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)

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Alexander crosses the Hindu Kush a second time

After two years of intense guerilla fights throughout Sogdiana, Alexander had finally caught Bessus, eliminated Spitamenes and restored a relative peace in Bactria by marrying Roxane. The time had come for him to head for India.

Until now, I was convinced that Alexander returned from Bactria via the Khyber Pass but when I tried to trace where the idea came from, I was in for a surprise. There is no excuse, I should have taken a closer look at the map to realize that the Khyber Pass lies in fact on the way from Kabul to Peshawar and not between Bactria and Afghanistan.

With that question solved, I needed to find out which pass Alexander had used leaving Bactria. The antique authors are disappointingly scant in reporting this part of his campaign. Plutarch, Justin, and Diodorus do not mention the crossing of the Hindu Kush – a formidable barrier under all circumstances - on Alexander’s return and Curtius simply states that Alexander set out for India in order not to foster idleness. Arrian seems to be the only one to be more specific telling us that by the end of spring Alexander began his march for India, that he crossed the Indian Caucasus, and ten days later reached Alexandria(-in-the-Caucasus), the city he had founded during his first expedition into Bactria. Strabo merely tells us that Alexander crossed the Hindu Kush and settled his veterans and mercenaries together with natives at Alexandria-in-the Caucasus.

This meant that I had to rely on modern historians and their research on the matter. Unfortunately, they do not agree among themselves about Alexander’s route and it seems that they all have a theory of their own.

Frank Holt (Into the Land of Bones) has come to the conclusion that Alexander marched his army over the Shibar Pass. With the winter snows gone, the trek went smoothly and without great logistical problems.

Robin Lane Fox (Alexander the Great) says that Alexander used the same pass as earlier, meaning the Khawak Pass (see: From Afghanistan into Bactria across the Hindu Kush). This time in June, the march was at a leisurely pace and took only ten days. The snows had melted and Alexander could rely on food stored in the Sogdian fortresses on the way and on the high grazing grounds for the animals. The army spent a pleasant summer at Alexandria-in-the-Caucasus (Begram) thus avoiding an invasion of India in appalling heat.

A.B. Bosworth (Conquest and Empire) simply mentions that Alexander crossed the passes of the Hindu Kush into the Paropamisadae in ten days and reinforced the city of Alexandria-in-the-Caucasus.

Michael Wood has concluded that Alexander crossed the Hindu Kush via Bamyan, which implies that he took the Shibar Pass.

Donald Engels (Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army) in turn sticks to the Salang Pass since this pass is shorter and has often been used by armies in a hurry. Engels states that the army re-crossed the Hindu Kush in late spring but could not forage for grain along the route because harvest at these high altitudes does not occur until July or August. They had to rely on supplies collected by Hephaistion throughout Bactra before departing.

In a footnote, the author refers to the optional Kushan Pass, just east of the Salang Pass, that has been put forward by other historians, but then this Kushan is seldom used because it is precipitous and treacherous – not exactly recommendable for an army. The Salang Pass, on the other hand, although as fast as the Kushan is much safer. He rules out the Shibar Pass which is longer than the Khawak. Given the ten days it took Alexander to cross the Hindu Kush, Engels’ choice is narrowed down to either the Salang Pass or the Kushan Pass.

All these theories take me back to the map of Afghanistan and of the Hindu Kush in particular. Based on the above, it comes down to choosing between the 3,878 meter-high Salang Pass and the Kushan Pass rising at 4,370 meters located due west of the Salang Pass. Interestingly, this pass is less than one kilometer away from the modern Salang Tunnel built in 1964 with the financial and technological support of the Soviet Union. This meant that traveling time is cut down drastically although repeated avalanches tend to trap the vehicles inside the tunnel, making the voyage still a dangerous one.

Glancing at Google maps provides another quite impressive image of the landscape the Macedonian army crossed. Even with enough food and fodder, we have to admire these sturdy men trudging over narrow paths, through deep ravines, across icy rivers and over rocks of all sizes and shapes. Nobody, not even Hannibal comes close to Alexander’s exploits in the Hindu Kush. In the end, I have to agree with David Engels and agree on the Salang Pass.

We should remember that Alexander’s Asian campaign is much and much more than a series of battles and sieges. Marching often through forbidding landscapes, coping with extreme heat, thunderstorms, crosswinds, dust, rain, sleet and ice, the Macedonians have seen it all but the king set the example by leading his troops over each and every obstacle. The Hindu Kush is just one of these obstacles, although a major one that cannot be stressed enough.

[First picture shows the Shibar Pass by František Řiháček -original prints, CC BY-SA 3.0, - The two other pictures show the Salang Pass by Scott L.Sorensen - My Personal Picture, CC BY 3.0 and by Spc. Michael Vanpool (U.S. Armed Forces) respectively.]

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