Alexander in Afghanistan


Abdul Hai Habibi


As a result of the succession of historical events, which had a major impact on the development of Afghan culture, art and mode of thinking, after the Vedic, Avestan and Achaemenid cultures, Alexander’s conquests had a major impact in Afghanistan. These events changed the old culture, civilization, mode of thinking and lifestyle of the people and resulted in significant changes among the people. Hence these events left an important and deep impact on the history of the land. The influence of these events was so great that it completely changed the politics, lifestyle, mode of thinking, literature and arts of the time and ushered a new era. 

Alexander was the son of Philip II, who was a Macedonian king in northern Greece. He was born in Pella in 356 BC. His father, Philip was the son of Amyntas III. His mother, Olympias, was the daughter of Neoptolemus I of Epirus. According to Greek mythology, Alexander was related to Hercules from his father’s lineage and to Achelous, the patron god of the Achelous river, from his mother’s lineage. Since his father was murdered in 336 BC Alexander ascended the throne at the age of 20.

At this time the Achaemenid dynasty was ruled by Codommanus, famous as Darius III, and the empire was governed by a wicked eunuch Bagoas. Codommanus was a quiet and irresponsible person and because of that it was not difficult for Alexander, a commander, who wanted to be a world invader, to conquer the vast Achaemenid empire. He crossed the Granicus river with 50,000 men and military hardware and attacked the Asian continent.

Darius III had a much larger army some of which were Greek mercenaries, led by Memnon, a high-ranking Greek commander who was on the Persian side. But in the three battles of Granicus, Issus and Gaugamela the Persians suffered major losses and as a result Alexander burned down Takht-e Jamshed (Persopolis), capital of the Achaemenids. Darius left for Parthia (Khorasan). He was killed at the age of 50, during the month of July in 330 BC, by Bessus, the governor of Bactria and  Barsaentes, the governor of Rakj. His death took place in Nagyana (Kandahar and Seistan).

Alexander went to Khorasan with the intention to capture Darius and when he found him dead he hung those who were involved in his killing and concentrated in conquering the eastern lands. At this time Bessus escaped to Bactria and made preparations to face Alexander and announced his kingship. Barsaentes made his way to Seistan and Satibarzanes also participated in this defensive coalition from Herat (Aria). When Alexander arrived in Susia (Tus) he was greeted by the governor of Herat. He then left for Bactria to capitulate Bessus. In his absence the people of Herat revolted under the leadership of Satibarzanes and killed the commander of the Greek army. When Alexander heard about the national revolt of the people of Herat he immediately returned to Saticoana (Herat) and brought down the revolt spearheaded by Satibarzanes who was hiding in a wooded area together with his men. Alexander set the woodlot on fire and killed Satibarzanes and his supporters. He established the city of Alexandria Aria as a base for his soldiers, which is present day Herat. He appointed Arzases as the administrator of the territory.

Once Alexander occupied Herat he headed for Zarang (Seistan) by way of Farah. In October of 330 BC he killed Philotas, son of Parmenion, whom he feared, and also killed, Demetrius, commander of his guard. From there he headed in direction of Garamseer on the banks of the Helmand river which was administered by Teridatus. He occupied the area together with Balochistan and established Aryasap as its capital.

From Helmand Alexander went to Arakozia (Arghandab) and established the city of Alexandria Arakozi during the winter of 329 BC in the environs of present day Kandahar. This citadel became the base of his military operations. He also enlisted the local people and appointed Menion as the governor of the province.

Even though Alexander was in control of three major provinces at the time, Aria (Herat), Nagyana (Seistan) and Arakozia (Kandahar) but Satibarzanes, the national tribal leader of Herat, asked Bessus for 2000 men and raised the banner of freedom in Aria (Herat). Alexander sent a strong force, under the command of Artabazus, Erigyius and Caranus. The governor of Parthia, Fratafiron, joined the Greek commanders of Alexander. They managed to besiege the Herati national forces from all sides. As a result Satibarzanes was killed by Erigyius and the rebellion by the people of Herat ended.

After this Alexander directed his attention to the Kabul valley and the Paropamisus mountains. He arrived in Kabul in November of 329 BC and left for Kapisa, north of Kabul, where he established the city of Alexandria Qafqaz in Hopian, near Charikar. Toward the end of spring Alexander left the town of Qafqaz and passed through the Hindu Kush range by way of Andarab and attacked Bessus, the governor of Bactria, who had a force of 8000 men. When Bessus realized he was unable to withstand Alexander’s army he left Bactria destroying parts of Bactria and all its food supplies. He crossed the Oxus river and went to Sogd. As a result Bactria came under Alexander’s control where he appointed Aretes as governor. He left Alcetas, together with his guards, to control the area. He crossed the Oxus river at Keleft and managed to capture Bessus in the environs of Karshi, took over the city of Samarkand and established Alexandria Tanaes there, which is known as present day Khajand.

Alexander’s forces came under fierce attacks in Soghdiana. Alexander left Ophellas together with 3000 men and himself went to Bactria. When he arrived there, the governor of Herat, went to see him at his court. He made Arzases, the governor of Herat and Barsaentes, the governor of Parthia, who had been appointed by Bessus as regents of the area. Bessus was tried and killed in 328 BC.

At this time 19,000 fresh soldiers joined Alexander’s army. He managed to defeat the local forces of Arimazeus in the valley of Margian (Murghab) and hung the local leader. In Merv, Alexander established the citadels of Sarkhas and Murochaq and then returned to Balkh. On his way he established four military citadels in Maimana, Andkhoi, Sheberghan and Sar-e Pul. He crossed the Oxus river to join his forces in Samarkand.

Spitamenes, a brave warrior from Bactria, who had challenged Alexander and was driven out temporarily from the scene surfaced once again in Bactria and imprisoned Peithon, commander of Alexander’s force in the military garrison. However, Craterus challenged Spitamenes and drove him away from the garrison. A while later when Alexander returned from Soghdiana the same Spitamenes confronted Alexander with 3000 Soghdanian and Bactrian cavalry. Tired of this nuisance, he dismissed Virtabesus, the governor of Bactria, who was accused of aiding Spitamenes. Instead he appointed the Macedonian, Amyntas, so he may be able to administer Bactria with the help of general Coenus. Spitamenus continued to challenge Alexander but in the end was killed in 327 BC due to treachery by his own supporters resulting in the end of the Bactrian nationalist movement. Most of the nationalist tribal leaders were killed by Alexander. Oxyrates, a Bactrian noble, managed to escape into the mountains but Alexander’s soldiers chased him and arrested him together with his graceful daughter, Roxana, and brought them before the conquerer. Alexander married Roxana in the spring of 327 BC even though his commanders were against the marriage between a Macedonian king and a Bactrian woman. As a result of this dispute a famous commander by the name of Cleitus was killed by Alexander during a celebration of drinking. After fighting in Sogdiana and Bactria for two years, Alexander started thinking of moving to India. He recruited 30,000 Bactrian youths into his army and in the spring of 327 BC marched in the direction of India from the Hindu Kush with a force of 120,000 infantry and 15,000 cavalry, of which 70,000 were Asians. He left Amyntas with 10,000 infantry and 3500 cavalry to administer Bactria.

Alexander crossed over to Kapisa by way of the Khawak valley. He assigned Nicanor to administer the area and appointed Tyriaspes as the governor of Kabul valley. By way of Darunta, the Konar and Asmar valleys he made way to Bajawar and Jandol but constantly faced opposition from the local people. In a battle which took place with the Aspezi people (most likely present day Yusufzai) in the Konar valley he took 40,000 prisoners and 230,000 cattle as ransom. His forces, under the leadership of Hephaestion and Peridccas, managed to pass through the Kabul river valley, with the aid of Ambhi, the king of Taxila, to take control of Peshawar, Charsada and Awhind spreading his domain all the way to the Indus river.

Alexander faced strong resistance by the Afghans from Konar to Bajawar and was injured twice in the battles which took place there. In revenge he destroyed the cities and killed its inhabitants. Since the ruler of the area, Aspezi, had set up a stiff resistance in the Suwast (Swat) valley, Alexander passed through Sarkanei, Chamarkand and Nawagei and entered the Swat valley by way of Gori (Panjgora). He managed to capitulate several cities and tribes. According to the Greek historian, Arrian, who lived around 175 AD, a people known as Assakenos lived in the Swat valley and their central city was Massaga. The remains of this city can be seen between the Katgala valley and Wuchkhor. Several thousand men arrived to aid the native people a fierce battle took place. Alexander managed to besiege them in the city for four days and in the end killed all of them. After that he capitulated the cities of Aur and Bazina, present day Barikot, and went all the way to the foothills of the Mahaban mountain, which is located 30 miles north of Attock, and appointed Coenus as regent of the area and Nicanor became the governor of the land west of the Indus river.

Alexander crossed the Indus over a bridge which was erected in the environs of Attock in February of 326 BC and marched on to Taxila, a large city and center of erudition of the area, which is located at the base of the Margala pass and is 10 miles from Rawalpindi. He appointed Ambhi, who had reconciled with Alexander, as the satrap of Taxila and received 5000 warriors from Ambhi arriving to the banks of  Jehlum river in May of 326 BC. In July of the same year he clashed with Purus (Foor) the king of India. Purus surrendered and Alexander replaced him as regent and himself marched as far as Biyas. His commanders rebelled and refused to march any further into the hot terrain of India and convinced Alexander to turn back. He divided his army into three contingents: He sent the first army with Craterus and the sick soldiers by way of Bolan, Kandahar and Seistan. He dispatched the second army, which consisted of 12,000 soldiers and 2000 sailors by way of sea, under the command of Niarcus in 100 ships. The third army reached Multan by marching along the western bank of the Indus river. Alexander personally accompanied this group. The local people of the area set up a fierce resistance and managed to injure Alexander in the battle. As a result they were all killed. In addition about 80,000 people were killed in the Indus river valley. In 325 BC Alexander arrived at the environs of the present day city of Karachi (Dibal of the Islamic era) and established a marine Alexandria. From there he marched on to Gadrozia (Baluchistan, south of Afghanistan) and went to Pars. When he arrived at Babylonia he died in the night of 13 June, 326 BC at the age of 32 from Malaria. His conquest in Aryana, and the stiff resistance put up by the people lasted from 330 to 326 BC.

After Nicanor, another person by the name of Philips, became the regent of the region west of the Indus river in eastern Aryana. He was killed by Greek soldiers in 324 BC. After that Euthydemus, with the aid of the people of Taxila, cut off his ties with the area west of the Indus. Upon Alexander’s death, Purus, the Indian monarch, took control of the Indus valley but was killed by Euthydemus who later abandoned India. With his departure the succession of Greek rule ended in eastern India.     

With the death of Alexander, his vast empire disintegrated. His elite commanders held a meeting in Tripoli of Syria and divided the empire among themselves. The southern provinces of Aryana, Arakozi (the Arghandab valley), Gadozi (Makran), were vested to Sibyrtias. The Cypriot, Stasandar, became the regent of Arya (the Hari Rud valley) and Nagyana (the Helmand valley). Bactria and Sogdiana were given to Stasanor, another Cypriot commander. Oxyrates, father of Roxana, wife of Alexander, became the regent of central Aryana, i.e. the Paropamisus of Kabul province.

The eastern provinces of Aryana, which stretched all the way to Taxila, remained in conflict between the Indian princes and the Greek generals. The coming of the Greek army to the land and the establishment of a dynasty by the remnant Greek commanders in Bactria established Greek influence, culture, arts, and ideas in the land. The vestiges of Greek culture, which had amalgamated with the culture of the local people, faced a major event from the east which was the rise of the Maurya empire in India.

From the political perspective, the Mauryan empire did not last very long in the eastern regions of Aryana and a sovereign Greco-Bactrian monarchy was established there. But during a short period of time the Maurya kings and missionaries of the Buddhist religion spread their beliefs in eastern Aryana. As a result an isogloss of culture, intelligence and ideas developed and resulted in the starting of the Greco-Buddhist culture. This religion and culture continued for another 1000 years until the influence of Islam on Afghanistan.