Operation Athena

The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) formed under UN Security Council Resolution 1386 of 20 December 2001 for stability operations in Afghanistan provides an example of a complex overland peace support operation. Canada’s participation in ISAF, dubbed Operation Athena, began in Kabul in July 2003.

During this initial phase, ISAF was charged with providing security to the Afghan Interim Authority and the United Nations. Phase II, which began in August 2005, saw Canadian troops redeploy to Kandahar, where they conducted the longest-running CF combat mission, which concluded in July 2011. Coincident with the redeployment to Kandahar, Canada signed the 2006 Afghanistan compact, which outlined “a wide-ranging program of activity based on three “critical and interdependent” areas of activity: a) security; b) governance, rule of law and human rights; and c) economic development”.

Operation ATHENA Phase I: Kabul

Operation ATHENA began on 17 July 2003 with the installation of Brigadier-General Peter Devlin of Canada for a six-month tour in command of ISAF’s Kabul Multi-National Brigade. On 19 July 2003, the 3rd Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment Battalion Group, began deploying to Kabul as Roto 0 of Task Force Kabul.

ISAF became a NATO mission on 11 August 2003. On the same day, Major-General Andrew Leslie of Canada was installed as Deputy Commander of ISAF in Kabul. Its main focus during the first year of NATO leadership was helping the Afghan Transitional Authority maintain a safe and secure environment in Kabul while the Loya Jirga developed and ratified a constitution for Afghanistan (completed 4 January 2004).

On 9 February 2004, Lieutenant-General Rick Hillier of Canada accepted the command of ISAF, which he retained until handing over to LGen Jean-Louis Py of France on 9 August 2004.

ISAF’s primary objective in 2004 was ensuring the safe conduct of Afghanistan’s first democratic election, which was held on 9 October 2004 to choose 250 Members of Parliament and the President. Despite widespread threats and isolated outbreaks of violence, some 80 percent of eligible voters turned out on election day. Hamid Karzai was declared the winner, and on 9 December 2004 he was inaugurated President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

Rotations during Phase I

Roto 0   August 2003– February 2004         3rd Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment Battalion Group

Roto 1   February 2004– August 2004         3rd Battalion, Royal 22e Régiment Battalion Group

Roto 2   August 2004– February 2005         1st Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry Battalion Group

Roto 3   February 2005– July 2005               1st Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment Battalion Group

Operation ATHENA Phase II: Kandahar

In 2005, ISAF began to extend its operations beyond Kabul to support the development and growth of Afghanistan’s governmental institutions, especially its national security forces. At that time, ISAF also joined the extensive efforts by governmental and non-governmental organizations throughout Afghanistan to rebuild its shattered communities.

The Afghanistan Compact

Signed on 1 February 2006 and valid for five years, the Afghanistan Compact governed the relationship between the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the coalition forces then operating in Afghanistan: ISAF, and U.S.-led forces deployed under Operation ENDURING FREEDOM.

Signatories to the Afghanistan Compact agreed to a wide-ranging program of activity based on three “critical and interdependent” areas of activity:


    governance, rule of law and human rights; and

    economic development.

A further “vital and cross-cutting area of work” was also identified: eliminating the narcotics industry, described as “a formidable threat to the people and state of Afghanistan, the region and beyond.”

Initially Afghanistan remained the Canadian government’s primary focus, with nearly 3,000 troops deployed in Afghanistan on Operation Athena, the majority in the Kandahar area. But, slow progress, high costs and waning domestic support forced the government to maintain its pledge to end Canada’s combat mission in Afghanistan in 2011. Then Prime Minister Stephen Harper said that the government might propose maintaining some Canadian presence in Afghanistan after that date to focus primarily on reconstruction and development. This force might include helicopters, police and army trainers, a Provincial Reconstruction Team and CF-18 fighter aircraft.

In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the improvised explosive device (IED) has been the insurgents’ weapon of choice; IEDs have inflicted the greatest number of casualties on Canadian troops in Afghanistan. Of the 158 combat and non-combat-related deaths sustained by the CF in Afghanistan from the start of operations to October 2011, 97 or 62 percent, were the result of IEDs.

The Colonies’ First Revolt

Andros a Prisoner in Boston

While everyone knows that the English-controlled colonies rebelled against the tyrannical rule of their distant king, few realize they first did so not in the 1770s, but in the 1680s. And they did so not as a united force of Americans eager to create a new nation, but in a series of separate rebellions, each seeking to preserve a distinct regional culture, political system, and religious tradition threatened by the distant seat of empire.

These threats came in the form of the new king, James II, who ascended the throne in 1685. James was intent on imposing discipline and political conformity on his unruly American colonies. Inspired by the absolutist monarchy of France’s Louis XIV, King James planned to merge the colonies, dissolve their representative assemblies, impose crippling taxes, and install military authorities in the governors’ chairs to ensure that his will was obeyed. Had he succeeded, the nascent American nations might have lost much of their individual distinctiveness, converging over time into a more homogeneous and docile colonial society, resembling that of New Zealand.

But even at this early stage of their development—only two to three generations after their creation—the American nations were willing to take up arms and commit treason to protect their unique cultures.

James wasted little time executing his plans. He ordered the New England colonies, New York, and New Jersey to be merged into a single authoritarian megacolony called the Dominion of New England. The Dominion replaced representative assemblies and regular town meetings with an all-powerful royal governor backed by imperial troops. Across Yankeedom, Puritan property titles were declared null and void, forcing landowners to buy new ones from the crown and to pay feudal rents to the king in perpetuity. The Dominion governor seized portions of the town commons in Cambridge, Lynn, and other Massachusetts towns and gave the valuable plots to his friends. The king also imposed exorbitant duties on Tidewater tobacco and the sugar produced around the recently formed settlement of Charleston. All of this was done without the consent of the governed, in violation of the rights granted all Englishmen under the Magna Carta. When a Puritan minister protested, he was tossed in jail by a newly appointed Dominion judge, who told him that his people now had “no more privileges left . . . [other] than not to be sold for slaves.” Under James the rights of Englishmen stopped at the shores of England itself. In the colonies the king would do whatever he wished.

Whatever their grievances, the colonies probably would not have dared revolt against the king had there not also been serious resistance to his rule back in England. At a time when Europe’s religious wars were still in living memory, James had horrified many of his countrymen by converting to Catholicism, appointing numerous Catholics to public office, and allowing Catholics and followers of other faiths to worship freely. England’s Protestant majority feared a papal plot, and between 1685 and 1688 three domestic rebellions erupted against James’s rule. The first two were put down by royal armies, but the third succeeded through a strategic innovation; instead of taking up arms themselves, the plotters invited the military leader of the Netherlands to do so for them. Invading from the sea, William of Orange was welcomed by a number of high officials and even James’s own daughter, Princess Anne. (Supporting a foreign invader against one’s own father may seem a bit odd, but William, in fact, was James’s nephew and was married to his daughter Mary.) Outmaneuvered by friends and family alike, James fled into exile in France in December 1688. William and Mary were crowned king and queen, ending a bloodless coup Englishmen dubbed the “Glorious Revolution.”

Because it took months for news of the coup to reach the colonies, rumors of a planned Dutch invasion continued to swirl there throughout the winter and early spring of 1689, confronting the colonials with a difficult choice. The prudent course would have been to wait patiently for confirmation of how events in England had played out. A bolder alternative was to defend their societies by rising up against their oppressors in the hopes that William actually had invaded England, that he would be successful, and, if so, that he would look kindly on their actions. Each of the American nations made its own choice, for its own reasons. In the end, the only ones not to opt for rebellion were the young colonies around Philadelphia and Charleston, which, with just a few hundred settlers each, were in no position to engage in geopolitics even if they wanted to. But many people in Yankeedom, Tidewater, and New Netherland were ready and willing to risk everything for their respective ways of life.

Not surprisingly, Yankeedom led the way.

With their deep commitment to self-government, local control, and Puritan religious values, New Englanders had the most to lose from King James’s policies. The Dominion governor, Sir Edmund Andros, lived in Boston and was particularly eager to bring New England to heel. Within hours of stepping off the boat in Massachusetts, the governor had issued a decree that struck at the heart of New England identity: he ordered Puritan meetinghouses opened for Anglican services and took away the New Englanders’ charters of government—which the people of Boston described as “the hedge which kept us from the wild beasts of the field.” Anglicans and suspected Catholics were appointed to top government and militia positions, backed by uncouth royal troops who witnesses said “began to teach New England to drab, drink, blasphemy, curse, and damn.” Towns were forbidden to use taxpayer funds to support their Puritan ministers. In court, Puritans faced Anglican juries and were forced to kiss the Bible when swearing their oaths (an “idolatrous” Anglican practice) instead of raising their right hand, as was Puritan custom. Liberty of conscience was to be tolerated, Andros ordered, even as he built a new Anglican chapel in what had been Boston’s public burial ground. A people who believed they had a special covenant with God were losing the instruments with which they had executed his will.

The Dominion’s policies, the inhabitants of Boston concluded, had to be part of a “Popish plot.” Their “country,” they would later explain, was “New England,” a place “so remarkable for the true profession and pure exercise of the Protestant religion” that it had attracted the attention of “the great Scarlet Whore” who sought “to crush and break” it, exposing its people “to the miseries of utter exploitation.” God’s chosen people could not allow this to happen.

In December 1686 a farmer in Topsfield, Massachusetts, incited his neighbors into what was later described as a “riotous muster” of the town militia, in which they pledged allegiance to New England’s old government. Neighboring towns, meanwhile, refused to appoint tax collectors. Governor Andros had the agitators arrested and fined. The Massachusetts elite defied Andros’s authority by secretly dispatching theologian Increase Mather across the Atlantic to make a personal appeal to King James. In London, Mather warned the monarch that “if a foreign prince or state should . . . send a frigate to New England and promise to protect [us] as under [our] former government, it would be an unconquerable temptation.” Mather’s threat to abandon the empire did not move James to change his policies. Yankeedom, Mather reported after his royal audience, was to be left in “a bleeding state.”

When rumors of William’s invasion of England reached New England in February 1689, Dominion authorities did their best to stop them from spreading, arresting travelers for “bringing traitorous and treasonable libels” into the land. This only fueled Yankee paranoia about a Popish plot, now imagined to include an invasion by New France and its Indian allies. “It is high time we should be better guarded,” the Massachusetts elite reasoned, “than we are like to be while the government remains in the hands by which it hath been held of late.”

The Yankee response was swift, surprising, and backed by nearly everyone. On the morning of April 18, 1689, conspirators raised a flag atop the tall mast on Boston’s Beacon Hill, signaling that the revolt was to begin. Townspeople ambushed Captain John George, commander of HMS Rose, the Royal Navy frigate assigned to guard the city, and took him into custody. A company of fifty armed militiamen escorted a delegation of pre-Dominion officials up the city’s main street and seized control of the State House. Hundreds of other militiamen seized Dominion officials and functionaries, placing them in the town jail. By midafternoon, some 2,000 militiamen had poured into the city from the surrounding towns, encircling the fort where Governor Andros was stationed with his royal troops. The first officer of the twenty-eight-gun Rose sent a boatload of sailors to rescue the governor, but they, too, were overpowered as soon as they stepped ashore. “Surrender and deliver up the government and the fortifications,” the coup leaders warned Andros, or he would face “the taking of the fortification by storm.” The governor surrendered the following day and joined his subordinates in the town jail. Faced with the guns of the now rebel-held fort, the acting captain of the Rose effectively surrendered as well, turning his vessel’s sails over to the Yankees. In a single day the Dominion government had been overturned.

News of the Yankee rebellion reached New Amsterdam within days, electrifying many of the town’s Dutch inhabitants. Here was an opportunity to put an end not only to an authoritarian government but possibly to the English occupation of their country as well. New York might become New Netherland once again, liberating the Dutch, Walloons, Jews, and Huguenots from the stress of living under a nation that could not be relied upon to tolerate religious diversity and freedom of expression. The colony’s Dominion lieutenant governor, Francis Nicholson, made their choice easier when he declared New Yorkers to be “a conquered people” who “could not expect the same rights as English people.”

Defiant New Netherlanders placed their hopes in William of Orange, who, after all, was the military leader of their mother country and might therefore be persuaded to liberate the Dutch colony from English rule. As the members of the Dutch congregation in New York City would later explain, William’s “forefathers had liberated our ancestors from the Spanish yoke” and “had now come again to deliver the kingdom of England from Popery and Tyranny.” Indeed, the majority of those who took up arms against the government that spring were Dutch, and they were led by a German-born Dutch Calvinist, Jacob Leisler. Opponents would later denounce their rebellion as simply a “Dutch plot.”

But the first disturbances came, not surprisingly, from the Yankee settlements of eastern Long Island, whose people had never wanted to be a part of New York. Longing to join Connecticut and fearful of a French Catholic invasion, they overthrew and replaced local Dominion officials. Hundreds of armed Yankee militiamen then marched on New York City and Albany, intending to take control of their forts and seize the tax money Dominion officials had extorted from them. “We, having like them at Boston, groaned under arbitrary power,” they explained, “think it our bounden duty to . . . secure those persons who have extorted from us” an action “nothing less than what is our duty to God.” The Long Islanders got within fourteen miles of Manhattan before Lieutenant Governor Nicholson organized a meeting with their leaders. He offered the successful gambit of a large cash payment to the assembled soldiers, ostensibly representing back wages and tax credits. The Yankees stopped their advance, but the damage to Dominion authority had been done.

Emboldened by the Yankee Long Islanders, dissatisfied members of the city’s own militia took up arms. Merchants stopped paying customs. “The people could not be restrained,” a group of the city’s Dutch inhabitants reported. “They cried out that the magistrates here ought also to declare themselves for the Prince of Orange.” Lieutenant governor Nicholson withdrew to the fort and ordered its guns trained on the city. “There are so many rogues in this town that I am almost afraid to walk in the streets,” he fumed to a Dutch lieutenant, adding, fatefully, that if the uprising continued he would “set fire to the town.”

Word of Nicholson’s threat spread through the city, and within hours the lieutenant governor could hear the beating of drums calling the rebellious militia to muster. The armed townspeople marched on the fort, where the Dutch lieutenant opened the gates and let them in. “In half an hour’s time the fort was full of armed and enraged men crying out that they were betrayed and that it was time to look to themselves,” one witness recalled. The city secured, the Dutch and their sympathizers anxiously waited to see if their countryman would bring New Netherland back from the grave.

On the face of it, Tidewater seemed an unlikely region to revolt. After all, Virginia was an avowedly conservative area, Royalist in politics and Anglican in religion. Maryland was even more so, with the Lords Baltimore ruling their portion of the Chesapeake like medieval kings of yore; their Catholicism only made them all the more attractive to James II. The king might wish to make his American colonies more uniform, but the Tidewater gentry had reason to believe their own aristocratic societies might serve as a model for his project.

As the establishment back in England began to turn on James, many in Tidewater followed their lead, and for many of the same reasons. Domestically the king was undercutting the Anglican Church, appointing Catholics to high office and usurping powers from the landed aristocracy, fraying the fabric of the English life the Chesapeake elite held so dear. In America, James sought to deny the Tidewater aristocracy their representative assemblies and threatened the prosperity of all planters with exorbitant new tobacco duties. As fears grew that the king was complicit in a Popish plot, the public became convinced that the Catholic Calverts were probably involved as well. On both shores of the Chesapeake, Protestants feared their way of existence was under siege, with those in Maryland convinced their very lives were in danger.

As reports on the crisis in England grew dire in the winter of 1688–1689, Anglican and Puritan settlers across Chesapeake country became alarmed that Maryland’s Catholic leadership was secretly negotiating with the Seneca Indians to massacre Protestants. Residents of Stafford County, Virginia—just across the Potomac from Maryland—deployed armed units to fend off the suspected assault and, according to one Virginia official, were “ready to fly in the face of government.” In Maryland, the governing council reported, “the whole country was in an uproar.” Word of William and Mary’s coronation arrived before the anti-Catholic hysteria got out of hand in Virginia, but it was not sufficient to quell growing unrest in Maryland.

In Maryland, the Calverts’ handpicked, Catholic-dominated governing council refused to proclaim its allegiance to the new sovereigns. In July, more than two months after official word of the coronations had reached Tidewater, the colony’s Protestant majority decided they could wait no longer. The Protestants—almost all of whom had emigrated from Virginia—decided to topple the Calverts’ regime and replace it with one that better conformed to Tidewater’s dominant culture.

The insurgents organized themselves in a ragtag army called, appropriately enough, the Protestant Associators. Led by a former Anglican minister, they marched by the hundreds on St. Mary’s City. The colonial militia dispersed before them, ignoring orders to defend the State House. Lord Baltimore’s officers tried to organize a counterattack, but none of their enlisted men reported for duty. Within days the Associators were at the gates of Lord Baltimore’s mansion, supported by cannon seized from an English ship they’d captured in the capital. The governing councilors hiding inside had no choice but to surrender, forever ending the Calvert family’s rule. The Associators issued a manifesto denouncing Lord Baltimore for treason, discriminating against Anglicans, and colluding with French Jesuits and Indians against William and Mary’s rule. The surrender terms banned Catholics from public office and the military, effectively turning power over to the Anglican, mostly Virginia-born elite.

The insurgents had succeeded in remaking Maryland along the lines of their native Virginia, consolidating Tidewater culture across the Chesapeake country.

While the American “revolutionaries” of 1689 were able to topple regimes that had threatened them, not all of them achieved everything they had hoped for. The leaders of all three insurgencies sought King William’s blessing for what they had accomplished. But while the new king endorsed the actions and honored the requests of Tidewater rebels, he did not roll back all of James’s reforms in either New England or New Netherland. William’s empire might have been more flexible than James’s had been, but it was not willing to cede to the colonials on every point.

The New Netherland Dutch were the most disappointed. William, not wishing to alienate his new English subjects, declined to return New York to the Netherlands. Meanwhile the insurgency itself collapsed into political infighting, with various ethnic and economic interests struggling for control of the colony. The rebels’ interim leader, Jacob Leisler, was unable to consolidate power but made plenty of enemies trying to do so. On the arrival of a new royal governor two years later, Leisler’s foes managed to get him hanged for treason, deepening divisions in the city. As one governor would later observe: “Neither party will be satisfied with less than the necks of their adversaries.” Instead of returning to Dutch rule, New Netherlanders found themselves living in a fractious royal colony, at odds with themselves and the Yankees of eastern Long Island, the upper Hudson Valley, and New England.

More than anything, the Yankees had wanted their various governing charters reactivated, restoring each of the New England colonies to their previous status as self-governing republics. (“The charter of Massachusetts is . . . our Magna Carta,” a resident of that colony explained. “Without it, we are wholly without law, the laws of England being made for England only.”) William, however, ordered that Massachusetts and the Plymouth colony remain merged under a royal governor with power to veto legislation. The Yankees would be given back their elected assemblies, land titles, and unfettered town governments, but they had to allow all Protestant property owners to vote, not just the ones who had been given membership in the Puritan churches. Connecticut and Rhode Island could continue to govern themselves as they had previously, but the mighty Bay Colony would be kept on a tighter leash. If God’s chosen people wished to carry on building their utopia, they would have to fight another revolution.

Alexander the Great’s Legacy I

Bactrian warriors under the Achaemenids (400 to 330 BC)

Alexander the Great and the Greek Influence in Central Asia

Events in the mid-fourth century disrupted the political development of Central Asia and B.C. seriously changed the course of history for several centuries. In the eyes of Central Asians, the Greek-Macedonian army led by Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) probably came out of nowhere. He appeared from the west to move triumphantly through Mesopotamia and Persia, defeating the Persian army, one of the world’s most powerful military forces until that time. Alexander successfully fought against the Persian garrisons, campaigning between 330 and 327 B.C., and then suddenly left the region and never returned.

The political situation in Central Asia, along with its economic development, on the eve of Alexander’s invasion contributed significantly to his success. The Persian Achaemenian empire had controlled the Central Asian states in one way or another for about 200 years. By the mid-fourth century this control was already significantly weakened. The centralized Persian Empire had been considerably undermined by internal strife, excessive expenditures on the royal family’s lavish court life, public constructions and numerous military campaigns that siphoned revenues from a shrinking state budget. On top of that, there was growing strife between the center and the Central Asian periphery over taxes and the recruitment of conscripts and mercenaries into the Persian army.

Alexander the Great probably entered Central Asia in 330 B.C., after campaigning in Persia for about four years in pursuit of the Persian King Darius III (380-330 B.C.). Darius III gathered large armies several times but lost all the decisive battles. Step by step he retreated further to the east, probably hoping that the remoteness of his Central Asian satrapies would give him shelter against the advancing Greek troops. However, entrepreneurial Greek merchants, craftsmen and colonists had probably settled in or visited Central Asia and were able to provide help to Alexander. Darius’s military mismanagement and mediocrity angered many of his followers and supporters. In 330 B.C. he was murdered by his own governor Bessus, the satrap of Bactria. Bessus declared himself Darius’s successor and adopted the name Artaxerxes V.

With the rise of Bessus-Artaxerxes V as a self-nominated ruler of the Persian Empire, the war entered a new stage. Alexander and his army faced the threat of a protracted guerrilla war in the difficult mountainous terrain of Bactria and later Sogdiana, where Bessus Artaxerxes V sought refuge. The war did not quite end there, for Spitemenes, a satrap of Sogdiana, rose to lead the local resistance.

Before Alexandria-the-furthest could be begun, news arrived of rebellion, not among the Scyths, but in the rear. Since landing in Asia, Alexander had asked his men to march dreadfully hard, often without food, but he had never entangled them in a slow and self-sustaining struggle with guerrillas. Now for the first time his speed was to be halted. This Sogdian rebellion would exhaust his army’s patience for eighteen unsatisfactory months, make new demands on his generalship and induce a mood of doubt among his entourage. The causes were simple; four of Bessus’s henchmen still ranged free, led by Spitamenes the Persian whose name has a link with the Zoroastrian religion. All four now began to work on the native mistrust of the Macedonians. There was ample reason for it. Anxiously searching for food in the Sogdian desert, Alexander’s army had plundered ricefields, looted flocks and requisitioned horses, punishing all resistance severely. His thirty thousand soldiers could not be fed from any other source, but it was a dangerous way to behave. Meanwhile, the natives saw garrisons installed in their main villages; Cyrus’s old town was being changed into an Alexandria, and already, as in Bactria, Alexander had banned the exposure of dead corpses to vultures, because it repelled his Greek sensitivities. Like the British prohibition of suttee in India, his moral scruples cost him popularity, for Sogdians had not seen Persia overthrown only to suffer worse interference from her conquerors. It was time to be free of any empire, especially when a conference had been ordered at Balkh which the local baronry were expected to attend. If they went they might be held hostage. Bactrians, therefore, joined the resistance, the same Bactrians no doubt, whom Bessus had timorously abandoned, and from Balkh to the Jaxartes Alexander found his presence challenged.

Ignoring the nomad skirmishers who had gathered to rouse the south along the Oxus, Alexander turned against the nearest rebellious villagers. Here his garrisons had been murdered, so he repaid the compliment to the seven responsible settlements in a matter of three weeks. The mudbrick fortifications of the qal’ehs were treated contemptuously. Though siege towers had not yet been transported over the Hindu Kush, collapsible stone-throwers were ready to be assembled if necessary; they were not needed at the first three villages, which succumbed in two days to the old-fashioned tactics of scaling parties backed up by missiles; the next two were abandoned by natives who ran into a waiting cordon of cavalry, and in all five villages the fighting men were slaughtered, the survivors enslaved. The sixth, Cyrus’s border garrison at Kurkath, was far the strongest, because of its high mound. Here, the mud walls were a fit target for the stone-throwers, but their performance was unimpressive, perhaps because there was a shortage of ammunition; stone is very scarce in the Turkestan desert and it cannot have been possible to transport many rounds of boulders across the Hindu Kush. However, Alexander noticed that the watercourse which still runs under Kurkath’s walls had dried up in the heat and offered a surprise passage to troops on hands and knees. The usual covering fire was ordered and the king is said to have wormed his way with his troops along the river-bed, proof that his broken leg had mended remarkably quickly. The ruse was familiar in Greece, and once inside, the gates were flung open to the besiegers, though the natives continued to resist, and even concussed Alexander by stoning him on the neck. Eight thousand were killed and another 7,000 surrendered: Alexander’s respect for his newfound ancestor Cyrus did not extend to rebellious villagers who wounded him, so Kurkath, town of Cyrus, was destroyed. The seventh and final village gave less trouble and its inhabitants were merely deported.

Seemingly unmoved by wounds and the August sun, Alexander left the Oxus rising and returned to plans for his new Alexandria. The only available materials for building were earth and mudbrick, hence the walls and main layout were completed in less than three weeks. Nor was there any shortage of settlers after the recent besieging and razing: survivors from Kurkath and other villages were merged with volunteer mercenaries and Macedonian veterans and were consigned to a life in the hottest single place along the river Jaxartes, where the sun rebounds at double heat from the steeply rising hills on the far bank. The houses were flat-roofed and built without windows for the sake of coolness, but of the comforts of life, of the temples and meeting-places, nothing can now be discovered. The new citizens were chosen from prisoners as well as volunteers, and given their freedom in return for garrison service: they would have to live with Greeks and veteran Macedonians, fiercely tenacious of their native customs and aware that they had been chosen as much for their unpopularity with their platoon commanders as for their physical disabilities.

If the rebels further south had been unwisely forgotten in the first excitements of an Alexandria, it was not long before they forced themselves abruptly to the fore. The sack of seven nearby villages had done nothing for the true centre of revolt; Spitamenes and his nomad horsemen were still on the loose behind the lines, and during the building news arrived that they were besieging the thousand garrison troops of Samarkand. The message reached the Scyths on the frontier-river’s far bank: they gathered in insolent formations, sensing that Alexander was under pressure to withdraw. This was a serious situation, for Alexander’s troops stood at their lowest level of the whole campaign after the recent Alex-andrias and detachments; caught between two enemies, he chose to deal with the nearer and detached a mere 2,000 mercenary troops to relieve Samarkand, leaving himself some 25,000, no more, to shock the Scyths. Two generals from the mercenary cavalry shared the command of the Samarkand detachment with a bilingual Oriental who served as interpreter and as staff officer. They were never to be seen again.

As the relief force rode south, Alexander stayed to teach the Scyths a lesson. At first he ignored their provocations and continued to build, ‘sacrificing to the usual gods and then holding a cavalry and gymnastic contest’ as a show of strength. But the Scyths cared little for Greek gods, less for the competitors, and started shouting rude remarks across the river; Alexander ordered the stuffed leather rafts to be made ready while he sacrificed again and considered the omen. But the omens were deemed unfavourable and Alexander’s prophet refused to interpret them falsely: rebuffed by the gods, Alexander turned to his arrow-shooting catapults. These were set up on the river bank and aimed across the intervening river: the Scythians were so scared by the first recorded use of artillery in the field that they retreated when a chieftain was killed by one of its mysterious bolts. Alexander crossed the river, Shield Bearers guarding his men on inflated rafts, horses swimming beside them, archers and slingers keeping the Scyths at a distance.

On the far bank combat was brief but masterly. Scythian tactics relied on encirclement, whereby their horsemen, trousered and mostly un-armoured, would gallop round the enemy and shoot their arrows as they passed; others, perhaps, kept the foe at bay with lances. Alexander too had lancers, and he also had Scythian Mounted Archers who had been serving for a year in his army. He knew the tactics and dealt with them exactly as at Gaugamela; first, he lured the Scythians into battle with a deceptively weak advance force; then, as they tried to encircle, he moved up his main cavalary and light-armed infantry and charged on his own terms. For lancers, not bowmen, it was the only way to repulse nomad archers and the Scyths were jostled back with no room to manœuvre: after losing a thousand men, they fled away into the nearby hills, safe at a height of some 3,000 feet. Alexander pursued sharply for eight miles but stopped to drink the local water ‘which was bad and caused him constant diarrhorea so that the rest of the Scyths escaped’. He was still suffering from his recent neck-wound which had also lost him his voice, and an upset stomach was a convenient excuse for giving up a hopeless chase, especially as his courtiers announced that he had already ‘passed the limits set by the god Dionysus’. Like the cave of Prometheus, this mythical theme, important for the future, must not be treated too sceptically. In Cyrus’s outpost, stormed by Alexander, altars had been found for Oriental cults which the Macedonians equated with the rites of their own Heracles and Dionysus. If Dionysus had not reached beyond Cyrus’s outpost, furthest site of his equivalent Oriental cult, then Alexander could indeed be consoled for losing the Scythians. The omens had been justified by his sickness and failure.

Bursting the bounds of Dionysus was scant reward for what followed. While the Scythian king sent envoys to disown the attack as the work of unofficial skirmishers, Alexander heard a most unwelcome report from behind the lines. The 2,000 troops who had been sent back to Samarkand to deal with the rebel Spitamenes had arrived tired and short of food; their generals had begun to quarrel, when Spitamenes suddenly appeared and gave them a sharp lesson in fighting a mobile battle on horseback. Unlike Alexander, the lesser generals did not know how to deal with the fluid tactics of mounted Scythian archers, especially when they were outnumbered by more than two to one: their entire relief force had been trapped on an island in the river Zarafshan and killed to a man. The difference between frontline generals and reserves could hardly have been pointed more clearly, especially when Alexander had misjudged an enemy, not so much in numbers as in ability. Even if a larger force could have been spared from the scanty front line, Spitamenes’s speed might still have destroyed it; what was needed was a first-class general in sole command, whereas Alexander had appointed three wrong men and left them to argue. The error was galling and nothing was spared to avenge it.

On the first news of the disaster, Alexander gathered some 7,000 Companions and light infantry and raced them through the 180 miles of desert to Samarkand in only three days and nights. Such speed through the early autumn heat is astonishing, but not impossible, yet Spitamenes easily escaped from another tired and thirsty enemy, disappearing westwards into the barren marches of his attendant nomads. There was nothing for it but to bury the 2,000 dead, punish such nearby villages as had joined the nomads in their victory and range the length of the Zarafshan river for any signs of rebels. The search was unrewarding and eventually even Alexander gave it up: recrossing the Oxus, he quartered for the winter at Balkh, where he could only ponder the most conspicuous mishap of the expedition and the decrease in his forces which were now close to a mere 25,000.

Two wounds, a continuing rebellion and shortage of men and food had made his past six months peculiarly frustrating. But just when his prospects seemed at the worst, hope for a new strategy was to arrive most opportunely in this winter camp. From Greece and the western satraps, 21,600 reinforcements, mostly hired Greeks, had at last made their way to, Bactria under the leadership of Asander, perhaps Parmenion’s brother. and the faithful Nearchus who had given up his inglorious satrapy in Lycia to rejoin his friend in the front line. Far the largest draft as yet received, they allowed the army to be brought up to its old strength; they could be split into detachments, and at once Alexander’s problems would be reduced. Sporadic raiders could be beaten off by independent units and the theatre of war would narrow accordingly. The rocks and castles of the east were fortunately untroubled; north beyond the Jaxartes one raid had so impressed the Scyths that they had sent envoys to offer their princess in marriage. In central Sogdia, 3,000 garrison-troops had been added to a region which had twice been punished; the new mercenaries could now hold Balkh and the Oxus, so that only the adjacent steppes to the west and north-west remained open to Spitamenes. Even here, his freedom was newly restricted.

To Balkh came envoys from the king of Khwarezm, not a hushed desert waste as poets suggested, but the most powerful known kingdom to the north-west of the Oxus, where the river broadens to join the Aral Sea. It had left little mark on written history until Russian excavations revealed it as a stable and centralized kingdom, defended by its own mailed horsemen, at least from the mid-seventh century B.C.: now, it hangs like a dimly discerned shadow over a thousand years of history in outer Iran. In art and writing, it shows the influence of the Persian Empire to which it had once been subject; it was a home for settled farmers, and its interests were not those of the nomads who surrounded it in the Red and Black Sand deserts. Spitamenes was using these deserts as his base, and safety inclined Khwarezm to Alexander’s side. Its king even tried to divert the Macedonians against his own enemies, offering to lead them west in an expedition to the Black Sea. Alexander refused tactfully, though glad of a solid new ally: ‘It did not suit him at that moment to march to the Black Sea, for India was his present concern.’ It was the first hint of his future: ‘When he held all Asia, he would return to Greece, and from there he would lead his entire fleet and army to the Hellespont and invade the Black Sea, as suggested.’ Asia, then, was thought for the first time to include India, and not just the India of the Persian Empire. But polite refusals are no certain proof of his plans and it was easy to talk of the future in winter camp, the season when generals talk idly; it was only to hold back Spitamenes that the king of Khwarezm was wanted. Hopes in this direction had been raised for an early victory: the new reinforcements were brigaded and four Sogdian prisoners were conscripted into the Shield Bearers, because they were noticed by Alexander, going to their execution with unusual bravery. As winter passed, the traitor Bessus was sent to Hamadan, where the Medes and the Persians voted that his ears and nose should be cut off, the traditional treatment for an Oriental rebel.

Alexander decided that his positions were strong enough and he turned to conquer India. Before leaving for India, however, he decided to cement his stand in the region by making some strategic arrangements, one of which was a dynastic marriage. In 327 B.C., by accident or by an accord, he met and married Princess Roxana (Roshanak-“little star” in Persian), the daughter of an influential local leader and one of the most beautiful women in Asia. Other arrangements included the establishment of several cities as Greek-Macedonian strongholds and colonies. Ancient sources traditionally report that Alexander established six such centers in Central Asia: Alexandria of Margiana (near present-day Merv in Turkmenistan); Alexandria of Ariana (near present-day Herat in northern Afghanistan); Alexandria of Bactria (near present-day Balkh in northern Afghanistan); Alexandria on the Oxus (on the upper reaches of Amu Darya, which the Greeks called Oxus); Alexandria of Caucasum (close to present-day Bagram in northern Afghanistan); and Alexandria Eschatae (near present day Khojand in northern Tajikistan).

Bactria and Sogdiana were included in Alexander’s world empire, though very soon after his death in 323 B.C. these provinces began experiencing political turmoil. The empire was shattered by internal instability and infighting and rivalries among his generals. Between 301 and 300 B.C. Seleucus, one of Alexander’s generals, consolidated his control over the Persian possessions and founded the Seleucid Empire. In 250 B.C. Diodotus, governor of Bactria, broke away from the Seleucids and established an independent Greco-Bactrian kingdom. This kingdom flourished for 125 years, between 250 and 125 B.C., as an island of Hellenism in Central Asia. The Greco-Bactrian state prospered and became known as the land of a thousand cities, leaving significant cultural marks among both the settled and nomadic populations of Central Asia. At its zenith it extended its control well into Sogdian territory in the north and to areas of northern India, although it struggled against militant nomadic tribes that regularly attacked the kingdom from the north.

The final blow to the Greco-Bactrian kingdom came from the Eurasian steppe, where powerful nomadic tribal confederations of the Huns and Yueh-Chih fought fiercely for influence in the second century B. C. The Yueh-Chih lost to the Huns and were forced to move to the territory between the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers, eventually regaining strength and destroying the Greco-Bactrian state, probably between 126 and 120 B. C.

Alexander the Great’s Legacy II

How “Great” Was Alexander?

For all practical purposes Alexander’s empire died with Alexander. His only brother was feeble-minded, and his only heir was a baby. Neither was in any position to assert authority. But practical considerations aside, Alexander moved quickly to become a symbol of conquest. He gave a semblance of legitimacy to anyone who might desire conquest, regardless of how inherently wrong that conquest might be. He was a pioneer in bringing Europe and Asia together into discourse and commerce.

It appears as though he did this empirically, administering the Persian Empire peacefully while he moved beyond its borders into India. Perhaps he would have undertaken some systematic reorganization of his empire, stretching all the way from Macedonia to northern India, but he did not have time to do this.

Alexander’s effort to create a world state and empire were less successful. Within a decade of his death, his kingdom, loosely organized as it was, split apart. His successors, who were his generals, carved out territories for themselves. Cassander took Macedonia; Seleucid took most of Asia Minor, Syria, Iraq, and Iran; Ptolemy took over Egypt. In Egypt Ptolemy—who wrote an account of Alexander’s military campaigns— established a dynasty that endured until 30 BC, ending only with the defeat of Mark Antony and Cleopatra by Julius Caesar’s grandnephew Octavius (later Augustus Caesar) at the Battle of Actium.

Experts on Alexander’s life are divided on some issues concerning events, and how to separate fact from legend. A man such as Alexander obviously is going to be the stuff of legends; it is inevitable. As was the case with both the Greek and the Roman aristocrats, Alexander was, by our standards, a cruel man. His army suffered 50 percent mortality. The mayhem he inflicted on his enemies in battle reached catastrophic proportions. A safe estimate is that half a million soldiers and sailors were wiped out among his enemies. The losses in his own armed forces during a decade of battle were in the neighborhood of 25,000. Eventually he could not rely on reinforcements from Macedonia (it had been stripped clean) or even on southern Greek mercenaries. At the time of his death at least 40 percent of his army consisted of Persian soldiers.

In addition to this mayhem against military forces, Alexander sold probably 500,000 people, at least half of them women and children, into slavery. This was the common fate of defeated cities in Greek and Roman times. It was the law of war. If a city fell, especially if it dared to resist, the inhabitants were sold into slavery. It had been that way for Alexander’s father, Philip, and it was the same for Alexander, but on a grander scale.

Alexander was hard not only on his enemies. His treatment of his own generals and other officials was draconian. His best general, Parmenion, was executed or assassinated at Alexander’s behest because Alexander became suspicious of Parmenion’s complicity in a plot involving the general’s son. There exist stories regarding the removal and execution of courtiers and officials for what seem to us fully pardonable offenses. The two Persian officers who had killed their emperor were themselves hunted down and murdered in turn—Alexander said he was the emperor’s successor and sought revenge on his killers. Alexander murdered one of his best friends and drinking companions by his own hand after the latter had taunted and annoyed him. At least in this case, Alexander is said to have shown great remorse.

Like most men of his time, Alexander considered life cheap. He made his way across Asia trailing blood. Charity and mercy were not behavioral qualities of the gods of ancient Greece, nor was Alexander inclined in that direction. Besides this lack of divine models, Alexander had a very quick temper: Anyone who crossed him he sought to cut down immediately.

At the other side of the moral ledger, Alexander was a very brave man. He personally led his troops and amazed even his enemies with his almost superhuman feats. He suffered at least four major wounds, coming close to death on two occasions. He shared rations with his soldiers, and at times of water scarcity in the army he refused sustenance. We are told that Alexander did not condone rape, but looting was intermittently allowed in addition to his soldiers’ very high pay. One story is told that on the final march through the Makran, one of his soldiers found some good water and brought it personally to Alexander in his helmet. Alexander thanked him but then dumped it on the ground, saying that if his men could not have water, neither would he.

He led his soldiers across deserts and over mountains, into places no one else would dare go. Coming up against elephants for the first time in northern India, he was in no way fearful, but plunged ahead as he had always done.

Also, Alexander was lavish in rewarding his soldiers and sailors, especially those who had accompanied him initially from Greece.

Alexander was very courageous and a charismatic leader of men, but was he a great general? The resounding answer has been yes. In fact, a recent book makes him out to have been a model corporate executive:

The life and personality of Alexander were highly complex… . These distinct beads in the necklace of Alexander’s life are posited around real issues we confront today: How do we develop and train professionals? How do we think about basic issues in strategy such as where, when, and how to compete? How do we handle leadership transitions? How do leaders assert authority in their “First Hundred Days”? Why do leaders single out myths? What are the many styles of leadership a single person can possess in this] quiver and which to choose where and when? How should we be thinking about convergence of cultures and divergence of social mores as we seek to expand the footprint of our influence? How does one think about what to carry and what not to carry on a campaign? What role does strategic deception play in competitive situations? Why is a leader’s legacy such a delicately balanced equation that often totters on the verge of falling off a pedestal? These are the questions we focus on as we study the life of Alexander.

As a matter of fact, Alexander would not have made a good modern corporate executive. He was too headstrong, too impetuous, too intuitive. He was a general, a military leader. He judiciously managed his regiments, knowing when to engage in frontal assaults and when to use flanking movements. Again he was similar to Napoleon, except that Alexander always personally led his army from its front rank.

It was in the skillful use of infantry that Alexander’s armies excelled. This was the key to Alexander’s success—the skill and discipline of his infantry and the wielding otsarissas. It required a great deal of training and much discipline to make these long pikes effective. The Romans later would use their infantry in much the same way and conquer the world.

One of the first accounts honoring Alexander after his death comes from a Roman source of a supposed conversation between Scipio Africanus (who destroyed Carthage) and Hannibal in Ephesus. Africanus asked who Hannibal thought had been the greatest general, and Hannibal replied that it was King Alexander of Macedon, because with a small force he had defeated armies of immense proportions and penetrated to the ends of the earth, which human beings had never expected to visit.

The Romans were the first to honor Alexander by imitation. Bosworth tells us:

Pompey, whose very name (Magnus) evoked the Macedonian conqueror, notoriously modelled himself upon Alexander from his boyhood, adopted Alexander’s mannerisms and patently saw himself recreating his conquests in the east. The same applied to Trajan, who sacrificed to Alexander in Babylon, and in conscious imitation, sailed down the Euphrates to the ocean, reporting in his dispatches that he had gone further than the Macedonian king. With Caracalla imitation became a mania, to the extent that he recreated a phalanx of Pompey’s opponent Julius Caesar was often compared to Alexander, first by Plutarch, and later by others. Although Caesar’s conquests were more political in nature, he used Alexander’s mixture of infantry and cavalry to great advantage. A story is told that once when Caesar was in Spain and at leisure, he was reading a history of Alexander. He was lost in thought and then burst into tears. When his companions asked him what was wrong, he answered, “Do you not think it is a matter for sorrow that while Alexander, at my age, was already king of so many peoples, I have as yet achieved no brilliant success?”

Mark Antony could not have avoided thinking of Alexander as he married the last of the Ptolemaic pharaohs, Cleopatra. He named his son, fathered on her, Alexander. Octavius (Augustus Caesar) visited Alexander’s grave after he defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra and entered Alexandria as a hero. Caligula supposedly removed Alexander’s armor from his tomb and wore it for state occasions.

Truth to tell, however, Alexander was fortunate against his enemy—the Persian emperor, Darius III, was a reluctant soldier. He fled from the field of the two great battles that Alexander fought against him, disheartening and dismaying his troops. Darius was slow to react when Alexander conquered Asia Minor and Egypt, and encountered the great Alexandrian threat only along the eastern frontier of Asia Minor. He could have put in the field an army of at least 100,000 but never did so. Darius III eschewed a scorched-earth policy that would have left Alexander’s troops very hungry. He failed to protect his vast treasury in Babylon and Persepolis, allowing it to fall into Alexander’s hands.

With a relatively small army, although highly disciplined and for the time well armed, Alexander showed that he was a superb field commander who could maximize his resources. Against the Romans the result possibly would have been different. In fact, the famous Roman historian Livy, writing in the late first century BC, was positive that Alexander could not have defeated the Romans. He declared:

“{At] the outset I do not deny that Alexander was an outstanding leader. His reputation, however, was boosted by the fact that he was acting alone, and also that he died in his youth as his career was taking flight and when he had experienced no reversal of fortune.”

He goes on to say that the Roman Senate and its generals would have been much harder to defeat than was the effete Darius. Italy would have been a different proposition completely. Because success changed him, Livy goes on to say, Alexander would have come to Italy more a Darius than an Alexander, and brought an army that had forgotten Macedon and was already lapsing into Persian ways. Alexander had a violent temper, killed many of his friends while in the throes of drunkenness, and made ridiculous exaggerations about his parentage. A young man would have had no success against a nation already seasoned by 400 years of warfare. It is not difficult to see where Livy’s sympathies lay.

It is one of the ironies of ancient history that a writer who lived five hundred years after Alexander should be regarded as a trustworthy and well-informed source, while a contemporary of Alexander should be regarded as “better at oratory than history” (Cicero’s comment) and as an untrustworthy romantic fantasist. The former writer was Arrian, who wrote in Asia Minor in the mid—second century AD. The latter biographer is Cleitarchus, who wrote around 310 BC and produced a work twelve volumes long, of which only fragments survive. Cleitarchus wrote most of his work in Egypt. He never met Alexander or accompanied him on military campaigns, but he was, after all, a contemporary. So much for the distinction between “original sources” and “secondary sources.”

Arrian’s work is a pastiche of many fragmentary sources, none of which have survived in undiluted or complete form, with the exception of Plutarch. Arrian insists that he had all the accounts of Alexander laid out before him and could pick and choose what was reliable. In case you wonder why nearly all the biographies of Alexander are fragmentary, it is because of the Roman school system. Certain ancient accounts were deemed classic, were used in the schools, and were widely available. Others were buried under the sands of time.

Arrian’s major interest and competence were in military history. He made use of Callisthenes, who was Alexander’s private historiographer and a nephew of Aristotle. Callisthenes’s long and very detailed account, highly favorable to Alexander, ends abruptly in 327 BC, when Callisthenes was executed for complicity in a plot against his employer.

Another writer who accompanied Alexander for the entire duration of his campaigns was the Macedonian general Ptolemy, who composed a multivolume work that was available to Arrian. Ptolemy, after Alexander’s death, became the founder of a dynasty that held the throne of the pharaohs for nearly three hundred years. He also hijacked much of the correspondence and other documents of Alexander’s reign.

Among other writers consulted by Arrian were Astrolobus, an officer who served in Alexander’s army; and Nearchus, an admiral who is believed to have exaggerated his own importance. The geographer Strabo, Curtius, and Diodorus tried to write substantial biographies, but only small fragments of these are available to us. All these writers as funneled through Arrian can be said to make up the “courtly tradition,” the sober canon of Alexandrian studies.

The contemporary writer who founded the “vulgate,” or popular tradition, was Cleitarchus. Much of his work survives, although he tells us many dubious and romantic stories. He pays attention to Alexander’s sex life, which is more than was done by the hard-bitten veteran soldiers who wrote Alexander’s early biographies. Cleitarchus stands at the beginning of a long line of romance writers on Alexander who reached their apogee in the thirteenth century AD. By then we read fantasized tales such as the one about Alexander exploring the sea in a glass submarine.

Leaning toward the classical equivalent of the courtly tradition, but with an eye to the vulgate version, is Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. Plutarch was a professional writer who wrote around AD ioo. Paralleling Alexander and Julius Caesar, Plutarch takes pains to draw Alexander’s character, and his is a finished, sophisticated work. The text of Plutarch’s life of Alexander is (for once) fully extant.

Modern scholars are in sharp disagreement about the authenticity of The Royal Journals, an official diary of the king’s reign, or presumed to be such. For the most part the entries are sparse as well as fragmentary, although statistics regarding the size of Alexander’s army have been much mulled over. The Royal Journals, however, contain long, graphic accounts of Alexander’s death.

The modern biographies are five in number: W W Tarn (1948); Robin Lane Fox (1973); N. G. L. Hammond (1980); A. B. Bosworth (1977); and Peter Green (1991). Tarn is notorious for claiming that Alexander was not a homosexual and that the king clearly propounded the brotherhood of man, an ideal derived from the Stoic philosophers. This was a cosmopolitan ideal in which ethnic separatism would give way to the social and cultural bringing together of Asia and Europe.

Every biographer since has claimed that this thesis is an anachronism or at least much overdrawn.

Bosworth and Hammond are good on military and administrative matters, although no modern biographer has seen fit to give the modern equivalents for the place-names along Alexander’s route of conquest. It turns out that half of Alexander’s fighting occurred in present-day Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan.

This leaves Fox and Green, who have written the best— although quite different—profiles of Alexander. Fox wrote a prose epic. In Fox’s view Alexander could do no wrong until he began to deteriorate in his last year. Fox’s biography of Alexander is immensely detailed. Green is much more subdued and well balanced. All things considered, his is probably the best modern biography. But you must not miss the fun of reading Fox’s Homeric epic, showered with prizes when it was first published. The fascination and awe with which Alexander was held are well communicated by Fox.

Curiously, two heavily illustrated books were published that aim to trace the complete route of Alexander’s campaigns, one by Fox in 1980, and another by Michael Wood in 1997. Two books on the subject are redundant. One reads much about the authors’ enduring scorching deserts, freezing mountains, cars breaking down, and sharing the humble food of tribesmen— who are, of course, always kind, peaceful, and generous. Fox’s book covering this painful trail was subsidized by a foundation grant. Wood is not an academic, but that does not mean he is not a scholar. He was subsidized by the BBC, which went along for the ride and filmed In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great for a BBC production with Wood as anchor and producer.

It is unfortunate that Fox and Wood could not find each other on the island of England and combine forces. Fox’s book is sharp on art; Wood’s book is more anthropological in nature, but both trace substantially the same fearsome journey. After reading Fox and Wood it is hard to avoid the impression that Alexander was half mad to follow these obscure and perilous routes.

If you take out a map of Central Asia and follow Alexander’s route through Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, it is evident that Alexander could have avoided some of the mountainous and desert routes he traversed with his army. It seems that Alexander undertook this very arduous journey through these lands because he wanted to test himself as a great military leader who could journey to the end of the earth as well as establish an empire. It was a trial for his soldiers, too— whether they would follow him up cold mountains and through hot deserts. He saw the trip as more of an expedition than a conquest.

The impact of Alexander on the Mediterranean world has always been a subject for debate. A century after his death, Hellenistic Greek (koine) had replaced Aramaic as the international language of merchants, government officials, and intellectuals.

Even though under his successors the empire had split into three parts, Alexander’s perpetual founding of cities named Alexandria in Egypt and Central Asia played a role in this Greek impact.

The populations of these outposts were Greek and Macedonian veterans buttressed by a polyglot merchant class. The only one of these seven Alexandrias that became a large and thriving city was the one in Egypt, which exceeded by far the old Egyptian capital of Memphis. In terms of both linguistic and economic interchange, the other Alexandrias had but a modest role to play.

Though Athens and Sparta remained independent, both city-states were much enfeebled and fell easy prey to Rome’s rising power. Rome also conquered Egypt and Asia Minor. Yet something lingered from Alexander’s effort at political unification. Bringing various parts of the Mediterranean world together set the policy and model for Rome. In a way the Rome of the Caesars was a continuation of Alexander’s effort to create a world state.

To what extent the successor states to Alexander’s were hellenized—that is, received the imprint of Greek culture—is a matter of dispute. On a positive note, one can point to a mastery of koine by an elite of higher government officials and merchants. As late as the Roman imperial era, wealthy Romans constantly kept a Greek slave, their paedogogus, so that their children were bilingual in both Greek and Latin. Greek nursemaids ensured that the babies learned Greek even before Latin. One can point also to the spread of Greek sculpture and painting to every corner of the states ruled by Alexander’s successors.

The ubiquity of Greek philosophy, especially Stoicism, among the aristocratic and intellectual classes indicates a cultural valorization occurring among the elite. Stoicism prescribed the joining of the human mind with the rational ordering of nature. In practice this meant not falling prey to passion and violence but holding oneself in restraint and calmness so as to be able to understand the rationality of the universe.

Yet according to Peter Green in From Alexander to Actium (1990), Alexander’s effort to bridge Asia and Europe had only modest success. Linguistically, only a very small part of the population in Egypt and Asia learned Greek. These were bureaucrats and wealthy merchants. Cleopatra VII {the Cleopatra) was the only ruler of Egypt after Alexander’s conquest who could converse in demotic (colloquial) Egyptian. Green compares the British impact on India and the post-Alexandrian Hellenic impact on Asia and Egypt and sees in both a very narrow band of smug elitists.

This view probably does a disservice to both hellenization and anglicization. After all, this narrow ribbon of uppermiddle-class society was important in India, Asia, and Egypt, even though they comprised a very small part of the population. Green deems these classes of bureaucrats and merchants to be “boot-lickers” who greedily sought wealth and power, but this does not seem a judicious assessment of their social value, whether in Hellenistic society or postcolonial India.

Green has another point to make. It was the Romans, rather than Alexander and his Hellenistic successors, who did more to integrate the Mediterranean world. But it was Alexander, vague as his ideals and policies were, who initially broke down the isolation of Egypt-Asia from the Greek world. Even if the Greeks’ own appreciation for cultural colonialism was modest, Alexander’s achievements were a major step in that development.

Alexander the Great’s Legacy III

Many things changed, however, with the rise of Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries AD. A process of linguistic dehellenization occurred. Arabic, not Greek, then became the common language of the eastern Mediterranean and has remained so to the present day.

Yet the advent of the Arab language in the eastern Mediterranean did not signify the obliteration of Hellenistic Greek culture. The impress of hellenization ran too deep for that. Greek philosophy, science, and medicine were translated into Arabic, and Greek ideas continued to exercise a strong influence for half a millennium of Islam.

It was only in the fourteenth century, with the rise of militant forms of Islam in North Africa, that cultural dehellenization profoundly altered the mind-set of the Arabic world. Deep into the Muslim and Arabic centuries, the impact of Alexander’s empire continued to hold sway.

The Byzantine Greek emperor (the hasileus), after AD 312 until Byzantium’s demise in 1453, imitated the Alexandrian mode. He too wore a diadem, sat on an elevated throne, and mandatedproskynesis from his subjects.

Hymns were sung by courtiers of the Byzantine emperor associating the imperial majesty of the basileus with divine authority. A courtiers’ manual written down in tenth-century Byzantium carefully prescribed the duties and privileges of each Byzantine government official within this framework of the divine authority of the emperor.

The Russian Romanov dynasty down into the twentieth century was structured along Byzantine lines. Constantinople was the “second Rome”; Moscow the “third Rome.” So Alexander’s assumption of Persian traditions of kingship echoed down the centuries. Though Alexander lived to embrace the Persian traditions of kingship for only a decade, the consequences for the Western world were far-reaching.

Byzantine culture influenced the pattern of kingship for all kings in Western Europe during the early Middle Ages, except for an innovation (probably drawn from the Spanish Visigothic kings) by the Franco-German Carolingian emperors of AD 800 and subsequently. This involved the ceremony of anointing by which monarchs at their coronation are blessed with holy oil, the same way in which a bishop is anointed. This symbolizes that the king has been elevated to a God-given status.

The coronation ceremony of Queen Elizabeth II of Britain in 1953 demonstrated that this age-old tradition still continued. She sat on an elevated throne before which lesser mortals bowed and curtsied. Before she was actually crowned, she was given an anointing of holy oil on the palms of her hands, her breast, and her forehead.

Alexander’s legacy influenced later European royal families regarding the rituals of kingship. But Alexander taught them more than rituals; he taught the functioning and temperament of kingship. We have become used to the politics and institutions of what are, in effect, democratic republics. It is hard to think back to the advantages of kingship. But a strong king like Alexander could make lightning decisions, and the elaborate levels of bureaucracy, lobbyists, and political parties could be overborne by a king’s early wise decision.

The temperament of kingship requires all focus to be placed on the king and his family. All eyes look upward; all hopes and expectations are concentrated on the king and the royal dynasty. No event is more important than the birth of a male heir to the throne, since on the shoulders of this infant will be cast the expectations of the next generation in society. Society could always hope that the royal lottery of a dynastic childbirth could give the people another heroic monarch, another world conqueror.

Since 1750 we have analyzed the defects and weaknesses of monarchy. For long centuries the Alexandrian political system was regarded as somewhat risky, but on the whole socially advantageous. Alexander added a special veneer to kingship. He lost at least a third of his army, but he made kingship glamorous by the force of his charisma and personal style.

This was not left to spontaneous chance. Alexander’s royal propagandists worked long and skillfully to communicate the glory and anticipations of the return of the “great king,” whether in orations or histories. His sculptors, painters, and coin minters were adept at creating an irrefutably thick culture of dynasty. Art was an important form of state propaganda. The statues and friezes—and the coinage—of Alexander, widely distributed throughout his empire, were consciously intended to have a positive, comforting impact on society.

Alexander had his court artists develop a new style that we call Hellenistic art. It was grandiose, disproportional, exaggerated, propagandistic, even grotesque. It was not classicism, but it had a very strong influence on Roman art and became the genre in which sculpture, architecture, and painting were executed for half a millennium after Alexander.

Hellenistic style is meant to impress the conscious mind and to evoke awe in the subconscious. The sparse, clean lines of the Classical Era were superseded by the heaviness and ornamentation of an imperial style.

In these qualities Hellenistic art resembles another moment in imperial history—the colonial style of the British Empire in the first two decades of the twentieth century.

Examples of Hellenistic art were ornamental metal elephants, gargantuan statues symbolizing winged victory, and lighthouses twenty stories high at the entrance to harbors. There was a direct relationship between these exemplars and Alexander’s military and political ambitions. So it was with British imperial and colonial art in the early twentieth century. Hotels then were designed as fortresses and office buildings had lavish rotundas, yet what must not be forgotten was the tremendous skill of the Hellenistic and British architects and sculptors. It was an art of excess, but its craftsmanship was phenomenal and was endlessly reproduced.

The era of classical style in art endured for barely a century from about 450 to 350 BC. The theme of classical art was adoration of the human body and buildings that accommodated the body but in a restrained and proportional way. Classical art sought to avoid hubris. This classical restraint is what distinguishes the sculptures and friezes on the Athenian Parthenon that Lord Elgin had moved to the British Museum.

The lore of Alexander achieved great renown in medieval Europe, particularly in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. A literature of romance and fantasy circulated among the courts and cathedrals of Western Europe. But there is one point of social echo in this Alexandrian romantic literature. The medieval writers intuited that Alexander made extensive use of armored cavalry. Knights on horseback were for long years the key ingredient of medieval armies.

The immensely popular Alexandrian romances in the thirteenth century replaced the genre of the “matter of France” (Charlemagne and his knights). By 1300 the Alexandrian genre had been largely supplanted by the “matter of Britain” (King Arthur and his knights).

Aside from their recognition of the connection between Alexander’s use of cavalry and medieval armored knights, there is another echo from Alexander’s life that fascinated the writers of the Middle Ages—Alexander’s involvement with India. By 1200 the spice trade with India via Saudi Arabia added exotic necessary ingredients to the plain and simple European diet. India was known as the source of the spices now demanded by European cuisine and delicate palates. So Alexander’s invasion of India was an additional fascinating dimension of his life that appealed to Europeans’ imaginations— and to their stomachs.

The Alexandrian romances of the Middle Ages reflect a whole new type of literature that developed in the Hellenistic world. Critics now believe that the the novel was ultimately a product of Hellenistic culture. The romantic image of Alexander was itself a prime subject of these anticipations of the novelistic form.

The key to the life and behavior of the historical Alexander the Great lies in his belonging to a pre-Christian, thoroughly pagan world. He remained culturally and psychologically committed to an archaic Homeric time of heroic behavior.

Alexander belonged to an age of gods and heroes. It was a harsh, pitiless world of unremediated severity and cruelty, in which the laws of war, by which whole populations could be wiped out or sold into slavery, prevailed. It was a superstitious ambience requiring that the gods be propitiated, but these divinities were lacking in any ethical consciousness.

It was a world in which women were abused and prostitution was commonly acceptable. It was a moment in time when pedophilic abuse passed without comment. Falling-down drunkenness was similarly viewed as manly and socially acceptable.

This culture produced Alexander, a man of incomparable heroism, who gloried in his physical strength and his battle-ready glamour. Overall the time was marked by a reckless, harsh ethos embedded in savage cruelty. This was Alexander’s world, and he strutted on its stage as a colossus.

People today, because of better nutrition in childhood, are on average taller than at the time of Alexander the Great. But otherwise, biologically and psychologically, humans today and in Alexander’s time are identical. We are wired the same way. Oedipal rebellion against a mother or father still affects growing up.

The difference between us and people of Alexander’s day, particularly the Greeks, so often held up to us as role models, lies in the vastly different value system, not in biology or psychology. Nurture is as important as nature. The culture in which we grow up makes all the difference in our adult attitudes toward the value and sanctity of life.

In this cultural screening process it was Christianity that was most critical. Alexander was born into a pagan, pre-Christian world. His behavior was conditioned along certain lines—heroism, courage, strength, superstition, bisexuality intoxication, cruelty. He bestrode Europe and Asia like a supernatural figure, and that is why his fame has not only endured but also become magnified and embellished by fantasy.

But he belonged to an archaic world. Christianity has screened us from that world and conditioned us to view life differently.

In 1974 a young Oxford don, Fox, tried to persuade us that Alexander was a kind of contemporary of ours. Except for Alexander’s decline in the last year of his life, Fox attempted to posit this Macedonian prince, this idolizer of Achilles, as someone functioning within our own frame of values and therefore a thoroughly admirable person with whom we can identify.

In 1986 Fox wrote another book, Pagans and Christians, in which he dissected the differences in worldview of populations in the Roman Empire. Something critical has happened here; a cultural and religious line—Christianity—has been crossed.

How would Fox apply the lessons of Pagans and Christians to his first, early book on Alexander the Great? He could not apply them, for his epic, monumentally sympathetic account of the glorious Alexander could not have been written if the significance of the huge cultural upheaval of Christianity had been applied back to Alexander.

Fox’s work of 1974 on Alexander dates from a period when Oxford was still basking in the postwar glow of Greek antiquity derived from Victorian times. Pagans and Christians appears to demand judgment on Alexander, which would be very unfair, because he is discovered to be a thoroughly pagan and pre-Christian personality.

In AD 312, the new Roman emperor, Constantine I, professed himself to be a Christian and set about supporting the church’s bishops. In 313 Constantine issued an Edict of Toleration for other religions. But in AD 395, Emperor Theodosius I canceled this act of toleration. The Roman Empire would thenceforth be a Christian state, and the temples of the pagan gods were closed.

These events, dictated by emperors, changed the world-view. They separated the now Christian Roman Empire from the Greek world of pagan antiquity. The birth of Christianity and its wide acceptance in the Western world brought about a vast cultural and political revolution.

Alexander the Great was the supreme exemplar of that old pagan world. He worshipped at the shrines of Zeus and other gods and even began to believe that Zeus was his father. Alexander represented himself as the image of the Homeric hero Achilles and brandished what he claimed was Achilles’ magical shield.

Alexander emphasized the attributes of courage and strength. Under the laws of war he leveled cities and sold their inhabitants into slavery. He was merciless, even to those he cared for. He risked the dismay of his Companions, and when, in a drunken stupor, he killed one of his best friends, his act ultimately led to an assassination attempt against him. He had a lifelong gay lover; he consorted with whores; he was a drunkard.

The Athenian tragedians warned against arrogance, and Plato and Aristotle sought the refinements of reason. But these qualifications to the spirit of paganism did not seem to affect Alexander, although Aristotle had been his tutor in his early years. He sought glory on the battlefield, stole the Persian emperor’s treasury, and disported himself like a Homeric hero, all without conscience. In his lifetime he caused the deaths of half a million of his enemies’ soldiers and accepted with apparent equanimity the loss of at least 25,000 of his own battle-hardened soldiers.

In time the church would educate heroic kings in an alternative ethic, never completely but at least partially. Christian kings, however, still yearned for the image of Alexander the Great. They sensed that at the dawn of recorded history there was a superhero with pagan values. And so, in spite of the application of another value system, Alexander remained, for the Middle Ages, a model king.

Alexander was, however, transformed in the European imagination. Stories about his life took on the gloss of Christian chivalry and courtliness. Twelfth-century romances sought to combine antique heroism with an up-to-date Christian sentimentality. The result was a species of magic realism or fantasy which had no connection to the real Alexander. Thus is history re-created from one era to another.

An image of a gruff and maniacal but brilliantly competent and self-assured personality imprints itself over time. Poets come along and re-create that image and gloss it over. The image takes on accoutrements of romanticization and idealism that depart from the natural, original, prosaic image and become intermixed in a new genre. Then some don—Le Fox— creates a new image of unexcelled glory.

To paraphrase L. P. Hartley (in his novel of 1953, The Go-Between), antiquity was another country; they did things differently there. The Victorians were enamored of the Greeks and viewed them, especially the Athenians, as idealistic and compassionate people. After a hundred years of scholarship, we know better.

We would find the ancient Greeks a strange people indeed. They were courageous and bold to a fault, but they were also heartless and cruel. They slaughtered one another in trivial wars. They were superstitious and fanatical. They knew they were vulnerable, but an inner demon drove them into battle. With only swords, shields, and pikes to fight with, they inflicted catastrophic and terrible cutting wounds on one another.

The Greeks had little in the way of machinery, except to besiege cities. Yet they unflinchingly slaughtered one another in the name of honor. The strong man prevailed. All others were left for dead on the battlefield. The Greeks directed their strength and energy into making war. Then they sat around their campfires and recited stories about the heroes of old.

Because the Greeks had talented poets and artists, they were able to create from their bellicose and unpitying society an imaginative culture that impressed itself upon many later generations. The Romans were much like the Greeks, but the Romans established a peaceful empire built on the concept of law and order. They built aqueducts to bring water into their cities and built roads to carry their civilization to the ends of their empire. The Greeks had only heroes, who with a sense of honor laid waste to their cities and engaged in perpetual conflict unto death.

Alexander will always remain in the minds of most people as “great.” Even those who have not studied his life extensively have heard of his exploits in battle, his skill in military organization, and himself as a young man who accomplished great things before his untimely death. Regardless of his flaws, and they were many, he is seen as great because of who he was, not necessarily for what he did.

Kidnap the Pope

SS general Karl Wolff, left, with Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich.

General Wolff was incensed, he told me, when the telephone rang in his lodging at Hitler’s headquarters, the Wolf’s Lair (Wolfsschanze) as it was called, near Rastenburg in East Prussia. It was early in the morning of September 13, 1943. Who would wake him up at this hour? A familiar voice let him know. His boss, SS Chief Heinrich Himmler, bellowed into the phone that the Führer wanted to see him urgently.

Wolff suspected why; Himmler had secretly given him advance notice. On September 10 German troops marched into Rome, climaxing the comic opera effort by the king and Badoglio to break away from the Axis and join the Allies. Everything had been in flux since July 25, when Mussolini was toppled from power and hidden in a ski resort in the Apennine Mountains, about a hundred miles from Rome.

German intelligence had discovered the location, and on September 12 German paratroopers snatched him away; two days later he was flown to the Führer’s headquarters. After a warm greeting, Hitler promised to restore him to power—in a new rump republic comprising most of northern Italy.

Wolff knew that the Führer was enraged by the Duce’s overthrow weeks earlier and that he still hungered for revenge on those he believed mainly responsible, including Pope Pius XII, even though there was no evidence of his involvement. He knew, too, that Hitler intended to send him, Karl Wolff, to Italy to make sure the liberated dictator remained a loyal puppet and that the leftist “rabble” didn’t take over the streets of Rome and other occupied Italian cities.

Himmler had hinted that Hitler also had a secret special mission in mind for him, and that, Wolff surmised, was what the Führer wanted to talk to him about. It was understandable that his idol wanted to see him, but why so early? After all, he was just recovering from a serious illness.

Now, on the day Mussolini was to arrive, Wolff hurriedly dressed and then threaded his way through a nest of fir trees partly concealing Hitler’s bunker from view. He was greeted in the Führer’s office by a figure who, though cordial, was trembling with impatience. According to notes that Wolff took during and following the meeting, Hitler, after fulminating against the “treacherous” king and the pope and discussing the general’s new job in Italy, gave Wolff an order:

“I have a special mission for you, Wolff. It will be your duty not to discuss it with anyone before I give you permission to do so. Only the Reichsführer [Himmler] knows about it. Do you understand?” “Of course, my Führer.”

“I want you and your troops,” Hitler went on, “to occupy Vatican City as soon as possible, secure its files and art treasures, and take the pope and the curia to the north. I do not want him to fall into the hands of the Allies or to be under their political pressure and influence. The Vatican is already a nest of spies and a center of anti-National Socialist propaganda.

“I shall arrange for the pope to be brought either to Germany or to neutral Liechtenstein, depending on political and military developments. When is the soonest you think you’ll be able to fulfill this mission?”

Stunned, Wolff replied that he was unable to offer a firm schedule because the operation would take time. He must transfer additional SS and police units to Italy, including some from southern Tyrol. And to secure the files and precious art treasures, he would have to find translators well-versed in Latin and Greek as well as Italian and other modern languages. The earliest he could start the operation, Wolff concluded, would be in four to six weeks.

Hitler’s eyes bore more deeply into Wolff’s. The kidnapping had to take place while the Germans still occupied Rome, and they might be forced to leave shortly.

“That’s too long for me,” Hitler growled. “Rush the most important preparations and report developments to me approximately every two weeks.”

Wolff agreed and departed in a state of turmoil. Until now, he would have willingly, and proudly, committed almost any act for the Führer—but abduct the pope? Madness! That could turn all of Italy and the whole Catholic world against Germany.

The general apprehensively prepared to leave for the northern Italian town of Fasano in the shadow of the Alps, sprawled along the banks of Lake Garda southeast of neighboring Salò. That’s where the Duce would set up a rump government. Being his political nanny did not exactly fit into Wolff’s career plan. Yet he was confident he could turn what seemed like a setback into a triumph. And if he had to, he would betray the Führer.

Wolff knew that Hitler trusted him completely, in part because Himmler had so highly recommended him for the task. Besides, the general’s anti-Semitic credentials seemed gilt-edged. He had been, after all, Himmler’s chief aide and had not shirked his responsibility for helping his boss do his emotionally draining but necessary chore of dealing with the Jews.

So valued was Wolff that he was given the unique title of “Highest SS and Police Leader” (Hochster SS und Polizeiführer), placing him just under Himmler in the SS hierarchy and on an equal level with Ernst Kaltenbrunner, head of the Reich’s security office. The general seemed just the man to rein in Mussolini, who would surely seek greater independence than Nazi policy permitted.

The Führer was especially irritated by what had been the Duce’s growing reluctance to crack down on the Jews. When Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop visited him in Rome several months before his ouster from power, Mussolini daringly refused to discuss the “Jewish problem” with him. Nor would he support SS actions taken against the Jews either in Italy or in the Italian-occupied zone of France.

Wolff’s initial reaction to Hitler’s blunt kidnap order was to think of a way to avoid carrying it out. He was worried not only about the violent reaction of the Italians to such an operation but also about his reputation.

Though Wolff hardly seemed disturbed that his name would be linked with the deportation and death of millions of Jews, he dreaded the prospect of being associated for posterity with the abduction of the pope, and possibly his murder.

Wolff had abandoned his Protestant religion after joining the SS, feeling that the Nazi Party was a good enough substitute, at least if he wished to advance to the top. And he knew little more about Catholicism than what he had learned from the anti-Church ravings of Himmler. But he worshipped power, and Pope Pius XII, like Adolf Hitler, was one of the world’s most powerful leaders, having the ability to capture people’s souls and to mold their minds. The two men were to the calculating general like earthly gods. And now he was ordered by one of them to destroy the other.

Still, his mission might be useful to him—if he could sabotage it and win the pope’s gratitude. Useful indeed should the worst happen and Germany lose the war. A blessing from His Holiness for saving his life could perhaps save his own. Having reached a high position in a criminal world with no regard for human life, Wolff had begun to feel that only the supremely opportunistic could in the end escape accountability in the hands of a vengeful enemy. And how many were in greater need of an opportunity to cheat the noose than the chief aide to history’s most notorious practitioner of genocide? Now, in his special mission to kidnap the pope, he perceived a unique opportunity.

Wolff would try to delay, or even sabotage, the kidnap plan. But he would have to walk a possibly fatal tightrope. If Hitler suspected him of disobedience, he would exact a vengeance that would make an enemy noose almost seem a pleasant way to die. Yet this fear of the Führer melded with a sense of guilt for disobeying him and the awe he felt in the man’s presence, reflected in a letter the general wrote to his mother in 1939 saying it was “so wonderful [to work] in such close contact with the Führer.”

Though only Wolff, Himmler, and probably Martin Bormann, Hitler’s powerful secretary and confidant, apparently knew of the Führer’s order, other top Nazis knew what Hitler had in mind, especially after the meeting with his military chiefs on July 26.

The day after the meeting, Joseph Goebbels, who, as propaganda minister, personally believed that kidnapping the pope would be bad publicity both at home and abroad, wrote in his diary that he and Ribbentrop had helped to convince the Führer that he should give up the plan. But Wolff now knew that Hitler hadn’t, in fact, done so.

The general’s main problem was that Hitler had given him little time to stall the plot. Why was Hitler in such a hurry to carry it out? Was it, at least in part, because he wanted to rid Rome of the pope before Pius could see from his window the Jews of Rome being fatally piled into trucks and finally feel compelled to speak out against the mass killings? And even if the pope remained silent during the roundup, did Hitler fear he might protest if the Allies reached Rome and exerted sufficient “pressure and influence” on him to do so?

When I asked these questions, Wolff was clearly perturbed. Hitler, of course, hated the Jews, he replied. And he sent them to concentration camps, always fearing the pope would protest.

But the general quickly added: “You must understand that I just did administrative work for Himmler and did not know the Jews were being killed. I only learned about that after the war.”

In 1947, on appearing as a witness at the Nuremberg trials, Wolff made a similar statement to a prosecutor: “I regret to have to confirm to you that today I am of the opinion that exterminations were actually carried out without our knowledge.”

He was referring to the “great majority” of SS men, who, he said, were really the “elite” of the German army. And he clung to this claim even after the prosecutor read letters exchanged by Wolff and the state secretary of the Reich ministry of transportation. In replying to the secretary’s report about the transport of Jews to the death camp of Treblinka, Wolff wrote:

“Thank you very much, also in the name of the Reichsführer SS, for your letter of 28 July 1942. I was especially pleased to learn from you that already for a fortnight a daily train, taking five thousand members of the Chosen People every time, had gone to Treblinka . . . I have contacted the departments concerned myself, so that the smooth carrying out of all these measures seems to be guaranteed.”

Wolff admitted, after his “memory had been refreshed in this way” that he was “connected with these things.” But he added that “it is completely impossible after many years have passed to precisely remember every letter which ever passed through my office, and may I also point out that this was the usual procedure . . . [The letter] only referred to the actual transportation movement, the actual movement of the people. . . . I really can’t find anything which might be considered criminal.” As for his reference to “the Chosen People,” “the Jews themselves proudly call themselves” that.

Why were five thousand Jews a day being sent to Treblinka? the prosecutor persisted.

“I don’t know,” Wolff responded, “but it was done by order of the Reichsführer [Himmler].”

“Well, you don’t claim today,” the prosecutor asked, “that Himmler was among those elite people who represented the best of Germankind, do you?”

The question seemed to startle Wolff, perhaps because he had never asked it himself for fear the answer might shatter the depraved illusion of glory and greatness that shielded his conscience from recognizing evil.

“No,” Wolff nervously responded, “I cannot maintain that today, much as I would like to.”

Dan Kurzman

Tibetan Empire I

About 560 AD a local Tibetan chieftain, Gnam-ri slon mtshan, revolted against his Zan-Zun overlords and established the Yarlung dynasty. By about 630 his successor Sron btsan sgampo had unified the Tibetan clans and founded an empire which over the next two centuries fought expansionist wars. After 841 this broke up, but successor states survived and continued to maintain armies, often fighting each other. The last Yarlung ruler was Rgyal-sras of Tsong-kha, a principality on the border of the Hsi-Hsia state, who died in 1065. Arabs, Chinese and Bengalis were all at various times associated with the Tibetan empire: Tibetan armies in India and west of the Parnirs seem to have been small, and their Ferghanan allies are best regarded as Turks rather than Arabs. Combined Tibetan-Chinese armies were usually under Chinese command. The Abbasid troops represent hose captured by the T’ang in 801 thought to have been either taken prisoner by the Tibetans in an otherwise unknown western campaign and incorporated into the army, or failed rebels or dissidents who had voluntarily joined it They were under Tibetan command. Nepalese and Nan-chao allies cannot be used with each other, nor with any other allies apart from Ch’iang. The exact nature of Nepalese troops is conjectural, but they are described as cavalry. They could be a large majority of a Tibetan-Nepalese force. Tibetan cavalry are described in the T’ang Annals as armed with very long lance, both man and horse completely mailed except for the eyes, and invulnerable to swords and strong bows There is no suggestion anywhere that they charged at the gallop. The same T’ang source describes them as fighting dismounted and arrayed in ranks, therefore can always dismount; though bow-armed they favoured close combat, so dismount as Spear-armrd troops. Tibetans were skilled makers of siege equipment

Tibet Appears, 600–700

One day in the winter of 763, the unthinkable happened to China’s great Tang empire. A victorious enemy army rode through the streets of the imperial capital, Chang’an. These were the Tibetans, a people of whom, barely a century earlier, most Chinese hadn’t even heard. The city of Chang’an was not only home to the emperor and his court – it was a capital of culture famous throughout Asia, its streets thronging with merchants, musicians, monks and officials going about their daily business. It was the prerogative of the Chinese emperor to look down upon everything outside his realm as barbaric, and here in Chang’an one could perhaps forgive him for doing so.

Yet the Tibetan conquest was no simple barbarian onslaught. The Tibetans had first lured the Chinese general Tzuyi and his army out of Chang’an to fight them in the western provinces. Then suddenly, and too late, the Chinese had realised that allies of the Tibetans were marching on Chang’an from the east as well. The emperor fled, leaving the city stripped of both its army and its imperial court. The Tibetans now had a window of opportunity to seize the city before the return of the Chinese army. That window was opened by a rebellious faction at the Chinese court who had gone over to the Tibetan side. A Chinese rebel opened up the city gates and the Tibetans walked into the capital unopposed.

The Tibetan general leading the army had no ambition to set up a Tibetan government in Chang’an. Instead, he rewarded the Chinese rebels by placing their leader, the prince of Kuangwu, on the imperial throne. In a matter of days the new emperor had appointed a new government and declared a new dynasty. Meanwhile, totally demoralised by the cowardice of the previous emperor, the Chinese army simply fell apart. The situation looked dire for the dethroned emperor who, as the Chinese historians put it, was left ‘toiling in the dust’, while the imperial army had broken up into armed bands that were roaming and pillaging the countryside.

It turned out that the Tibetans had no desire to try to put this chaos in order: no desire, in other words, to rule China itself. Having put their puppet emperor on the throne, they left the city. Some say that they heard rumours of a vast Chinese army advancing from the south. The general Tzuyi was indeed approaching, but at the head of a ragtag army numbering only a thousand or so. When he came to Chang’an he found only a remnant of the Tibetan army still there, and a rather frightened puppet emperor on the throne. Since Tzuyi’s army was so unimpressive he decided to enter the city beating a drum to let the citizens of Chang’an know that the old order had been restored. Soon afterwards the Tang emperor returned, his empire much reduced. Though they may have had no taste to rule from the imperial throne, the Tibetans set their border only a few hundred miles to the west of the capital and forced the Chinese emperor into a series of peace treaties that cut China off from the West.

How did the Tibetans come to pose such a threat to China? To find out, we must go back a century to the time when a king calling himself ‘Son of the Gods’ had managed to harness the power of Tibet’s warring clans and turn it outwards. This explosion of energy overwhelmed everything in its way: and so Tibet appeared. At its centre was the Divine Son, a man with the glamour of a deity, Songtsen Gampo.

Prince Songtsen was born into destiny. Surrounded by ritual from the moment of his birth, he was raised to fulfil a special role, never in any doubt that he was different from other boys. His father was a great king, and no ordinary king but a tsenpo, the embodiment of the divine in this world. When Songtsen inherited that title from his father, he would also inherit the glamour of the divine that his father embodied, a glamour that was already sweeping all of Tibet before it. If few people had heard of the tsenpo before, Songtsen’s father was changing that as he forged alliances with other clans. He was always willing to use his semi-divine status to meddle in clan struggles while at the same time seeming to rise above them. It was the nature of the tsenpo to be of this world and beyond it at the same time.

Throughout his childhood, Songtsen was told his family history. The first of the tsenpos, it was said, came down from heaven via the local sacred mountain. Like rain falling from the sky, he enriched the earth. Local chiefs bowed down before him, for his fate was to rule over them. The first tsenpos were essentially gods among men. During their tenure on earth, the connection to heaven was always there, a ‘sky cord’ made of light leading from the top of their heads up into the beyond. The indignity of death was not for them. Instead, at the appointed time, they ascended back to heaven on the sky cord. Still, Songtsen knew that his family had fallen somewhat since the age of these noble ancestors. They sky cord was gone, squandered by a more recent tsenpo called Drigum.

It seems that Drigum had been a troublemaker who got involved in pointless feuds with his subjects and constantly challenged them to duels – hardly fair considering that he fought with a divine sword forged in heaven. The tsenpo finally met his match when he challenged one of his courtiers to a duel. The courtier agreed, on condition that the tsenpo put aside his magical weapons. At the same time the courtier prepared a trick. He took a hundred oxen and loaded sacks of ashes onto their backs. Then he fixed gold spearheads to their horns. When the duel began, the cattle were loosed, and in the chaos of swirling ash, the courtier killed the tsenpo. Thus the sky cord connection was lost. Drigum’s body was put into a copper coffin and cast into the river.

Nowadays, as Songtsen knew, the tsenpos died like other men; and there were many opportunities for death. Songtsen’s father was not shy of riding into battle at the head of his troops. His divine glamour and personal bravery had won over several clan leaders, extending his domain beyond its humble beginnings in the Yarlung valley in the south of Tibet to encompass much of Central Tibet. These clans were nomads who had migrated from the Central Asian plains to settle down in Tibet’s southern valleys. At the bottom of these valleys were green fields tended by long settled farmers, who had no way to resist their nomadic conquerors. These nomads, as they began to settle, made their homes in tall castles built to withstand sieges on the rocky slopes above those green fields.

How much did the clan leaders really believe in the tsenpo’s divinity? Most likely, they believed when it suited them. The tsenpo was a useful emblem to gather around. Somebody who is, at least in theory, above petty disputes could encourage the clan leaders to set aside their quarrels in pursuit of a greater end, even if that end was only more power. The clan leaders were bound to the tsenpo, and each other, by the most solemn of oaths, sworn beneath the heavenly bodies, before the great mountains, and in the presence of the divine beings of the earth. The oath was carved in stone and sealed with a sacrifice. In practice, though, the clan leaders supported the tsenpo when it served their interests, and conspired against him when that seemed more useful. The history of this Tibetan dynasty is, like that of most dynasties, rife with conspiracy. Rarely did a tsenpo pass away without a violent dispute over the succession; as the new tsenpo was usually just a child, there was ample opportunity for ministers, especially the prime minister, to become the real power behind the throne.

In the direst of situations a clan leader could always retreat to his castle. Only one of the castles from the early era still remains. Yumbu Lhakang stands atop a rocky peak, tall and imposing, its whitewashed walls sloping slightly inwards, windowless at its lower levels but with a four-sided tower to provide views in every direction for miles around. It offers a potent evocation of how perilous life must have been for the early clan leaders. Songtsen’s father’s greatest victory ended in a siege of one of these castles. His toughest rival was Lord Zingpo, a man whose charisma must have matched that of the tsenpos for he was equally good at forging allegiances with other leaders. After many battles and betrayals Zingpo ended up hiding out in his castle. So impregnable were these structures that the tsenpo had to divert a river and flood the castle’s defences to bring about the final defeat of his enemy.

Prince Songtsen was now heir not only to a divine heritage, but to the largest kingdom Tibet had ever seen. Yet it was not to be handed to him on a plate. When Songtsen was just thirteen, his father was poisoned. The parts of his kingdom that had been absorbed from other clan leaders rose up in an insurgency, showing just how much the new Tibetan kingdom needed the unifying figure of the tsenpo. Songtsen knew this. He captured the traitor who had killed his father and executed him, had the insurgency put down and then rode west at the head of his troops to subdue a hostile army harrying the Tibetan border. Still a teenager, he had proved his authority. The destiny of the tsenpos was in safe hands.

At the centre of Songtsen’s kingdom was the town of Rasa. The name meant ‘Walled City’, an apt description of a place that was part town, part fortress. It was perched on the bank of the Kyichu river and had the mighty mountain range of Nyenchen Thanglha soaring above it to the north, separating it from the great elevated plateau known as Changtang, the ‘Northern Plains’. As it grew with the fame and power of the tsenpo, Rasa acquired a new, more dignified name: Lhasa, the ‘Divine City’. The tsenpo’s court, true to nomadic tradition, moved around Central Tibet in great tented encampments, but increasingly Lhasa was becoming the heart of the kingdom.

It is easy to be forced into a corner in Tibet. The pressure of the Indian subcontinent has pushed up some of the highest mountains in the world to wall the Tibetan plateau. To the west, the famously treacherous Karakoram guard the passes into Afghanistan and Ladakh; to the north, the Kunlun hold back the world’s most hostile deserts; to the south and east are the highest mountains of all, the Himalayas. But Songtsen’s kingdom was not only hemmed in by mountains.

Across the Himalayas, the king of Nepal ruled over the prosperous Kathmandu valley, benefiting from the vast number of traders passing through his little kingdom. To the west was another ancient kingdom, Zhangzhung. Its people were not unlike the Tibetans, their rocky castles perched over even more hostile terrain. Still, they boasted not only their own language, but a culture with a distinct Persian flavour, thanks to the close contacts between Zhangzhung and the lands to the west. Finally, towards China there was a confederacy of tribes known as the Azha, who periodically taunted the Chinese with raids into their territories.

The previous tsenpo had been content to forge alliances with these kingdoms, but Songtsen had bigger ambitions. As long as these neighbours were in place, Tibet would remain a small player. Each neighbour was also a gatekeeper behind whom a greater power lay half-concealed. Behind Nepal lay India, ruled by Harsha, one of the greatest kings in Indian history. Behind Zhangzhung lay Persia, home of a rich and ancient culture. And behind Azha lay China, which was just emerging from a long period of turbulence under a new and powerful dynasty, the Tang.

It didn’t take long for Songtsen to kick down the gates. In dealing with Zhangzhung, he first let it seem that he was happy to follow his father’s example. One of the royal princesses was married off to the king of Zhangzhung to seal an alliance: a common practice in Asian diplomacy, in which princesses were political pawns. Union in marriage with a hostile power made family, and families do not attack their own members. That at least was the theory. Tibetan bards sang songs about the princess sent to Zhangzhung. In these songs, she speaks of her new home with touching dismay.

The place that it’s my fate to inhabit

Is this Silver Castle of Khyunglung.

Others say:

‘Seen from outside, it’s cliffs and ravines,

But seen from inside, it’s gold and jewels.’

But when I’m standing in front of it,

It rises up tall and grey.

Perhaps Songtsen saw an opportunity in the princess’s unhappiness. Or perhaps he had intended all along that she would bring down the kingdom of Zhangzhung from within. In any case, a few years after the marriage the Tibetan princess, now a queen, started working as a spy. She sent Songtsen detailed reports of the movements of the king of Zhangzhung and his troops. When the time was right, Songtsen sent an army to ambush the king while he was away from his castle. The plan was wildly successful: the king was killed, and the vast territory of Zhangzhung – all of what became Western Tibet – was swallowed up by Songtsen’s kingdom.

At the same time, Songtsen was also going about securing foreign allies. The opportunity for an alliance with the kingdom of Nepal fell into Songtsen’s hands when King Narendradeva was ousted and fled into exile in Lhasa. Narendradeva and his court remained there for most of the 630s, and the Tibetans learned much from them. During this time Tibet’s oldest Buddhist temple, the Jokhang, was built on the model of a Nepalese temple, with architectural details carved by Nepalese craftsmen. Though it has been much restored and enhanced in the interim, the Jokhang still stands in Lhasa today as a place of pilgrimage for Tibet’s Buddhists. When Narendradeva returned to Nepal at the beginning of the 640s, it was at the head of a Tibetan army, and when he regained his throne it was essentially as a vassal of the Tibetan empire.

And so to the east and China. During the 630s, the newly established Tang dynasty was busy securing its western frontiers, including the troublesome Azha. Songtsen sent an ambassador to the Chinese court in 634, with little effect. Fours years later, and that much bolder, he sent another ambassador to ask for the hand of a Chinese princess. It is a testament to the importance of this mission that the ambassador was Songtsen’s prime minister and general right-hand man, Gar Tongtsen, scion of the ancient clan of Gar. Apparently, Gar was treated politely and his request was still under consideration when a prince of the Azha suddenly appeared and made exactly the same request. Despite its victories elsewhere, Tibet remained an obscure little kingdom in the barbarian south as far as the Chinese court was concerned. The princess was thus promised to the Azha, and Prime Minister Gar was sent home with little ceremony, empty-handed.

This was an affront to Songtsen’s new sense of his own importance. If the Chinese had underestimated the Tibetan empire this time, they would not be allowed to do so again. Songtsen sent his army, now bolstered with troops from Zhangzhung, up towards China to fight the Azha. Victory followed quickly, and the whole region to the northeast of Tibet – today’s Amdo – was absorbed into the Tibetan empire. With his army now stationed right on China’s border, Songtsen’s bargaining power was much greater. No more polite requests: he demanded the princess, threatening to send his army deep into China if he was refused again. The Chinese emperor, still dismissive of this new upstart kingdom, rejected Songtsen’s demands and despatched his army to teach the Tibetans a lesson. The Chinese troops were easily defeated. The emperor would have to revise his opinion of this new threat.

The Chinese emperor, Taizong, was not so different to the Tibetan tsenpo. He was one of history’s great empire-builders, and one of China’s most capable leaders. Since he had been born into a respectable family of warrior horsemen, and his mother’s clan was of Turkish origin, he had a close affinity with the semi-nomadic people who lived to the west of China. Taizong and his father had toppled the previous dynasty, the Sui, and erected their own, which was given the name Tang, on its ruins. For centuries China had been divided between petty kingdoms and short-lived dynasties, most of them founded by nomadic warriors pouring in from the steppes. Many people looked back nostalgically to the Han dynasty, which had once ruled a vast territory from Korea in the east to Kashgar in the west. But the Han had fallen apart nearly four hundred years before. It was only with Taizong that the Han empire was matched, and for that achievement Chinese history remembers him as one of its greatest heroes.

Thanks to his relatively lowly origins, Taizong was practical and – for an emperor – humble. He had little time for the divinations and magical potions that had fascinated many of his predecessors, and he was always willing to take the advice of experienced officials. As was the case with Songtsen in Tibet, his empire-building was a team effort. Nevertheless, he cut an imposing figure at court, tall and intimidating, with a tendency to fly into purple-faced rages. His impressive stature and fearsome temper stood him in good stead with the Tang’s rivals, who were mostly tough warrior people such as the Turks and the Tibetans.

Once Songtsen had made his point by defeating a sizeable Chinese battalion, he pulled his army back and sent Gar to see the Chinese emperor again. The prime minister arrived in Chang’an in 641 laden with treasure to offer as tribute. For any Tibetan, Chang’an would have been both exciting and intimidating. A city of nearly two million inhabitants with countless foreigners passing through, it was one of the most cosmopolitan places on the globe. Turkish princelings, Japanese pilgrims and Jewish merchants rubbed shoulders in the city’s marketplaces where, especially in the disreputable western market, almost anything could be obtained. For the more respectable, there were the festivities held at the city’s many impressive Buddhist monasteries, which brought the Buddhist culture of India right into the heart of China’s empire.

At the Chinese court, distrust of foreigners was mixed with a fascination for the exotic. In particular, a love of all things Turkish permeated the Tang era, resulting in strange sights in Chang’an, such as Chinese women riding through the streets dressed as Turkish horsemen. Taizong’s son, the crown prince, succumbed to Turkomania to such a degree that he went to live in a camp of Turkish tents in the palace grounds, insisted on speaking in Turkish and eating boiled mutton sliced with his own sword in the Turkish manner. At the same time, Taizong’s own standards had started to slip. Initially he had decried the excesses of previous dynasties, but by the 640s he was already beginning to look like a parody of a decadent emperor. A vast and incredibly expensive palace complex was built, but was torn down when Taizong decided that the architect had chosen the wrong location. And officials had started to complain that Taizong had become addicted to the hunting games that were one of the traditional pastimes of Chinese emperors, and as a result was hardly ever seen at court.

Chang’an must have seemed far removed from the rocky castles of Tibet. Foreign ambassadors were met with an intimidating display of courtly ceremony, designed to inspire awe and reverence. They were put up in one of four hostels situated at the city’s four gates, and all of their activities were directed by hosts who also served as spies to the emperor. Ambassadors were ranked in precedence according to how important the emperor thought they were: hence the Tibetans’ unceremonious ousting on the arrival of the Azha embassy last time round.

When the time came for the ambassador to see the emperor himself, an elaborate ceremony was enacted to impress the foreigner and display the superiority of the Tang dynasty. As the ambassador entered the vast imperial hall, he passed five divisions of armed troops dressed in scarlet. Like a character in a play, the visitor had to recite lines in which he offered his country’s tribute as a vassal to the great emperor. The emperor had no need to speak at all, as everything was handled by his officer of protocol.

Nevertheless, Taizong, who had little time for ceremony, questioned Gar personally and was impressed by his clever answers. There is a portrait of Gar at this audience; in it we see a slender middle-aged man with a long thin nose and a light beard, wearing a black headband and dressed in a red and gold robe of Persian design.9 Gar won the emperor’s respect, and was offered the hand of another princess for himself. He showed his skill at diplomacy in turning the emperor’s offer down gracefully. ‘I have a wife in my own country, chosen by my parents,’ he said, ‘and I couldn’t bear to turn her away. What’s more, the tsenpo hasn’t yet seen the princess who is to be his bride, and I, his humble subject, couldn’t presume to be married first.’ Taizong was impressed again, but would not countenance a refusal. So Gar returned to Tibet with two Chinese brides.

If Chinese historians speak highly of Gar, Tibet’s bards sing of his exploits in more colourful fashion. Their stories are entertaining and, if hardly historical, at least show us how affectionately Gar’s resourceful nature was remembered by the Tibetans. According to the bards there were a number of rival suitors for the Chinese princess and Gar had to pass several tests set by the emperor to win her for Songtsen. In one, each of the parties was given a hundred pots of beer, and the emperor promised that the princess would be given to whoever could finish off the beer by noon the next day without spilling any or getting drunk. The other parties, downing huge jugs of beer one after another, got very drunk, vomited and spilled drink everywhere. But Gar issued his men with tiny cups so that they could drink only a little at a time. Thanks to this sensible measure, no beer was spilled and the Tibetans stayed reasonably sober.

The final test was to pick out the princess from a line-up of a hundred ladies. Gar had already become friendly with the Chinese noblewoman who was looking after the Tibetans at their hostel. Now he became even more friendly, eating, drinking and finally sleeping with his hostess. In an intimate moment Gar asked her to describe the princess, but she refused, scared that the princess would use divination to discover who had betrayed her. Gar’s response was ingenious, if a little bizarre. He locked the door of his quarters, and had a large kettle placed on the floor, filled with water and the feathers of rare birds. On top of the kettle he placed a red shield as a lid, and then asked the hostess to sit on the kettle. A clay pot was placed over her head, and a copper pipe inserted into the pot. ‘Give me your description through the tube,’ Gar said, ‘and if anybody ever finds out by divination, they’ll never believe it anyway. So make it a good description.’ His hostess described every feature of the princess’s body and attire, and the next day Gar succeeded in claiming her for the tsenpo.

And so the princess was escorted to Tibet. The marriage ushered in two decades of peace between the Tibetans and the Chinese. It was also an era of cultural exchange in which young Tibetan aristocrats travelled to Chang’an to study in the city’s schools, while Chinese craftsmen skilled in the making of paper and ink were sent to Tibet, where they demonstrated new technology such as silkworms and millstones. According to Chinese historians, once the princess arrived in Lhasa she set to work civilising the Tibetans, convincing the Tibetan nobility to swap their felt and fur clothes for Chinese silk, and to abandon the old practice of painting their faces red. According to Tibetan historians, however, the princess’s greatest contribution was Buddhist in nature. She brought with her a statue of the Buddha, the first to arrive in Tibet, which was placed in a special temple called Ramoche. Later it was moved to the other Buddhist temple, the Jokhang, where it remains to this day.

Elsewhere in Lhasa there is a statue of Songtsen, flanked by his Chinese princess on one side and a (perhaps legendary) Nepalese princess on the other. For later Tibetans, it was these princesses, their introduction of Buddhist statues to Tibet, and their encouragement of the tsenpo in building Buddhist temples that became the defining images of Songtsen’s rule. At the time, though, neither Songtsen nor his courties are likely to have perceived things in this way. Of the tsenpo’s many consorts, it was one of his Tibetan wives who provided him with his heir. Buddhism, for the time being, was only one of many new cultural imports circulating in Tibet.

Tibetans are quite self-deprecating when it comes to their ancestors. Referring to the time before they were softened by the civilising effects of the Buddhist teachings, they call their forebears ‘red-faced barbarians’. This is a reference to the ancient practice – still seen today among the remaining nomads of Western Tibet – of painting one’s face with red pigment. Even the origin myth of the Tibetan people is a bit rough and ready. In the far-distant past a monkey mated with an ogress, and their offspring were six monkey children. The monkey father took the children to a forest, where they could live on the fruit of the trees, and left them there. After three years, the parents returned and found to their surprise that the monkey children had drastically increased in number from six to five hundred, and eaten the forest bare. Lifting up their arms, the five hundred little monkeys moaned: ‘Mother, Father, what can we eat?’ Their monkey father, at a loss, prayed to the compassionate Buddhist deity Avalokiteshvara, who scattered grain upon the ground. The grain grew into crops, which the father handed over to his many children.

Thus the first Tibetans thrived on the crops that were to become the staples of the Tibetan diet. They grew, and over time their tails shortened, their body hair reduced, they learned to speak and ultimately became humans. It might be a stretch to claim that this is an early version of the theory of evolution, but the legend does assert a kind of genetic legacy from these first parents. It states that Tibetans can be divided into two types: those who take after the monkey father, and those who take after the ogress mother. The first type are tolerant, trustworthy, compassionate, hard-working and softly spoken. The second type are lustful, wrathful, profit-hungry and competitive, physically powerful with a loud laugh. Never content to be at rest, they are always changing their minds, leaping into action and allowing their hot tempers to get them into trouble.

It was certainly true that Tibet’s early enemies regarded its people with fear and trepidation. But, like the legendary monkey children, the early Tibetans had another side to them. They were eager to learn from the more established cultures that they encountered in the course of their military expansion. Though not without a culture of their own, the Tibetans were hungry for more. And so they learned from Nepal, India, China and Persia, adopting and combining elements from each to create a distinct culture of their own. Lhasa, the empire’s capital, became the centre of these new developments.

Tibetan Empire II

Map of the Tibetan Empire at its greatest extent between the 780s and the 790s CE

One of the most impressive achievements of this period was the invention of a whole system of writing for the Tibetan language. Songtsen had shown his regard for the technology of writing when he asked the Chinese emperor for the secrets of paper and ink. Now Gar had brought back men who could train the Tibetans in these new techniques. At the same time, Songtsen was trying get someone to invent an alphabet for the Tibetan language. The tsenpo had already sent a number of Tibetans to India to learn Indian writing systems, but all had failed, some of them dying in the extreme heat. Now he appointed a young man from the Tonmi clan to go to India and derive from the Indian scripts an alphabet in which the Tibetan language could be written. Having survived the journey, Tonmi was able to procure the services of an Indian Brahmin. He asked: ‘Will you teach me writing?’ and offered half of his gold. The Brahmin haughtily replied: ‘I know twenty different writing systems. Which one would you like to study, child of Tibet?’ Tonmi ambitiously asked to study them all, so the Brahmin instructed him using a pillar on the shore of a lake on which these twenty different scripts were carved. Tonmi was such a good student that he earned the Indian name Sambhota, meaning ‘The Good Tibetan’.

Having learned these scripts, Tonmi returned to Tibet and created a Tibetan alphabet based upon them. Once the alphabet was formulated, it was taught to Songtsen and select members of the royal household. The tsenpo shut himself away for some time in order to learn to read and write Tibetan. His absence caused unrest among the people, upon which the ministers were happy to capitalise. According to one history, a minister said to the people: ‘This tsenpo hasn’t appeared for four years! He’s a know-nothing idiot! The happiness of the Tibetan people is down to us, the ministers.’ Songtsen, overhearing, thought: ‘If the ministers call me an idiot, it won’t be possible to control the people.’ Hence, emerging from his seclusion, he proceeded to set down – in writing – ten laws for the subjects of the Tibetan empire.

So goes the story, anyway. If there really was a Tonmi, he is lost in the misty valleys of legend. Yet the Tibetan letters are based so closely on the writing of Nepal and northern India, which were coming under the sway of the Tibetan empire during Songtsen’s time, that the story of Tonmi may contain more than a grain of truth. The appearance of writing in the middle of the seventh century demonstrates like nothing else the Tibetans’ commitment to becoming a culture fit to stand beside their neighbours. It is rightly regarded by Tibetans as one of their great achievements, one of the reasons that Songtsen became known to posterity as Songtsen Gampo, meaning ‘Songtsen the Wise’.

The new Tibetan alphabet was soon put to work in the administration of this vast new empire. The latter was divided into five ru, or ‘horns’, each of which contained ten ‘thousand districts’, each of which comprised a thousand households. These were sources of revenue through taxes and soldiers through forced draft. The Huns, Turks and Mongols all organised their territories in a similar fashion, which suggests that the Tibetans inherited this system from their nomadic ancestors. If the new way of parcelling up Tibet meant that the clans were split between different administrative districts, so much the better. The power of the clans was still a threat to Songtsen’s lineage.

As for the Tibetans in charge of all this, they needed to be controlled as well. A rigid hierarchy developed in which the noblemen working for the new Tibetan imperial administration were organised with the prime minister at the top, followed by the four chief ministers, then the ministers who held royal insignia granted by the tsenpo – turquoise for the most important, followed by gold, white gold, silver, brass and copper. All of these officials were drawn from the clan aristocracy. At the bottom of the hierarchy were the vast majority of Tibetans, the peasants and nomads whose way of life would remain largely unchanged until the latter part of the twentieth century.

The peasants lived on the estates of the aristocratic landowners. They were bound to their lord from birth, and worked his land, not unlike the peasants in medieval Europe. Thus most of them lived on the same piece of land all their lives, travelling only if the opportunity for trade or pilgrimage presented itself. The nomads (known as drogpas in Tibetan), on the other hand, moved about freely, living in black tents made of yak hair and following the seasons as they moved their herds of sheep, goats and yaks to new pastures. Naturally there were differences among the peasants as well, from those who barely scratched a living from the land to those who dwelt in large houses with their own servants and domestic animals. This whole social structure was a pyramid of power with the tsenpo at its apex. Although it broke down after the fall of the empire, to be reconstituted later in different forms by different rulers, the constant factor was that Tibetan society remained deeply stratified.

For later Tibetans, who came to see Songtsen as the first of the great Buddhist kings, his lawmaking went hand in hand with Buddhist ethics. Though it seems unlikely that Songtsen really did create a new Buddhist system of law, the image of the great empire-building king who was also a compassionate Buddhist proved a powerful one, and Songtsen’s supposed reconciliation of the realms of government and religion became a model to which all subsequent Tibetan rulers aspired. Down the centuries, through to the twentieth century, the Tibetan ideal of government was a union, not a separation, of Church and State.

Bowing to tradition, Songtsen stepped down from the throne when his son reached the age of thirteen. As the old rituals demanded, the glamour of the tsenpo passed from him into the body of his son. But the prince died shortly afterwards, and Songtsen assumed the mantle of the tsenpo again. There was much to occupy his mind. Events during the last years of Songtsen’s life brought Tibet into direct military conflict with India. China had developed a good diplomatic relationship with King Harsha, another great empire-builder who now ruled much of northern India. Envoys had been travelling back and forth between the Chinese and Indian emperors throughout the 640s.

Then, in 648, an embassy of high-level Chinese envoys arrived in India to find that Harsha had died. A new Indian warlord attacked the envoys, killing all except for two who escaped to Tibet. One of these was Wang Xuance, a seasoned envoy who was on good terms with the Tibetans. Songtsen granted him an army composed of Tibetan soldiers and Nepali cavalry to accompany him back into India. After three days of fighting the Indian troops were routed and the warlord was sent to China as a prisoner of war. India, or at least a part of it, thus succumbed to the Tibetans. Having shown how far his reach could extend, Songtsen spent the last year of his reign consolidating the empire. He died in 649, the same year that his old enemy and sometime ally Taizong passed away in China. Songtsen had achieved everything the founder of a new empire could wish for – everything, that is, except leaving a viable heir. After the death of his son, the new crown prince was Songtsen’s tiny grandson. Into this power vacuum now stepped Prime Minister Gar. His moment had come.

But first it was necessary for Gar and all of the other high officials to attend Songtsen’s funeral. The burial of a tsenpo was a solemn affair, involving a range of ritual specialists and lasting months or even years. In these elaborate royal funerals – which echo those of the Scythians, Huns, Turks and Mongols – the Tibetans preserved the customs of their nomadic forebears. Soon after the tsenpo died, his body was taken to a temple to be prepared for burial. During this period, mourners could pay their respects to the corpse; the nobles showed their grief by ancient symbolic actions such as painting their faces red, plaiting and cutting off their hair, and lacerating their bodies. Many centuries earlier the Greek historian Herodotus had heard about the custom of self-laceration among Scythians mourning their king. The Romans also observed this practice among the Huns, and braids of plaited hair have been found in their excavated graves.

When the time for Songtsen’s burial arrived, the corpse was carried in a magnificent procession to the tomb, a vast earthen structure rising out of the ground. Only a few scattered descriptions of these great funerals remain, but they are sufficient to allow us to picture Songtsen’s procession winding its way through the Yarlung valley under the shadow of the mountain where his ancestors first came down to earth. The tsenpo’s jewelled funeral carriage is accompanied by priests wearing turbans and feathered headdresses, who move to the eerie sound of horns, crashing cymbals and thudding drums. When the procession arrives at the towering earthen tomb, the priests make the final sacrifices of horses and other animals, and intone the sacred words:

The spear is plunged into the body of the bird,

The blade is thrust into the body of the hare,

The power of life is broken,

The carcass is thrown away.

And with that the tsenpo, seated in a copper coffin, is sealed into the tomb. This tomb is no halfway house to heaven. A great trapezoid mound, shaped like the royal tents, it towers over the plain. Even today, Songtsen’s tomb – now surrounded by those of later tsenpos – is still an impressive sight, 13 metres high and 130 metres long. Since their sky cord had been severed, the tsenpos had no way back to heaven. It seems the Tibetans, like the Turks, may have believed that the spirit of their kings lived on inside the tomb, for the latter was made as comfortable as possible, with treasure and everyday necessities all provided. Servants were included too.

In earlier times the custom was that the tsenpo’s closest allies, those ministers who had sworn an oath of fealty to him, would be sacrificed and follow their leader into the tomb. Though this kind of human sacrifice was carried out in the royal funerals of many Central Asian peoples, by the time of Songtsen’s death the practice seems to have been replaced by something a little less cruel, if no less eerie. Instead of being killed, the tsenpo’s retainers became the living dead, spending the rest of their lives within the confines of the tomb grounds, taking care of them and accepting offerings to the deceased tsenpo. The living dead subsisted on what they could grow near the tomb, on the offerings to the tsenpo, and on whatever cattle wandered into the tomb grounds. That which they touched was considered to have become part of the realm of the dead and no living person would try to reclaim it.

Once the interment of the tsenpo was complete, the tomb was sealed with a stone pillar. These standing stones were not just for marking the tombs of the tsenpos. Those clan leaders who had rallied round the tsenpo had their allegiance marked with a standing stone, and the oath was renewed every year under the stone. An animal was sacrificed and those present would vow that the same bloody fate would befall anyone who broke their oath. In Tibet today one still finds heaps of stones piled up at mountain peaks and passes, representing the gods of the sky. Whenever a vehicle passes, the passengers will scatter little pieces of paper called ‘wind horses’ printed with Buddhist prayers and shout an ancient battle cry: ki ki so so lha gyalo! – ‘May the gods be victorious!’

Tibet had now grown to encompass huge swathes of Asia. With Songtsen gone and the new tsenpo a mere toddler, Gar Tongtsen had the freedom to mould the new empire as he saw fit. He turned out to be as impressive a leader as he had been a prime minister. The Chinese historians of the Tang dynasty, famously contemptuous of most foreigners, wrote: ‘Although he was illiterate, he was naturally wise, resolute, strict and honourable, a brave warrior and a skilful general, making a most successful regent.’

But Gar was no Chinese stooge. In fact, he quickly showed that his ambition matched that of his old master. In 663, he crushed the Azha, the semi-nomadic people from the Mongolian steppe who had harried the Chinese and the Tibetans over the past fifty years. After this final defeat they gradually became Tibetanised as they absorbed the language and culture of their conquerors. Gar used the newly invented Tibetan alphabet to conduct a census of the empire’s territories, the better to raise taxes and recruit armies from these newly conquered lands. In a few decades the Tibetans had gone from being a simple alliance of southern clans to being masters of a pan-Asian empire. The only way they could sustain this progress was to raise armies from the lands they conquered. Fortunately, Tibet’s neighbours were also semi-nomadic warriors and made formidable soldiers.

The Tibetans celebrated the fact that their soldiers were superior fighters, capable of winning despite being outnumbered by their enemies. In a bardic version of an encounter between one of Gar’s sons and a Chinese general, the two exchange taunts about the quality of their respective armies. After the Chinese general has flaunted the superior size of his army, Gar’s son replies:

There is no disputing the matter of numbers. But many small birds are the food of a single hawk, and many small fish are the food of a single otter. A pine tree has been growing for a hundred years, but a single axe is its enemy. Although a river runs ceaselessly, it can be crossed in a moment by a boat six feet long. Although barley and rice grow over a whole plain, it is all the grist of a single mill. Although the sky is filled with stars, in the light of a single sun they are nothing.

The Tibetan soldiers wore leather scale armour. Some of these scales have been dug out of an ancient Tibetan fort in the Central Asian desert. They are tough overlapping rectangles covered with bright red or black lacquer and decorated with painted circles. According to some accounts, the Tibetan soldiers wore feathered plumes atop their helmets and carried battle flags on long straight poles, ancestors of the peaceful prayer flags that adorn Buddhist sites in Tibet today. The prowess of this Tibetan army was soon to be tested in one of the most forbidding landscapes on earth: the Taklamakan desert.

At the beginning of the 660s, the Chinese empire still controlled the lucrative Silk Route. But its grasp on the distant colonial territories that were part of this network was starting to weaken. The western Turks were in fighting mood again. This time Gar saw an opportunity to extend his empire further. He had already pushed across the mountains into Kashmir, giving the Tibetans a strategic advantage that the Chinese failed to appreciate until it was too late. Now allied with the Turks, the Tibetans conquered Kashgar, cutting off China’s Silk Route connection.

Poised on the edge of the Taklamakan, the Tibetans were ready to attack the little city-states of the Silk Route. One of the most vulnerable, and one of its greatest prizes, was the ancient city of Khotan. A Chinese pilgrim who stayed there shortly before the Tibetan invasion spoke in glowing terms of the people’s politeness, their easy-going nature and their love of the arts, particularly literature, music and dance. Other Chinese sources tell us that Khotanese women moved freely in society, wore trousers and rode on horseback like the men, and were allowed a certain degree of sexual freedom – at least more than was customary in China. Khotan remained fervently Buddhist until the forced conversion of its people to Islam at the hands of the Karkhanid Turks at the beginning of the eleventh century; the enthusiasm with which the Khotanese practised Buddhism prior to that was regularly remarked upon by visitors.

One popular activity among the Khotanese was the composition of Buddhist scriptures – some of which contained detailed prophecies about Khotan and its dealings with Tibet. The Enquiry of Vimalaprabha is a Buddhist scripture that does nothing to hide its interest in contemporary concerns of the Khotanese in the 670s: the plight of the Khotanese Buddhists at the hands of invaders. The text has a heroine, the Khotanese princess, a kind of Buddhist Joan of Arc, determined to save Buddhism in Khotan from the depredations of fierce warriors whom she calls ‘the red-faced ones’. They are, of course, the Tibetans, who must have been a terrifying sight as they rode into cultured Khotan, clad in leather scale armour, their cheeks smeared with red.

In the story, the Tibetans conquer Khotan and desecrate its monasteries and the sacred Buddhist reliquaries called stupas. The Khotanese princess flees into exile and formulates a plan involving paying off the Tibetans, who are perceived as being motivated more by greed than anything else. Her aspiration is summarised in a prayer: ‘When the red-faced ones and the Chinese battle each other, may Khotan not be destroyed. When monks come from other countries to Khotan, may they not be treated dishonourably. May those who flee here from other countries find a place to stay here, and help to rebuild the great stupas and monastic gardens that have been burned by the red-faced ones.’ It is apparent that the Tibetans made life very hard indeed for the Buddhists of Khotan. Indeed, the Enquiry of Vimalaprabha even has the Buddha pronouncing that the Tibetans have formed a perverse ambition to destroy his religion. The picture of a Tibetan army lacking any respect for Khotan’s Buddhist institutions is surprising, but quite credible at a time when Tibetan interest in Buddhism was still restricted to the court. The advocates of Buddhism did not have the power – yet – to temper the violence of the red-faced warriors.

And so, having gained the respect of the Chinese, Gar had now become their greatest scourge, cutting off the Tang empire from its western conquests and from the trade routes that connected China with India and Persia. He returned from his campaigns an old man. Arriving back in Central Tibet in the year 666, he had an audience with the young tsenpo, who lacked both the power and the will to oppose the de facto leader of Tibet. When Gar died the following year, the Tibetan empire was divided up between his sons. They ruled competently, but conflict was inevitable. At some point a tsenpo would begin to chafe against his role as a figurehead. In the end it was Songtsen’s great-grandson Dusong who took it upon himself to destroy the Gar clan. Dusong had one advantage over the sons of Gar: he was at court while they were constantly away campaigning or ruling over distant territories. In addition, the luck of the sons of Gar was beginning to turn.

In the 690s, as the curtain fell on Tibet’s first century on the world stage, the scions of Gar began to lose their grip on the empire. First, Gar Tsenyen, the governor of Khotan, was defeated by the Chinese. Dusong had him court-martialled and executed. Next, Gar Tagu was captured by Sogdians. Time was also running out for the only remaining son of Gar with real power, the general Gar Tridring. After years of campaigning, his soldiers were restless, and some had begun to defect to the Chinese side. There was an inherent weakness in the Tibetan army, in that it had had to grow rapidly to keep pace with the startling expansion of the Tibetan empire, drafting able men from its conquered territories. But the further these new soldiers came from the centre of Tibetan culture, the more their loyalty was a matter of concern. Now the formidable Empress Wu was on the throne in China. Seeing the weakness of the general’s position, she hatched a plan to defeat him without engaging him in battle.

While Gar Tridring was still loyally campaigning on China’s borders, the empress cleverly offered a peace deal – not to the general himself, but directly to the tsenpo. The Tibetan court, like the army, was tired of battle. A peace deal would leave the last significant member of the Gar clan stranded, and the tsenpo knew it. He therefore accepted. Then he brought all of the members of the Gar clan – apart from Tridring, who was still in the field – together in a hunting party. This proved a deadly trap, and all members of the clan present were slaughtered. Before word could filter to Gar Tridring, the tsenpo led an army of his own towards China. When the army reached Tridring, he knew the game was up. Neither his father nor his brothers had ever openly opposed the tsenpo, let alone led an army against him. To do so would undermine the sacred rationale for the whole Tibetan empire. In acting as it had, the Gar clan had only after all been ensuring that the tsenpo ruled over a kingdom befitting his majesty. Anyway, Tridring’s army was exhausted and close to mutiny. Thus, as the tsenpo approached, the last of the Gars committed suicide and his army fled across the Chinese border.

Dusong had done it: the tsenpo was the true ruler of Tibet again. But Tibet was overstretched and Empress Wu’s army was now pushing its soldiers back from the borders of China, out of Central Asia. The year was 692, just half a century after the Tibetans had started to create their own empire. In that time Tibet had become a participant in the currents of world culture, with its capital, Lhasa, developing into an unlikely cosmopolitan centre, home of Nepalese and Chinese nobility and a destination for foreign missionaries and merchants keen to have a stake in the new expanding empire.

Pushing into the deserts of Central Asia, the Tibetans had crossed and recrossed the ancient Silk Route arteries of world trade that carried silk, jade, spices and slaves between East and West. Of course, these trade routes were conduits for culture and ideas too. Ideas from Rome, Byzantium, Persia, India and China were passed along these ancient arteries throughout the first millennium, making the world a much more interconnected place than is often thought. Tibetan aristocrats wore Chinese silks and sipped Chinese tea; a Persian lion still stands over one of the tsenpo’s tombs. As the seventh century drew to a close, Tibet was poised to take its place among the world’s great cultures. But its own culture was still inchoate, a melting pot swirling with different ideas, rituals and technologies. And the Tibetans were about to encounter another young and vibrant culture: the Arabs. Yet, in the following century, the scales would start to tip towards the Buddhist religion, and the Buddhist holy land of India, as the defining influences on Tibetan culture.