It had to happen eventually—someone would retrace Alexander the Great’s entire route through Persia, Central Asia and into India. Luckily for us, that inveterate British journalist, Michael Wood, did it with a BBC camera crew. The results were first aired in Great Britain in 1997 and will be shown in the U.S. on Public television May 4 and 5, in four one-hour episodes. This book was published to accompany the television series and is lavishly illustrated with beautiful photographs of both relevant artworks and geographical sites.
For those familiar with Wood’s hyperbole in his popular series of several years ago, In Search of the Trojan War, expect a similar treatment of Alexander the Great. The television program is a kind of rarefied travelogue by Wood as he follows the route reportedly taken by Alexander and as he looks for living survivors from the ancient world, such as Turkoman nomads in Iran or the Kalash of Chitral. Departing from conventional locations of historical documentaries, scenes include a Hindi Alexander movie in an Indian cinema, a nomad encampment by the Caspian, a NATO airbase in Turkey, and a Pakistani army helicopter providing an airlift to one of Alexander’s lost forts.
The book combines the story of Alexander’s expedition, as we know it from ancient authors, with the record of the modern-day journey that Wood undertook as he tried to trace Alexander’s journey from Greece to India as exactly as possible. Divided into six chapters, called ‘parts,’ the book also contains a prologue, prelude and epilogue, a table of dates, short biographies of the main characters, a list of primary and secondary sources, and an index.
The prelude outlines Wood’s intentions (pp. 18-19). Rather than presenting another account of Alexander, the man and his personality, Wood is more interested in exploring the traditional enmity between the Greek and Persian civilizations, a situation in which Alexander is just one episode. The remaining pages of the prelude cover the rise of Macedonia (pp. 22-23), Alexander’s birth and parentage (pp. 23-24), his early years (pp. 24-25), his sex life (pp. 25-28, his personality (pp. 28-29), his ascendancy to ruler of Macedonia and Greece (p. 32), and the beginning of his eastward expedition with its crusade against Persia (p. 32-33).
Part 1 covers the first year of the expedition, 334 to 333 B.C., the invasion of Asia, Greece and Turkey, through to the Battle of Issus. Wood organizes the material with a narrative account of Alexander’s story, based on the surviving ancient accounts (but primarily that of Arrian), written in modern journalistic jargon. He then gives a description of his journey at various junctures, e.g., overlooking the Granicus river with the local mullah of Cinar Kipru (pp. 39-40), or wading chest-deep in the water round the headlands to Mt. Climax on the Lycian coast (p. 48).
Part 2 is about the year from Spring 332 to Spring 331, focusing on the siege of Tyre, Alexander’s consultation with the oracle at Siwa, and the founding of Alexandria. Wood’s combination of tenacity, close reading of the ancient literary sources and intuition reveals itself in his attempt to reconstruct Alexander’s return from Siwa, which, although many assume it was a retracing of his trip there, may have involved a different route according to Arrian (3.4.5). Wood follows an old caravan track to Bahariya where a temple to Alexander was discovered in 1939 by the Egyptian archaeologist Ahmed Fakhry (pp. 78-82).
Part 3 covers the remainder of 331 B.C., and Alexander’s final defeat of Darius at Gaugamela, the sojourn in Babylon, and the burning of Persepolis. A detailed description is given of Babylon based on recently discovered Babylonian sources, and of Alexander’s harrowing route through the Persian Gates, where he engaged the Persians in a decisive battle. After Wood visits Persepolis, he goes in search of the modern-day Zoroastrians, the keepers of the traditional Persian religion, by traveling to Yazd. He hears from a member of the congregation there that Alexander is not ‘the Great’ to them, but rather, the devil, that is, Alexander the Accursed (Iskander Gujaste). Wood, in his enthusiasm to bridge the gap between the millennia that have passed since Alexander and today, repeats himself. He describes Iranian folk memory of Alexander twice (p. 98 and p. 131) using nearly identical language. Wood is better when he sticks to the details of re-creating the possible route that Alexander took, rather than his tendency to make sweeping generalizations of the Hellenistic legacy in Iran and elsewhere.
Part 4 spans the two years of 329 to 327 B.C., and Alexander’s continuing eastward march through central Asia to the Hindu Kush and north into Bactria. Past and present meet most vividly in Kabul, just north of which Alexander made a winter base near Begram in 329 B.C., just as the Russians did during their recent war. Wood and his party hear and see tracer-fire in the hills surrounding the war-devastated city. Up to this point, Wood has restrained himself and stuck pretty much to Alexander’s story, but in this harsh and forbidding landscape, his impulse to tell his journey takes over (pp. 138-151).
Part 5 covers 327 to 326 B.C., Alexander’s invasion of India, the crossing of the Indus River to Taxila, which became one the centers of Hellenic culture in India, the battle against Porus on the Jhelum River, and the death of Bucephalus. Wood presents a case for the location of the tomb of Bucephalus as a current shrine site of a Muslim holy man (p. 190). Both Alexander and Wood made their way down the Indus River on local boats.
Part 6 describes Alexander’s final year with its westward return of the armies after reaching Patala (modern Hyderabad), which was in Alexander’s time at the northern end of the delta of the Indus. Alexander led the main force through the Makran Desert, Craterus took a part of the army from the Indus valley into Iran over the Bolan Pass, and Nearchus took the fleet into the Persian Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz. Wood follows the route of Alexander through the Makran. In attempting to understand why Alexander took the most dangerous route through the Makran, which led to huge losses from heat and a lack of water, Wood posits that he may have been on a reconnaissance to investigate whether colonies could be founded along the Arabian coast for future trading between the Indian empire and the Persian Gulf. Alexander’s final days in Babylon are covered with some speculation about his psychology and the effects of increasingly prolonged drinking bouts. Wood considers the theory that both Hephaistion and Alexander may have been victims of strychnine poisoning. For Wood, poisoning by a group of Alexander’s ‘exasperated and disillusioned’ senior officers seems plausible (p. 230). The chapter ends with short discussions of Alexander’s legacy and musings on what might have occurred had he lived to realize the plans for new conquests and city foundations as described in Diodorus (18.4).
A particularly noteworthy aspect of Wood’s journey is his discovery that many of the events and occurrences of Alexander’s life that are related in the ancient classical sources survive today in local folk accounts. For example, there are Afghanistani stories about Roxane who is described as a good Afghan girl and who, true to her people’s hatred of foreign invaders, secreted a knife under her pillow and attempted to murder Alexander on their wedding night (p. 164).
The secondary story told here is in the footsteps of Michael Wood who is pictured seven times with progressively haggard demeanor as the journey proceeds through increasingly harsh territory. Indeed, he has listed himself in the index no less than thirty-three times! Only Alexander is cited more frequently. If one can ignore the bombastic personality and purple prose of Mr. Wood, both the book and the television series should be useful reminders of the tremendous distances and extremes in topography that Alexander’s route covered. I venture to guess that most of us will not experience firsthand the territory that Wood and his crew traversed and filmed and thus we owe them a sincere debt of gratitude.