Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Alexander on Aornos

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Burimar is a quiet and lovely little place of a few houses, mainly summer residences, small plots of tilled land where magpies squabble and argue, a tumbling brook and pine forest that rings with birdsong. It nestles just below the 2618-metre (8590 feet) peak of Una Sar. Una Sar, commonly famous as Pir Sar (after the slightly lower adjacent peak which has a supposed saint’s grave), sits in the crook formed on the west bank of the Sindhu River as it sweeps past Behsam to make a left (east) ward arc.

Now, the n in Una produces that sound which is known only in Sanskrit-based languages of the subcontinent: the sound that rolls the nasal n sound together with the palatal r. Sar, on the other hand, simply means peak. And so this was the Peak of Una. The Greeks, incapable of vocalising this sound, turned Una Sar into the Rock of Aornos.

In early April in the year 326 BCE, Burimar saw a minor battle between the Pukhtuns and the forces of Alexander the Macedonian. Having entered what is today called Pakistan by the Nawa Pass of Bajaur, and worked his way from victory after victory over the Pukhtuns he met on the way, he arrived in Swat. Meanwhile, many of the Pukhtuns who fought against him and made off with their lives, fled to Aornos. There on the lofty heights of this mountain whose circumference, as recorded by Alexander’s historian, was ‘about 25 miles’ and whose base was washed by the Sindhu River, the Pukhtuns took refuge.

While Alexander made a brief southward diversion to neutralise the town of Peucelaotis (Pushkalavati, Charsadda), the Pukhtuns holing up in the snows of Aornos had sent out an SOS and were awaiting reinforcements from Raja Abhisares of modern day Hazara and Kashmir. From Peucelaotis, Alexander hurried to Aornos to prevent this marrying up of the two forces, and even before Abhisares could get anywhere near, the foreigners were making their way up the forested slopes in a two-pronged attack. Ptolemy led one division and Alexander himself the other.

It is interesting here to learn that as the two generals debated the route up the mountain, some locals petitioned for an interview. History says that these traitorous people ‘put themselves’ in Alexander’s hands and offered to lead his army up the easiest way to a spot where they could assail the defenders with ease.

The Pukhtuns put up a spirited defence of their mountain redoubt: it took the Macedonians three days to make it to the top — and then not without many casualties. Had it not been for treachery, the count would have been far greater. At one point the situation became almost desperate as there was every danger of Ptolemy’s force being severely mauled: while Alexander was still struggling to gain higher ground, Ptolemy having reached a small plateau had barricaded his force behind a stockade. As he waited for Alexander’s units, Ptolemy came under a resolute assault that caused considerable damage to his defences.

Ptolemy held out and the two divisions reunited on the top of the mountain just as light was fading on the third day. Standing where the fields and few houses of Burimar now sit, Alexander had the Rock of Aornos behind him to the southwest; in front lay a saddle about a hundred metres lower and six to seven times as wide. Beyond this depression reared the peak today called Pir Sar. There the Pukhtuns waited in defence.

Even in the fading light, Alexander ordered a frontal attack which was duly beaten back. Over the night, seeing that the defended position was all but unassailable, Alexander devised a plan similar to one that had worked some years earlier in the siege of the Phoenician city of Tyre. He ordered every fighting man to cut one hundred trees each. With this Alexander began the construction of an extensive earthwork between his position and the defenders on Pir Sar. Watching from the safety of their breastworks, the defenders would surely have jeered the Macedonians at what they perceived a vain attempt. But four days of hard work and Alexander was able to order his catapults onto the bridge and within range of the defences of Pir Sar.

Seeing the mean-looking mangonels inching forward with each passing hour, the defenders lost hope. And even before Alexander could launch a full-fledged attack backed by siege engines, they laid down their arms and sued for peace upon terms. Their hope was to draw out the talks into the evening whereupon the two sides would naturally break for the night. Then, under cover of darkness, the Pukhtuns meant to slip away and disperse to their homes. Treachery once again was the undoing of the brave Pukhtuns and even before talks broke off for the night; their escape plan was revealed to Alexander.

Alexander, who we know as the Great, in person led seven hundred of his troops to surround Pir Sar. And here we can revert to the words of Arrian: ‘At a given signal they turned upon the retreating Indians and killed many of them as they tried to escape; others in sudden desperation flung themselves over the cliffs.’

As blots on his character go, this was a minor one. Only weeks earlier Alexander had taken the fortress of Massaga from the Aspasians (also referred to as Aspasioi). Now, Massaga lay between Bajaur and Swat. Though its site has not been definitively identified, historians believe it was situated in the Katgala Pass on Alexander’s route between the two places. (Smack in the pass, there is a hilltop ruined temple, circa 2nd century BCE, which could very likely be the site of Massaga).

Here at Massaga, fighting with the Pukhtuns was a seven thousand-strong contingent of mercenaries from the east. So long as they were commanded by their general, Arrian records, these ‘Indians fought with great courage’. But then the leader went down to a Macedonian missile and the fighters petitioned Alexander for truce.

Alexander was very pleased ‘to save the lives of such brave men’ and asked them to serve under his command. Accordingly, these men marched out of the fort of Massaga with their arms and encamped on a neighbouring hillock. But talking in the quiet of night these men saw the ignominy of teaming with an invader against their own brothers. And so, as the fighters on Aornos were to do later, those who surrendered at Massaga resolved to steal away during the hours of darkness. The plan was sneaked to Alexander. He stationed a large force around the mercenaries’ camp and led the subsequent slaughter.

P.S. The Aspasians or Aspasioi today call themselves by the ‘Islamic’ name of Yusufzai. In the early 1970s, I met an elderly Yusufzai gentleman in Topi village (now Swabi district) who still pronounced the name as his ancestors would have done in Alexander’s time. He said he was an Espzai. And therein lies another tale.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 23 October 2015 at 13:00, Blogger Unknown said...

A brilliant article -----very informative . The analogy drawn between the Aspasians of yore and Espzai of today is quite interesting ; the word Yusufzai is exactly pronounced as Espzai in this part of the Pukhtoon land as is claimed by the learned writer. The analogy gives credence to the notion that Pukhtoons are the indigenous residents of the land , and , by extension , it should put to rest the theory of their en mass migration which seems a comparatively recent phenomenon.

At 23 October 2015 at 15:24, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

Sir providing a chance to read such an informative article.

At 23 October 2015 at 18:54, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Unknown. All these theories of being Semites (Arab/Jewish) are nothing but hogwash. Nowadays genetic testing from reliable labs in the West costs only US$ 90. I advise all foolish enough to still believe in that made up rubbish to please spend some money and sort out the matter once and for all.

At 23 October 2015 at 18:54, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Glad that you like this one Athar.

At 2 February 2019 at 08:43, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sir ,
Was going through a book on Panini. As per book Panini has mentioned about geographical data also of the region. " Masskavati" is name of river. " Asvakayans" are the war like people mentioned having capital as " Masakka ". Is that relate to " Asapasoi" ?
Book is " India as known to Panini" by V.S. Agarawalla, Professor of Indology B.H.U. written in 1953 and available on google also as free download.
With regards

At 3 February 2019 at 12:00, Blogger Salman Rashid said...

Dear Himanshu, Panini's Massaka is the same as the Masaga of Greek historians. And Asvakayans are the Assakenoi of the Greeks. Asvaka were known as Aspasio - Asp (Horse) Zai (Son or Tribe). That is, Tribe of the Horse. This was very like for their prowess as horse breeders, riders and dealers. Aspasio became Azpzai and was Islamised to Yusufzai. Madhubala of Bombay was a Mardan Yusufzai dazzler.


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

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