Commentary & Opinion
8:00 am
Sun May 4, 2014

David Nightingale: Alexander the Great

It's possible to go by train from London all the way to India, in principle, and it's also possible to go to India overland, in principle – especially with a four-wheel drive. After Europe, the train goes from Istanbul right across Turkey (with a ferry across huge Lake Van), right across Iran, right across Pakistan, and on to India.

The four-wheel-drive jeep route, from Istanbul to India, sometimes referred to as the “Hippie Trail," follows some of the “Silk Road” trade routes between China and Europe.

Before maps and cell phones, the young king of Macedonia, Alexander the Great, marched his sword-and-metal shield-carrying army on a similar journey 2300 years ago – and he too just reached India. There were horses for the cavalry, of course, but one pities the foot-sloggers marching for 10 years. His objective was both retaliation against the Persians, for having destroyed some of the Macedonian monuments to Greek gods, as well as empire building and a desire to unite what he thought of as the whole world. Indeed, he believed, in 334 BC that the edge of the world would be somewhere in India.

His father had been the Macedonian King Philip II, and the boy had been tutored until 16 by, amongst others, Aristotle. At 20, after his Dad's assassination, he had inherited a large and powerful army.

By his death at 32 he had become Pharaoh of Egypt, King of Persia, and Lord (or King) of Asia.

With his late father's well-trained army he left Greece, at the age of 22, marched towards Istanbul, won a fierce battle against the Persians, and then crossed the Bosporus into Asia. He went down the attractive west and southwest coasts of Turkey, conquering all the way. In a book by Dame Freya Stark [ref.1], that intrepid travel/ writer who died at age 100 in 1993, and who followed some of his route, Alexander apparently then turned north from the Turkish coast, marching all the way up to Gordium, which is not far from Ankara, Turkey's present-day capital. The famous “Gordion Knot” was at Gordium, and he is reputed to have either untied the knot or slashed it with his sword.

Alexander then marched his men all the way back down to the eastern corner of the Mediterranean where his 2nd big battle took place, not far from Iskenderun (Alexandretta), and defeated the powerful King Darius III of Persia. He then kept going south, through what we know as Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Gaza, in order to take Egypt. There the by-now 25 yr old sketched out a city for his architect, in the sand apparently, which is now Egypt's famous Alexandria. He stayed there only a year, turning round and marching back up to Syria, then east across Iran, Afghanistan, across Pakistan, conquering all the way.   

There is hardly time to describe his long sojourn in Asia, and how his ultimately exhausted soldiers persuaded him to turn back after reaching India.

At about 28 he married the beautiful Roxanne, an Afghanistan princess, whose father he had killed in battle. For her own safety she offered to become his wife. Three years later, after another battle with King Darius III, in which Darius died, Alexander confiscated Darius' remaining family – wife, daughters, son, wife's mother, and looked after them well, respecting their royalty. For political reasons he made a second marriage to both Darius' daughter Stateira, and her noble friend Parysatis, on the same day. I'm not sure whether Roxanne attended the 5 day wedding celebration or not.

The following year, 323 BC, he died, in Babylon – a very ancient city by the Euphrates, the ruins of which are visible today from one of Saddam Hussein's palaces. It seems that he died of either poisoning or sickness, at the age of 32.

Roxanna gave birth to Alexander IV a few months later. She had both his other wives murdered, to ensure that her son would be sole heir to the empire. Later, however, they themselves were assassinated.

I sometimes wonder about the extraordinary hardships of his soldiers from extreme weather, lack of food, horrific wounds, water from rivers, pestilence, death – ten years of it… no  Facebook, MacDonald's or emails. And I suppose border guards insisting on passports/visas would simply have been run through with a sword.