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)

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Zagros Mountains and the Persian Gates in Alexander’s footsteps

Upon arrival in Tehran, my first thought was: can I see the Elburz Mountains from here? Tehran is known to be rather polluted, hence my question. But I was very lucky because on this early spring morning the wind had swept the skies clean and from a vantage point near the Azadi Tower or Freedom Tower I was widely rewarded with a magnificent panorama of the snow-capped Elburz Mountains. This is what Alexander must have seen and I could almost feel his yearning to cross this barrier to discovering the lands on the other side.

A while ago I read the book, The Road to Oxiana in which Robert Byron describes how refreshing that part of the country was after having travelled for weeks in a row through dust and desert. He compares it to Austria till the rolling hills turn into the marshy reed fields around the Caspian Sea. I was itching to see all this for myself, but my itinerary was to take me south.

I picked up Alexander’s route in Susa which he reached in 331 BC on his way from Babylon to Persepolis, a distance of some 800 km. Somewhere south of Susa the Macedonian army crossed the Pasitigris River, known today as the Karun River, which was and still is navigable all the way down to its confluence with the Tigris River which in turn empties into the Persian Gulf. I feel quite excited when spending the night in the city of Ahwaz I can see this river from my room. As by magic and in spite of all the oil plants and other polluting industries on its banks, this river in my imagination returns to its “natural” setting from antiquity.

We all know that Alexander was unstoppable but being here makes me realize the huge distances he had to cover with his entire army and the inevitable baggage train - an exploit by itself. Travelling here in the comfort of an air-conditioned bus for three long days is hard enough but it is only when I get out of this protective shell that I can taste a little of what he had experienced. On this journey, we were hit by a heavy sandstorm for a full day. Visibility was very low; the sands from the Mesopotamian Valley in modern Iran were carried through the air and hit my face and body. My clothes flapped around me as if they were to be torn away any moment; the wind whistled through the lunch place and the sand battered the windows. Alexander must have known days like this but weather conditions are not a topic for a history book.

Like Alexander, I was skirting the Zagros Mountains as the modern road generally follows his route and I just can’t get enough of it! These mountains are very rugged and barren, hostile if compared to the Taurus Mountains, for instance. When the road bends away it is not uncommon to see the snow on the highest peaks; driving through these foothills I see lots of loose rocks ready to be rolled down on the enemy in the canyons below as mentioned by our writers from antiquity. I was truly moving through history!

When still preparing for this trip I got rather confused between Arrian’s description of Alexander’s crossing the Zagros at the Persian Gates as opposed to what is told by Diodorus and Curtius making me wonder if there were three separate skirmishes in these canyons. Since these stories are vague, I wondered how I could figure this out. Apparently, I was not the first to be taken by surprise here and I am grateful to A.B. Bosworth (see:”Conquest and Empire. The Reign of Alexander the Great”) for having tackled the problem. He is certain there were three separate encounters with the Persians in the Zagros Mountains.

Once Alexander had crossed the Pasitigris, he entered the territory of the Uxians. Their lower fertile lands were occupied by agriculturalists and were governed by a satrap, a relative of Darius to keep matters in the family. The mountain-lands, mainly grazing fields for cattle did not fall under Persian rule, except that the Great King would pay a passage-fee when he crossed this territory. Alexander first encountered the lowlands’ satrap blocking the highway. He attacked these forces head-on while a detachment of his army circumvented the enemy using a side path leading them to a higher position above the enemy. The satrap withdrew to a fortress from where he negotiated terms involving the Queen Mother Sisygambis to mediate – successfully so.

Alexander’s next encountered the mountain people who demanded money for his passage through their lands. He invited them to meet him at the canyon entrance, but unknown to his enemy he force-marched his troops to sack and loot the nearest Uxian villages. At the same time, Alexander himself occupied the canyon entrance before the Uxians could man it; Craterus with his men held the heights above the pass. The Uxians were trapped on all sides and the majority of them were killed; the survivors were condemned to pay a heavy annual tribute of livestock to Alexander.

This tactic against the mountain-Uxians is indeed the very same as applied by Alexander when forcing the Persian Gates further south. I cannot take my eyes off the road and the landscape, fully aware that Alexander and his troops must have marched around here.

Parmenion with the heavier units and the baggage train took the long paved road around the mountains and must have followed the natural terrain of the modern road to reach Persepolis. Alexander being in a hurry to reach the capital before the treasury would be looted by the satrap of the province Persia took a shortcut through these mountains, a passage known as the Persian Gates. At some point, and certainly not exactly where Alexander turned off the highway, my road enters the Zagros Mountains through deep cuts between the narrow towering walls. When the walls recede the hillside is strewn with heavy loose rocks at times only held in place by precarious bushes that could easily be cut or uprooted. In my mind, I am in the thick of the fight!

But let’s go back to our history books that give a far more detailed description of the king’s strategy at the Persian Gates than during his fights with the Uxians, were it only because the stakes were much and much higher in the case of Persepolis.

The ruling satrap Alexander had to face was Ariobarzanes, who had already built a defense wall across the pass and manned it accordingly. Alexander tried to assault the pass but had to give up because the place was too well defended and he lost too many of his men. From his prisoners-of-war, he learned of another way round – a mere track, rough and narrow, but that’s all Alexander needed. Craterus remained behind with instructions to attack after receiving the trumpet signal from Alexander when he was safely round. For the king and his troops, this must have been quite an exploit, scrambling over this terrain at night (seeing it by daylight is bad enough!). At a certain point, he directed Philotas over a different road towards the Persian defenses to lead the second assault. Ptolemy was left to the north of the passage to deal with stragglers trying to evade Alexander. The masterly plan worked to perfection. Alexander led the front attack, destroying two advance fortifications and forcing the Persians to retreat behind the third one on the mountain side. He then directed his attention towards the Persian camp proper while trumpeting Craterus into action from the other side. The Persians were caught in between the two armies and tried to flee to the south, but this is where Philotas was waiting for them. Ptolemy swept up the remnants of the Persians, although Ariobarzanes managed to escape with a small party seeking refuge at Persepolis. The city’s garrison refused to let him enter and eventually he was killed by the advancing Macedonians.

To me all these canyons look alike and for many years scholars discussed the possible location of these Persian Gates, without much success. Until Jona Lendering was finally able in 2004 to confirm that Alexander had actually fought through the Tang-e Meyran Pass not too far from Yasuj, based on earlier reconnoitering carried out by Henri Speck.

Most travelers will find this long drive along the Zagros Mountains rather boring and very dusty, but for me, it brought Alexander’s genial attack to life when he outwitted and annihilated the Persian forces who were supposed to defend Persepolis.

[Click here to watch all pictures of the Zagros Mountains]

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