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The Forgotten Realm of Alexander Volume 57 Number 6, November/December 2004
by Kristin M. Romey

A poor former Soviet republic lies at the heart of the Macedonian conqueror's story.

[image] The citadel at Kampyr-tepe today commands a view to the Oxus River in the horizon and Afghanistan beyond. It is one of several fortresses believed to have been established by Alexander at key crossing points along the river. (Oleg Nishikin) [LARGER IMAGE]

Nowhere else on Alexander the Great's 22,000-mile, 13-year march from Greece to the Punjab did he encounter more difficulties than in what was known in ancient times as Sogdiana.

In four quick years, beginning in 334 B.C., the young Macedonian king had won a succession of breathtaking victories, sweeping across Asia Minor into the heart of Persia. By 330, however, the Persian king Darius was dead and his murderer, Bessus, had usurped the throne and fled into the empire's easternmost province of Bactria-Sogdiana. Alexander and his men followed in pursuit, crossing the Hindu Kush and the brutal northern Afghanistan desert, eventually reaching the Oxus (modern Amu Darya).

North of the Oxus--the ancient sources are unclear exactly where--the land of the Bactrians ended and that of the Sogdians began, and it was here in Sogdiana, encompassed today by most of Uzbekistan and a bit of Tajikistan, that Alexander's fortunes changed. He successfully pursued Bessus across the Oxus, capturing and executing him, and took the Persian crown for himself in 329. Alexander continued on to the northernmost reaches of his new empire on the Jaxartes (modern Syr Darya) River, where he attempted to seal off the border between the settled Sogdians and the less predictable, nomadic Scythians on the opposite bank by establishing a permanent walled city on the river called Alexandria-Eschate, or Alexandria the Farthermost.

[image] Sogdian warriors decorate a second-century B.C. carved bone plaque. (V. Karasev) [LARGER IMAGE]

That act sparked a vicious rebellion by the Sogdians and their Scythian compatriots that was to mire Alexander in the region for three long years--more time than he would spend anywhere else on his campaign. His attempts to quell the rebellion would force him to build more fortresses in Bactria-Sogdiana than anywhere else on his route, and to bury more of his troops in its territory. Then there were the specific events said by historians like Arrian and Quintus Curtius to have taken place here: lethal ambushes led by Sogdian rebel leader Spitamenes and his crack Scythian horsemen; a brutal blizzard during which 2,000 of Alexander's troops froze in place "as if in conversation"; daring sieges of Sogdian strongholds by Macedonian "flying soldiers," who used iron tent pegs to scale sheer mountainsides; the murder of trusted commander Cleitus, killed by Alexander in a drunken fury; and finally, the emperor's marriage to a barbarian princess, an expedient political solution that would allow him to finally leave Sogdiana behind and follow his dream into India.

Logic would follow that Alexander's troubles, resulting in the loss of thousands of men in a heavily garrisoned territory, would be a boon to modern scholars trying to piece together the inner workings of one of the world's greatest armies. But Sogdiana has still been left behind as archaeologists have forged ahead with Alexandrian sites from Greece and Egypt to Iran and India.

So what exactly were archaeologists learning about Alexander's longest and bloodiest campaign? This last summer, I traveled to the region to find out for myself.

Kristin M. Romey is deputy editor and senior writer at ARCHAEOLOGY.

Further Reading

Ian Worthington's Alexander the Great: Man and God, (Harlow, UK: Longman, 2003) was recently reissued in paperback, while Frank Holt's Into the Land of Bones: Alexander the Great in Afghanistan (Berkeley: University of California Press), will be published in Spring 2005. Both scholars have published several works on Alexander, which are among the hundreds listed at the Alexander the Great Bibliography site, where Dr. Martijn Cuypers of Leiden University tracks every publication on the topic.

(The full names of the abbreviated journals cited in this list can be found at AJAonline.org).

Alexander the Great

Thanks to the Internet, it's not necessary to troll through a university library to keep up with the latest on what we know about Alexander the Great. There are some excellent websites out there that can provide you with good information, thoughtful book reviews, and lively chat. Since this is the Internet, however, there are also many sites out there that are full of plenty of misinformation, particularly those that use Alexander to further the Greek-Macedonian nationalist dispute. Here are some good sites to start with:

Alexander the Great on the Web is a reliable clearinghouse for all web resources available on the Macedonian conqueror--in over two dozen categories from kids links to travel advice--as well as reviews of the major traditionally published biographies.

Pothos.org is a decade-old site run by a collection of very dedicated and knowledgeable Alexanderphiles. Your most arcane question about his life and campaign will be either correctly answered or hotly debated in the forum.

Livius.org provides interesting information not only on Alexander, but on the Persians, Sogdians, Bactrians, and so many other peoples who encountered and fought the Macedonians on their campaign east.

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© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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