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 OR Termez, Afghanistan) - 328 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)

Saturday, February 18, 2017

When pillars with unknown writing were discovered in India

It happened in 1616 that an Englishman discovered a 13 meters tall pillar with unknown writing among the ruins of ancient Delhi. The pillar itself was quite unusual since it glowed like brass but turned out to be made of highly polished sandstone instead. The inscription seemed related to Greek and he assumed that the pillar had been erected by Alexander the Great after his victory over Porus – why not?

More such pillars were eventually sighted in northern India but we had to wait till 1830 when the British, much interested in the economic exploitation of India, were able to translate their strange inscriptions for the first time. The texts revealed to be written in Prakrit and/or in combination with Aramaic and Greek, all referring to King Piyadasi, who turned out to be another name for King Asoka who emerged as the first figure in Indian history to inform us about the country’s forgotten history.

King Asoka was the grandson of Chandragupta and the third king of the Mauryan Empire (see: Was Chandragupta inspired by Alexander?), and ruled from 269 until 232 BC. He made headlines when it was discovered that his life and deeds ran parallel with the historical Buddha about whom till now close to nothing had been documented. British orientalists uncovered the true identities of both Asoka and Buddha thanks to these inscriptions – some 150 of them - etched by Asoka onto stone pillars and rock faces across India. The pillars had been placed in strategic locations on trade routes as well as at the edge of cities.

The appearance of the Asokan pillars is still subject to discussions. These pillars often were crowned with one or more lions, an unknown element in India art. Some scholars like to claim that the lions were a Macedonian heritage left by Alexander the Great inspired by the lion of Chaironeia while others found many similarities with the Achaemenid columns like those used at Persepolis.

Asoka ruled over the entire Indian subcontinent, except for a small kingdom on the east coast, Kalinga, which he captured in 260 BC. This was an extremely bloody war that ended with the death of at least 200,000 men. From then onward (about 250 BC), he decided to embrace Buddhism and govern his kingdom peacefully.  At this time he started erecting pillars to incite people to live in harmony and give up violence. His name and deeds would have entirely disappeared from history had it not been for the records he left on pillars and rocks across the Mauryan Empire and beyond. This situation is not unlike that of the Egyptians who lost their history till the hieroglyphs were deciphered by Champollion in the early 1800s.

The intriguing part is, however, that pillars similar to those bearing Asoka’s edicts existed in India before the king’s time and were often moved and/or reused in spite of weighing as much as fifty tons. One known and documented such example dates from the 14th century when two pillars were moved to Delhi from about 90 miles away. It is thought that one of these pillars was retrieved from Topra (an important stop on the road from Pataliputra to the northwest) could have belonged to the Twelve Altars built by Alexander on the banks of the Hyphasis River after the mutiny of this troops. This means that this pillar was erected before Asoka’s time although it carries his Seventh Edict.

The pillars have become famous because of their inscriptions stringed throughout the reign of Asoka. Other edicts have been found on major rocks and in several caves. Asoka etched his insights and principles of the Buddhist religion together with their application by the people, the religious communities and the state in general. The various rock and pillar edicts are geographically widespread and have been found in India and Pakistan, but also in neighboring Afghanistan, Nepal in the north and Bangladesh in the east.

It is certain that diplomatic, commercial and cultural exchanges were maintained through Seleucid Bactria and Mauryan Arachosia. Arachosia, for instance, (southern Afghanistan and Pakistan) and its capital Gandhara (previously Alexandria Arachosia), came under the rule of the Mauryans after the Seleucids. Here the bilingual inscriptions left by Asoka (including combinations of Greek, Aramaic and Prakrit) confirm that educated Greeks had been willing to cooperate with him and that he promoted Buddhism. This is a very important result of Alexander’s policy to settle his veterans and garrisons south of the Hindu Kush. It did not take those settlers too long to realize that if they resented ruling the natives they would be displaced by those willing to do so. Alexander certainly had not subdued the entire area but he had left the natives under local control, a policy that was extended by Seleucos and that paid off when the Mauryan kings came to power.

Asoka’s missionaries, apparently fluent in Greek, were dispatched throughout the Hellenistic world left by Alexander and we find the names of many rulers of those foreign countries etched in stone, like for example 
- Amtiyoko who is nobody else than Antiochus II Theos of Syria, king of Greater Syria and as such also ruled over Bactria.
- Turamaye which is the name used for Ptolemy II Philadelphus of Egypt, the son of Ptolemy I who after the death of Alexander the Great became king of Egypt
- Amtikini who refers to Antigonus II Gonatas, intermittently king of Macedonia
- Alikasudaro, meaning Alexander II, king of Epirus
- Maka who is identified as Magas from far away Cyrene 
The widely distributed edicts certainly were key in the exchanges between East and West and they provide a window into history that is otherwise unknown.

The main purpose of the edicts, however, was to establish justice or dhamma, which includes much good and little evil, kindness, generosity, fruitfulness, purity, and maybe most importantly that “a dialog between different religions is good”. A typical example is probably the rock inscription found at Shahbazgarhi (northwest Pakistan) listing a number of do's and don’ts: prohibition of needless killing and sacrificing of animals; provision of health facilities for humans and animals; digging of wells; prohibition of anti-social religious festivals; other aspects of good behaviour including an exhortation to the various religions to engage in a dialog; and obedience to parents. For all intents and purposes, it would have been impossible in the long run to implement all this goodwill and these peace-intentions without some kind of policing, meaning violence. Then as now, our freedom and peace do not come without a fight.

A comprehensive list of Asokas inscriptions with their full translation can be found in “The Edicts of King Ashoka, an English rendering by Ven. S. Dhammika”. This page reproduces all known edicts: 14 Rock Edicts, the Kalinga Rocks Edicts and Minor Rock Edicts, and finally the Seven Pillar Edicts and Minor Pillar Edicts.

[Picture of Lion capital from History Discussion Net ]
[Picture of the Kandahar Edict of Ashoka, a bilingual inscription (and Aramaic) by king Ashoka, from Kandahar. Kabul Museum.]


  1. Many thanks Argyraspid for your interest and posting on the 3rd Mauryan and the great Indian Emperor Ashoka. The historian Michael Wood surmises in his book ‘The story of India- “.. As part of the deal ( between Seleucus and Chandra Gupta Maurya, the first Maurya Emperor) , Chandra Gupta married a Greek princess, so his grandson Ashoka, perhaps the greatest ruler in Indian history, may have had Greek blood, and perhaps even spoke a little of the language. You see Argyraspid, you are not totally off topic, since he could well be a flesh and blood after - effect of the Alexander saga.:-)

    And Ashoka was indeed a very great emperor, far ahead of his time. His 28 years long reign was one of the brightest interludes in the troubled history of not only the Indian subcontinent but of the mankind. After the massive and very cruel battle of Kalinga battle (262-261 BC) and his change of heart, he embraced Buddhism and promoted a philanthropic rule that makes him one of the most exemplary rulers who ever lived H.G. Wells in his book The Outline of History: writes - "Amidst the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history, their majesties and graciousnesses and serenities and royal highnesses and the like, the name of Ashoka shines, and shines, almost alone, a star."

  2. (continued, I do tend to make lengthy comments)

    Still, you are right, Argyraspid, when you say – “ For all intents and purposes, it would have been impossible in the long run to implement all this goodwill and these peace-intentions without some kind of policing, meaning violence”.

    Ashoka’s embrace of Buddhist idealism and the Jain non- violence would have been impractical even in our modern world, it was completely out of sync in the cruel, pugnacious and confrontational ancient world. But for one glorious moment, like a bolt of lightning , an enlightened emperor dreamt the possibility of changing human nature, not through the violence and suffering o f war but via the conquest of minds and hearts with moral rectitude.For once in History, Ashoka dared to implement and made them work in the real world. Thanks to him, the Buddhist ideals would have a tremendous impact in the Asian world and maybe also in the Western world too- even the Greek Skeptic philosophers traced their ideas to Indian philosophers and tombstones bearing Buddhist symbols have been found in Alexandria. Eventually, the realpolitik did catch up the Mauryas and fifty years after Ashoka, the mighty empire- the largest at the time, collapsed in 185 BC following a military coup by the commander-in-chief of imperial guard. Its resulted in a wave of foreign invasion. The Greco-Bactrian king, Demetrius, capitalized on the break-up, and conquered southern Afghanistan and parts of northwestern India around 180 BCE, forming the Indo-Greek Kingdom that lasted for about a century.

    There are two statements in your narrative that I wish to point to. The first confused me and I wouls like to expand the second one.

    - “He made headlines when it was discovered that his life and deeds ran parallel with the historical Buddha…” Buddha lived almost three centuries before Ashoka, how do these two lives run parallel ?

    -“The appearance of the Asokan pillars is still subject to discussions. These pillars often were crowned with one or more lions, an unknown element in India art. Some scholars like to claim that the lions were a Macedonian heritage left by Alexander the Great inspired by the lion of Chaironeia while others found many similarities with the Achaemenid columns like those used at Persepolis”. Mauryan architecture do show Achaemenid and Greek influences but the Ashokan pillers, with their lion capitals are the first ever pillers with an animal figure perched on top or incorporating human figures ( Buddha or Bodhisattvas). As such, they are a purely Mauryan originality, a style which would spread to other countries later. The influences were thus can be termed reciprocal.

    2017 marks the 70th anniversary of India’s independence. Detailed, well researched books have come out depicting the appalling price India had to pay for the British colonial venture in the sub-continent but Indians will always remain grateful to the British for at least one tremendous benefaction- in 1837, the orientalist James Princep decrypted the ancient Bramhi script on the Ashokan pillers and thus brought the great Emperor Ashoka and his exceptional deeds out from the fuzzy legends to tangible history.

    1. Hi Kalpana,
      Thank you for taking the time to elaborate further on the great Asoka. I may have cut one too many corners by omitting to mention the drop of Macedonian blood that could make the difference in Asoka’s life and accomplishments! :-)
      That is a great quote from H.G. Wells - very appropriate indeed!
      In your second comment you are wondering about what I meant speaking of a parallel between Asoka and Buddha who lived nearly three centuries before. I understand your remark but I did not mean that the life of Asoka and that of Buddha literally ran parallel – just that Asoka, thanks to the many inscriptions he left on countless pillars all over his empire, helped to spread the teaching of Buddha as he ruled over a pacified greater India.
      As to your remark about the appearance of the Asokan pillars or columns, I am not entirely certain whether their lion capitals are the first ever representations of animal figures perched on top. The Egyptians and Greeks put animals on stone plinths, not on columns but that is only in as far as we know. I was thinking for instance about the sphinx of Delphi, sitting on top of a column in classical style. Well, the sphinx is only half animal and half human, but still … The Achaemenids used double-headed bulls and lions on top of the columns of their palaces in Susa and Persepolis – not full sized animals, I agree, but when you examine some of the Asokan pillars more closely you will notice ornamental cushions or styled skirts closely resembling those used in Persepolis and could have been copied or at least inspired by Achaemenid art. After all, they do not have to be exact copies, right?
      Your additional note about India celebrating the 70th anniversary of its independence from the British is very much to the point. It certainly is an excellent opportunity to put James Princep in the floodlights for without him Asoka and his empire might still be shredded in mystery.