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Alexander and the Makran Desert

Recently, in a TV documentary, it has again been suggested that Alexander chose the Makran desert route home as a punishment to his army who had mutinied in India by refusing to follow him any further East. Can this seriously be considered as a possibility? We question this view and give our chief reasons in this article.

There are two major considerations in this scenario:

First, the Makran desert itself, an inhospitable, pitiless landscape of rock, dust, sand and baking heat along the southern coast of Iran. The shoreline of today has advanced considerably leaving Alexander’s coastline high and dry, a barren line still visible many miles inland from today’s coast. Extensive geological and archaeological research of the region has been going on for over 50 years so there is considerable knowledge of the possible conditions there in Alexander’s time.

Second, Alexander’s nature. Although undeniably ruthless when the need arose, he could also be unusually compassionate for his times, particularly to women and children. Is it likely that a man who was compassionate by nature (ie not from social pressures) deliberately led not only his men, but the wives and children travelling with them, into one of the worst deserts on Earth? Even if you discount compassion as an element in his character, you cannot discount his supreme abilities as a military commander. For such a man to choose, out of spite, to decimate fit troops who remained after sending the unfit home via an easier route would make no sense at all. They still had to get back to Persia through unconquered lands and have an army large enough to hold the new-won territories.

So what happened? Why did Alexander choose to lead his troops across the Makran desert? To protect and supply, or be supplied by, the fleet. Why the necessity of the fleet’s voyage along this coast? One reason most often suggested was to open up a sea trade route to India. For that to happen, the coast would have to be charted, landing sites and wells would have to be mapped. (This route did indeed open up after Nearchos’ voyage, because of the knowledge which had been gained.) But did he know how bad the Makran would be? Or did he think the route possible, having been deliberately misinformed?

Our main historical source for this incident are the journals of Nearchos (Arrian: Indica). This, we believe, may have been the original plan: That Nearchos, commanding the fleet whose assigned job it was to travel along the coast, would meet with the army at various points, and supply them with grain and provisions. The army’s job, in return, was to provide wells and protection for the fleet whenever it put into shore to take on fresh water. In this way, the army and the fleet would return all the way to the Persian heartland and Susa. Or an alternative explanation for the Makran: the fleet may have been comprised of boats incapable of carrying sufficient supplies to sustain itself for such a long voyage. Therefore, Alexander had to protect and supply the fleet from the land in order for the fleet to survive.

Nearchos, a personal friend of Alexander’s as well as being one of the chief officers, states that Alexander had full knowledge of the difficulty of the terrain over which they were to travel. He also gives another reason for Alexander’s choice of this route: his strong desire to do better than Queen Semiramis and Kyros who had attempted to travel the same route with their respective armies, but had only managed to bring a mere handful through to the other side. While it is true that Alexander always rose to the challenge of outdoing the achievements of others, he was never reckless in his choice of challenges. It is, therefore, possible that Nearchos, who published his book after Alexander was dead, made this particular claim because Nearchos no longer enjoyed the protection of Alexander and had to survive in the hostile world of Alexander’s Successors. He’d probably taken much blame- and continued taking it- for the disastrous march because of his failure to meet with the army as expected. Stating that Alexander planned to cross the Makran whether or not the fleet showed up was a way to take the heat off himself and pass it to Alexander who, safe with the Gods, was beyond harm.

Alexander seemed to have a great deal of luck, but it was the kind of luck that accompanies meticulous planning and very detailed reconnaissance and local knowledge. So what went wrong in Makran? Maybe, for once, the local guides were reckless enough to give him false information, hoping the desert would conquer Alexander. (The people in this region were very hostile to invasion and fought fiercely whenever engaged.) Or it may have been the information was incorrect, supplied by those who thought their knowledge of the current desert conditions was sufficient- a not uncommon problem in some areas even today. Or maybe it was just a sequence of events in which Alexander’s legendary luck failed for the first time...

The army had set out ahead of the fleet and the march to the coast proceeded as expected. The rendezvous point reached, the army waited for the fleet, but the fleet never came and no one knew why. (They later learned that the unexpected length of the monsoon and its prevailing winds had caused the fleet to delay putting to sea.) Meanwhile, the army had to be supplied from the land. It was a barren region and food supplies were soon exhausted. The replacement supplies which were to have sustained them were with the fleet. The land over which they had just travelled had been stripped by their march so they could not return that way, and without food, they could no longer remain where they were to wait for a fleet which might never come - for all they knew, it was destroyed by storm or treachery. Also without the supplies the fleet was carrying, they could not continue the planned march along the coast (even though they seem to have been able to dig wells along this coast and find fresh water). Therefore, the only choice left to Alexander was to order the army to swing inland instead and march through what turned out to be the worst of the Makran. One of the proofs that the soldiers themselves knew this was their only choice was the fact that they did not mutiny again, as in India, when the order was given.

Alternatively, if the fleet had to be supplied by the army and was dependent on the army digging wells and leaving provision dumps, then the army had to cross the Makran to reach the sea, no matter how bad the conditions were. Once they had completed their task, or as much of it as was possible, the same reasoning applies as to the route back into Persia.

So we contend the Makran march was not chosen for punishment or for glory, it was simply the army’s only route home at this point and everyone knew it. (Alexander was an elected king; the army had elected him and expected to be kept informed of what was happening and why. A king who made bad decisions was very soon a dead king according to Macedonian tradition!)

Looking at some of the possible statistics concerning the incident gives another perspective on the march:

Plutarch says that Alexander had 120,000 infantry and 15,000 cavalry in India and yet only one quarter of this fighting force returned from India. In the context, it sounds as though he is stating that three-quarters of them died on the march through Makran. Yet this clearly cannot be the case, for Nearchos says Alexander had 120,000 total combatants when the voyage down the Hydaspes began. Subtracting the troops sent back with Krateros (the unfit veterans of the Companion Cavalry and other unfit troops, three battalions of the phalanx - commanded by Meleager, Antigenes, Attalus), the casualties sustained in India; adding those left behind to occupy and secure the land, plus those left with Leonnatos among the Oreitae, and minus the men who went with the fleet, we are left with an estimated number of 8-10 thousand (Tarn, considered to be too low an estimate) to 60-70 thousand (Strasburger) who entered the Makran.

(Arrian gives the names of various army units with Alexander but he gives no numbers, saying only that Alexander led the greater part of his army into this region and gives a detailed account of the sufferings of the army here.)

Going back to figures, if we accept (Plutarch) that three-quarters died, then one-quarter did not. This means that enough food and water had to have been found to have sustained the survivors through the worst of their march. If we accept Engels' minimum rations (ATG and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army) required for survival as 2 quarts of water per day for desert march and 1.5 lbs of grain or equivalent (we are told they ate the horses and pack animals), halve these minimal survival rations to starvation quantities, and go with Strasburger's higher estimate, we are looking at 18,000 survivors requiring over 4000 gallons of water per day, plus 18,000 eating the equivalent of .75 lbs of grain per day (though this is not considered sufficient to sustain human life) equaling 13,500 lbs of grain per day.

Looking at these figures, it might suggest that the Makran had a marchable route which was not quite so inhospitable during Alexander’s time as research today seems to indicate. For those who believe Nearchos’ story that Alexander had always intended to march through the Makran, maybe Alexander knew something that we do not which made it a more plausible idea. Had his initial plan worked out (ie to have the army be supplied by the fleet, or if the fleet had not been delayed), the disaster might not have happened at all. Alternatively, if the Makran was totally inhospitable territory, then for Alexander to have got even 18,000 through says a great deal for his leadership in a crisis.

Written by Sikander/Halil