Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Tribe of the Cavaliers

Bookmark and Share

One of the tribes that Alexander encountered as he came in the vicinity of modern day Jalalabad (Afghanistan) was the Asspasioi variously rendered in classical history as Astacani and Aspagani. Shortly after this first encounter, we hear of Assacenus (a misspelling of Astacanus?), the king of the strong fort of Massaga who died during the siege of his castle.

Now, Massaga has thus far defied historians and archaeologists for they have been unable to show us any ruins that answer to this name. But since history places Massaga on Alexander's route between Bajaur and Swat, many experts would place this mysterious redoubt in the Katgala Pass. From the works of Alexander's historians as well as from other Greek writings on this area, it appears that the Asspasioi were fairly wide-spread and extended into Bajaur, Swat and Mardan also. Indeed, it seems that at the time of Alexander's invasion this was the most numerous and powerful tribe in the area.

Now, the word Asspasioi derives from the Sanskrit root Ashva for horse that goes into classical Persian as Asp. Hence Ashvaka in Sanskrit or Aspagan (this latter went into the Greek as Aspagani) in Persian signified cavaliers: a nation of horse-riders to whom horses and riding came as naturally as walking to ordinary humans. In the late Middle Ages, this appellation would fit the Mongols, but in the classical age there was a tribe in what is now the eastern part of Afghanistan and our own NWFP renowned for their equestrian abilities.

In their own language, an archaic form of Persian that we today know as Pukhto in the northern dialect and Pushto in the southern, they were Aspzai — Children or Tribe of the Horse. Just over a millennium after Alexander's invasion, the Aspzai converted to Islam. When the trend began to invent Arab fathers for ourselves, the Aspzai was easy to translate into Yusufzai, Yusuf being the fictional but eponymous progenitor who had arrived duly converted to Islam from somewhere or the other. So far as the pronunciation was concerned, it continued to be Aspzai because even today the rare greybeard, his mind unsullied by television and our so-called education, will still pronounce Yusuf as Esop.

Aside: Mahbub Ali, that swashbuckling dandy in Kipling's Kim, could be nothing but a Yusufzai. He was a covert secret agent for Colonel Creighton. Overtly he followed the trade of his forefathers as a horse-dealer who supplied the army with first-class steeds from his mountainous homeland.

Retracing our steps back to the time when the tribe was called Aspagan in Persian, we can easily spot the origin of the word Afghan. And this will make many Afghans or Pukhtuns angry for they lay much store by the foolishness churned out by that charlatan Niamatullah pretending to be an historian. An apologist more than anything else, his History of the Afghans (Makhzan e Afghani) is a bit of joke insofar as it traces Pukhtun genealogy. That is sadly also true for every other sub-continental Muslim historian when he dabbles in genealogy.

Among other inaccuracies, he tells the story of the woman with a very troubled pregnancy. When she is finally delivered of the baby, so the story goes, she calls the child Afghan. This is because the word somehow means 'delivered' or 'set free'. Niamatullah had not read classical Greek historians and geographers, nor too was he possessed of even average gumption to sift the grain of history through the chaff of legend. And so he fed on the yarns that were extant at that time and called his collection of legends a history.

It must be conceded, however, that Niamatullah was only paraphrasing for this spurious explanation of the word Afghan had already been made by local 'historians' even as early as the 17th century. If this charlatanry was monumental, the greater tragedy is that to this day it is believed by so many apparently sensible folks. In their ignorance, these historians even derived an explanation for the word Pathan. It either came from Batan, a Hebrew word meaning 'rudder', or was the name of one of the sons of the fictitious 'first Muslim' Pathan, Qais Abdur Rashid.

The irony is that their own term for themselves as an ethic group is Pukhtun or Pushtun and not Pathan. This word is a mispronunciation of Pukhtana (plural of Pukhtun) wrought by the non-Pukhto speaking peoples of central India perhaps sometime about the late 14th century. The Pukhtuns, I reiterate, do not know themselves as Pathans.

On the subject of the Pukhtuns, it would be appropriate to point out that the one thing they can rightly be proud of is the notice they received very early on in history. There are few tribal names that survive virtually unchanged over the past two and a half millenniums and Pukhtun is one. Herodotus writing about 450 BCE tells us of a people called Paktyike whose echo we hear in the eastern Afghan provinces of Paktiya and Paktika. Herodotus lists these people as tribute-payers to the Achamenian king Darius the Great and living in the seventh satrapy of the Persian kingdom.

Among the Paktyike, Herodotus counts the tribes of the Sattagydians, the Gandarians, the Dadicai and the Aparatai. Of these, the Gandarians are obviously 'of Gandhara' as NWFP and eastern Afghanistan were known in early times. The Aparatai are clearly the Afridis, and it is remarkable how close Herodotus has rendered the name to the Afridis' own pronunciation of it. The Sattagydians, according to the historian John McCrindle, are the Khattaks. He believes that the name was actually Shattagydian which became Khattagydian or Khattak in the northern dialect.

Be that as it may, Herodotus acquaints us with some tribal names as well as of that of the ethnic title of Pukhtun. And that is what the Pukhtuns need to celebrate, not the fictions of ignorant pseudo-historians who had never read classical Greek geographers.

PS. One non-Pukhtun 'historian' (a retired colonel to boot) derives Afghanistan from Aah o Faghan (lamentation). This because of the endless ravaging of that country by outsiders! Land of Lamentation may be an appropriate title, but the derivation, it goes without saying, is preposterous.

Labels: , ,

posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 11 October 2014 at 15:41, Blogger Kaleem Ahmad said...

Excellent piece Salman sahib. I too can vouch that kha kha (yes yes) becomes sha sha (yes yes) as we travel from Kohat to Parachinar.

At 11 October 2014 at 15:48, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

True, sir. And even in Khost, Kandahar, Quetta. The kha is sha.

At 13 October 2014 at 10:47, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

Again an other master piece with full of knowledge

At 17 October 2014 at 11:56, Anonymous Anonymous said...

awesome really the time i spent on reading means a lot...

At 18 October 2014 at 13:54, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Anonymous.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< 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