When Europe met Central Asia: Alexander the Great (4th Century BC).

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The journey to the East

In the previous post, we showed how China the first time its empire encountered Central Asia and the problems they had, militarily and economically, to control and latter abandon that area. The great Chinese empire opted to leave it alone and reach trade agreements. Some centuries before, a Western leader also tried to control the region.

Alexander III of Macedonia

This previous attempt from the West took place in the 4th century B.C. (some 21 centuries before the founding of the U.S.A.) The Macedonian considered it the most arduous conquest in his life, cutting through snow-capped peaks, starving his troops to death and subduing them, and subjecting local tribes to fierce sieges.

For anyone who has attempted it over the last two millennia, to invade current Afghanistan has been an impossible task. When Arabs first decided to introduce Islam there 1,300 years ago, it required two centuries to capture the Afghan capital and to impose Islam on its tribes. In eighth-century Spain, it only took the Arabs 15 years to seize control of the Iberian Peninsula, though in this case, in a disunited region with local chiefs at odds with each other, the main weapon was agreements with local chiefs who were unwilling to fight.

Alexander the Great is regarded as a leading political personality of ancient times, a brilliant military strategist and author of a culturally significant work: the rise of a new world, namely the Hellenistic world, where the “classical” civilization benefited from Eastern influences.

Alexander the Great was the only one who succeeded almost in its entirety, through battles marked by a series of deadly besieges, overwhelming rallies, ferocious raids and ravaging battles against nomadic peoples lasting two years, 330 to 328 BC. Overcoming these hardships, the young Macedonian king prevailed over his foes and,  as we will see later, eventually succeeded in marrying a young local princess to ensure peace.

Towards Central Asia

Emperor Alexander the Great continued the conquests initiated by his father by setting out for the Persian Empire one year before arriving in present-day Afghanistan. Long before he had seized every territory from Egypt to India.

Crushing Darius III,  the last Achaemenid King of Kings of Persia, at the famous Gaugamela battle, he took the crown from him and made him flee. There was nothing to deter Alexander the Great in his intentions. He pushed his army towards the icy peaks of the Hindu Kush mountain range (Paropamysos, Alexander´s long cherished dream). During those marching days, a great number of his troops starved and froze to death, yet they made it through the mountains and reached the Afghan plains. They needed some 225 tons of food and forage and some 600,000 liters of water per day to maintain their army. 

But Alexander he caught his next prey, Bessus, a general that commanded the left wing of the Persian army that fought against Macedonians and later rebelled against his king and killed him. Vacant the title of Great King, Bessos did not hesitate to appropriate it, adopting the name of Artaxerxes IV and making himself strong in Bactres (today Balkh), in Afghanistan. 

All theses achievements implied too heavy a burden, linked to the maintenance of the borders of an empire far removed from its metropolis. Something similar to what would happen a few centuries later to China.

Nothing stop Alexander, not even crossing a 3,700-meter-high pass in the Hindu Kush in April, when mountains were still covered in snow

The Macedonian king moved quickly, plundering many of the indigenous populations he encountered along the way. Word spread and panicked his enemies, to the extent that many other tribal leaders, led by Spitamenes, informed Alexander of their intention to betray Bessos and capture him as a token of their loyalty.

According to some historians, Alexander cruelly mutilated Bessos, a shocking practice to the Greeks and Macedonians, but Alexander, as Persian king, knew what to a regicide – decades earlier, Darius I had ordered the same treatment of Phraortes, a Median rebel-.

Bessos, King Artaxerxes IV: Some historians wrote that, once captured, he was handed over to the Macedonian king, who, after mutilating him, sent him to Ecbatana, where he was tried and executed. But it could also be a legend.

Spitamenes, the Sogdian leader

The Sogdians were an Iranian people whose homeland, Sogdiana, was located between present-day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Sogdiana had its peak of wealth and importance during the 4th to 8th centuries AD. During this time, Sogdiana consisted of a mosaic of oasis cities and rich agricultural lands, uniquely situated among the great empires of the Asian continent.

Scythians stored their wealth in some of their strongholds and hid their wives and children before rushing against the invader. Alexander the Great never contemplated retreat and charged with his artillery and archers. He succeeded in driving the Scythians back. Their leaders promised him lasting peace if he would stop ravaging their lands. The Macedonian king agreed so that he could deal with the remaining rebels.

He then decided to attack Spitamenes, the great leader of the Sogdians, at the Rock, an imposing fortress built on the side of a mountain.

Its defenders had plenty of food and refused Alexander’s offer of surrender but made the mistake of mocking his emissary by saying that they would surrender when he attacked them with «flying» soldiers.

The Macedonian accepted the challenge and gathered his best climbers. He promised them that he would make them rich if they could make it to the top.

With such an important motivation and their great skill, this group of warriors – who today would be the special forces of an army – achieved their purpose.

Spitamenes capitulating before Alexander the Great

Linking by marriage to regional aristocratic clan

One by one, all different local powers chiefs surrendered. Among them was Oxiartes, the head of one of the rebellious communities and father of the princess Roxana, soon to become Alexander’s spouse. It was the Emperor Alexander’s strategy to cement his alliance with the tribes. This nobleman turned father-in-law was key in the subduing of the Sogdians, mediating to persuade them the Macedonian conquistador was no threat but rather an ally who would pursue a tolerance policy regarding their traditions.

At the start of the conquest, Alexander handed over duties to his Macedonian fellow citizens. But once the occupation of Persia – which was the heart of his power – was assured, he would appoint or maintain high local officials, provided that their loyalty and efficiency proved to be correct and reliable.

Daughter of the noble Oxiartes, Roxana married Alexander after being kidnapped by him after the battle of Roca Sogdiana. The marriage was a political attempt to win the favor of the powerful satrap.

At the top of the pyramid was the king of kings, followed by those who were closest to him – in Alexander’s case, those who were most capable, rather than the aristocracy – then a vast bureaucratic network coming from many different origins: Macedonian, Greek, Hellenistic, Iranian, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Indian, etc.

Such participation by conquered peoples in government displeased the Greek jealous traditionalists. Neither were they fond of Alexander’s embracing Eastern habits or mixing elements of Persian royalty, such as the tiara and the striped white robe, into his Macedonian outfit.

The unyielding region

Alexander the Great reached the remotest parts of Afghanistan and its wild frontiers, pursued and punished all rebels, and created military fortifications to seal all borders of his territory. He also established military foundations in the territory to seal the borders, repopulated entire regions with European settlers former military and veterans of his armies, razed and burned cities to the ground. 

But in spite of so much blood, sweat and tears, as W. Churchill would say almost 2,500 years later, the unyielding region remained plagued by local warlords unwilling to surrender, among them Spitamenes, who took refuge with the Scythians to continue the war from exile, indignant with the surrender of his compatriots.

Map of the distribution of Iranian-speaking peoples around 100 BC: Scythians and their subgroups, and the Parthian Empire. Scythians took part in the greatest campaigns of their times, defeating such mighty contemporaries as Assyria, Urartu, Babylonia, Media and Persia

As much as Alexander continued to battle, he never gained total control of the territory. It was the beginning of a nightmare that seems to repeat itself throughout the centuries…

Alexander’s dominions extended over three continents. In Europe, he had Macedonia, Greece and Thrace. In Africa, Cyrenaica and Egypt. Asia also belonged to him, from Hellenic Ionia in the West to the Punjab in northern India. But the personalism of his achievements and his great charisma, together with the vastness of the conquered regions and the cost to maintain it, caused his great empire to collapse as soon as the conqueror died.

Such was his personal power that his imprint remained for three centuries despite the brief existence of its architect.  The political division that followed his death altered the form of the empire, but not its essence. Alexander had set a precedent: he had put into practice the concept of universal monarchy. He had predecessors in this, very recent ones: the Persian emperors of the Achaemenid dynasty. However, none other than Alexander III, the Macedonian, had united East and West under a unique empire with a weak point, Afghanistan, kneecap and union between East and West.

The Alexandrian Empire is one of the largest empires that ever existed, encompassing four continents, hundreds of cities and millions of people under its (temporary) control.

As we have seen, learning from history reduces the risk of making the same mistakes and stumbling over the same stone. Homo sapiens should be able to learn from their past to be more sensible in the future.

And here we come to the end of another travel note, but the Journey to the East continues so…

… If you want to know how our Journey to the East continues, be sure to read the next post carefully, and if you have any questions, comments, suggestions, or inputs, please email us atinfo@danielecheverria.com. We will be happy to hear from you.

Daniel echeverria

Daniel Echeverría-Jadraque

If you want to know how our journey to the East continues, be sure to read the following post carefully… If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or contributions, please send us an email to info@danielecheverria.com. Hsuan Tsang, the Monkey King, the Pig, the Sand, the Dragon Horse and myself will be happy to hear from you!

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