AFGHANISTAN'S STRATEGIC LOCATION, wedged between Persia, the weathered steppes of Central Asia, and the trade routes of the Indian Subcontinent, has long made it alluring to great powers. When Alexander the Great began his march into Afghanistan around 330 BC, locals witnessed a forbidding sight. Riding ahead of the invading force were scouts armed with sarisas-pikes up to twenty feet long, weighted at the base and projecting fifteen feet in front of the mounted cavalry. Agile soldiers armed with javelins surveyed the heights on both flanks. The core of Alexander's army was a thick column of horsemen and foot soldiers that snaked along Afghanistan's windswept roads. Some soldiers wore plumed helmets, purple tunics, and glistening armor. Alexander had begun his Asia campaign four years earlier, and the invasion of Afghanistan was a key part of his quest. His army had already swept through what is now Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Iraq, and Iran before arriving at the edge of Afghanistan.1
One of the most interesting accounts of the campaign was provided by the Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus. He described Alexander gathering his soldiers together before their march into Afghanistan and addressing them with bravado: In a new, and if we wish to confess the truth, insecure empire, to whose yoke the barbarians still submit with obdurate necks, there is need of time, my soldiers, until they are trained to milder dispositions, and until better habits appease their savage temper. Do you believe that so many nations accustomed to the rule and name of another, united with us neither by religion, nor customs, nor community of language, have been subdued in the same battle in which they were overcome? It is by your arms alone that they are restrained, not by their dispositions, and those who fear us when we are present, in our absence will be enemies. We are dealing with savage beasts, which lapse of time only can tame, when they are caught and caged, because their own nature cannot tame them.Then you will hurry to recover what is yours, then you will take up arms. But how much better it is to crush him while he is still in fear and almost beside himself.2
Rufus wrote that the address was received with great enthusiasm by Alexander's soldiers.3 The great Hellenic army entered Afghanistan from what is today Iran. They paused to found a garrison city, Alexandria-in-Areia, near Afghanistan's western city of Herat, then marched south to the lower Helmand River Valley. The Helmand River, the longest in Afghanistan, stretches more than 700 miles from the Hindu Kush mountains in the north to the Helmand Valley in the south. Its waters, used by local farmers for irrigating crops, left behind rich soil to feed the orchards and date-palm groves that lined its banks. In this period, the valley was fertile and well populated, and Alexander's army halted there to await the end of Afghanistan's bitter winter before proceeding north.
From the book In the Graveyard of Empires, by Seth G. Jones.
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