BMCR 2021.09.03

On Alexander’s tracks: exploring geographies, memories, and cultural identities along the North-West frontier of British India in the nineteenth century

, On Alexander's tracks: exploring geographies, memories, and cultural identities along the North-West frontier of British India in the nineteenth century. Oriens et occidens, 30. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2019. Pp. 311. ISBN 9783515124003. €54,00.

Early in John Huston’s 1975 film The Man Who Would Be King, two renegade Indian Army soldiers declare their intention to trek beyond British domains and to conquer ‘Kafiristan’ for themselves. When the character Rudyard Kipling protests that “No white man has ever been there and come out since Alexander”, one of the would-be monarchs asks, “Alexander who?” Upon being informed of Alexander the Great, “King of Greece”, ‘Peachey’ Carnehan sagaciously observes, “Well, if a Greek can do it, we can do it.” While this exchange and some of the other Alexander the Great references were created for the film script and cannot be found in Kipling’s original 1888 short story, the long shadow of Alexander hovers over the Hindu Kush—or at least so imperial conquerors from points West have surmised.[1]

In this rousing, colorful, and theoretically-grounded monograph, Christopher Schliephake traces Alexander’s footsteps through the minds of “British colonial officers, strategists, and mapmakers” stationed on the North-West Frontier from 1780 to 1930. His goal is to demonstrate “that the memory of Alexander the Great was both a key device for interpreting the British Empire’s historical mission in Central Asia and a symbolic projection that enabled communication between past and present, Briton and native” (p. 15). While much in the book is paralleled in the work of Pierre Briant—and especially in Briant’s 2016 (translated) study, The First European: A History of Alexander in the Age of Empire—it offers a series of vignettes that invariably hinge on the mythical Alexander, though one that was refracted through decidedly contemporary concerns.

In Chapter 1, Schliephake contextualizes his separate chess-pieces along the board of the ‘Great Game’, as the competition between an expansionist Russian Empire and the consolidated British Raj came to be known. While this may have seemed a ‘game’ to the European powers, the buffer zone of Afghanistan—then, as now—found itself in a race for survival as a distinct, independent unit. In his classic study of the process of Othering in Orientalism (1978), Edward Said put to one side the German and Russian (and Japanese and Italian, etc.) ‘Orientalists’ who had also contributed to the creation of this scholarly construct, and one wonders what a brief survey of Russian mythmaking concerning Alexander would have looked like in the same period?  After all, three of the Tsars of the 19th century were also named Aleksandr, and the Russians also had access to the Alexander tradition, as well as designs on the same territory the British were claiming as ‘theirs’. A brief examination of this ‘Alexander effect’ on the Russians—and on the French, whose imperial ambitions under Napoleon spurred some of the early British mapping efforts Schliephake explores in Chapter 2—would help develop a contrast with uniquely ‘British’ views of Alexander here.

The book gathers significant momentum in Chapter 3, with rollicking tales of the 1830s adventurers Sir Alexander Burnes (a Scot who dressed in native costume and was called ‘Sikander’ by the locals—at least before some of them killed him) and the American freebooter and con artist Josiah Harlan. The legends created by these men must have stood behind the story Kipling composed 50 years later, as ‘Danny’ Dravot and ‘Peachey’ Carnehan dupe the people of Kafiristan into believing that Dravot is the predicted ‘son of Alexander’ and so heir to the extensive treasure they have accumulated for millennia in anticipation. Nevertheless, Dravot, like Burnes, has a precipitous (and literal, in Dravot’s case) fall from these heights when he demands that native women be made available for his sexual pleasure. The real Burnes began to lose the Afghans’ favor when he installed a puppet government under Shah Shujah, but, according to Schliephake, “it was Burnes’ taste for lavish parties and local mistresses that sparked the final flashpoint in Kabul”, and resulted in his violent end in November 1841 (p. 111). The author makes several unfortunate choices in English words here, describing Burnes as a “gentlemanly gallant and notorious womanizer” who fell victim to a “crazed mob” of “fanatic Afghan Muslims”. One might argue that the Afghans believed that the women among them had been outraged and abused by a supremely arrogant British man who disposed of their political fortunes in his own way. But perhaps it was Sir Alexander’s desire to have sex with these women—and perhaps to produce half-British, half-Afghan children—that was the key element of his Alexander emulation?

Much of Chapter 5 develops the fascinating story of the ‘Kafirs’, some of whom claimed to be literal descendants of Alexander’s soldiers. The first “proper article” on the Kafirs, published by Henry George Raverty in 1859, passed along a claim—first made, apparently, in 1839, shortly after the outbreak of the First Anglo-Afghan War—that the Kafirs were “Your [of the English] relatives!” The initial report was, however, attributed to an Afghan servant, who had excitedly pronounced the Kafirs as ‘relations’ of the English, and yet Raverty comments that this was a local tradition passed among the Kafirs themselves. This is surely the incident to which Kipling refers in his story: Carnehan reads from the Encyclopedia Britannica in Kipling’s journalist office that “this book here says they think they’re related to us English”. While Raverty did not connect this familial relationship explicitly to Alexander, the link was soon made in large reference works by Major James Rennell and Mountstuart Elphinstone. The latter used the term ‘Kafiristan’ to describe their country (in northeastern Afghanistan), but it is remarkable that ‘kafir’ is derived from the Arabic word for ‘unbeliever’ (p. 240). Were the ‘Kafirs’ therefore non-Muslims, or was their group name, building on their ancestral claim to European relations, part of a more deliberate survival strategy?

The book succeeds admirably on all counts, but there is more room here to interrogate the interrelated roles of gender and race in this odd incident. The degree to which ‘whiteness’ as a constructed category could be claimed by the indigenous people of a region Alexander once knew, some 2200 years ago, seems to inform a great deal of the Kafiristan origin story. Schliephake might have done more with the specific wording of Kipling’s tale, at several crucial points. While he notes, fairly, that the “No white man” phrase quoted above appears only in the film, there are repeated references to white skin color, particularly of women, in the story itself.[2] In his guise as Alexander’s son, claiming his descent from Queen Semiramis, as well, Dravot tells the Kafirs he will take a wife among them “because you’re white people—sons of Alexander—and not like common, black Mohammedans”. Here, though, it may be less germane to ask whether the British believed this claim than to ask why the Kafirs themselves, or at least some of them, wished to promote it? It must have been the case that this group—desperate to find a path as pawns in the ‘Great Game’—realized that appealing to European racism and insisting on the ‘brotherhood of whiteness’ was their most effective means of survival, especially if their own neighbors thought they were religious infidels. The author could take this argument further, particularly by examining the specific role of women in preserving this ‘bloodline of Alexander’, as well as the complex motivations for these native informants to have perpetuated myths of their own.

And this illustrates one of the ways the Alexander myth could be turned around and explored from a much more interesting angle: what did the Alexander myth mean to those were being exploited and confined by these new Western conquerors? There are many superb set-pieces in this book, such as the repeated efforts to locate Alexander’s battles on the branches of the modern Indus River (pp. 58-61 and 230-231, the latter by the General James Abbott whose name is enshrined in Osama bin Laden’s final hideout of Abbottabad, Pakistan), and the fact that Sir Aurel Stein began his career as a Sinologist (pp. 196-199). Nevertheless, there is a curious absence of the voices of the imperialized in the study as a whole. One of the many wonderful elements of Stein’s 1929 On Alexander’s Track to the Indus (which was reprinted in the most recent Alexander-Wunderjahr of 2004) are the photographs and careful descriptions of the local potentates Stein encountered along the way. The generosity of “my kind host and protector, the Bādshāh” appears on virtually every page of the book’s final chapters, and he is thanked for having provided a mule corps and a “motor-lorry”. One wonders what the Bādshāh actually thought of this archaeological expedition—to find Alexander’s Aornos!—and what it meant for his image in a more powerful Britain?

In this light, Schliephake’s Epilogue, which astutely updates the story to Michael Wood’s television series shown in 1998, is particularly poignant—and utterly contemporary to our present moment. Explicitly following ‘in the footsteps of Alexander’ (though often, to be fair, in a Range Rover, as a slick bit of product placement), Wood weaves in the voices of Palestinians, Egyptians, Iraqis, and Iranians, especially of singers and poets, reminding the viewer that Alexander is not merely a ‘Western’ legacy.[3] However, some of the most fascinating scenes in the film take place in the vicinity of Kabul, where the Taliban were poised to take over the city and its priceless artistic heritage—and set up the chain of events that led to 9/11 as well as to the past 20 years of NATO warfare in the country. Wood meets a self-proclaimed warlord of the Northern Alliance, who “once delivered pizzas in Pennsylvania”, and he concludes the sequence—after the two men watch BBC coverage of the war while sitting on the warlord’s waterbed—by lamenting, “Poor Afghanistan”. Surely that sentiment is echoing across the Hindu Kush into today—and will continue for months to come.


[1] Although he usurps the mantle of a putative ‘Son of Alexander’ in this film, Sean Connery had previously portrayed the historical Alexander in a 1961 television adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s Adventure Story.

[2] A small sample would include the men’s original “Contrack” not to have sex with women “black, white or brown”, as well as Dravot’s protestations to Carnehan, “Boil ’em [local girls] once or twice in hot water, and they’ll come as fair as chicken and ham,” and “These women are whiter than you or me”.

[3] In a cover endorsement of Stein’s reprinted book, Wood comments, “Stein has a claim to be called the greatest archaeologist-explorer of all: read this and you’ll see why”.