In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great

The tale of journalist and filmmaker Michael Wood's journey via Landrover, camel, foot and boat in the path of Alexander the Great.

Published January 8, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

By early spring Alexander was ready to go. He had to cross the Hindu Kush, the great rampart of mountains which rises north of Kabul -- the "killer of Hindus" as it was called by the Muslim conquerors who came this way in the Middle Ages. This was the great route used by all invaders of the subcontinent. There are about sixteen passes, some up to 5 or 6000 metres in height, but only three have really counted in history. The main one today is the Salang Pass, now a modern road and tunnel used by the Russian convoys on their way up from Termez. The second route is westwards to Bamian, one of the most extraordinary sites in Asia -- the Valley of the Great Buddhas. This hauntingly beautiful place, with its gigantic statues carved into the cliffs, was visited by Marco Polo and by the Chinese explorers who came overland to bring back the Buddhist sacred texts from India. But this, and the Salang, were probably barred to Alexander because Bessus had devastated the countryside beyond them all the way to Balkh, the capital of Bactria. Alexander's intelligence would have informed him that supplying his army was out of the question on those routes. That left him one obvious alternative -- the Khawak Pass. This is the eastern route rising up on a gentle gradient. It was used by Tamerlane, Genghis Khan and other invaders of India. This was the route we decided to take.

We prepared for our expedition by renovating the old BBC Landrover and getting hold of a back-up Jeep, with spare axles and tyres (no mean feat in Kabul these days). Then, as the storm-clouds of war gathered over Kabul, with Taliban attacks growing in intensity, we headed north towards Chakrikar and the Panjshir valley to follow once more in Alexander's footsteps.

At Begram, near Charikar, he founded Alexandria under the Caucasus, with several thousand retired veterans, invalids and press-ganged locals. It is a wide and pleasant plain, 2000 metres up, but sheltered in the lee of the great spurs of the mountains. Fertile and well-watered, the vine and the olive will grow here, some compensation, perhaps, for the men Alexander forced to stay behind. He then continued up the Panjshir valley and into the mountains. The Greeks called these ranges the Caucasus, believing them to be close to the ends of the earth. Here, the army entered mythical space and time: marching under mountains where, so it was said, the Titan Prometheus had been tortured for aeons by Zeus for revealing to humankind the secret of fire and the arts of civilization. Here, as elsewhere with the tales of Hercules and Dionysus, real and mythological history merged in the impressionable mind of the young Alexander.

It took us two days on a very rough road to negotiate the 80 kilometres of the Panjshir valley, driving slowly under great brown ridges which keep the sun off the valley bottoms for the fist two hours of the morning. All along the road we passed ruined Russian gear (this had been one of the main routes by which the Mujahaddin resistance kept up pressure on the invaders). It is a harsh terrain for modern armies, and wrecked APCs (armoured-personnel carriers) lay everywhere. They had met fierce resistance here and, in the end, for all their technological superiority the poor Russian conscripts from Omsk and Tomsk just couldn't take it. The Macedonians though, like Afghans, were a mountain people, hard as nails. The valley was beautiful: the cold blue water of the river, green gardens and fields, neat brown mud-brick houses, with vivid splashes of colour from the maize and apricots drying on their roofs. And above, the great bare-ribbed mountains.

Alexander's army must have moved forward only slowly; an immense column miles long; a logistical headache for the high command and for the quartermasters who had to supply and feed them. Even by Landrover it was slow progress, crossing and recrossing the river. The vehicle broke down, ran out of petrol and, at one point, a landslide blocked the route for a night. Then, towards the end of the valley, the stony track began to rise up into the mountains and we passed single lines of travellers on foot and on horseback. Suddenly, it was easy to imagine the Macedonian army stretched out all the way down the Panjshir.

Finally, on the third day, we reached the village of Ao Khawak. It stands at the junction of two fast-flowing mountain rivers. Ahead the path goes up into the mountains of Nuristan, and to the north a rough dirt-track led off towards the Khawak Pass. From there it is about 80 kilometres down into the Pul i Kumri valley. We crossed the Khawak river by a wooden bridge and entered what looks like a nest of brigands and footpads: a huddle of hovels, stables and warehouses of squat stone, timber roofs weighed with heavy stones. There were clusters of dank hostels and smoke-blackened shanties where meals are cooked round the clock for traders and travellers. In the street, there was a great hubbub of activity for, although much of the goods and the people are brought here by truck, this is the jumping-off place for an older kind of travel, by foot and horseback on one of the ancient routes between India and Asia. From here, to get to north Afghanistan, we would have to walk.

In the middle of all this, surrounded by roaring waters and overlooked by the pyramid peak of Deh Parian, we found an open space for hundreds of horses, thin ribby animals with cloth nosebags, wicker panniers, ropes and harnesses. Their drivers are mostly young (old men would not last such a hard life). Wiry young jockeys, thin and sun-blackened, they charge 60,000 Afghanis (about # 12) to take you and your baggage across the mountains. In charge is the redoubtable commander Khalil, a shaggy giant of a man with a long black beard and a gimlet eye. He chose our horses, drivers and arranged for armed guards to accompany us the following day, to ward off the bandits which he said might attack us on the path. We were five strong, Peter, Tim, David, me, and Hanif Sharzat, an Afghan friend and journalist, who had gamely volunteered to be our translator. Hanif speaks Pashto, Farsi, Uzbek, Urdu and Russian, which he reckoned should be enough to talk our way out of the clutches of the various warlords across our path, and get us through to the Afghan-Uzbek border.

We were travelling now only with what we and three horses could carry. Before we set out I experienced another sharp pang of excitement. Once again, as nearly as we could, we were about to experience what the Greeks had gone through, and the sense of treading right in their footsteps was palpable. We had stripped down to essentials: a warm jacket, rucksack, sleeping bag, some emergency food (apples, nuts, and some stony chunks of dried mulberries) and, as always, Arrian and Curtius. We loaded the camera stock-box and the other film gear into rope and cloth panniers, and in the early afternoon our drivers led the horses off over the bridge and up the river valley alongside the rushing torrent. Soon we were into the ravines, then up a narrow dirt path on the first precipitous climb above the river. By three in the afternoon the air was unexpectedly chilly, and the valley bottoms were already in deep shadow as we left Nuristan behind us, the Land of Light, and headed north towards the snowy peaks of the Hindu Kush and, beyond, the fabled Oxus.

That first afternoon, to my surprise, all along the route we saw people -- on camels, horses and mules, on foot, too. There were traders, smugglers, refugees, and travellers. We even met some newly-weds, a man with his two wives on horseback, covered from head to foot in billowing robes as their horses gingerly crossed rickety plank bridges and sometimes waded chest-deep through the raging torrent. Sometimes we went up narrow earth paths along towering hillsides over the river gorge, across the face of long stony screes, down which any stumble could have been fatal, but the horses knew the path well. So, I reflected, the Khawak -- an ancient route used throughout history -- was still a great thoroughfare today. It seemed unbelievable, at first, as I took in the terrain, but the ancient armies were so tough and mobile, that for them this was a serviceable route.

That night we stopped at a cluster of stables and mud-brick dormitories which we shared with our fellow travellers. We ate bread and gruel by oil lamp with the local headman. We were, he told us, the first Westerners to come through since the war with the Russians. During the war the conditions here had been terrible. The people of the Pass had lived in caves by day, emerging only at night to cook and bake their bread. It must have been like that in 329 BC, too: killed if you didn't give up your precious winter stores to the invaders, killed perhaps even if you did.

Later, as I stretched out on our hostel floor, I turned over the pages of Arrian in the light of a Tilly lamp and reflected once more on the character of Alexander and his men. The Macedonians were inured to war but, even so, the journey was tough. It took the army sixteen days from front-to-tail to get over the Khawak Pass; it was January, bitterly cold at night. For food, they could plunder the winter stores of the locals, but two weeks of food for an army that size runs into several thousand tonnes -- and unless they carried it with them they would starve. Reading Arrian in that spot, it also occurred to me that it is virtually the same Afghanistan now. The long vicious war with the Russians has brought them back almost to the same subsistence level. They have got guns now, but otherwise the equation is the same. The same mountains, same harsh climate, same hard people.

Next day we said goodbye to the commander. The situation was tense, with trouble expected ahead, but Khalil had been as good as his word. The local headman left us with two gunmen to hold off bandits reported to be lying ahead in ambush. The path was higher and colder now, the wind more biting. We can guess from the Greeks' accounts that they, too, found it harder as the land grew more barren. They were into something of a logistical nightmare by now. As we walked on, I found myself trying to make rough calculations: how long does it take an army to march past a single point? Their army could have been spread over 25 kilometres or more. It was for this reason that their crossing of the Khawak had run into a second week; then the supply corps had found it could no longer feed the long line of troops funnelling into the Pass form the Panjshir valley. the army had run out of food.

The quarter masters asked for permission to start killing the pack animals, but there was no wood on the bare hills to make cooking fires, and they were reduced to eating the flesh raw. This they did, but to offset illness, says Arrian, they used the juice of a plant which grew on the mountains, apparently to chew with the meat. Historians have often wondered about this tale. Tall story? Propaganda? Perhaps. But the army doctors would have been trained in the use of herbal medicines -- this is still the basis of the Yunnani medicine, practiced in Afghanistan by the hakims who, as I have already mentioned, claim descent from the doctors who went with Alexander. In the event, we only had to ask our horse-handlers to find the answer. There, on the Khawak, grew a plant which fitted the bill. Arrian called it sylphion; we know it as asafoetida -- a resin obtained from the roots of plants of the genus Ferula. It grows in the spring and is widely used as medicine. In the Middle Ages it was produced in bulk and sold in the bazaars of Merv and Bukhara. Even during the Russian occupation, we were told, the guerrillas used it to heal wounds and cure stomach upsets. The Greeks had not been telling fairy tales.

We stopped at midday in rarefied air at a subterranean stone-roofed chai-stop where the horsemen took food and the horses grazed on the thin grass. Smoke curled from a cairn of stones over the roof, recalling the Greek story of Afghan houses so bedded down in rocks that only smoke from chimneys showed where they were. We ate hot coarse bread and drank green tea flavoured with cardamoms; someone brought some grapes washed in the icy blue stream below the path. Inside, under a smoke-blackened brick vault, was an ancient samovar, a rice-steamer and various teapots. Along the wall, there was a crowd of turbaned men with bandoliers and guns. In the air was the sweet resinous smell of firewood. On hearing why we were there, an old man told a story that many Greeks had died on Alexander's passage through the Pass, and that a circle of stones with tattered flags on the way to the top marked the graves of his troops.

We pushed on up the long slope, as the wind started to course down between the hills. Sixteen kilometres up from Ao Khawak, at a little under 4000 metres, we reached the summit. In thin air and a chill wind, we were surrounded by snow streaked peaks with creamy white clouds coming over the tops. The last few metres drew us on to see the view the Greeks had seen all those years before. Again, there was that eerie feeling of standing on the very spot where Alexander had stood. He knew at that moment he had got through, that his gamble had paid off. The Pass had been undefended. Below us, the road snaked down, still sunlit towards northern Afghanistan and the Oxus, beyond which lay the great plains of central Asia.

"Nothing put him off," said Arrian. "Starvation, the freezing cold, nothing -- he just kept coming on and on. And in the end his enemies were struck with fear and amazement."

Standing shivering on the top of the Khawak Pass, it was easy for us to see why. Once again Alexander had shown that left any chance he would take it. As we set off we met a group of Tajiks and Uzbeks coming up from Cental Asia. The way was clear, the highwaymen had been chased off. "Get a move on and you'll be in Anderab by nightfall," one said.

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For Alexander, the way to Bactria lay open. He could now rest and recuperate in the fertile valleys around Kunduz while the tail of his exhausted and starving army filtered through. These lands are particularly fertile. The great traveller Ibn Battuta, when he crossed the Khawak in 1333, stopped here for forty days, and speaks of their "fine pastures and herbage." We rested at Pul i Kumri with the hospitable local warlord, an Ismaeli Shia. It was an unlikely meeting in such a place and time. Jaffar went to school in Harrow and once delivered pizzas in Detroit. He and his clan have protected their valleys from the war around them, and from the passage of armies, while Afghanistan has fallen back into its ancient regional divisions. Such warlords seem to be affectionately regarded by their people, but they inhabit a strange world. Some I have met mix intermittent bursts of warfare with prodigious drinking sessions on Russian vodka and Johnny Walker, enlivened by Tajik girls and the latest CDs from the West. I guessed the Macedonians were no different. In his villa Jaffar showed me antiquities, a great Greek inscription from a nearby site, medieval bronzes from Balkh, Greek coins from lost cities on the Oxus. His, I suspect, was a world not unlike that of 330 BC, a time of shifting allegiances as local hard men try to keep their position like the satraps of old. Back in Alexander's day, however, the difference was that the outside power -- Alexander's power -- was so overwhelming nobody could resist him.

After a few days of Jaffar's hospitality, we decided to push on. As we set out to head north once more, I experienced a sudden sharp taste of anxiety. Jaffar's tanks were rumbling through the streets belching black oily diesel smoke and the wind was whipping up fierce eddies of dust as they began to move their forces towards the mountain passes we had just crossed. On BBC World Service radio we heard that the Taliban were closing in on Kabul. We were besieged by ever-present thoughts of war; so much of Afghan history has been -- and still is -- foreign invasion and civil struggle. Once the Russians had been beaten, no one seemed to care any more if the land was torn to pieces. So the cycle of history comes round. Poor Afghanistan.

We had hired a battered Russian pick-up to make the run north to the Oxus. It had no rear windows, which made it pleasantly draughty by day when the sun scorches, but freezing by night. We were also beset by all the usual worries about breaking down as we headed on in Alexander's footsteps.

As soon as Alexander's army had recovered from the crossing of the Khawak, he moved quickly towards the Oxus river, which divides present-day Afghanistan from the former Soviet Central Asia. Following in his track through northern Afghanistan, you go through a string of fertile valleys between barren ranges of hills; then enter huge gorges which lead down to the Oxus plain.

That nightfall we came to Tashkurgan, the Greek Aornos, to find the town shattered by war. The ancient citadel, with its great mud-brick castle which stood over lush orchards, had been pounded to bits in the fighting; the lovely wooden souk, and the bazaar whose ceiling had been delightfully inlaid with blue Chinese porcelain bowls, had been levelled; the old town was a wasteland of devastated mud-brick buildings. This was no time to explore. The town is held by Hisbe Islami who have been known to kidnap Westerners and seize their gear -- especially cameras. Suddenly our driver muttered urgently that we should get out of the place. We attempted to, but, unbelievably, we broke down on the outskirts just by an armed post. Providence intervened. At that moment the muezzin sang out the call for Friday prayers and our potential captors melted away, just as a dust-storm whirled down the street and hid us from prying eyes. Five minutes tinkering under the bonnet by torchlight and we were on the road again. After a couple of more hours huddled in cold bumpy darkness, we entered Mazar. We had made it across Afghanistan from Kabul to the north. Given the fact that we were only five people, and unarmed at that, it seemed an achievement. At the UN rest-house, a kindly diplomat gave us half a crate of Turkish beer and we had a quiet celebration.

By Michael Wood

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