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Alexander the Great - Iskandar's Trail in Tajikistan

by Huw Thomas

In the spring of 329 BC Alexander the Great's conquests brought him to the river Oxus (Amu Darya), which forms the boundary between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. After defeating Darius, the Persian king, Alexander pursued the royal pretender, Bessus who had murdered Darius, across the Hindu Kush mountains. His army moved north, crossing the 4,000m Khawak pass in mid-winter and arrived at the banks of the Oxus to face a new challenge. Bessus had crossed to the far banks and had commandeered or burned all the river boats. Crossing the wide and swift-flowing river seemed an impossible task. Alexander, always an original thinker, was undaunted.  He gave instructions that his men should sew up the hides they used as tents, fill them with straw and use these to float across the river. Within five days his army had reached the north bank, probably at Kilif, about 30km west of Termez on the Uzbek/Tajik border.

About 100km east of where Alexander crossed is evidence of the Macedonian influence found at the temple of Takht-i Sangin. The temple architecture combines Persian and Greek styles. Many of the artefacts excavated from this site are now on display in Dushanbe's Museum of National Antiquities, including a perfectly preserved ivory head of Alexander. Found nearby is the magnificent collection of gold and silver objects dating from the Achaemenid Empire, known as the Oxus Treasure, now housed in the British Museum.

Having crossed the Oxus, Alexander moved north. Bessus was betrayed to Alexander by his own troops. Alexander, viewing Bessus as a traitor to his former master, Darius, ordered him to be mutilated in the Persian fashion, his nose and ears cut off before being sent for trial and gruesome execution.
Alexander now became bogged down, fighting for two years against his most difficult adversary. He was faced with uprisings. Both in Bactria (now northern Afghanistan and southern Tajikistan) and Sogdia (now northern Tajikistan and eastern Uzbekistan) the ancient warrior classes were fiercely independent. They were excellent horsemen and archers, who lived in impregnable strongholds. Alexander fell back to Maracanda (present day Samarqand) and carried out a scorched earth policy against the surrounding region, inflaming the local opposition lead by Spitamenes, a high-ranking nobleman, who waged a guerrilla campaign against him.

Alexander moved north east for 250km to the Jaxartes river (Syr Darya) and selected a site for his new city. Spitamenes was growing in strength. Alexander sent forces to blockade Cyropolis (Istaravshan), a city founded by Cyrus the Great around 530 BC, and attacked six other towns in the area. "No other town put up such a fierce resistance", reported the historian Curtius of the siege of Cyropolis. Alexander sustained a serious wound. His forces finally managed to enter the city through a water gate. In all seven towns the Macedonians executed all the males of military age and the women and children were enslaved.

Alexander returned to the Jaxartes to build his new town. In seventeen days a six kilometre wall of sun dried brick was built around his camp. This was to be among the thirty or more Alexandrias. This was Alexandria Eschate, or "Alexandria the Furthermost", which is now Khujand. Greek coins and artefacts have been excavated from the foundations of the fortress and can be seen in Khujand at the Museum of Archaeology and Fortifications in the reconstructed gateway.

Spitamenes' forces were encamped at Samarqand. Alexander sent an expeditionary force, but it was ambushed and two thousand infantry and 300 cavalry were lost. This was the first serious military defeat for Alexander for over twenty years.

To add to his troubles the nomadic Scythian warriors were gathering on the north bank of the Jaxartes. Curtius describes Alexander at Khujand, "He had still not recovered from his wound; in particular he had difficulty in speaking, a condition stemming from malnutrition and the pain in his neck ... he could not stand in the ranks, ride a horse or give his men instructions or encouragement... his voice was so quavering and feeble that it was difficult even for those next to hear him." But he had to act.

Alexander decided to tackle the Scythians first and attacked using catapults mounted on boats, driving the Scythians away from the riverbank. The infantry then crossed the river on ox skins stuffed with chaff. Once a bridgehead had been established the cavalry crossed and won a decisive victory.
Still ill, Alexander marched back to Samarqand. The Sogdians continued their guerrilla war, but by the spring of 327 BC, Alexander had received reinforcements from Greece. 327 BC has been described as the missing year in the history of Alexander, because the sources are in disagreement. He marched south from Samarqand to the Oxus, following it for eleven days before crossing the river near the Temple at Takht-i Sangin to Ai Khanoum, at the junction of the Oxus and the Kunduz Darya flowing from Afghanistan. Here Alexander probably founded Alexandria-on-the-Oxus, the first Greek city ever to be discovered in Central Asia.

From this base, the army split up into five groups and crossed into present day Tajikistan, up the Vakhsh valley to IXtshanbe and over the Anzob Pass, burning and killing all the way. Spitamenes was losing allies and after defeat in the deserts of Uzbekistan, his own associates murdered him and sent his head to the Macedonians.

The legend tells a different story, of how Spitamenes was pursued to Iskandar Kul (Iskandar is Alexander in Arabic), a beautiful lake in the Fan mountains. Alexander ordered a dam to be built across the Iskandar River, thus forming the lake. Spitamenes fled to Makshevat, a village in the Hissor mountain range, and hid in a cave high up on the cliffs. He refused to surrender and died of starvation. In the cave of Khoja Ishaq there is a mummy that can be visited, that some reckon is Spitamenes.

Some of Spitamenes followers retreated to the Sogdian Rock, an impregnable natural fortress. Alexander called on the Sogdians to discuss surrender terms to allow them a safe passage home. The defenders laughed and told him to find soldiers with wings. Alexander hated to be mocked, and large bonuses were offered to mountaineer troops to scale the cliffs. 300 ascended the cliff at night using tent pegs as pitons and flaxen ropes. 30 fell to their deaths, but the rest reached the summit. Next morning they looked down on the Sogdians. Alexander told the Sogdians to surrender as the soldiers with wings had flown to the summit. The Sogdians fearing they were facing many more troops than they could see, surrendered.

The final battle against the Sogdians was at another impregnable fortress, which was defended by Sisimithres (the locations of neither this fortress, nor the Sogdian Rock, are yet known). This time Alexander's tactic was to build a causeway across the abyss. Engineers climbed down the cliffs and drove stakes into the rock faces at the narrowest point in the ravine, then hurdles of willow were laid out in a network and surfaced with earth. The bridge was completed, and after a bombardment of arrows, probably from catapults, the Sogdians were persuaded to surrender. Sisimithres was spared.

It was here, according to some versions of the story, that Alexander set eyes on Roxanne (Rukshona meaning "Little Star" in Tajik), daughter of the Sogdian baron Oxyartes. Rukshona was "more beautiful than any woman except the wife of Darius". She had been captured at the Sogdian Rock and was dancing with other girls. Alexander fell in love. They were married at the fortress of Sismithres at a huge banquet, with Alexander and his Sogdian father in law cutting the bread with his sword.

It had taken two years of ferocious campaigning with heavy losses, but Alexander had pacified Sogdia and Bactria. He could now turn his attention to India.

Rukshona survived until after Alexander's death, but was murdered in 313. Their tale of love is still the subject of stories and legends throughout Central Asia.

Rukshona is still a popular name in Tajikistan, and you can still see beautiful girls of that name dancing as their namesake did 2,000 years ago.
Strabo and Pliny refer to Greek cities in Central Asia. There are likely to be the remains of more Greek cities buried along the banks of the Oxus and in the soil of the Vakhsh valley waiting to be excavated.

[Acknowledgement: I am indebted to Neville McBain for material in this article. I have also drawn heavily from In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great by Michael Wood (BBC Books, 2007), and Alexander the Great by Robin Lane hox (Penguin, 2004).]