Alexander the hero?

Mosaic showing the defeat of Darius by Alexander at Issos, from Pompei. Wikimedia image.

From 334BC onwards Alexander was aiming to conquer the whole of the Persian empire. He raced through Anatolia, defeating Darius III at Issos (click and rollover to see annotations on the mosaic) and then again – at Gaugamela.

A blond Bakhtiari child: reputedly a descendant of one of Alexander's soldiers

Babylon and Susa then surrendered without a struggle, giving Alexander access to the immense Achaemenid treasures. Alexander fought his way across the Zagros Mountains (where the Bakhtiari claim that their blond children are the descendants of the soldiers) to Persepolis, which he burnt down in the spring of 330BC. Then Alexander marched up into Media, where Darius had started to gather a new army at Ecbatana.

As Alexander chased Darius eastwards, the two Kings followed a very similar route to that used by Shah Abbas in 1601, on his walking pilgrimage. This is not surprising: everyone wanted the easiest (or in Alexander’s case, the fastest) route, with some access to water. The exact route is not clear, but Alexander and (nearly two thousand years later) Abbas seem both to have rested at Abdolabad (click here for a modern image).

Darius was deposed by his courtiers nearby and one of his generals, Bessus, seems to have marched along the hilly military road via Ahuan and Qusheh – using the same route as Abbas.

Alexander took a more southerly, flatter, desert road, where his cavalry could travel faster. The next morning, when the Persians saw the Greek dust cloud, they realised what was happening and murdered Darius (click here for the image of this in the BM Afghanistan exhibition, and here for a film of an amazing taleteller – look at 3.30 min). Bessus then pronounced himself King, making it easy for Alexander to present himself as the avenger of Darius’ death, and so the rightful monarch – perhaps even the “last of the Achaemenids”.

Alexander, of course, went on to conquer Afghanistan and India. He also became the hero of innumerable stories. The Alexander images recently on sale at Sotheby’s and Christies are in the Persian tradition, while those at the BM Afghanistan exhibition and those now on show at the Ashmolean show the Western versions of the stories.

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