Increase font size Decrease font size Reset font size

The speculative Alexander

Reviewed by Salman Rashid 2022-09-04
Alexander`s Campaigns in Sind and Baluchistan and the Siege of the Brahmin Town of Harmatelia by the Dutch Indologist Pierre Herman Leonard Eggermont (1914-1995) is not wholly uninteresting. But it is not for the gullible or the uninformed lay reader.

Eggermont`s book has to be read with close and constant reference to the Macedonian conqueror`s earliest biographers and anyone who cannot immediately refer to Greek historian Arrian, Roman historian Curtius Rufus and Nearchus, admiral in Alexander`s navy all frequently cited in the work is in trouble.

The book begins with Alexander`s arrival in Upper Sindh, his subsequent battles with the tribes of the Musicanus and Sambus and his progress south to the Indus Delta.

However, as I went through the book, from one battle to the next, doubt began to gnaw at my mind about Eggermont`s credentials and I was tempted to check his bio on the internet. But I did not, for the reason that any negative comment would have coloured my view of his book.

Doubt arose mainly because the author relies heavily on Curtius Rufus (whom I have read) and the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (not read). As for the former, reputed historians consider Rufus of little merit, labelling him `sensational and emotive` and his work merely a source, not a history. In plain speak, this means the reader must counter check Curtius.

As for Eggermont, to begin with he asserts that, upon Alexander`s approach to Sindomana [modern-day Schwan], King Sambus tied into the Bolan Pass in Balochistan. It is illogical that from Sehwan, Sambus should flee more than 250 kilometres north, when the narrow defiles of the Kirthar Mountains lay less than a quarter of the distance westward.

It is asserted that Sambus chose the Bolan because it was on the busy trade route between Aror, the then capital of northern Sindh under Musicanus`s rule, and Arachosia, which falls into the area now known as Kandahar, Afghanistan.

We do not hear of any trade passing between ancient Aror and Kandahar. However, a route from Barbarican [Bhambore in Sindh] carried trade to the Helmand River valley in Afghanistan, passing by modern-day Thano Bula Khan, through the corridor of the Bhadra and Bhit ranges of the main Kirthar, past Manchhar Lake and then up the Mula Pass in Gandava, Balochistan. Thence it proceeded through Kalatto the Helmand Valley.

Trade to Aror was mainly by the Indus River, smack upon whose banks the city stood.

Sometime after the takeover of Sindomana and probably before he reached Pattala [Hyderabad] Alexander gave his aged general, Krateros, the charge of 10,000 veterans to be returned home on retirement. Again Eggermont forces Krateros up the Bolan instead of the established, and considerably shorter, route through Mula Pass to the Helmand Valley.

Most interesting of all is the author`s dealing with Alexander`s march after taking Pattala and exploring the two main branches of the Indus.

Eggermont takes the Macedonian up to modern Naka Kharari, around Sonmiani Bay, to follow the Balochistan coast to the estuary of the Hingol River. This is the most arid region until one hits the tainted flow of the Phor River.

The contention turns the location of Rambakia (now Lasbela in Balochistan) on its head. Arrian the more credible of Alexander`s historians tells us that, upon leaving Rambakia, Alexander entered a `narrow pass` where the local tribe of the Oreitai, having teamed with the Gedrosians from further west, were waiting. This pass is none other than the tortuous and desiccated Jhao in Balochistan.

Again, on the northward march to Rambakia, Arrian relying on earlier sources tells of myrrh-producing trees and spikenard producing plants growing along the way. Nothing of the sort is found in the arid desert north of Sonmiani, though mangroves are noted in the bay itself.

The northward march to Rambakia would have been along the Porali River, where vegetation is more profuse, although I am not certain if nard and myrrh are to be found there. From Jhao Pass, Alexander marched due west through Awaran and into the Kech River valley before turning south to reach Pasni. Thence he followed the coast to Gwadar.

Our author, however, takes Alexander all the way around Sonmiani Bay into the desert of tainted streams to Hingol River, from where he brings him north into the Kolwa Plain west of Awaran. It must be noted that the Hingol Valley was, and still is, simply not suitable for wheeled traffic, elephants, cavalry or even heavy infantry. The army would have been in serious trouble traversing this formidable gap.

The first four chapters of Eggermont`s book are interesting as they connect ancient place names with modern localities. These we get from the work of Alexander`s admiral Nearchus, who was coasting westward with a large number of troops. Here we see Eggermont doing almost what Malcolm Robert Haig did in his masterful book The Indus Delta Country.

Chapter 5 onward, the author takes off on a tangent, delving into Harmatelia a town that no historian save Curtius and Diodorus reports on. Eggermont`s book now becomes a tendentious and rather tedious read, interspersed with stories from Alexander romances.

The one that Eggermont dwells upon at length is the yarn of Ptolemy, one of Alexander`s generals, being bitten by a snake and Alexander dreaming of the antidote in his sleep! Such stories would make better reading in Richard Stoneman`s Alexander the Great: A Lifè in Legend.

The last straw is Eggermont turning the Sauviras meaning `good brother`, or `good hero` in Sanskrit of the Mahabharata epic into the stone-age fish-eaters Nearchus met near the estuary of the Hingol River! The Sauvira kingdom of the lower Sindh Valley was sophisticated and historians agree its location was Roruka, clearly the modern Aror, just east of Rohri.

In the same vein, Eggermont rejects the identification of Pattala with modern Hyderabad, Pakistan. He would have us believe that Pattala lay some way off to the north near Nasrpur, the celebrated centre of Sindhi weaving. So far as I know, no ruins or mounds of any significant size have been identified in this area.

It seems the writer began this work with the sole purpose of upending all earlier histories. So I now had to look him up on the internet.

Having read ancient history, he seems to have donc rather well and produced good work in his early years. But a contemporary historian notes that `his later works were generally deemed too speculative.` He is also accused of developing his `laws of the strings and movement of place-names.

The publishers Endowment Fund Trust for Preservation of the Heritage of Sindh have done well to append to Eggermont`s book part of British engineer and archaeological surveyor Alexander Cunningham`s opus The Ancient Geography of India, published in 1871, that deals with Eggermont`s focus. This appendix can be of great help and interest for the curious reader.

In all, this book is recommended for any reader honed in on Alexander`s history because it can irk and amuse at the same time.

For the lay reader, however, it might be an overdose of the author`s speculations.

The reviewer is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and author of several books on travel. He tweets @odysseuslahori