Into the Land of Bones, Alexander the Great in Afghanistan by Frank L. Holt. ISBN 0520279933. What a book! I even read it twice for there is so much information in there that I couldn’t grasp it all at once.
The subtitle “Alexander the Great in Afghanistan” may sound a little confusing as that country did not exist in Alexander’s day, but the land and its people were very much the same. Frank Holt retells the story of Alexander’s conquests in the area and projects them against the successive occupations by the English in the 19th century, by the Soviets in the 20th century and the Americans in this century, and it turns out that all the armies and their leaders faced the same problems.
Alexander the Great spent two full years campaigning in Bactria, as Afghanistan was called then, trying systematically to eliminate one warlord after the other just to see new warlords taking over behind his back as soon as he moved away. His fighting was the bloodiest ever and he lost more men in these two years than he had since he left Macedonia seven years before.
Even the English got a taste of it when they went into the First Afghan War in 1838. Four years later, they had not reached their goal and only one European survived the disastrous expedition. The Second Afghan War was fought from 1878 till 1889 but the success of the British – like that of Alexander two thousand years earlier - was short lived and as General Roberts rightfully put it in those days: Afghanistan should be left alone.
This is quite a statement but nobody listened. Nobody learned from Alexander’s experience (I will not call it mistakes, for what would have been right?) and nobody learned from the British either. The Soviets gave it a try in 1979 while the Americans entrusted the mujahideen warlords with their money and munitions for their bloody crusade. Eventually, the Afghans rebelled, the Soviets moved out and the Taliban took over, bringing “law and order”. On 9/11, the world was taken by surprise and another superpower landed in Afghanistan.
It is a unique experience to follow Frank Holt as he goes back and forth in time, considering Alexander’s options and scrutinizing his actions, comparing them to what the British and the Soviets did so many centuries later. The landscape has not changed and the people have not changed. Afghanistan is still being ruled by its warlords and their subjects still live on as they lived for centuries, attending their own business and mistrusting all foreign intrusion.
This book is as much the history of Alexander the Great as it is the history of more recent times, and that is what makes is so captivating. It is definitely worth reading, although sad to realize that we have not learned anything over the past two and a half thousand years since Alexander was fighting there.
Also available as eBook
Also available as eBook