Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Verdant Makran?

Bookmark and Share

About fifteen or more years ago there appeared in a prestigious Pakistani news magazine the interview of an Italian woman pretending to be an archaeologist. Her theory was that Makran was a very fertile land of rich crops, fertile valleys and forest-covered hills. Then came that scourge of god Mahmud, the raider king of Ghazni, to destroy the ingenious underground irrigation system called karez. The subterranean rivulets ceased to flow, the farmland and orchards died out, the forests shrivelled away and Makran turned into the desert that we today know it to be.

For those who have not travelled through Makran, it is a harsh land of eroded hills here; stark rocky walls; stretches of sand dunes that are sometimes so finely shaped like the crescent as though by the hand of the master sculptor; glittering white salt pans that stretch as far as the eye can see and flat plains strewn with rocks. The few rivers that run here weave a thin ribbon of green through this vast landscape. And that is how Makran has been for the past several millenniums, no matter what some self-styled Italian archaeologist might have to tell us. And of that we have sufficient historical proof.

Without going into whether or not Mahmud came to Makran in the early 11th century, we can begin by looking at this intriguing country three hundred years before him. This was the end of the 7th century and the Arabs were on the ascendant with their armies sweeping west into North Africa and east across Persia to India and Central Asia. Unlike what we have been led to believe by half a century of manufactured history, the taking of Makran, and subsequently Sindh, by the Arabs was no cut and dried victory. But of this at another time.

Suffice it to say that having suffered two setbacks in Makran, the third caliph of Islam ordered a reconnaissance led by one Hakim, son of Hailah. The report that this man presented to the caliph was (as preserved in the Chachnama, a history of the Arab conquest of Sindh), '[Makran's] water is dark and dirty; its fruit is bitter and poisonous; its land is stony, and its earth is saltish.' Old Hakim wasn't much of a scout for though the water is scant all right, the karez system of Makran (which existed then also) has excellent potable water and the dates of Turbat and Punjgur are celebrated for their variety, sweetness and flavour. Punjgur (watered by the picturesque Rakhshan River) even flaunts two kinds of luscious grapes.

That then was how the Arabs found Makran in the latter years of the 7th century CE. Fully one thousand years before the Arabs, Alexander the Macedonian led a disastrous retreat through Makran. It was the autumn of the year 325 BCE when he entered Makran proper after fighting his way up from what we today call Karachi to Lasbela. Immediately his difficulties began. For one, having divided the army into two, he was leading one through the Makran wilderness while his general Nearchus was sailing with the rest in a large fleet along the coast.

Alexander had hoped to maintain a supply column between his army and the seaboard in order to keep the fleet provisioned, but as he progressed west from fertile Lasbela (watered by the Porali River and all its tributaries), he realised that there were no fresh provisions to be had. Indeed, even water was hard to come by. Tormented by the heat of the autumn sun, the army was forced to march by night and rest under the meagre shade of their wagons by day. Overcome with thirst, when they came upon the rare source of water, the soldiers fell upon it and gorged themselves. Many died from this sudden intake.

It was here in Makran also that Alexander made a fine show of leadership. On one of the rare day marches, suffering as much from thirst as the rest of his army, Alexander was approached by a soldier who had chanced upon a small water hole. Filling up his helmet with the precious liquid, the man came to his king with the offering. But that helmet-full was all there was to be had and before Alexander stood a horde of thirsty men, women and children. There, it is recorded in the histories, in full view of the lot, Alexander did not drink up; he poured the water onto the thirsty sand: if his people were doing without and suffering, so too would he the king and general with them.

Slowly the giant snake of the Macedonian army and followers wended its tortured way westward. As provisions ran low, men killed the beasts hauling their wagons to feed themselves. Soon it came to the horses they rode. The treasure that each man had gleaned from the rich and wonderful land of the Sindhu River was cast away to lighten the burden as they struggled through the sand that gave underfoot. There came time when those who had run the gauntlet would lay down by the wayside to die as the others silently trudged on. None paused to offer word of comfort or encouragement for it was important to get on. The histories tell us that even wives and children were left where they fell by the wayside.

At one point, worried about the safety of his fleet, Alexander sent a contingent to check out the progress of the fleet. This, I believe, would have been along the Hingol River for on this route at least water was plentiful. The team returned with a bleak picture of the coast where the Icthyophagai — Fish Eaters — lived. Eventually after many tribulations, so the histories say, the army reached a part of the country 'where provisions were more or less plentiful'. This would be near the modern town of Hoshab on the banks of the Kech River. After the parched wasteland that begins a few kilometres west of Lasbela, Hoshab, apart from a couple of tiny oases en route, would have been the first farmland.

Alexander paused to make provision-collecting forays because surely he had intelligence about the neighbouring countries. Parties were sent farther inland and they came back loaded with fruit and grain. The direct road north from Hoshab leads to the fertile Rakhshan valley and the orchards of Punjgur, a hundred and fifty kilometres to the north. But when Alexander despatched the supplies to the coast for the fleet, the soldiers uncertain of what lay ahead, broke into them and used them up. Recognising their own desperate need, Alexander did not punish them however — even though he had to organise a second relay for the fleet.

After having lost as many as thirty-five thousand soldiers and followers — none in battle but all to the hardships of the way, Alexander made it to Pura (present day Bampur in Iran). Such then was the prospect of Makran two thousand years ago and that was how it would be in the beginning of the 11th century when Mahmud is wrongly believed to have laid waste this country.

PS. The Icthyophagai were a people living along the Makran seaboard. They wore crude clothing (if clothing it be called), had long nails and long, matted hair and ate only fish because nothing else grew in their harsh land. Their huts, as reported to Alexander, were made of whale bones. Because the Persians under Cyrus the Great had passed through Makran two hundred years before Alexander, it is uncertain if the title of Fish Eaters was coined by the Greeks or had been translated from the already extant word of the same meaning, Mahi Khoran. Historians will say that it is the Persian Mahi Khoran that was eventually corrupted to Makran.

Odysseus Lahori one year ago: Death on the Farang Bur

Labels: , ,

posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 27 July 2014 at 20:58, Blogger Rehan Afzal said...

I so agree with your logic Salman sb.... If only they could go to Makran and see how the locals pronounce it (Moi-Koran)...By the way that a lovely shot of the Princess of Hope from the Hingol National Park

At 31 July 2014 at 02:35, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I disagree with author's conclusion, though i enjoyed reading this piece. Makkuran ( yes, with a stressed k) extends to Iranian Balochistan. From Kalmat to chahbahar and frm Panjgur to sarawan. This is what traditional ly and largely even today referres fo as Makkuran. Interestingly, Balochi language (old) does not contain the urdu sound, kh-as in khabar. Baloch would prnounce kh as h. For example khan would han. Hence the names, mazar-han, ali-han, etc. I am no expert but as far as my knowledge goes tge people of makkuran are iranic people,. Except some groups who eneded up there when slave trade as at peak, 16th century onwards. Makkuran name comes come from maka, whom were medes or assyrian. As i said i am no expert, only a resident of makkuran with some passing interest in history. Thank you for the piece, it was a good read.

At 31 July 2014 at 17:02, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Anonymous.


Post a comment

<< Home

My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days