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June 19, 2023
In the 4th century CE, a young king of the small state of Macedon set off at the age of 22 on a grand expedition to Asia where, within a decade, he had destroyed and conquered the largest empire the world had ever seen. It stretched across three continents, from Greece and Albania in the west to Egypt in the south and India to the east, covering around two million square miles of territory. The scale of this unpredictable historical turn is hard to imagine. However, with Iran currently becoming increasingly accessible to visitors (major European airlines resumed flights for the first time in years this summer), there has never been a better time to gain perspective on this scale by following in the footsteps of Alexander along his vast and cataclysmic campaign.
Alexander’s achievement has fascinated historians and history-lovers for centuries. His story features in the literature of some 80 countries, including as far flung places as Britain, Kazakhstan and Malaysia. And his character is subject to endless reinterpretation: historians have variously lauded him a visionary, a philosopher, an inspiring leader and tactician, one of the greatest generals of all time, a severely paranoid tyrant, a sanguinary monster capable of incredible cruelty, and a megalomaniac.
But perhaps the strangest part of the story is its brevity. After ten years of relentless campaigning, Alexander suddenly died in Babylon (what was intended to be the capital of his new empire), at the age of 32. Without its Great King, the empire immediately fractured. However, the dissemination of Greek Hellenistic culture throughout the east was his unexpected enduring legacy. Over 70 ‘Alexandrias’ were founded across the territory, from the most famous at the mouth of the Nile in Egypt, to ‘Alexandria Eschate’ (Alexandria the Furthest) in modern Tajikistan, to ‘Alexandria on the Indus’ in Pakistan.
Fascinating cultural fusions also occurred: a Greek successor to Alexander called Menander I came to rule an independent Indo-Greek kingdom in the Punjab, where he converted to Buddhism. Sculptures of Buddha during this time were even depicted under the protection of a club-wielding Herakles. And just look at the Greek temple style of the buildings at Petra in Jordan for an idea of the Hellenistic influences in Arabic territories of the Near East. Alexander’s short but explosive life was certainly felt for centuries across his empire, and is still being felt today – see how the issue of appropriating Alexander is at the centre of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’s fight with Greece for its national identity.
Alexander’s campaign is best documented in the history of Arrian and the biography of Plutarch. They attest the route with a good degree of corroboration, to the extent that it can be mapped against the modern countries it intersects. Regional instability makes it impossible to travel along the entire route uninterrupted, but much of the way remains accessible to a modern visitor. The first two years of the campaign are easily explored: the army set off in 334 BCE from Pella, then the royal capital of Macedon and now in the north of modern Greece, crossed into Asia at the Hellespont (the Dardanelles in Turkey), fought the Persians at the river Granicus, and headed down Turkey’s Aegean coast and conquered the Greek cities there under Persian rule.
So far so good. However, here is where a modern traveller would run into difficulty: Alexander ’s next encounter with the Persians was against the Great King Darius III and his army at Issus, a town near a mountain pass on the border of Turkey and northern Syria. He then continued south through Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine.
The following portion of the campaign though is easily visited today. Three years into his campaign, Alexander passed through Egypt, where the populace surrendered to whom they considered a liberator from Persian rule. Here he made a pilgrimage through the desert to a remote oasis called Siwa, home to the esteemed oracle of the god Zeus-Ammon. The oracle, perhaps the most influential and revered in the Mediterranean, declared Alexander son of the god, and thus Pharaoh of Egypt. Today you can still visit this remote desert settlement, situated around 30 miles from the border of Libya. It is a fascinating realm of dirt tracks and slouching mud-brick houses, and home to a small, practically autonomous community of Berbers, who proudly possess their own distinct culture and Siwi language. Ruins of the oracle itself still remain among the palms of this mysterious and ancient oasis, crouching atop a rocky outcrop above the town.
Having successfully completed what was perhaps the greatest PR stunt of antiquity (Alexander was the only pharaoh to have actually visited the oracle), the Macedonians marched through the deserts of Syria and Mesopotamia, now modern-day Iraq, and currently the second most inaccessible portion of the campaign. Here the Macedonians defeated an enormous Persian force at Gaugamela near Erbil in northern Iraq. This was the decisive battle of the campaign, sending the Great King Darius into flight and setting in motion the complete collapse of the Persian empire. Alexander then entered one of the most ancient cities of human civilisation – Babylon – a few kilometres south of modern Baghdad, situated along the Euphrates river.
The rest of the year saw the Macedonians enter the various capitals of the Persian empire unopposed. The first Persian city Alexander entered was the ancient winter capital of Susa, located in the lower Zagros Mountains near today’s Iran-Iraq border. The Achaemenid court retreated here annually to avoid the snows of the high mountains. When Alexander returned to Susa seven years later, the city hosted his lavish ceremony of mass weddings between his aristocratic Macedonian elite to the Persian nobility, orchestrated in an attempt to unite the Macedonian and Persian leadership and cultures. Today the small town of Shush can be found at the site of Susa, boasting an impressive castle, a bustling market, and a vast archaeological site, the highlight of which is perhaps the enigmatic Tomb of Daniel, its unusual, pine-cone-like spire twisting out of its roof.
You can then follow Alexander’s route down the imperial highway, a road that once stretched all the way from the Aegean coast in modern Turkey deep into the heart of Persia. You will arrive at the ancient site of Persepolis, a ceremonial capital built by Darius I (the third Achaemenid emperor of the Persian empire) in the original homeland of the once nomadic Persian people. As the jewel of the kingdom, Persepolis was home to the ornate imperial palace, where dignitaries and other officials were received. The grandiose and luxuriant power of the Persian throne was on full display here: built on an enormous semi-artificial terrace, this sprawling palace was bedecked in ornate sculpture depicting the Great King of Kings receiving tribute from the vast array of peoples under his rule (the empire is credited as being the first multicultural world-power). An artistic wonder, and an arena of imperial propaganda, this site was beautified by successive Persian emperors, and once included the treasures looted from Athens by Xerxes after his first successful invasion of Greece in 480 BCE.
Alexander’s forces arrived in 331 BCE and looted the place, setting up camp for several months of drinking and celebrating. At some point during this celebration, Alexander and the Macedonians destroyed the entire palace. It will forever remain a mystery exactly how this happened. Arrian reports it was a calculated move to exact revenge for the Persian invasions of Greece and the destruction of the Athenian acropolis, whereas Plutarch depicts it as a moment of drunken bravado when one of many drinking parties got out of hand. Whatever the reason, it is one of the more devastating moments of Alexander’s frequently brutal campaign.
The ruins of Persepolis were lost for centuries under heaps of sand, until they were excavated in the 1930s. The exposed columns and staircases can be explored today as a day trip from the modern city of Shiraz, a beautiful and historical city of poets, nightingales, vineyards, splendid gardens and Muslim architecture. It certainly warrants a few days exploration. Visit the tomb of the celebrated poet Hafez, practically a pilgrimage site for modern Iranians, as well as the holy Shiite shrine to Sayyed Mir Ahmad, who was killed by the caliphate in the ninth century CE, and is today a genuine pilgrimage destination for Shiite Muslims.
After destroying the palace, Alexander passed through Pasargadae, an older capital of the Persian empire, and founded by the first emperor, Cyrus the Great. Alexander supposedly visited the tomb of Cyrus here, to pay his respects to a fellow conqueror and king of kings. The small, humble tomb still stands today, remote and exposed on the vast, windswept Morghab plain. There is not much else to see here. Its simplicity in the midst of expansive wilderness is the charm of this place. It too is easily visited from a base in Shiraz, and is much less frequented than Persepolis.
The Macedonian army then headed north and occupied the city of Aspardana, now known as Isfahan. Today it is a beautiful city of tree-lined boulevards, turquoise-tiled mosques and Persian gardens. Some of its highlights include the lush central plaza next to the elegant Friday Mosque, and the historic bazaar, one of the longest and oldest domed roof bazaars in the entire Near East, built nearly 400 years ago. Walk down its corridors and squares and admire the intricate architecture, the traditional religious schools and the caravanseries (a kind of inn where merchants parked their caravans). For atmosphere and pure sensory overload, this experience is not to be missed.
Alexander’s campaign continued north across the Persian plateau to the final imperial capital, Ecbatana. Originally an ancient Median capital (the principal Iranian power before the rise of the Achaemenids), it was conquered by Cyrus the Great, effectively unifying the Persian and Median powers into one empire for the first time. It became the summer residence of the royal court due to its cool vertiginous climate. When Alexander first arrived, he regrouped and sent the Greek allies home, marking the end of the Hellenistic war with Persia. From here on, the campaign was a truly Macedonian affair. Years later, on the return trip from campaigning in the Punjab, Alexander and his army passed back through Ecbatana, where his lover and closest companion Hephaestion died, a few months before Alexander’s own death.
The modern city of Hamadan now lies at this site, and a poorly preserved sepulchral lion can still be seen here. It is believed to have decorated the Lion Gate that once stood here as main entrance to the city, built by Alexander to commemorate his companion. It is purported that Alexander was still planning further memorial building projects for Hephaestion before he too died.
After occupying the capitals of empire and asserting himself as the new Great King of the Persians, Alexander’s remaining campaign saw him chase the fleeing Darius into eastern Iran and northern Afghanistan. He then continued north into modern Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, suppressing local rulers still loyal to the Achaemenid dynasty. Modern-day Samarkand in Uzbekistan stands on the site of Maracanda, one of the northernmost settlements Alexander reached in his campaign. He used this city as a base of operations in Central Asia for two years, and it is here that he murdered his companion Cleitus in a fit of drunken rage. It seems the king was becoming increasingly paranoid, gradually killing off all the older commanders of his father’s generation to preserve his own absolute hold on power. When Cleitus openly criticised the increasingly tyrannical Alexander at another rowdy drinking party, the ruler launched a javelin through his chest.
Samarkand today is an intriguing city. As a key point on the Silk Road from China, it has been a melting pot for the world’s cultures for centuries, with Alexander’s Hellenism being just one ingredient in a lively mix of Islamic architecture, Soviet city planning and Mongol history. The beautiful mausoleum of the Asiatic conqueror Timur is a stunning example of fifteenth century Muslim architecture, and an important precursor to the tradition of ornate mausoleums that was continued in India by the Mughals, culminating in the grand Taj Mahal, perhaps the most famous monument ever constructed.
Make it happen
If you want more information on organising your own expedition to Asia, or just want to learn more about the mysteries and culture of Iran, visit our destination page or send an enquiry to our local experts. Ask them about their new itinerary ‘Following in the footsteps of Alexander’ for more ideas of what a trip to this fascinating country could look like.