There has never been another man in all the world, of Greek or any other blood, who by his own hand succeeded in so many brilliant enterprises Arrian
In the spring of 329 BC, Alexander the Great's conquests brought him to the river Oxus, which today forms the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
After defeating Darius, Alexander pursued the royal pretender Bessus across the Hindu Kush. Arriving at the banks of the Oxus, he was faced with a new challenge: Bessus had burned the wooden boats. Crossing the river seemed an impossible task, due to its width and fast current. Always an original thinker, Alexander was undaunted. He gave instructions that his men should sew up the hides they used for tents and use these as floats to cross the river. Within five days, they had all reached the other side.
Today's travellers don't need to go to such extreme lengths to get to Tajikistan. It is an seven-hour flight from Europe to the capital, Dushanbe, and even the mighty Oxus can be crossed each day by ferry.
Close to the river Oxus, evidence of Macedonian influence can be found in the temple at Takhti Sangin. The temple architecture combines Persian and Greek styles. Many of the artefacts excavated from this site are now on display in Dushanbe's Museum of National Antiquities including a perfectly-preserved ivory head of Alexander. An inscription on a stone altar links this site to a much greater treasure: in 1877, a magnificent collection of gold and silver objects was found here, dating from the Achaemenid Empire founded by Cyrus the Great (559-530 BC). This hoard was sold by Bukharan traders and changed hands many times before being bequeathed to the British Museum in 1897 by Augustus Wollaston Franks. The Oxus Treasure, as it is now known, is on display in London as part of the Forgotten Empire exhibition (until 8 January 2006).
Having crossed the Oxus and captured Bessus, Alexander took fresh horses and set off for the royal capital of Sogdiana, Marakanda (Samarkand). From Marakanda, Alexander marched north to the river Jaxartes (Syr Darya) where the Macedonians were attacked by Scythian tribesmen who were defeated. The victorious Alexander founded a city on this site, Aexandria Eschate “Alexandria the Farthest” today's Khujand, in northern Tajikistan. Greek coins and other artefacts have been found in the foundations of the fortress which still stands overlooking the Syr Darya.
Alexander's defeat of the Scythians was not the end of his troubles. The Sogdians, led by a nobleman called Spitamenes, resisted Alexander and occupied seven frontier towns. Alexander divided his troops and five of the towns fell within two days. Alexander then moved to the largest of the seven, Cyropolis modern Istarafshan.
This city had been founded by Cyrus and was defended by a higher wall. Alexander's initial tactic was to order up the seige engines, but then he noticed something that made him change his mind. The stream that ran through the town was dry at this time of year, so there was room to crawl under the wall through the channels. Alexander and a few men entered the town this way and broke open one of the gates to admit his troops waiting outside. During the subsequent fighting, the Sogdians retreated into the citadel, but surrendered after one day for lack of water. Today it is still possible to climb up to the site of Istarafshan's fortified citadel and to look down on the course of the stream that Alexander used to enter the city. Although the city walls are long vanished, their location has been preserved in the names of some of the city's districts (e.g. Darvozai Bolo = “Upper Gate”).
Alexander now marched for Marakanda, which was being beseiged by Spitamenes. On his approach, the Sogdians fled into their mountain fortresses along the river Polytimetus, today's Zerafshan river in western Tajikistan. News had come in that a large number of rebels had taken refuge in the Sogdian Rock, a supposedly impregnable fortress. Alexander advanced on the Rock in spring 327 BC. He found on a near approach that it rose sheer on every side against attack. There was deep snow on the summit, making the ascent more awkward but also providing the defenders with an unlimited supply of water. Nonetheless, Alexander was determined to make an assault.
Alexander called on the Sogdians to discuss terms. He offered to allow them to return to their homes unmolested if they surrendered. The reply was a shout of laughter. They told Alexander that he would need to find soldiers with wings. This made him all the more determined. About 300 of his men had experience in rock climbing from previous seiges. Using small iron tent pegs and strong flaxen ropes, they ascended the steepest part of the rock face. About thirty men died during the ascent, falling in the snow. The rest reached the summit as dawn was breaking. Alexander informed the Sogdians that they could now surrender, as the men with wings had been found and were now in possession of the summit. Imagining a much larger force than the handful of soldiers they could see, they surrendered immediately. Among the prisoners was Roxanne, a beautiful girl of marriageable age. Alexander fell in love with her at first sight and later they were married.
The exact location of the Sogdian Rock is not known, but the Zerafshan Valley remains closely linked to the Sogdian people to this day. One of the Sogdian fortresses was at Mount Mugh, close to where the Kum river joins the Zerafshan. In 1933, 74 documents were found here, written in the Sogdian language. They revealed the location of the Sogdian city of Penjikent, which had been destroyed by the Arabs in the 8th century. When Penjikent was later excavated, much was learned about the Sogdian culture and civilisation. The city was so well preserved it is now referred to as the “Pompeii of Central Asia”.
Many of the decorative wall murals and artefacts are on display in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and Dushanbe's Museum of National Antiquities.
Further east, in Yaghnob Gorge, the Zoroastrian religion of the Sogdians is still preserved and the Sogdian language spoken that Alexander would have heard. During the Arab invasions, many Sogdians fled here, where they lived in isolation for centuries. Today this is ideal trekking territory, since not far from Yaghnob lies the legendary Iskanderkul, or “Lake Alexander”.
Alexander is said to have pursued Spitamenes to this point, where he ordered the construction of a dam across the river, threatening to release the water masses and thus submerge the villages downstream unless Spitamenes was delivered to him. Spitamenes was betrayed that very night, but escaped into the Makshevat Gorge. Alexander laid siege to the rebels who refused to surrender and who finally died of starvation. In a cleft in a rock face near Iskandarkul, there is a dessicated, partly-mummified corpse known as “Khoja Ishok”, which some local people maintain to be the corpse of Spitamenes.
The defeat of Spitamenes and the capture of the Sogdian Rock was the end of Alexander's operation in Sogdiana. Much of Alexander's success was due to his unorthodox methods. He was confident and daring, even when the odds were against him. When faced with a problem he invariably came up with a creative solution.
The Greek historian Arrian often uses the word pothos to describe Alexander. It means “yearning” or “longing”, the desire to penetrate into the unknown and investigate the mysterious. Perhaps these are some of the characteristics of those who follow Alexander's footsteps today to explore Tajikistan.