Before winter made the high passes of the Hindu Kush impassable, Bessus crossed the mountains north into Bactria, applying the policy of scorched-earth in an attempt to make it impossible for Alexander to follow him. But evidently, he underestimated Alexander's determination and stubbornness!
The ancients thought that the Hindu Kush Mountain Range was a continuation of the Caucasus Mountains and used that name alternatively. They also called it the Paropamisadae, as derived from the Persian word meaning as much as “peak over which the eagle cannot fly”. The Hindu Kush is a nearly 1,000 km long barrier of high mountains running from Afghanistan to India with the highest peak reaching an elevation of 7,708 meters. This range, in fact, separates Central Asia from South Asia or India. In other words, it is a colossal barrier that cannot be underestimated.
It is late November 330 BC when Alexander marches through the narrow ravines that run from Gandhara (modern Kandahar) situated at 1100m via Ghazni to Kabul at 1791 m. The modern road, which certainly takes shortcuts compared to Alexander’s advance, tells us that the distance is a little less than 500 km. Climbing in altitude to 3000 meters at times, the thin air and deep snow make progress very difficult. Under these circumstances, camp is made above the clouds where the nights are ungodly cold and the land is covered with snow. The army suffers from snow blindness and frostbites. In the murky light, many lose their way and get stuck in snowdrifts as the wind howls through the narrows. Food, especially during the last leg of this journey, becomes a daily preoccupation and the meager contribution of the natives hardly supports the Macedonian forces.
Alexander realizes that it is too late in the year to march across the Hindu Kush and settles his army near Begram at the junction of two rivers, the Cophen (Kabul) and the Panshir overlooking a broad plain framed by snowy peaks. Eventually, this city will become one of the many Alexandria’s that patch the world map and will be called, very appropriately Alexandria-in-Caucasus. The army gets a breather of several months with abundant food and fodder available. Meanwhile, the snow falls heavily over the Hindu Kush and in the heart of winter, the mountains are covered with a layer of twenty meters of snow.
Once again, one can only marvel at Alexander’s highly skilled preparations and logistics. Of course, these lands were part of the Achaemenid Empire and as such, they were well-documented and organized but we cannot underestimate Alexander’s own intelligence and scouting parties. He had a choice of passes to pursue Bessus into Bactria and it is generally agreed that he opted for the Khawak Pass. Although this road was the longest (75 kilometers) it also was the lowest (3,550m) and provided the best chances for forage. Here, he outsmarted Bessus who had expected his enemy to take the shortest route where he burnt all the local winter provisions behind him.
In spite of his careful planning, Alexander and his army approaching the Hindu Kush from the south had a strenuous journey. The column is being divided into four sections and the vanguard – the army engineers - had the toughest job of clearing the way. They set out in early spring (sources vary from March to June) marching up the Panshir Valley, some 150 km north of Kabul, suffering from cold and lack of food. As soon as they entered the sheer walls of this gorge, they were confronted with thick crusts of frost as the sun hardly touches the bottom for a mere few minutes this time of year. For many parts of this one hundred-kilometers-long valley, they had to hack their way through the ice. With the first melting of the snow, rivers turning into torrents thunder down the gorges, making treacherous crossings. On top of that, scores of tributary valleys filled with debris and icy waters descend with deafening fury into the Panshir Valley.
It is said that the Macedonians carried a ten-day ration for an expedition that should take four days. Instead, it took Alexander and his army a full week to reach the summit and another ten days to descend into the fertile plains of Central Asia on the other side, i.e. seventeen grueling days in all.
It was not so much the distance that commanded the army’s progress but the terrain itself. The mountain path varied considerably in width. At its narrowest parts, only three men could walk abreast: two infantrymen or one cavalry horse could pass at one time as the baggage train and pack animals formed a file alongside as that was the best – and probably the only – way for the men to access supplies in such a confined space. These were true bottlenecks that held up the entire marching line. It is highly probable that the cavalrymen would dismount their horses to lead their mounts, especially on the ascent.
What is not being recounted in our history books but has been reported by British troops who invaded Afghanistan in 1838 and 1878 are the extreme weather conditions in these parts. Steven Pressfield in his book The Afghan Campaign paints vivid pictures of the Macedonian’s fight with the elements, which come very close to reality.
There seems to be an intensity in the sunrise and sunset in these mountains that is quite unique. The light throws patches of blue and violet on the melting snow, which is being described as a purple veil as misty as a breeze. Worse are the sudden storms that strike, alternating hail and snow. Hail stones rattle the soldiers’ shields and helmets. The men seek shelter against the elements but soon the trail turns into ice making each step slippery and treacherous. The drenched army must have felt the frigid wind cutting right through their bones. They have to sleep where they are on the trail, sheltering against each other and their pack animals as best they can.
When finally the sun breaks through, men and mountains are shrouded in vapor and sweat. The danger of avalanches is very real. Rills and runnels turn into torrents plunging to the depth of the valley. At times, the sun blazes so fiercely that the men take off their cloaks. Yet, one hour later the mild temperatures suddenly plummet as a new load of sleet and hail thunders down on them. Their path is then covered with scree and shingle, making each step a precarious one. Nearer to the top of the pass, they are confronted with glaciers strewn with fissures, crevasses, and cracks in between the upheavals of ice. Whatever part of their upwards trek, the underfoot is unstable and dangerous. On top of that, mountain sickness hits the men who get disoriented and unable to keep any of the scarce food down. Every movement demands a monumental effort and many go snow-blind. The companies start falling apart while the winds howl relentlessly and the icy cold hits the men to the core of their souls.
The Macedonians are far from realizing that the Panshir Valley is a beautiful valley that provides the locals with rich harvests of rice, barley and beans. But all that is now hidden under the thick coat of snow, burrowing even the orchards of pistachios, apricots, pears and mulberries. There is no wood to light a fire and the men have to settle for cold goat meat, frozen onions and iced curd.
Halfway up in the mountains there was a rock, half a mile high that became identified with Prometheus, a hero from the greatest of all Greek legends that had always been placed in the Caucasus. Here, the legend was conveniently assimilated to the ancient Persian myth in which the eagle Sena had saved the hero Dastan. The story may well have been a good incentive for the army to feel more at home instead of plowing along through these god-forbidden frozen mountains.
Alexander’s army has been estimated at 64,000 troops and 10,000 cavalry horses with an additional number of followers of approximately 36,000, making it a total of 100,000 men to meander over these snowy paths. Donald Engels in his Logistics of the Macedonian Army gives detailed calculations of the space occupied by each soldier, horseman and camp follower which enables him to match the marching time of seventeen days as mentioned by antique authors. A highly interesting and trustful analysis.
From the summit of the Caucasus, one could see all the way to the eastern edge of the world according to Aristotle. Alexander and his Companions who had shared his teaching knew this story very well but what they witnessed instead was not the end of the world but ridge after ridge of endless high mountains. How did this influence their opinion or esteem for Aristotle, I wonder.
If the ascent was steep and difficult, the sufferings of the army reached intolerable heights during its descent. On the northern slopes of the Hindu Kush, the snow still filled the crags and masked all the features. Finding and following a trail was a nightmare. The horses had been fitted with snowboots of their own to cope with the deep snow and slippery drifts. The men’s clothing and footgear was not fit for these harsh winter conditions. They trudged on with empty bellies, chewing on wood and wax as they struggled with chronic fatigue. The well-drilled and disciplined Macedonian army falters as avalanches break their column formations into many separate sections.
Famine spread throughout the army and the few remaining amphorae of wine – a mere drop in the ocean – were sold at exorbitant prices, as was the honey. In the lower valleys, the soldiers could supplement their diet with brown trout from the rivers and some herbs but there was no fodder for the animals and orders were issued to slaughter them. However, since the scant scrub bushes were still buried deep under the snow, there was no firewood available and the meat had to be eaten raw.
Descending from the foothills in early June, Alexander made it without trouble to Kunduz and from there to the local capital of Bactra (Balkh in Afghanistan). Here, he allowed his troops to refresh themselves in this relatively generous oasis. The spirits of the army must have revived when terraced fields of rice and barley unfolded in front of them and they could relish at the sight of pear and plums trees. Here the days were warm and pleasant and they found plenty of provisions stored within the city walls as ordered by Bessus to fit his scorched earth policy and now serving Alexander. This evidently was a true bonus as the city opened its gates to the new conqueror!