Before and after Alexander: Hellenism and Central Asia

Dimitris Cosmidis, historian and social anthropologistNikos Lyberis, Maitre des Conferences in the Paris VI University, Researcher of the CNRS:

Περίληψη
Εάν η σχέση μεταξύ Ελλήνων και Περσών δεν είναι ιστορία αγάπης και μίσους (μια άλλη πτυχή της αγάπης), είναι τουλάχιστον πολύ ενδιαφέρουσα ιστορία. Οι περσικές στρατιωτικές εκστρατείες στη Μικρά Ασία και την Ελλάδα, η καθεμία με τη συμμετοχή εκατοντάδων χιλιάδων πολεμιστών με επικεφαλής τους πλουσιότερους βασιλείς της εποχής, όπως ο Ξέρξης και ο Δαρείος, δεν θα μπορούσαν ενδεχομένως να στοχεύουν στα «πλούτη» των Ελλήνων. Η γοητεία του πολιτισμού του Αιγαίου φαίνεται πιθανότερο κίνητρο από την άποψη της Περσίας, του άλλου μεγάλου πολιτισμού της εποχής, που μαζί με τους Αιγύπτιους και τους Έλληνες αποτελούσαν τον πολιτισμένο κόσμο της εποχής, με άλλα λόγια, της Μεσογείου (εκτός της μακρινής Κίνας). Ας μην ξεχνάμε ότι στην εποχή του Αλεξάνδρου η Περσία ξεκίνησε στη Συρία και έφτασε στα Όρη Τιαν Σαν, συμπεριλαμβανομένου του σύγχρονου Αφγανιστάν και ενός τμήματος του Πακιστάν.

If the relation between Greeks and Persians is not a story of love and hate (another aspect of love), it is at least a very interesting story. The Persian military campaigns to Asia Minor and Greece, each one with the participation of hundreds of thousands of warriors led by the richest kings of the time, such as Xerxes and Darius, could not possibly aim at the Greeks’ “riches”. Fascination with the Aegean civilization seems a more likely motive from the point of view of Persia, the other great civilization of the time, which together with the Egyptians and the Greeks comprised the civilized world of the time, in other words, of the Mediterranean (not including distant China). Let’s not forget that in Alexander’s times Persia started in Syria and reached the Tian Shan Mountains, including modern Afghanistan and a part of Pakistan.

Having united the Greeks under common rule for the first time in history, Alexander undertakes an expedition against Persia, which will lead him to the Hindus River. Along with 30-40 thousand soldiers, he headed towards unknown lands, which had exported to Greece a few exotic merchandises and peculiar stories, nourishing the legend of East which still haunts the whole western world.

From the Mediterranean to China and Mongolia, Alexander’s legend lives on. The fact that he respected the conquered peoples’ beliefs and religion must have contributed to the popularity of Alexander. The Persian scholar Firdoushi (10th century A.D.) in the Book of the Kings (Sahname) narrates Alexander’s deeds, while another Persian, Nizami, (13th century A.D.) dedicates an entire book to him (Sikadarname). Of course these and more legends about Alexander have very little to do with historical truth. Each people adapted Alexander’s legend to its own history, in order to be finally able to appropriate the hero himself.

But what was Alexander’s vision in this expedition? Was it a simple military venture? Inspired by the Iliad, he mainly wanted to see the distant and legendary East, to get acquainted with new civilizations, crushing boundaries under his horse’s hooves. He certainly was not the first Greek to follow the Silk Road. It seems that in the caravans between China and Persia, there were also merchants from the Aegean shores. However, there is no doubt that Alexander was the one who opened new roads for culture. The features of early Indian statues of the Buddha remind us of those of Apollo, because it was not until after Alexander reached India that local artists start representing the Buddha in sculpture. Through Buddhism, this sculptural style will reach China. That is the reason why in 1905 A. Stein discovered in the buried city of the Taklaman desert (in Xin Kiang or Chinese Turkestan) Greek 2nd century B.C. coins together with Chinese manuscripts.

Invincible warrior, excellent strategist, but at the same time magnanimous towards the defeated, Alexander was among the greatest conquerors of history. He wrote the legend with his sword, bringing Ionian art with him to Pamir and the Hindus River. Alexander’s legend was incorporated not only in the Egyptian, Syrian and medieval European mythologies, but also in the Koran (Surat 18), where he is mentioned as Alexander the Bicornuate (Iskender Dul el Karnein), because of some representations depicting him with ram horns, such as those of Ammon, whom the Egyptians thought to be his father; but also because King Lysimachus of Thrace cut coins representing Alexander with horns.

A protector of culture, he built cities and fortresses along the boundaries of the civilized world, to protect it from the fearful riders of the steppe, Turkic -Mongolian nomads, who often plundered the borderlands of northern Persia. He is also alleged to have built a wall, the legendary “Gog and Magog” in order to keep away the nomads of the North, according to the mythology of the East. This wall is known as “Alexander’s Wall” and its location is still contested. It is believed that this wall was found to the west of the Caspian, where Caucasus leaves a narrow pass near the Caspian, in the Derbend region.

However, to the southeast of the Caspian, among the western edges of Kopet-Dag Mountain, in Persia, at a short distance from the frontier with Turkmenistan (in the Asterabad region) there are the remains of an ancient wall, called “Alexander’s Wall”. It is also known that the nomads of the North, Turkic-Mongolian raiding tribes and others such as the Sakes and the Massagetes (the latter are the ones who, according to Herodotus, killed Kyros on the banks of Oxus around 528 B.C.), usually passed between Caspia and the Kopet Dag Range, the natural borderline separating the Karakum (Black Sand) desert in Central Asia – where nomadic tribes of the Turkic shepherds lived- from the farmlands of Persia.
Moreover, it is known that Alexander never visited the Caucasus, that’s why the second location seems more probable to us. The only thing we know for sure is that the wall that Alexander allegedly built is easily distinguished from older walls, which were built in a straight line.
At the foot of Kopet-Dag, 18 kilometers west of Ashkhabad (the capital of Turkmenistan), there is Nyssa, a fortified city overseeing Karakum desert, lined with altars and shrines, where Hellenistic statuettes and vessels were found. West of Nyssa, there is Iskender Village, one of the locales where renowned Turkmen horses are raised. In Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, it is often said that the horses of Central Asia are descended from Bucephalas.

To the east, Alexander reached contemporary Khujand (in Tajikistan) on the banks of Jaxartes (today’s Syr Darya near the site of ancient Alexandria Eschate, in Sogdiana, at the entrance of Fergana Valley, surrounded by the mountain ranges of southern Tian Shan. In southern Asia, Alexander founded two more cities bearing his name: Alexandria Oxiana and Alexandria Margiana. The former corresponds to the modern city Termez, situated on the northern bank of Oxus (today’s Amu Darya), on the border with Afghanistan. This location is strategic, as it is on the pass between Sogdiana to the North and Bactria to the South. Alexandria Margiana corresponds to modern Merv of Eastern Turkmenistan. It is the largest oasis of Karakum. In Samarqand, there are remains of the walls of ancient Maracanda, built by Alexander and burnt down by Genghis Khan. In Central Asia, four provinces of the Persian era remained in existence after Alexander’s death: Margiana, Sogdiana, Bactria and Parthia. These regions’ rulers were in constant war with the nomads and the Parthians, but most of all, against each other. That’s why their rule lasted only a few decades before its definitive end in the 1st century B.C. Since then, many tribes have crossed that area:the Scythian tribe Kushan, Ephtalites Huns, Turks, Mongolians, etc. However, the name of Alexander the Great is always alive, while there are populations, mainly on the edge of Pamir, as for example the Kafir Kalash (Chitral, Hindu-Kush) and the inhabitants of Badakhshan (in eastern Tajikistan and in Afghanistan) who earnestly argue that they are descended from Alexander’s armies.

Even today, the chiefs of the tribes in mountainous Afghanistan and northwest India boast of being descendants of Alexander. This tradition is also mentioned by Marco Polo who traveled in Central Asia in the 13th century, when he refers to the Badakhshan emirs. Geographer Sir Henry Yule repeats it referring to chiefs of the tribes in many areas of the northeastern boundaries of India, such as Karategin, Darwaz, Rossan, Signan, Wahan, Chitral, Gilgit, Swat and Hapolor.

During the last 25 years the Greek-Russian archeologist Viktor Sarianidi, a legendary figure of Moscow’s Institute of Archaeology, has pursued excavations in several archeological sites in Bactria (northern Afghanistan) and the Margiana Karakum desert (eastern Turkmenistan) uncovering unique monumental palaces and temples that demonstrate undisputable parallels with the monumental architecture of Asia Minor and the Aegean region. In Bactria, Tillya Tepe (the Golden Hill) covered a wonderful building dating to the beginning of the first millennium, which was still standing until almost 500 A.D. It was later ruined and covered by the tomb built above it to accommodate, after death, some leaders of the first Kushan nomads, who had smashed the Greek-Bactrian kingdom. The six tombs excavated by Soviet scientists under Viktor Sarianidi date from the end of the 1st century B.C. to the end of the 1st century A.D.

By that time the Hellenistic state of Bactria was already dissolved, but the powerful state of the Kushan, which would give birth to the famous Greek-Buddhist art of Gandhara, hadn’t been created yet. However, the abundance of artifacts is unbelievable; 20.000 golden and the few silver, ivory and copper jewels are evidence of social class of the dead persons, but also of the wealth of those new inhabitants of Bactria. These funeral gifts reveal cultural influences from diverse regions (Greece, Persia, India, Siberia, Egypt and China) were found gathered in one place. The works of art brought to light proved that the Kushan nomads, who tore up the Hellenic-Bactrian Kingdom and replaced it with the Great Kushan Empire, were seduced by its culture and imitated the Greek civilization of Hellenistic times.

Unfortunately this treasure, kept in the Archeological Museum of Kabul, was despoiled after rockets slammed into the Museum’s in May 1993, during the Civil War that followed the withdrawal of the Soviet army from Afghanistan. Before long, the artifacts started appearing in antiquity auction houses, and many of them ended in private collections. From the treasure of Kabul, only the photos and plans secured by Soviet archeologists from Sarianidi’s group are left.

Victor Sarianidi
Author of 15 books and hundreds of articles in respected magazines, among them National Geographic* , an archaeologist who’s discoveries are referred to as “… the marvels uncovered in Afghanistan easily match the Tut treasure” (New York Times) is unfortunately very little known in the scientific milieu of Athens. Most of the archeologists we contacted when we try to locate him urged us to look for him in Moscow. A friend working in the Greek Embassy of Moscow produced his daughter phone number there and we finally found him in his sister’s modest appartment in Athens.

Victor Sarianidi was born in 1929 in Tashkend. His father Yiangos was born in a village of Argyroupoli (Gumushane), near Trapezus (Trebzon) on the southern Black Sea coast, from where he immigrated to Batum and then to Sohumi, seeking a better fortune along with thousands of inhabitants from Pontus who immigrated en masse to Caucasus and Russia, starting in the last decades of the 19th and until the early 20th century. Later the father Sarianidi moved to Crimea, where he was married to a Greek woman, daughter of merchants from Yalta. In 1928 he settled in Tashkend.

Sarianidi hasn’t been taught the Greek language, because in 1938, Stalin closed the Greek schools. A year earlier, his father, who had a Greek passport, was among the first people who went to jail, because of the Stalin’s clearing out that targeted to the Pontus Hellenism of the Soviet Union, under pretext that he was fighting for its break-up and for the creation of an Autonomous Greek Republic.

In our meetings, at his sister’s house and at the library of the American Archeological School in Athens, we communicated with Sarianidi in the idiom of Pontus and in English, when he wanted to use a specialized scientific terminology. In the magazine’s offices, he talked to us in Russian, with the help of his sister Ina, who is a translator.

Sarianidi considers himself a prehistoric archeologist par excellence, despite the fact that he became famous through his findings in Bactria that belong to the Hellenistic period. His passion is the desert of Karakum in Turkmenistan, where he’s been digging for 50 years. Every year, he spends four months in the desert- two in spring and two in autumn- where he continues his excavations at the site of Gonur; there, he brought to light a palace, a necropolis and a temple dating from the end of the third millennium and belonging to the civilization of Margiana.

But what’s the relation of all that with the presence and the cultural influence of the Greeks in Central Asia, which is generally considered a result of the campaigns of Alexander the Great and of the great Hellenic-Asiatic cultural structure realized during the Hellenistic period?
Sarianidi is positive. In Central Asia, Alexander the Great didn’t conquer uncivilized people, but permanent agricultural civilizations with remarkable irrigation technology and cultural tradition, which already was in contact since the prehistoric times with the Achaean and Cretan-Mycenaean ones.

In the Karakum desert, Sarianidi’s latest excavation of the largest necropolis in the Near East, yielded rich funereal artifacts (Gonur site). Some of these represent unique and unprecedented examples of applied and decorative arts in the 3rd to 2nd millennium B.C., which according to Sarianidi “can easily compete with the most famous artifacts of ancient art in the advanced centres of the world”. And Sarianidi continues: “There is evidence that makes us believe that all these novelties were brought by tribes which came from Asia Minor and the Aegean region. Twenty five years ago nobody would have thought that more than 1500 years before the legendary campaign of Alexander the Great to Bactria (contemporary Northern Afghanistan) and Margiana (present eastern Turkmenistan), a highly developed civilization of the ancient Oriental type was flourishing in these Asian Areas. At the end of the 3rd millennium B.C. these tribes have occupied the fertile Centaral Asian oasis and reached the Indian subcontinent. The excavated material supports the assumption that these newcomer tribes were the mysterious Indo-Iranians, in other words Aryans, whose origin intrigues world scientists and represents a subject for deep and diverse investigations”.

As Giorgos Hourmouziadis, Professor of Prehistoric Archeology in the University of Thessalonica, wrote in Kathimerini daily, Sarianidi’s archeological research in Central Asia “reveals in an uncontestable way our historical right to talk about the Greek civilization’s universality. Describing Alexander simply as a military genius or a lever of civilisation, however vague” is wrong. To understand the meaning of Alexander’s presence in history, we have to go back to the roots of Hellenism, to prehistory, to “the first reasons of the big “move” to the East, in other words, to recognize the genius created from the Helladic mud of poverty and splendor, showing from time to time the itinerary of the West to the East”.

Sources and Bibliography
Interviews with Victor Sarianidi and personal communications to D. Cosmidis.
Barbara Bell, The Dark Ages in Ancient History, American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 75, 1971, pages 1-26.
G. Hourmouziadis The Great Move to the East [I megali kinisi anatolika], Kathimerini daily, 18.9. 1994
J.P. Mallory and D.Q. Adams (eds), Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture, London and Chicago, 1997.
[Entry: BMAC (Bactrian-Margiana Archaeological Complex) pages 72-74.] York Times, 13.4.1979
V. I. Sarianidi, The Golden Hoard of Bactria, NGM, March 1990
V. Sarianidi, Royal Tombs in Bactria, [Vassilikoi Tafoi stin Vaktriani], Kyriakidis Editions New Thessaloniki, 1995.
V. Sarianidi, Margiana and Protozoroastrism, Kapon Editions, Athens 1998.
Viktor Sarianidi, Margus. Turkmenistan. Ancient Oriental Kingdom in the Old Delta of the Murghab river, (trilingual edition in turkmen, russian, english), Türkmendöwlethabarlary, Asgabat 2002.
W.W. Tarn, The Greeks in Bactria and India, Cambridge University Press, 1951 [reprinted 1966].
Travels Of Marco Polo, Volume 2: The Complete Yule-Cordier Edition, Dover Pubns, 1993.

© 2004 Dimitris Cosmidis and Nikos Lyberis

Δημήτρης Κοσμίδης: Σπούδασε πολιτικές επιστήμες στην Πάντειο Ανωτάτη Σχολή Πολιτικών Επιστημών στην Αθήνα και έκανε μεταπτυχιακές σπουδές στην ιστορία (DEA υπό τη διεύθυνση του Σπύρου Ασδραχά και της Hélène Ahrweiler, Paris I-Sorbonne) και την κοινωνική ανθρωπολογία στη Γαλλία και την Ελλάδα (Laboratoire d’anthropologie et de sociologie comparée, Paris X-Nanterre με τον Altan Gökalp, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) με τον Dan Sperber, μεταπτυχιακός υπότροφος στο Tμήμα Kοινωνικής Aνθρωπολογίας του Πανεπιστήμιο του Aιγαίου, Mυτιλήνη). Εργάσθηκε ως ερευνητής στο Ιστορικό Αρχείο της Εθνικής Τράπεζας της Ελλάδας (1987-1989) και έχει πραγματοποιήσει επιτόπιες ιστορικές, ανθρωπολογικές και εθνομουσικολογικές έρευνες στην Τουρκία (Moσχονήσια, Aϊβαλί, κοιλάδα του Μαίανδρου) την Κρήτη (Ψηλορείτης), το Βορειοανατολικό Αιγαίο (Mυτιλήνη, Άγιος Ευστράτιος) και τη Γαλλία (Mασσαλία, Παρίσι). Αρχισυντάκτης του περιοδικού National Geographic (1998-2001), υπεύθυνος του Τμήματος Εκδόσεων και Αρχείων του Κρατικού Θεάτρου Βορείου Ελλάδος (2001-2003), επιμελητής εκδόσεων και μεταφραστής έργων κοινωνικής θεωρίας –μεταξύ άλλων Τεχνική και φύση στον ευρωπαϊκό πολιτισμό. Δοκίμιο για την ανθρώπινη ιστορία της φύσης του Serge Moscovici, Νεφέλη, Αθήνα 1998, Το ολικό κοινωνικό φαινόμενο του Bruno Carsenti, Πατάκης, Αθήνα 2000, Ο Μαξ Βέμπερ και η ιστορία της Marie Colliot-Thèlene, Πατάκης, Οι δύο Αδελφές και η Μητέρα τους. Ανθρωπολογία της Αιμομιξίας, Εκδόσεις του Εικοστού Πρώτου. Είναι σύμβουλος της Καλλιτεχνικής Διεύθυνσης του Φωτογραφικού Κέντρου Σκοπέλου, υπεύθυνος για την ψηφιοποίηση και τεκμηρίωση φωτογραφικών αρχείων στο πλαίσιο του Επιχειρησιακού Προγράμματος «Κοινωνία της Πληροφορίας». Ζει και εργάζεται στη Θεσσαλονίκη και την Αθήνα.
e-mail:dcosm@mac.com

Νίκος Λυμπέρης: Maître de Conferences στο πανεπιστήμιο Paris VI και ερευνητής του CNRS, ειδικευμένος στις τεκτονικές πλάκες. Γεννήθηκε στον Πύργο της Ηλείας το 1953. Διοργάνωσε (υπό την διεύθυνση του καθ. X. Le Pichon) την καταδυτική αποστολή με βαθυσκάφος στο ελληνικό ρήγμα το 1979 και διηύθυνε αρκετές αποστολές στην Αίγυπτο (Κατά μήκος της Ερυθράς Θάλασσας και της χερσονήσου του Σινά). Συμμετείχε σε 8 αποστολές (διηύθυνε 5 από αυτές) στην Αρκτική, (Svalbard και Northern Greenland). Εργάσθηκε στην κεντρική και ανατολική Τουρκία. Από το 1994 εργάζεται στην κεντρική Ασία (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan και Kazakhstan), όπου καθοδήγησε αρκετές αποστολές στις ερήμους Kyzyl Kum (Red Sands) και Kara Kum (Black Sands), όπως επίσης και στα όρη Kopet Dagh, στο δυτικό Tien Shan, στο Gissar και τη χερσόνησο Mangyslak (περιοχή της βορειοανατολικής Κασπίας), όπου μελέτησε τις παραμορφώσεις του γήινου φλοιού και τις συνέπειές τους στη σύγχρονη τοπογραφία. Έχει δημοσιεύσει πάνω από 100 άρθρα και σχετικές επιστημονικές δημοσιεύσεις.

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