Alexander the Great in Central Asia / Manzara Tourism - Various Tours in Uzbekistan, Central Asia and along the Great Silk Road
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Alexander the Great in Central Asia

Twenty-five centuries separate us from the time when Alexander the Great lived and performed his deeds. There have been published more than 30000 scientific researches and literary works dedicated to this outstanding man; we know great number of legends and myths connected with his name; his image has been depicted on the works of art. Still today the name of the great commander and statesman keeps drawing attention of historians, philosophers, archeologists, military specialists and all those who are interested in the history of human development.

Alexander the Great

Alexander was born in Pella, the capital of Macedonia, in 356B.C. Philip II, Macedonian czar was his father, Olympiad, Phillip's wife and daughter of Epirus, the czar of Moloss, was his mother.

There are just few fragments of information about his green years. From classical sources it is known that since his teens Alexander excelled his coevals in many things; he was richly talented, smart, brave, proud and ambitious. At 16 he took part in the battles whereat he showed striking military skills and braveness. "Seek the realm that fits you. Macedonia is too small for you", Phillip once told his son. But his father could not even imagine how cramped his son felt within the borders of his native land. If he had only known how soon his heir Alexander would have started his ten-year campaign against the Orient and what an ambitious dream would have captured him: to establish the world empire, to become the ruler of the whole inhabited world.

To wage a campaign against the Orient, to conquer Asia had been the aim of Phillip himself long before this idea reigned over Alexander's mind. During the rule of Phillip Macedonia had become the powerful state that played a principal role on Balkan Peninsula. The Orient had always attracted the Hellenic world by its richness and luxury and the idea of the eastern campaign, pan-Hellenism, had gathered and united under the banner of Macedonian czar many Greeks.

But military operations had not even started when Alexander's father, Phillip died. Twenty-year-old Alexander was proclaimed the czar of Macedonia. He developed an organizational system of the army, did much to strengthen its military skills and in spring of 334 led Hellenic campaign to the Orient.

Eighteen months later Asia Minor, Phoenicia, Syria, Egypt were already at the young czar's feet. Now Alexander rushed to Persepolis, a symbol of the power of Akhemenids' Empire, and at the same time the "most hostile of all Asian towns" (Diodor). And at last his army entered the main residence of Persian czars. One night, in the climax of the drunken orgy, the young czar together with his companions-in-arms set fire to the Persepolian Palace that had been built almost within 60 years and was unrivalled in terms of beauty and the value of treasures kept in it. The fall of Persepolis instigated Alexander to become the ruler of the whole Orient. Since the time he mounted the throne of Persian czars he started to demand from his subordinates to keep the oriental ritual of worship.

But the last representative of Akhemenids, czar Darius, was still alive and he settled himself in Ekbatanakh, the capital of Midia. And once again Alexander sent troops towards the Persian czar. Refusing to accept the battle Darius tried to seek safety in flight. However, among the warriors of Darius there was brewing a conspiracy: Baktrians wanted their own satrap Bess, another representative of Akheminid dynasty, to rule the country. Soon Darius was taken prisoner. With the death of Darius, who died owing to the wounds inflicted on him, the debacle of Persian Empire, which had reigned for more than two centuries, was completed.

Alexander the Great

Having paid funeral honours to the deceased Persian czar, Alexander proceeded with pursuing Bess as a traitor and usurper. To resist the Macedonian czar Bess adopted Akheminids throne name, Artakserks, and managed to rally under his banners Baktrians, Sogdians and nomads who lived beyond the Yaksart (Syr-Darya). They all took up the call to repulse the Greek conqueror. However, when the Greek and Macedonian armies approached, Bess withdrew his followers away to Central Asia. Haunting Bess, Alexander found himself at a threshold of an uncharted world, because the Greeks believed that oykumena – inhabited world – was Europe, Asia and Africa.

In early spring of 329B.C., having managed almost insurmountable snow-covered mountain passes of the Caucasian range (as the Greeks called the Gindukush mountains at that period of time), Alexander brought his army to the south of Baktria. This was the beginning of Alexander's campaign throughout Central Asia including territory of the present-day Uzbekistan. Baktria stretched from the northern part of the present-day Afghanistan to the southern regions of Uzbekistan was one of the most important satrapies of Ahemenid Empire. But the Persian domination was unstable in this territory as well as in Sogdiana and Khorezm. Already in ancient "Avesta" these countries were mentioned as prosperous and abundant lands. All ancient historians pointed to the fact that these Scythian clans led nomadic lifestyle, but in the valleys of rivers there lived a settled agricultural community with an advanced class relations. The land was rich in fertile soil, numerous water resources, gardens and vineyards yielded rich harvests, grain was grown, cattle grazed on the pastures. Art of war of Central Asian nations was highly developed in this region.

Macedonian czar was unwelcome in Baktria; the natives hid foodstuff and Alexander's warriors had to slaughter pack animals. But the army moved emphatically inland, while in the camp of Bess there prevailed obvious perturbation. As soon as Alexander's army left the Gindukush mountains behind, many Baktrians abandoned newly proclaimed Persian czar. With a small number of warriors Bess had to flee over the Ox (Amy-Darya), to Nautaka. Among followers of Bess there were delegates of local nobility: Spitamen the Sogdian and Oksiart and Datafern the Baktrians. In Nautaka Bess burned all his ferries and began assembling new army.

Meanwhile Alexander approached the first Baktrian town, Drapsaka. Having given a rest to his army, in spring of 330, Alexander conquered with no real effort the largest Baktrian cities Aorn and Baktry where he based his garrisons. On conquering the southern territories of Baktria, Alexander got in a way a rather important springboard for further advance to Central Asia.

To reach the Ox the Greek and Macedonian army had to push its way through a waterless desert. This was achieved with great difficulties and privations. The river amazed the warriors with its breadth and strong current. It seemed impossible to cross it with no bridges. Nevertheless, Alexander took a decision to force the crossing over the Ox, using for this purpose leather bags, sewn from field tents, and water-skins filled with straw. It took the army several days to crossing over the river.

Silver tetradrachm of Alexander the Great (Amphipolis mint, 336-323)

Till recently this place of crossing over the Ox has not been defined: some researchers think it was Baktry, others specify the region of Karshi or a settlement on the way to Bukhara, the place between Termez and Keliph. Today we have the opportunity to designate the place of crossing with a high degree of accuracy. Recently Edward Rtveladze, a member of the Academy of Sciences of Uzbekistan has published his book "Alexander the Great in Baktria and Sogdiana. Historical and Geographical stories". For many years this scientist has studied ancient routes, both through deserts and mountain ravines, which the army of Alexander the Great followed on its way to the area between two rivers of Central Asia (Mezhdurechye). As a result of this research he came to the conclusion that abovementioned crossing over the Ox was situated 30 km to the west of Termez in the vicinity of Chushka-Guzar settlement.

After this unprecedented march there was no need for Alexander to pursue Bess: the messengers from Spitamen and Datafern arrived to the Alexander's camp and offered him to extradite the Persian czar who at that time was under arrest in Nautaka. Edward Rtweladze points out the exact place where Bess was captured. It was a settlement, "encircled by fortifications with gates", which was located in the south-west of the present-day Kashkadarya region on the site of ancient Er-kurgan settlement. The administrative center of Nautaka has also been defined. It was situated on the site of ancient settlement of Uzunkir, in nine kilometers northwest from the present-day Kitab.

Having crossed the Ox, Alexander the Great directed his troops towards central regions of Central Asia and soon he arrived at Marakanda, the capital of rebellious Sogdiana. Just as in case with Bess, Alexander reckoned on Spitamen' support. But Spitamen himself fomented a mass rebellion against Alexander who was earlier considered as liberator from Persian domination, but later was proclaimed an alien conqueror.

Having brutally repressed the popular uprising, Macedonian czar moved to the Tanais (Syr-Darya). Here he decided to set up a new town as his own outpost whose mission was to protect the country from nomads inhabiting the areas on the other side of the river. The construction works just started when another rebellion of Sogdian and Baktrian population reluctant to subjection broke out. Having razed to the ground several big cities of Baktria and Sogdiana Alexander started to erect his outpost – Alexandria-Eskhata. Within twenty days the town was built, enclosed with walls, settled with Hellenic mercenaries and the Macedonian solders ineligible for further military service as well as "barbarians" who themselves wished to settle down there. This circumstance made nomads from the other side of the river worry about their independence. Scythian czar ordered to demolish Alexandria-Eskhata. Alexander did his best to gain peace with nomads and to return to Sogdiana where the new rebellion broke out. He moved with his army out of Alexandria-Eskhata to Marakanda and four days later reached the city. He found a vent for his anger in wasting Sogdiana with fire and sword.

Detail from a depiction of Alexander the Great on horseback striking down a Persian soldier

He spent winter of 328 to 329 on the territory of Baktria to the south of the Ox, at Zariasp. But in spring of 329 the popular uprisings of recalcitrant nations of Bactria and Sogdiana started anew. In Marakanda there again appeared Spitamen. Having left part of his forces for suppressing rebellion in Baktria, Alexander together with the other part of his army crossed the Ox once again and invaded Sogdiana. According to ancient historians, including Arrian, one can arrive at the conclusion that this suppression of Sogdiana was extremely violent. The country was depopulated in the true sense of the word. Alexander even gave the orders to his commander Gefestionis to populate Sogdian towns. At the same period of time Alexander built in Baktria and Sogdiana eight fortified towns. All this serves the evidence of large-scale opposition in Central Asia and a pressing need for the Macedonian czar to have his own strongholds (citadels).

Alexander was guided by other considerations, too: in his will he ordered to built new towns in Asian countries, make mass migration from Asia to Europe and vice versa. His principal ambition was to populate his world empire with unified nation.

One thing still vexed the ruler: Spitamen was not defeated yet. However, this was the last winter of a brave leader of rebellious nations: his followers, who decided to come over to Alexander's side, assassinated Spitamen and sent his head to the czar of Macedonia. According to another version (Ruf Kurcius), Spitaman was killed by his own wife who could no longer bear the endless danger and severities of camp life.

In early spring of 327 the centers of rebellion shifted to the southern, difficult to access regions where there were snow-covered mountains. The main enemy to Alexander at that time was the hostile Sogdian nobility. These Sogdian noblemen settled themselves in their unassailable mountain fortresses and were exerting a great influence on the whole population of Sogdiana. The Greeks called these mountain fortresses "petra", which means "rock".

The first petra that Alexander confronted with was Sogdian rock of Sisimitr. According to Hellenic historians it was somewhere in Nautaka. But Edward Rtweladze gives more precise location of the place: on the border of Baktria and Sogdiana. He also deciphered the locations mentioned by Ruf Kurcius, that is: the Dara-I Buzgala gorge , and "nameless" river, which turned to be the Shurob-Say.

Sculpture of Alexander the Great

Not withstanding the fact that spring had come, layers of snow lay on the slopes of Sogdian rock, which served as shelter for the family of Oksiart, Baktrian nobleman. On Alexander's suggestion to surrender there followed a rather ironical answer: to find winged warriors able to fly on the top of the rock. Promising high reward, Alexander managed to find and sent to the rock 300 brave volunteers, who were experienced in mountaineering. Driving iron wedges into compressed snow, using tight ropes, majority of them managed to climb the steep rocks and by morning they were already above the level where the rebels had settled. This fact shocked the rebels and they surrendered.

Among the captives there was a beautiful daughter of Oksiart, Roxana. Alexander fell in love with her at first sight, and wished to marry her. Her father paid a visit to Macedonian czar, who welcomed Oksiart with dignity and honour. As a result of this marriage of Alexander and Roxana there was born a son, Alexander the IV, who was destined to become the last czar of Macedonian dynasty. Alas, the "reign" of the infant czar was too short…

The second rebellious fortress was "Khorien Rock". Protected by a deep chasm it was practically unassailable. By order of Alexander the spruces covering the slopes of the mountain rocks were cut and they were used as planking. Row by row, the trees were fixed up the slopes, allowing the army to rise higher and higher. At last, when the arrows of Macedonians could reach the fortress, Khorien asked for negotiations…

In 328 B.C. conquest of Central Asia was completed. Alexander absolutely changed his opinion of Central Asian countries; he was astounded by large scale of their defense, by their permanent readiness to fight against enemy for their independence. After the year of 328 the structure of Alexander's army was renewed – this time it included Persians, the representatives of Central Asian countries who served on equal terms with Hellenes.

Alexander's opinion of "barbarians" was also changed by the high level of culture, art, and unique traditions of the city structuring and craftsmanship. Thus he used to say that in Asia he had found many things worthy of being copied.

In summer of 327, Alexander left his governors with the major forces in suppressed Baktria and Sogdiana, and crossed the Gindukush thus starting his campaign against India. All his thoughts concentrated on the Ganga, on the Great Ocean – the region in the east where as the ancient people believed there existed an inhabited land, the possession of which ensured the right to dominate the world.

But he was not in luck to fulfill his enormous plans: a sudden and severe disease affected him in Babylon, which he designated as the capital of his empire. On the tenth day of the disease he passed away at the age of 33. Some historical sources claim that Alexander died because of a plot, he was poisoned.

Oriental policy of Alexander played a huge historical role in connecting the Western world with the East; it was of a great importance for development of economy, social, political and cultural life of Asia, as well as for the entire ancient world. In Central Asia by that time the Greeks and Macedonians constituted the ruling class and policy of bringing together different nations facilitated progress, interconnection of the Greek and the Oriental cultures. In Central Asia the Macedonian czar set up three new towns named after him: these were Alexandria the Oksian, Alexandria the Marghian, and Alexandria-Eskhata. Besides there were also founded katoykias– new settlements with permanent Greek and Macedonian garrison, where a lot of Hellenic monuments of art were delivered. Culture of Asia, in its turn, made a great positive impact on Hellenic art thus creating a new phenomenon in culture as Hellenism. Hellenism most vividly developed in such countries as Baktria, Sogdiana, and Parfia. It referred to town planning and architecture, fine arts and craftsmanship, as well as religious life. Inclusion of the southern regions of Central Asia into large hellenized states made for application in these territories of new political and administrative systems, new forms of slave-owning economy, as well as for development of commodity-money relations.

After the death of Alexander the Great his empire, one of the greatest powers in the world which included Greece and Macedonia, Asia Minor, eastern part of the Mediterranean regions, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Iran, the south of Central Asia, North-West India, started to rapidly disintegrate. It was quite natural as there was neither political, nor economical unity in the empire where absolute power was supported exclusively by military forces. In 312B.C. commander Selevk conquered the capital of the empire– Babylon. He founded his own Empire and soon subdued eastern satrapies: Baktria, Margiana, Sogdiana and Parfia. In the middle of the 3rd century B.C. there emerged an original state formation, Greek–Baktrian empire. It disintegrated in the 2nd century B.C. and predetermined the further development of a new powerful culture, Kushans culture. But this is already another story.

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