Alexander and the Forgotten Battle Of Chitral

Muhammad Huzaifa collects the evidence that a fierce battle in ancient Chitral was wrongly placed by British colonial historians far away

Alexander and the Forgotten Battle Of Chitral
The story of a Macedonian conqueror’s wayward expedition to conquer the known world was given a sort of rebirth when the British conquered the Indus region. The British, who in the Macedonian’s success sought a mirror of their own invasions of the Indian Subcontinent, wrote a great deal analyzing and explaining the “Indian Campaign” of Alexander.

J.W. McCrindle’s The Invasion of India by Alexander the Great; the strongest account written back then, proposed Alexander had entered ‘India’ through Dir or Bajaur and made his way to Punjab through Swat. However, when clear contradictions in his account were publicized, he later confessed to having limited knowledge of the region and its geography. Even with that, for the next century and a half, most accounts written have reproduced his outright false version of the invasion.

The correct yet lesser known account was first written by F. Pincott in 1895 and reproduced only but a few times. It wrote in detail of Alexander’s entry into ‘India’ from the very northern fringe of the Subcontinent and the fierce yet forgotten first battle awaiting him in the high mountainous valleys of Chitral, in what is now Northern Pakistan.

Division of forces at Nikaea

fter subduing Bactria in 327 BC, Alexander passed through a region known as Nikaea, near present day Kabul, to initiate his invasions of the Indus. After offering a sacrifice to the goddess Athena, Alexander divided his forces: sending one part through the Khyber Pass towards the Gandharan capital on the Indus to initiate the creation of a bridge over the river and keeping the other part to himself. It is easy to deduce that Nikaea was a strategic area. It has been identified as Nangarhar by General Abbot and Jalalabad – where the Chitral river bifurcates – by F. Pincott. Seeing Alexander’s wish to cross the Indus at the highest point, it is only but natural to see that he initiated a northern march with his army set in a direction straight towards Chitral.
What confirms Alexander’s march towards Chitral and not Bajaur is that 10 miles north of Birkot, there lies at the mouth of the Chitral valleys the village of Harnai: which in local language quite literally means “snake town”, as noted by the Macedonians 2,000 years ago

Attacks and northward march In Kunar

Here we are told according to ancient accounts that the Macedonians took a hilly route up the River Khoes (River Kunar/Chitral) where they faced difficulties in crossing streams. According to these accounts, Alexander reached the first city of the Aspasians (the Greek name given to all Dardic inhabitants from Kunar and Chitral up to the hills of Kohistan) and hastily attacked it just after crossing the stream. Historians take this city to be the modern city of Kunar. The city offered resistance and resulted in wounds for both Alexander and his generals. It paid the price of such valour with a massacre of its inhabitants after it fell to the Macedonians.

The Macedonians then reached another city nearby named “Andaka” – which, seeing the conditions of their southern neighbours, immediately surrendered. Here the ancient sources claim the Macedonian army was once again divided and one part was sent to “subdue the local chiefs”. When analyzed, a few miles north of Kunar lies a village known as Andaraj and if that isn’t sufficient enough a reason to believe it to be “Andaka”, there is also the fact that it is located where the Chitral river once again bifurcates with one wing running down from Nuristan in the North West and the other running down from the North East in Chitral. It would be correct to assume Alexander sent some of his forces in the north-western direction to subdue the locals living on the banks of the other arm of the river.

According to ancient sources, after a day’s march they arrived at another city of a local chief which, after a bit of resistance, was burned by its fleeing inhabitants – who were chased and put to sword by the Macedonians. This city is identified to be the city of Birkot, 35 miles from Andaraj and perfect distance for a day’s march.

Afterwards they reached the city of “Arigaion” translating to “Snake Town”, which they burnt. It Is pertinent to note that it was the incompetence displayed over this city’s location which caused problems to historians’ accounts of Chitral’s resistance against foreign invaders.

Ritter placed this city to be in Bajaur whereas McCrindle placed it to be the village of Nawagai. If one were only to consider the physical topography of the region and the military strategies that it lends itself to, it would be easy to understand that both were wrong. For one, it was the Macedonian aim to subdue the people of Kunar which would constrict the Macedonians to the Kunar valley – considering that it expanded both in size and population up north as compared to the sparsely populated Bajaur. Another consideration was that Alexander’s wish to cross the Indus river at the highest point would force him to align his march in the north-easterly direction along the river Chitral and if both these points fail to satisfy, what confirms Alexander’s march towards Chitral and not Bajaur is that 10 miles north of Birkot, there lies at the mouth of the Chitral valleys the village of Harnai: which in local language quite literally means “snake town”, as noted by the Macedonians 2,000 years ago.

In action with his famed Companion Cavalry

Alexander noted how superior the cattle of the country were to the Macedonian ones back home and ordered for large batches to be captured and taken back to breed with local cattle of Macedon which, as noted by T.A. Dodge, is responsible for the hump still found in the cattle in Greece

Advent in Chitral

With Arigaion being placed right in the mouth of the area where the valleys start to narrow, thus leading into the narrow valleys of Chitral, Alexander ordered the fortification of the city before they advanced further. The Macedonians then marched ahead and arrived at the foot of a large mountain where they placed their camp. They knew that the fleeing inhabitants of Kunar had fled northwards and were bound to attack their army in a bulk along with their northern neighbors, therefore before advancing further, Alexander ordered his general Ptolemy to secretly march further on a reconnoitering mission to gather information about the strength of the enemy force. The camp itself according to multiple historians was located a mere 18 miles from the modern day Chitral town and Ptolemy had gone a “considerable distance” before returning. Upon his return, he carried the information that the enemy forces greatly outnumbered the Macedonian army as their campfires were in a much greater number than that of Alexander’s. True to his predilection towards always charging first at the enemy, Alexander descended upon the local army and thus commenced the fierce battle of Chitral.

Battle Of Chitral

Much of the populace of the mountain region of what is Chitral and Kunar had combined forces in Chitral and were waiting for the invading force. Alexander, perceiving the greater strength of the enemy, divided his army into three sections; the first under Ptolemy which consisted of a third of the hypaspists or the shield bearers, the brigades of Philip and Philotas, two squadrons of horse archers, the Agrianians (who served as javelin-throwing light infantry) and half of the other cavalry. The second part was under the leadership of Leonatus who was put in command of the brigades of Balacrus and Attacus alongside his own. And finally the third part belonged to the Macedonian king himself, who was leading the famous Macedonian Phalanx and the cavalry.

Alexander made his way through some of the world's most difficult terrain in what is today northern Pakistan

The invading army came up with an overall strategy of luring in the forces of the locals of Chitral into the open and then ambushing them where they were weak. For this, Alexander hid the other two parts of his army and took his phalanx alone to the battleground. The locals who had been occupying the hills and mountains after being tricked at the sight of a meagre army descended from the higher ground to meet the Macedonians directly. After the commencement of battle, the ancient Chitralis, not anticipating the might of the formidable blow of a Macedonian phalanx, the local army was pushed back and then commenced the ambush from the flanks.

However, even in the midst of the onslaught of the phalanx and the flanking ambush from the sides, the locals put up a tough resistance to the foreign army. According to the ancient historian Arrian, the local army met Ptolemy’s column of soldiers with “unusual vigour”. But even still the local show of might and resistance was not enough of a match for the strategy of the Macedonian general as he stormed his side of the enemy force.

The other section of the army under Leonatus also met resistance, although not of the same depth as that of Ptolemy and thus found it easier to overrun the local forces. It has been noted by the ancient Greek sources that the battle was long and went on for quite a span of time since it took the Macedonians some time to lure down the local armies. The battle was also noted to be severe to the point that a nation as vain and boastful as the ancient Macedonians were compelled to note the bravery of the local populace by describing them to be “the stoutest warriors of the neighbourhood”. Judging the praise put up by all sources as well of that of the severity and length of the battle, it won’t be false to note that the local armies gave a stubborn resistance to the invading armies, something the Macedonians hadn’t expected.

However, like many of the untested tribes and forces which were put to test against the might of the armies from Greece, the locals of Chitral too yielded at the end after suffering a large amount of losses to the organized ranks of the enemy. Arrian boasted that the Macedonians captured 40,000 people. However this figure is seen by most historians as another example of the exaggeration found in his works.

Though no town was mentioned, an interesting event was that Alexander noted how superior the cattle of the country were to the Macedonian ones back home and ordered for large batches to be captured and taken back to breed with local cattle of Macedon which, as noted by T.A. Dodge, is responsible for the hump still found in the cattle in Greece. For this feature, we can now make the cattle of Chitral responsible. This according to L.W. Cummings was additional confirmation that the battle took place in the valleys of Chitral since the valleys in the vicinity of the main area expand greatly and are the only place in the region suitable for raising such livestock - thus finally confirming Chitral’s location as the site of the battle.

Alexander’s armies after concluding the chapter of military endeavors in Chitral against the “Aspasians” moved into battle against a small amount of tribes noted by the Macedonians to be called as “Gureans”, living on the banks of a river Gureos before they passed into the territory of the “Assakenians” of what is now Swat. Interestingly, in the juncture of the valleys of Chitral and Swat still exist a number of tribes known as the Garwi who also live on the banks of a river known by the same name - perhaps further confirmation of the above-mentioned path of Alexander.

Alexander’s tumultuous campaign in the Indus region continued till the mutiny of his soldiers and though much of the information yielded to us by colonial writers is now once again under review and scrutiny for authenticity, one must not forget to list the Battle of Chitral as one such example of the lost heritage of the tribes of the Hindu Kush.