Discovering Pakistan

5, 000 years of Civilization & Culture

Alexander the Great in the Punjab

Dutch historian and author of a biography of Alexander the Great, Jona Lendering critically reviews the Macedonian king’s march through ancient Pakistan, highlighting the extreme violence used in the campaign. The political instability caused by the Greek invasion, Lendering says, paved the way for the establishment of the Maurya Empire.

This essay originally appeared in Lendering’s blog on May 29th, 2008.

Alexander the Great in the Punjab

In the autumn of 327 BCE, Alexander the Great had settled his affairs in Bactria and crossed the Hindu Kush mountains for the second time. Although he arrived in the city he had founded two years before, Alexandria in the Caucasus (modern Begram near Kabul), he was not returning home. Far from it: he wanted to invade the mysterious country of the Indus, which he believed to be on the eastern edge of the earth.


Invading the Punjab was comparatively easy. There was an old road, called the Uttarāpatha (‘the upper road’), which started in the country of the Upper Kabul, went through the Khyber Pass, and passed along the capitals of the Lower Kabul valley, the western and eastern Punjab, and finally reached Patna on the Ganges. The Macedonians would use this road, but realized that they had to cover their flanks.

Map of the valleys of the Kabul and Swat

In Nagarahara (the neighborhood of modern Jalalabad), a group of rajas offered their submission. They were not the first: a man named Ambhi, prince of the western Punjab, had already come to Bactria to subject himself to Alexander, and had asked the “son of Zeus” to help him fight against the ruler of the eastern Punjab. In Jalalabad, Alexander was recognized as avatar of the Indian god Vishnu, and he believed that the country had already surrendered to him. In other words: those who refused to obey Alexander, were traitors, and would be punished. This explains the extreme violence of the coming campaign.

In the first days of 326, the Macedonian army was divided into two columns.Perdiccas and Hephaestion took the largest group along through the Khyber pass and occupied Puskalāvatī, “the city of lotus flowers”, the capital of the Lower Kabul valley. The photo shows one of the two hills, and some Pathan boys looking for eggs in the nests of the birds. The site is covered with sherds, waiting for an archaeologist to investigate it. Not much later, this column reached the river Indus, and built a pontoon bridge across this mighty stream.

The Swat Campaign

The second column was commanded by Alexander himself. This army did not take the main road, but took a more northern route, to cover the flank of the main force. Alexander’s men walked across the valleys of several tributaries of the Kabul. The first of these was the Kunar, where the native Aspasians were miraculously saved when it was discovered that the god Dionysus, one of Alexander’s ancestors, was born on a nearby mountain (more…). There was strong proof for this claim: everywhere, the Macedonians saw ivy, and everybody knew that this was the symbol of Dionysus. It is likely that some cult of Vishnu lies behind this story.

Having terrorized the inhabitants of another city, Arigaion, Alexander entered the next valley along the dry bed of the river Wuch, where he laid siege to a town called Massaga, which is probably identical to the place that is now called Churchill’s Picket. The siege lasted some time, but after an Indian mercenary leader had been killed, his men surrendered. Negotiations started and Alexander ordered the mercenaries to occupy a nearby hill. However, during the cease-fire, Alexander ordered his men to attack the Indians, explaining that he had granted them a safe-conduct to the hill, but had not granted them their lives. The city was captured immediately after, and Alexander appears to have had a brief relationship with the queen…

Read the complete essay here.

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