The Magazine

Alexander's Nemesis

After 2,300 years, history may not repeat itself.

Nov 21, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 10 • By GRAEME WOOD
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Into the Land of Bones

Alexander the Great in Afghanistan

by Frank L. Holt

California, 241 pp., $24.95

NOW THAT AFGHAN CIVIL AVIATION is up and running, anyone with fifty bucks for a plane ticket can view Afghanistan from 10,000 feet up. At ground level, bustling conurbations like Kabul and Herat easily fool a visitor into thinking he is (despite the stranglingly bad air, laden with car exhaust and airborne donkey feces) within a hundred years of the present day. But to see from the window of a decrepit Kam Air Antonov is to be disabused: blue lakes and bleak crags roll across the window, punctuated infrequently by hamlets of astonishing archaism. The villages' crooked pastures and mangers of mangy beasts could have existed in identical form in the ages of Brezhnev, Kipling, Babur, or Alexander the Great. Many villages appear to have no roads connecting them to each other, or to the relative outposts of progress at Kabul, Herat, or Mazar-e-Sharif.

With such a view, it is not a matter of imagining Afghanistan as it was during the age of Alexander, but of realizing that most of the country has never left that age, and that time is an illusion to which only the small population of Afghan city-dwellers has succumbed.

Frank Holt's excellent account of Alexander the Great's campaigns in Afghanistan relies on this premise to construct a cautionary narrative about American visions of empire in Central Asia. The premise is mostly correct: Even after four years of aid--and with the exception of Kabul and a few other spots--Afghanistan remains only marginally better off than it was in ancient times, and the difficulties of terror and subjugation then hold lessons for war and development today.

After his father Philip of Macedon's death in 336 b.c., Alexander led his army on the longest and bloodiest military tour ever, cutting a swath of terror through ancient Iraq and Iran. In old Persian sources, he is known as "the Cursed" for torching Babylon (in modern Hilla, Iraq) and Persepolis (near Shiraz, Iran) and deposing Darius, Shah of Shahs. From Persepolis, Alexander would have continued east anyway, but the hubris of Bessus, a satrap who challenged Alexander's suzerainty, provided a convenient pretext to cross swiftly into the land not yet known as the grave of empires.

Holt's most vivid passages describe what happened next. Bessus hid in Bactria, in the city now known as Balkh, and remained defiant. (Balkh today bears every mark of having been reduced to rubble repeatedly; there is almost nothing to hint at its former glory.) Alexander's armies moved in, dismantled resistance along the way, and took Bessus captive without much difficulty. As punishment Bessus was, Holt writes, "literally defaced," his noble features snipped, ripped, or smeared from the front of his skull.

Things then got ugly: Alexander's men bristled at their leader's growing pretensions of divinity; they hated his eagerness to take on Persian customs and dress. He wed a Bactrian, known to history as Roshanak or Roxane, and demanded that his generals find Persian mates of their own. (Tales of Alexander persist in the region: The Chitralis of northern Pakistan attribute their green eyes and fair hair to Alexander's men. The claim is spurious, though it has more cachet than tracing one's lineage to centuries of Russian rapists and anonymous mustachioed British colonial officers.)

Fierce locals murdered Alexander's deputies and ran to the hills to hide from reprisals. With time, the Macedonians wondered why they had spent so much time and blood to subdue a barbarous backwater. Worse still, those wounded or too old to proceed faced garrison duty in Afghanistan and a virtual guarantee that they would never see the sea again. Eventually, dissension became so general that Alexander had to suspend his depredations in the Punjab and return to Persia. He died in Babylon at 32, his Afghan territories in disarray.

Holt draws parallels both broad and specific between the campaigns of Alexander and the later conquests of Afghanistan by the British, the Soviets, and the United States. Like the latter-day conquerors, Alexander's men saw the locals as backward, even wicked, and in Alexander's case they viewed the indigenous rituals as reason enough to put the Bactrians to the sword. (One Macedonian officer remarked that the Bactrians looked so horrible that they should be fought only at night.) All invaders faced a highly mobile local enemy with almost no logistical needs whatsoever. Alexander's army needed 160,000 gallons of water per day; the British had two support soldiers for every one on the frontline; and the American logistical train today is much, much longer than either.