Interpreting Alexander

Interpreting Alexander

March 15: A guest speaker session was organized by the Department of Social Sciences and Liberal Arts, titled "Interpreting Alexander". The speaker was Mr. Salman Rashid, the foremost travel writer in Pakistan who is the author of numerous books including 'Deosai: Land of the Giants', 'The Apricot Road to Yarkand', and 'Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan'. His explorations have taken him to the most remote parts of Pakistan where few others have set foot, from the mountain ranges and snow-covered passes of the north all the way to the Makran coast in the south. His remarkable writings bring to life the history of these places and the people inhabiting them, and appear regularly in all leading newspapers and magazines of Pakistan. He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

Mr. Rashid's talk focused on the Indian campaign of Alexander between January 326 and October 325 BCE. Alexander was only 20 when he set out on his journey of conquest and discovery, and after subduing tribes in Bulgaria and modern day Greece, he turned his face to the East. In that age, Persia, India and China were the richest and most civilized nations, which was mainly why Alexander came to this part of the world. The speaker mentioned a common myth of how Alexander came from the Khyber Pass. In fact, he came from the Nawa Pass, which opens into Bajaur. Immediately after descending this pass, he confronted and defeated the Pashtuns. Once the Pashtuns surrendered, they were disarmed, after which Alexander ordered that all of them be slaughtered, and this suggests the cruel side of Alexander's character.

His next objective was Taxila, but it was not to be fought over. Historical records show that there were Buddhists and Zoroastrians residing in this city, living in complete peace. 'Theft was unknown; people would leave their doors unlocked,' elaborated Mr. Rashid. After Taxila, Alexander marched south-west down Adiala, past the villages of Ashiara and came towards the Nandana Pass. After hitting the Jhelum River, Alexander spread out his army upstream along the river to a place known as Jalalpur. He finally decided to cross the river during the night. Raja Porus, with his army of 30,000 men and 2000 cavalry was nowhere enough to defeat the battle-hardened Greeks. Porus was a magnificent figure and he led from the front, surrendering only when his last soldier was killed. After Alexander's death, the defeated Raja ensured a faithful depiction of the historical record to be preserved in murals

Done with Taxila, Alexander went on to Sialkot, where his army revolted. He decided to take his army and retreat towards Multan, where Alexander was shot by an arrow that punctured his lung. 'The Multanis are very proud of killing Alexander,' quipped Mr. Rashid, but he survived and died in Babylon four years later. After going on to Hyderabad, he marched a 100 km north of the Makran coast all the way to Gwadar, a route that took him through Turbat. Eventually he exited through Persia.

Mr. Rashid concluded by examining some myths about Alexander, including why he is referred to as 'Great'. He mentioned anecdotes about his bravery and generosity, especially after acquiring treasure from Persia, and also about the respect with which he treated philosophers and knowledge. In his lifetime, he managed to carve out a huge empire all over the world yet we also learn about his cruelty, including him killing his trusted generals. In our local folklore, Alexander is posthumously remembered as a Muslim. The people of Pakistan have created a persona they know variously as Sikander e Azam or Sikander Zulqarnain and grafted upon this amorphous figure great stories. Some of these stories rest on a kernel of truth. For the most part they are pure fiction. Furthermore, Mr. Rashid stated 'During my travels across Pakistan, I was told repeatedly that he stayed at this village and that village for six months each. If this were true, Alexander would have had an extremely long life span.' Therefore, it is important to sift carefully between myths and reality.

After this, the floor was opened for questions. Mr. Rashid mentioned how even in those days, immense glamour was associated with Alexander. However, there are rulers who managed to have longer empires such as Cyrus in Persia. The audience thoroughly enjoyed Mr. Rashid's entertaining story-telling, witty quips, and references to a wide range of classical historical records.