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With his conquest of Achaemenid Empire complete, the Persian army in collapse, and both Susa and Persepolis under his control, Alexander the Great's ultimate prize — the capture of the emperor Darius III — was within his grasp. But the prize was denied him by Bessus the Achaemenid satrap (regional governor) of Bactria and Sogdia (in present-day northern Afghanistan and southern Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan). Bessus murdered the fleeing Darius, crowned himself the emperor of Persia and King of Asia and retreated to his fortress capital in the mountains of Bactria.
Alexander had little choice but to capture Bessus by following him into a region that many invaders have found impossible to conquer.
In a fateful campaign that would cut short the life of the most ambitious warrior in history, Alexander led his vast army of Madedonians, Greeks, Persian conscripts and mercenaries from many regions into present-day Afghanistan in 330 BC. First contact was made with the chieftain of the city we now call Herat.
Less interested in conquering this remote desert city than in pursuing Bessus, Alexander sought peace with the local Herat ruler and left a handful of Greek soldiers at the Herat citadel to maintain order before continuing north to Bactria.
Yet within a day, the Herat populace killed the Greeks, forcing Alexander to return, destroy the citadel and build a new Greek-style fortress atop the foundations. Those foundations still occupy the center of Herat, where a Timurid-period fortress now stands.
The type of guerilla-style fighting that Alexander faced during the Afghan campaign was described centuries later by the chronicler Plutarch, who compared Afghan tribesmen to a hydra-headed monster: as soon as Alexander cut off one head, three more would grow back in its place.
Always fearful of leaving his southern and eastern flank exposed in his pursuit of Bessus to the North, Alexander undertook a massive building campaign, erecting a series of fortresses (miniature "Alexandrias") in a giant arc from Herat in the west to Kandahar in the south to the Oxus (Amu Darya) River in the north and beyond into present-day Kazakstan and Tajikistan. The Alexander fortresses we know of include:
• Alexandria in Aria at present-day Herat - Sept., 330 BC;
• Prophthasia ("Anticipation") at Farah - Oct., 330 BC;
• Alexandria in Arachosia at Kandahar - winter of 330/329 BC;
• Alexandria in the Caucasus at Charikar - March, 329 BC;
• Alexandria Eschate ("the furthest") in Tajikistan - 329 BC;
• Alexandria on the Oxus at Ai Khanoum - spring of 328 BC;
as well as a ring of garrisons to the north to fend off
marauding nomads and house additional garrisons in the
east (present-day Pakistan and Western India.
At each of these fortresses, Alexander left behind hundreds or thousands of Macedonian and Greek soldiers as well as logisitics and supply troops, builders, artisans, tillers and every type of workers needed to create a real settlement.
The "left behind" Macedonians and Greeks at these settlements not only protected Alexander from local harassment as he pursued and eventually captured and killed Bessus (followed by the aborted invasion of India in 326 BC and retreat back to Persia, where Alexander died at Babylon on the 11th of June 323 BC).
These Greek garrisons established a Hellenic presence deep in Central Asia that persisted for centuries.
The grandsons and great-grandsons of the Macedonian and Greek soldiers and artisans that Alexander left behind during his sojourn through Afghanistan were joined by many more Greeks, drawn by the trading opportunities in Central Asia during the next three centuries. These hearty survivors on the eastern fringe of the Hellenstic world transformed the art of Central Asia and led to an artistic revolution that culminated in a Greco-Buddhist style of sculpture, architecture and wall painting in Gandhara (eastern Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan).