Statuette of Aphrodite, from Begram (Afghanistan)
In the autumn of 327 BCE, Alexander the Great had settled his affairs in Bactria and crossed the Hindu Kush mountains for the second time. Although he arrived in the city he had founded two years before, Alexandria in the Caucasus (modern Begram near Kabul), he was not returning home. Far from it: he wanted to invade the mysterious country of the Indus, which he believed to be on the eastern edge of the earth.
Today, a visit to the Swat valley is almost impossible, as it has been taken over by the Taliban. Maybe these photos are of some help. Bold links lead to pages with more photos.
Invading the Punjab was comparatively easy. There was an old road, called the Uttarāpatha (‘the upper road’), which started in the country of the Upper Kabul, went through the Khyber Pass, and passed along the capitals of the Lower Kabul valley, the western and eastern Punjab, and finally reached Patna on the Ganges. The Macedonians would use this road, but realized that they had to cover their flanks.
Map of the valleys of the Kabul and Swat
In Nagarahara (the neighborhood of modern Jalalabad), a group of rajas offered their submission. They were not the first: a man named Ambhi, prince of the western Punjab, had already come to Bactria to subject himself to Alexander, and had asked the “son of Zeus” to help him fight against the ruler of the eastern Punjab. In Jalalabad, Alexander was recognized as avatar of the Indian god Vishnu, and he believed that the country had already surrendered to him. In other words: those who refused to obey Alexander, were traitors, and would be punished. This explains the extreme violence of the coming campaign.
The remains of Peucelaotis
In the first days of 326, the Macedonian army was divided into two columns. Perdiccas and Hephaestion took the largest group along through the Khyber pass and occupied Puskalāvatī, “the city of lotus flowers”, the capital of the Lower Kabul valley. The photo shows one of the two hills, and some Pathan boys looking for eggs in the nests of the birds. The site is covered with sherds, waiting for an archaeologist to investigate it. Not much later, this column reached the river Indus, and built a pontoon bridge across this mighty stream.
The Swat Campaign
The second column was commanded by Alexander himself. This army did not take the main road, but took a more northern route, to cover the flank of the main force. Alexander’s men walked across the valleys of several tributaries of the Kabul. The first of these was the Kunar, where the native Aspasians were miraculously saved when it was discovered that the god Dionysus, one of Alexander’s ancestors, was born on a nearby mountain (more…). There was strong proof for this claim: everywhere, the Macedonians saw ivy, and everybody knew that this was the symbol of Dionysus. It is likely that some cult of Vishnu lies behind this story.
Nomads near Wuch
Having terrorized the inhabitants of another city, Arigaion, Alexander entered the next valley along the dry bed of the river Wuch, where he laid siege to a town called Massaga, which is probably identical to the place that is now called Churchill’s Picket. The siege lasted some time, but after an Indian mercenary leader had been killed, his men surrendered. Negotiations started and Alexander ordered the mercenaries to occupy a nearby hill. However, during the cease-fire, Alexander ordered his men to attack the Indians, explaining that he had granted them a safe-conduct to the hill, but had not granted them their lives. The city was captured immediately after, and Alexander appears to have had a brief relationship with the queen.
The Swat near Birkot
The lovely Swat valley was now open to the Macedonian armies. Alexander had already sent out two divisions, commanded by Coenus and Polyperchon, to attack two fortresses: Bazira and Ora. The first of these has been identified near modern Bir-Kot. It is a steep rock, and on many places, you can still see the walls and ditches that once surrounded the fortress. Catapult stones were also found. Ora, modern Ude-Gram, was even larger. Walls have been identified, but a proper excavation has not taken place.
Birkot (ancient Bazira)
Alexander’s colonels were unable to capture Bazira and Ora, which were defended by the Assaceni, who felt little incentive to come to terms. After all, those who had surrendered at Massaga, had been killed. Besides, the fortresses were simply too high and too steep to storm. Even worse, a nearby Indian king sent reinforcements to Ora. Only when Alexander personally saw to the sieges, the fortresses were taken. At Ora, elephants were captured, and the Macedonians rapidly learned how to deal with these animals. The fate of the defenders is not recorded.
The Aornus and the Indus
Through the Shang-La pass, even today not an easy road, Alexander’s men proceeded to the valley of the Indus. A large group of Assaceni had taken refuge on a steep rock called Āvárana, “hiding place”. It was no less than 1500 meters high and would be hard to take. According to a local legend not even the god Krishna had been able to capture the fortress – which meant that Alexander had to try it.
There were two summits; the eastern one had an artesic well and was occupied by the Indians. Ptolemy managed to occupy the other summit with a small group of Macedonians, but when Alexander tried to reinforce this vanguard, he was unexpectedly attacked by the Assaceni. However, he managed to pass along them, and when the two Macedonian divisions were on the western summit, the final attack could begin. A dam had already been built across the valley between the two summits when the besieged surrendered. They were all massacred. Alexander had surpassed Krishna.
The Battle of the Hydaspes
Taxila (Bhir Mound)
A couple of days later, Alexander’s army reached the other Macedonian army, and the united troops crossed the bridge and proceeded along the Uttarāpatha. Soon, they were in Taxila, the capital of the western Punjab. Actually, there are several ancient cities over there (Sirkap, Sirsukh, Rawalpindi, Islamabad), but the place that Alexander visited has been excavated on a place called Bhir Mound. The prince who had invited Alexander, Ambhi, now accepted the royal title and was from now on called after his city – in the Greek sources, he is called Taxiles. The Macedonians perfected their knowledge of the elephant and developed a weapon against it: a lance to which some kind of knife was added, useful to cut off trunks. They also understood that a phalanx, if it stayed close, had no reason to fear the big animals. There was some time to relax, and we know that at least one officer, Onesicritus, spent some time trying to meet the local saddhu’s (non-Brahman wise men). This meeting of cultures, however, was not without difficulties: he had to make use of four translators – and that which he took to be the name of his new friend, Calanus, in Indian means something like “hello”.
The landscape of the Uttarapatha
Alexander had promised the new king of the western Punjab to help him fight against the king of the eastern Punjab. As was customary, he was named after his city: Poro, or, as the Greeks said, Porus. His capital, Lo Poro, is probably identical to modern Lahore, and could be reached following the Uttarāpatha. The landscape, however, is hilly and uneven, and although the road itself appears to have had some sort of pavement, the soldiers must have hated it – especially because they had to carry the pontoons with them, which they had used to build a bridge across the Indus. Their complaints would soon force Alexander to take special measures.
The Jhelum in May
Our sources present the clash with Porus as a big, decisive battle, but it was not. Alexander employed only one sixth of his army; lesser known battles like those at the Persian Gate and the Jaxartes were larger. Nor was the outcome in doubt: the king of Poro was an isolated raja, leader of a small part of the eastern Punjab. However, he held one trump card: Alexander would have to cross the river Vitaçtā (Hydaspes in Greek, modern Jhelum). This would be difficult under all circumstances, because the rivers in the Punjab are very wide; but the monsoon was early that year, and it would be impossible for mere humans to cross the rivers. A stand-off was possible, and would -against the avatar of Vishnu- be something like a victory.
One of Alexander's coins commemorating his Indian victory; British Musuem
However, Porus did not know that Alexander’s men had carried the pontoons to the river. One night, Alexander moved through the hinterland to a place more upstream, where he managed to cross the river without being observed: it was raining too hard. When he encountered Porus’ vanguard, the Indian chariots slipped away in the mud, and this was also the reason why the Indian archers could not employ their two-meter high bows – these terrible weapons, which could project spears instead of arrows, needed a stable point on the ground, but there was only mud. Alexander’s phalanx, cavalry, and mounted archers, on the other hand, did not suffer from the rain, and they surrounded Porus’ army, forcing the Indian infantry to move ever closer to their own elephants. The result was terrible: about two thirds of the Indian army was killed, and Porus was forced to surrender.
To the Edge of the Earth
Alexander founded a city on the battlefield, called Nicaea, “victory city”. It must be very close to the city of Jhelum, where the Uttarāpatha crossed the river. A Buddhist source mentions Nicaea and its twin city, Bucephala, as stages along the road. The men who were left behind to build these cities, were also commanded to build ships. Alexander believed that he was now very close to the edge of the earth, and believed he would be back soon.
Alexander with the attributes of Zeus
The Macedonian army proceeded now directly to the east, and no longer followed the Uttarāpatha, which would have brought them to the southeast, to Lahore and Amritsar. The other road, straight east, was less hot.
Still, the soldiers complained, and Alexander gave them a lot of money. The coins are splendid, and the sum he paid was a good one – but there was a catch. On the reverse, one could see Alexander himself, carrying a thunderbolt. In other words, he claimed to be the one who had created the lightning and rain that had made the battle against Porus so easy. The soldiers who accepted the money, at the same time accepted Alexander as their god – a battle theology with very serious implications. Within three years, Alexander would demand worship in the cities of Greece as well.
For the moment, the soldiers continued, and they did cross several new rivers, like the Ashkini, which the Macedonians called Acesines and is now known as Chenab. The Iravati (Hydraotes, modern Ravi) was no problem either, and the sack of a city called Sangala did not create any troubles too. The inhabitants were killed. But the soldiers were getting tired of the monsoon rains and complained that their weapons could no longer be refitted. When they reached the Vipäs (Hyphasis, modern Beas), and learned that between the river and the Ocean was the kingdom of Magadha, they refused to follow their king. Alexander gave in. It was mid-summer, and he must have expected a different thirtieth birthday.
To the south
A banyan tree
Porus was still in Alexander’s company, and was useful: he had already been isolated when he fought against Alexander, and he had lost his army, so he was dependent upon the Macedonian forces. This made him the perfect viceroy, and he received all country east of his own kingdom.
Alexander now went back to Nicaea, where his fleet was ready. Its commander was Nearchus. The army, about 100,000 men, was divided into three groups: one army for the left bank, one for the right bank, and one aboard of the ships. The native population surrendered well in advance of Alexander’s arrival, except for the Mälava, or Mallians as the Greeks called them. When Alexander reached the northern border of their country, not far from modern Jhangsadar, he decided to break their resistance.
The Chenab near Kamalia
The ships were to continue to the south, and to wait at the confluence of the Ashkini and Iravati, which, back then, was at Shorkot. Of the remaining two groups, one would go straight to the east, and the other one (commanded by Alexander) would pass through a dry area and go to the southeast, to Kamalia. The people would be trapped: the main force would kill them all – and if they fled to the north or southwest, they would meet the other army or fleet, while the river Iravati would obstruct their flight to the southeast. At a ford in the river, Alexander killed the last refugees.
Nor was this the end of the genocide. A city that was known for its Brahmans was sacked as well. The killing of the holy men would send a shock wave through the Indus valley, and made sure that Alexander would encounter more resistance when he headed south.
The walls of Multan
For the time being, the merciless attack on the unarmed Mallians went on, and Alexander reached their capital, modern Multan, south of the point that Alexander had chosen for the rendez-vous with his fleet. Buddhist sources tell that there was an important shrine on a hill, which was surrounded by a wall, part of which still stands. When Alexander stormed the city, an Indian archer was able to use his dangerous weapon, and the large arrow hit Alexander in the sternum. He was unconscious when his soldiers sacked the city and killed the inhabitants.
What remains of Alexandria: an acropolis that is partly rebuilt and partly washed away
When Alexander regained consciousness, he was at the place that is now called “Head of the Punjab”: the confluence of the five great rivers, almost six kilometers wide. He built a city, which is now known as Uch. The campaign through the Punjab had come to an end, and a new campaign, equally savage, was about to begin: the Macedonians had to fight their way to the Ocean against people who wanted to avenge the Brahmans and understood that Alexander was a human being, not an avatar of a god.
The violent intermezzo had no direct consequences: Porus was too weak and the Macedonian garrisons were too small to defend the region, and besides, Ambhi of Taxila still hated Porus. Violent resistance never ceased, and in 317, the latest Macedonian soldiers left the country. The destabilized region, which was still suffering from manpower shortage, was taken over by the king of Magadha, Chandragupta, who had copied Alexander’s army tactics and founded the Maurya Empire. This new state was Alexander’s most lasting legacy.
- A.B. Bosworth, Alexander and the East. The Tragedy of Triumph (1996 Oxford)
- P.H.L. Eggermont, Alexander’s campaign in Southern Punjab (1993)
- F. L. Holt, Alexander the Great and the Mystery of the Elephant Medallions (2003)
- Aurel Stein, On Alexander’s Track to the Indus (1929, reprinted 2003 Lahore)