In the shadows of Alexander the Great.....by Ramdas Iyer
03.12.2009 - 11.12.2008
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 at the city of Termez( in Uzbekistan) He was on his way to India and beyond. Having crossed the Oxus and captured Bessus ( murderer of Emperor Darius of Persia), 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 also defeated. The victorious Alexander founded a city on this site, Alexandria Eschate “Alexandria the Farthest” today's Khujand, in northern Tajikistan.
My story here retraces the path of Alexander from Termez( Uzbekistan) to Dushanbe( capital of Tajikistan) and over the Alai-Pamir ranges to Penjakant (Tajikistan), a great Sogdian city( of Zoroastrian faith) and onto Samarkand, the magnificent silk road city. The route traversed the 18000 ft Anzob peak and the magnificent Karakul Lake, a place visited by Alexander when he landed there in search of his beloved horse Bucepahlus, that got lost in the mountains.
These routes and cities are very common in history books and have been discussed at length by the Greek historian Arian including the instructors at West Point Military Academy. My travels along the Central Asian silk route in the winter months of 2009 intersected with that of the campaign trails of Alexander in Termez (southern Uzbekistan/Afghan border), Penjakant( Tajikistan) and Samarkand (Central Uzbekistan)in this trip taken in 2009 and also in Persepolis, Hamadan(Ecbatana) and Teheran while in Iran in 2014.Leaving Termez, I spent the worst harassment by Uzbek border police while I tried to make the land crossing into Tajikistan. Short of a strip search they tried to match my declared currency value against what I really carried on my person and luggage. After 2 hours of questioning, and dictating a confession letter stating my unintended currency carriage violation, I was finally released. In line with expected "democractic" norms I was offered a lawyer to take my case to court that was recessed for the weekend ( 200 miles from any population), so I had to give up close to $400 in cash . But I still had money stashed in other areas that they did not search because a reasonably decent officer stopped an impending strip search. As a US Passport holder they did not harm me but put pressure on me similar to our own US border guards who use intimidation, harassment and the "law". The other reason for this unfortunate event was propagated by the closure of this crossing to commercial traffic due to a brief war between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan over an ill defined border in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union . This closure prevented kickback money from flowing to the guards from truck drivers.
Crossing the Uzbek border and arriving into Tajikistan, the mood was entirely different. The border post was laid back and my guide and driver were waiting for me with great concern for my welfare.
A little Tajik history will help the article to movie forward smoothly; The entire Asia Minor landmass including current day Turkey, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Northern Egypt, Iraq, Iran,Syria, Afghanistan till the,western border of India was a part of the Persian Empire for 700 years. The Tajiks speak a dialect of modern Persian, unlike the Uzbeks who speak a Turkic-Mongol dialect as a result of Genghis and Timor's dominance. The Tajiks are a beautiful and graceful people as opposed to the Uzbeks who take pride in the villainous ancestry of its heroes. In 1996, when in Ladakh, once an independent Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas, I learnt that over 50% of the population were Muslim. Ladakh, now a part of Kashmir State of India, was a part of the sub silk route that moved goods to and from Srinagar in Kashmir to China, and Central Asia. When India was partitioned in 1947, an entire historic trade route connecting Samarkand, Dushanbe, Kabul, Kathmandu and Lhasa was blocked overnight. This left a huge population of Tajiks, Hunza-the Indo Europeans of the Swat valley and Tibetans to be stuck forever in India. This along with the polygamist and polyandrous practices of the mountain Muslims have transformed an ancient Buddhist community into a minority.
Crossing the border I arrived at the capital city of Dushanbe. It was well laid out with a strong presence of Soviet Union done right in its early days of socialism that was built on optimism and hope. The following day we left the beautiful city of Dushanbe and started hitting the slopes of the mountains that form the backdrop of this beautiful city. Tajikistan is home to some of the highest mountains in the world, including the Pamir and Alay ranges. 93% of Tajikistan is mountainous with altitudes ranging from 300 m (980 ft) to almost 7,500 m (24,600 ft), and nearly 50% of Tajikistan's territory is above 3,000 m (9,800 ft).
The massive mountain ranges are cut by hundreds of canyons and gorges at the bottom of which run streams that flow into larger river valleys where the majority of the country's population lives and works. The Pamirs in particular are heavily glaciated, and Tajikistan is home to the largest non-polar glacier in the world, the Fedchenko Glacier.
Due to heavy snowfall expected that day, we took on an additional driver to aid Mehrzad my driver who was highly experienced working the mountainous roads while a driver in the Soviet army during their occupation years in Afghanistan. My guide, the beautiful Yassaman, hailed from the town of Khojand- famous for beautiful women and the hometown of Roxanne, wife of Alexander the Great. Within reaching 8000 ft all the vehicles on the road were stuck in ice and snow. With skills not seen before by me, my drivers managed to free the Land Cruiser from its icy anchorarge using chains and planks while Yassaman and I trekked the amazing snow packed mountain scenery for over an hour. The road to the Anzob pass was carved through a glacier and I was quite surprised at the speed of road crews that arrived to rescue a host of vehicles, mostly Russian made, from the pack snow. The Anzob Pass 56 mi north of Dushanbe at roughly 11,000 feet (3,400 m), is one of the most treacherous mountain passes of Central Asia. On October 23, 1997, an avalanche killed 46 people, burying 15 trucks and cars. The avalanche was so large that it took two weeks for the would-be rescuers to reach the victims. Due to the importance of the route connecting the north to south and its level of danger, the 5 kilometres (3.1 mi) Anzob Tunnel was built, completed in 2006.
After crossing the pass I noticed the marked difference of entering a land unchanged for millenia, a land of ancient villages and a people trapped in unchanging customs and practices. This is what makes travel to these areas very special. We stopped in a road side tea shop whose owners agreed to cook us a meal. During winter nothing is open except for hot tea sold in small eateries. Much to our excitement delicious meat dumplings, Afghani bread and copious amounts of sheep yogurt was served. The atmosphere was something to die for. With a steep ravine exposing itself outside the fogged window, we all sat in an elevated platform (typical Persian influence) laid with a multitude of faded rugs with the meal served in common dishes where everyone picks from their quadrants.
We traveled past beautiful villages set amidst poplar and willow trees, which almost seemed integral to the landscape. I was shooting so many photographs that my guide informed me that we might not reach our night lodging- a Shepherd's house, vacated for foreign travelers passing through that village. Around 10:00PM we reached the house set near a bubbling icy brook far enough from the road that we could not take our vehicle there. The sky was like a planetarium with all the constellations and the milky way showing themselves in an explosion of star dust and celestial light. Till date, other than in the Sahel Desert in Mali, I have not seen such a sky, almost similar to that seen by the ancient Greek and Indian astronomers. The house consisted of the main room and two little rooms on the perimeter. The focus of the house was the main room which had the coal stove which also served as the room heater, on which tea is always ready to be served. The Sheppard, Malyik, was a nice young man whose wife had prepared a magnificent meal of dumplings, lamb chops, soup and over 15 other items for snacking. We opened the Vodka bottle that I had my driver procure in Dushanbe and toasted each other with tales from USA, Russia, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. My sleeping quarter was a private room with no heat. Over 10 blankets were layered on top of me until I couldn't move anymore. Visiting the distant toilet was a challenge but having to walk in the icy starlit night was certainly welcome.
The next morning, I was paraded around the village and shook hands with over a dozen bearded men who seemed very pleased to meet me. The name Shahrukh Khan, India's super movie star, was a universal name known to one and all in Tajikistan. Everyone whom I met would ask if I had met Sharukh Khan and I would answer that I was planning on it. Sharukh is a Muslim and widely revered in that Hindu country, a fact well noted by Islamic countries surrounding India, giving it a truly secular status.
Each time we crossed a small mountain village, introductions had to be made to the village chief. A kind of request for permission that only applies to the villagers who still adhere to an ancient custom. What was really scary is that Tajikistan has become a transit hub for heroin from Afghanistan. With a 1300Km porous border between the two countries, almost not policed, it is a major source of opiates shipped to Russia, Europe and China. At any given time I was never more than a few hundred kilometers from the Afghanistan border; an area ripe for transportation and distribution by all the major terrorist organizations including Taliban and Al Qaeda . Tajikistan went through a horrible civil war between 1992 and 1997 with atrocities that involved dumping people from cliffs, en masse.
However, the villages I saw were poor where people lived a dignified life, proud to be dressed in native clothing and not averse to display Islamic hospitality to strangers at every opportunity. While I can write many sentences on my trip through the mountains, I believe my accompanying photographs can show the mountain environment in greater depth.
Two photographs published in this article may peek your interest. In one, a dozen young ladies look at my car with curiosity. In the following picture, all of them turn away simultaneously upon seeing a man inside. In another amazing set of two pictures, you may notice a truck loaded with 30 plus men driving along the road. In the following photograph you will notice a young girl who was walking on the road dive for cover to hide her face from all the men in that truck.
These two events were an eye opener for me showing me that in places like rural Tajikistan, it would take eons for women to be truly liberated. However in Dushanbe I could see a very Russian oriented workplace where women played an equal role in all professions. In retrospect one of the positive outcomes from the occupation of USSR of the lands of Central Asia, is that women are more liberated than in other Islamic countries.
After 3 days of an amazing fairy tale journey through the mountains, I arrived in Penjakent the border town with Uzbekistan. Alexander the great defeated the Sogdian king in Penjakent on the way to Samarkand. There is another important snippet about this town that is very important to Zoroastrians. Islam finally conquered the Iranian plateau, a full 100 years ( 920 AD) after Muhammad challenged all the neighboring countries to follow Islam or perish under his sword. The last of the Zoroastrian kings, Devaschtich ruled from Panjakent until his kingdom capitulated to the" violence" or as some say "message" of Islam.
Panjakant is home to Aryan/Zoroastrian ruins from 2nd century BC and that of Bunjikanth, capital of the Sogdian kingdom (5th century AD -pre Islam). I visited these sites along with other Sogdian sites in Tashkent, in Uzbekistan. It is simply amazing to see the vastness of the Persian Empire and its vassal states even today. These locales are in the tentative list of future World Heritage sites.
On my last day in Penjakant I was in a home stay with a family who host foreigners. The lady of the house was traditional Tajik, who understood some english and had converted 22 of her good teeth to gold caps. Her makeup included conjoining the eyebrows to form a contiguous ridge over her eyes. Their young daughter of 17 was so lively and had all the aspirations of any modern young girl but it looked like she would ultimately succumb to her mother's wish of an early marriage to a local boy and continue life as a second class citizen,
That last day, prior to my reentering Uzbekistan, just like Alexander the Great did, we dined, drank, laughed and danced a lot, except of course to the movie music of Sharukh Khan. The End
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