Swat II: on Heracles’ track to the Indus

In 1926 Aurel Stein, the Hungarian/British archaeologist and explorer, spent two and a half months touring Upper Swat, then an independent princely state beyond the boundaries of British India. In 1926 it was for the first time peaceful enough, and friendly enough with the British authorities, for Stein to secure access. As with Afghanistan, Swat was a place that Stein had long aspired, and strived, to visit.

Aurel Stein’s aims in Swat were twofold, to explore Buddhist sites along the Swat valley, and to trace the route of Alexander the Great in his conquest of Swat in 327-326BC. In particular, he wanted to identify the site of one of Alexander’s most celebrated military exploits, the mountain fastness of Aornos where the people of Swat had taken refuge from Alexander’s attack. This assault was in part motivated, the ancient sources tell us, by Alexander’s desire to rival Heracles, who had long before tried and failed to capture the “Rock”. Stein’s account of his tour, On Alexander’s Track to the Indus (a great read, I should say), opens with an apology to Xuanzang, the seventh-century Chinese monk whose account of his travels to India in search of sacred texts had been Stein’s guide across Central Asia (and was again in Swat), but who on this occasion was playing second fiddle to a fascination with Alexander that Stein had harboured since boyhood.

Aurel Stein’s trip to Swat inaugurated the archaeological investigation of the valley, subsequently taken up by the Italian scholar Giuseppe Tucci and his successors in the Missione Archaeologica Italiana in Pakistan. Tucci himself, who had a special expertise in Tibetan Buddhism, came to Swat after the Chinese occupation of Tibet in the 1950s.

Stein had a candidate for Aornos, and it was was Pir-Sar, “Peak of the Saint”, some distance to the east of the Swat river. At the climax of his book (p.119) this exceptionally fit 63-year old reaches the top of the mountain and establishes to his satisfaction that it was indeed Aornos:

“It was long after midnight before I could seek warmth among my rugs. But the growing conviction that Aornos was found at last kept my spirits buoyant in spite of benumbed hands and weary feet. Alexander, so Arrian and Curtius tell us, offered sacrifices to the gods when he had gained possession of the ‘Rock’. I had no victory to give thanks for. Yet I, too, felt tempted to offer a libation to Pallas Athene for the fulfilment of a scholar’s hope, long cherished and long delayed.”

In another blog (one I feel great fondness for, as it secured me an invitation to Swat) I expressed my view, which is entirely indebted to other people’s research and insight, that Stein was wrong about the location of Aornos, as well as about his idolisation of Alexander: there is a more plausible site for Aornos first proposed by Tucci, and that site also gives its capture a very different complexion. Here in Alexander’s track, though, Stein elegantly links the sacrifices that Alexander made to Athena and Victory on the summit of Aornos (Curtius 8.11.24) with Athena’s role as the protector of artisans and scholars such as Stein. In fact Athena’s patronage of Stein was even more intimate: on the front cover of his books was embossed an image of Athena which he had unearthed in Xinjiang, China. (As I explain here, I don’t think Stein appreciated quite how closely tied to Alexander his image actually was.)

I went to Swat (just a week in my case) interested in both these Pallas Athenas, the warrior’s and the scholar’s. In other words, I wanted to see for myself why Tucci, and more recently Luca M. Olivieri, were so convinced that Alexander’s Aornos was not Pir-Sar but Mt. Elam, a mountain much more central to Swat. (It is, as I shall explain, in important ways a matter of seeing.) But I also wanted to understand why Stein was so determined to locate Aornos at Pir-Sar, because I think his misplacement is potentially just as fascinating as anything to do with Alexander.

Stein had devoted a lot of time and effort to this question. In 1904 he had managed to visit Mt. Mahaban, on the right bank of the river Indus, a site that had been proposed for Aornos fifty years before by James Abbott, an imperial functionary at the cutting edge of British expansion into N-W India, and the man who gave his name to Osama bin Laden’s adopted home at Abbottabad. On this occasion Stein was able, with regret, to rule out Abbott’s theory about Mahaban, but he could investigate no further himself until 1926.

When he did, it was another site on the Indus he plumped for: Pir-Sar overlooks the river some way upstream of Mahaban. It’s worth considering why Abbott, Stein and a host of others were determined to locate Aornos by the Indus. The obvious reason is that in three ancient accounts it is explicitly stated that the base of the mountain was washed by the waters of the river (Diodorus 17.85.3; Strabo 15.1.8; Curtius 8.11.7, cf. 8.11.12)–they are clearly following a common source. Classical sources of course carried authority for the classically-educated Europeans engaged in this quest.

But something that is altogether clearer when you’re physically there, specifically when you’re approaching the Indus in a taxi from Islamabad airport, is the psychological compulsion for the British to locate Aornos by the Indus. British jurisdiction extended as far as the Indus and no further at the relevant point: Swat never fell under British control. Abbott had developed his theory about Aornos by a combination of local intelligence and a telescope trained on the mountains from the eastern side of the river. (He painted a watercolour of his view.) Bound up with the British search for a defensible boundary to its Indian possessions was the pursuit of a pretext for their presence in this territory. The activities of Alexander, a familiar historical figure in this profoundly alien space, were of intense interest to all the colonial officials involved in the borderlands: my favourite example is Alexander Burnes squandering a few days of his mission to Bokhara scouring the Punjab for a trace of the twelve altars to the Olympian gods raised by Alexander on the river Hyphasis. Abbott training his telescope on the far side of the Indus is an intensely imperial moment too. The British occupied one side of a river both strategic and fraught with classical associations. The site of Alexander’s exploit was all-but in their grasp, and it had to be one of those shadowy mountains just on the other side of the Indus.

Abbott’s sketch of “Aornos”, from his article “Gradus ad Aornon”, viewed from the far side of the river Indus (f).

“The construction of a map of Sohaut (Swat) is a matter of much importance,” Abbott says by way of conclusion to his long argument for Mt. Mahaban: “Sooner or later the Sohauties will compel us to punish them. Every possible means should then be applied to add to our knowledge of the features of that rich and extensive valley, and imperfect as is the sketch map now offered, it will yet I trust serve as a foundation for more satisfactory charts, and if so, the toil it has cost me, will be well rewarded.” The search for Alexander and the work to extend and consolidate colonial territory were, as I say, thoroughly intertwined. Even in Stein’s case, it was an officer involved in a border campaign along the Indus, Col. R. A. Wauhope, who had given him the tip about Pir-Sar, and Stein himself had crossed the river and investigated Buddhist sites while attached to a punitive force dispatched in 1898. Commenting in The Times on Stein’s “discovery” of Aornos in 1926, Francis Younghusband describes how, “during the Chitral campaign of 30 years ago, when the engineers were road-making through the Malakand Pass into Swat, they came across evidences of an ancient road made in Buddhist times, as well as many artistic remains of the period” (27 May 1926 = H. Wang, Sir Aurel Stein in The Times p. 84).

That winding road up to “the once blood-soaked heights of the Malakand” is still the main route into Swat. Here is a view back from Malakand toward Mardan and the Kabul river:

Whatever their reasons for placing Aornos beside the Indus, Abbott and Stein and all their many fellow Aornos-hunters were almost certainly wrong, and it took the proper access to Swat achieved by Giuseppe Tucci (as well as, I believe, an academic mind somewhat less fettered by respect for classical authors) to offer a better solution. (The Indus detail is perplexing, for sure, but I need no persuading that the ancients could get their geography very badly wrong.) Tucci proposed Mt. Elam, his persuasive argument being that it was just the kind of place the people of Swat would take refuge in, a mountain considered sacred by the people of Swat since time immemorial. Elam is an important place of pilgrimage for Hindus, site of the Ram Takht, the throne of Rama, the Indian deity, while Xuanzang claims “Hilo” as the place where the Buddha in an earlier existence had surrendered his life in return for hearing half a line of scripture. Buddhist foundations on the slopes of the mountain confirm its sanctity. The stupa of Amluk-dara stands just off an ancient path to the summit of Elam–in the words of Dr Olivieri, it is a station on the pilgrimage route to the summit, and a watchtower nearby from the Hindushahi period (tenth century) underlines the importance of this, the shortest route to the mountain top.

The stupa at Amluk-dara, with Elam/Aornos behind, a perennially sacred place, photo (much better than any of mine) courtesy of Luca M. Olivieri

In my earlier blog I made something of Tucci’s idea that the very name Aornos, as recorded by Greek sources, might conceal “aarana”, “a common name for any sheltered place”: this was a place of refuge, of protection by the gods. A different kind of sense of the centrality of Elam to the part of Swat attacked by Alexander can be got from a remarkable text found and translated by Tucci, the account of a thirteenth-century Tibetan monk Orgyan pa. Tucci compares the author to Kipling’s unworldly Lama in Kim: his description of Swat is “quite possibly an almost contemporary record of a journey to a country which was already considered as a magic land, and was seen through the eyes of a man who [because of his Buddhist beliefs] had no sight for reality”, capable (in other words) of conveying less the reality of Elam than the awe that this mountain could command:

To the east there is the mountain Ilo, which is the foremost of all mountains of the Jambudvipa (the World).There is no medical herb growing on the earth which does not grow there. It is charming on account of its herbs, stalks, leaves and flowers. Sarabhas and other antelopes wander there quite freely. There are many gardens of grape; beautiful birds of every kind and of gracious colours make a deep chattering.

From that country we went to the west for seven days;
Up to the mountain Ilo, the peak of K’a rag k’ar
In the mountain, sarabhas play
And there are gardens of grape in abundance.
I did not covet any thing.”

From reading Susan Whitfield and Gregory Schopen*, who explain the Buddhist association of thought between natural beauty, especially the cultivated landscape of the garden, and religious sanctity, I realise that when this Tibetan monk describes Elam as verdant and fertile, he is in effect saying that it is an intensely sacred place. If I understand Aurel Stein correctly, Xuanzang had converted the ancient name of Swat, Uddiyana, into the Sanskrit word for “garden”, udyana, with the same implication that Swat is a beautiful and thus a sacred space. But for Orgyan pa, Mt. Elam is the most beautiful, the most sacred place in the “magic land” of Swat.

For me, in my resolutely secular way, a comparable effect was achieved simply by standing in the archaeological site of Bazira in Barikot (a city captured by Alexander) and looking toward Mount Elam. Not for the first time I discovered that there’s nothing like physically placing yourself somewhere for understanding ancient perceptions of a place. Elam simply dominates the view. This really cannot be conveyed by a wide-angle shot, but I’ve done my best.

Obviously, though, this is where you would seek refuge from Alexander the Great.


A detail recorded by all the ancient sources, as I’ve mentioned, is that Alexander’s motivation for storming Aornos was partly that Heracles had unsuccessfully attempted it before him. Heracles’ failure to reach the summit was presented as an act of piety, after divine displeasure had been signalled to him by an earthquake. More Heracles than Alexander, I failed to see the summit of Aornos because I heeded warnings that Elam is still a refuge, these days for a type of person best not encountered if possible.

But another thing I’ve been reminded of in Swat is how fundamentally tied to the landscape Heracles is. Any unusual island, promontory, rock-formation, hot spring or mountain was very likely to be associated with this hero in his wanderings across the world. And while they probably shouldn’t be pushed too far, the parallels between what Westerners (and especially British) saw in Alexander and what Alexander and his army found in Heracles are striking.

In Alexander the British Empire found a precedent for their own presence in Central Asia, evidence that they were not the rank interlopers they appeared to be. If the ground was “Classic”, it was familiar–it was, in a sense, “ours”. In antiquity Heracles had long played a similar role for Greeks on the move, a god of trade and travel and colonisation whose myths of wandering always offered Greeks the option that Heracles had been there (and “there” might be Cadiz or Monaco or the Nile Delta) before them. Alexander had a special connection to Heracles, claiming descent from him, and he put the hero on his coins: it is sometimes hard to distinguish images of Heracles and Alexander, so close is their assimilation. The stories associated with Aornos are another illustration. Wherever Alexander went, so also had Heracles, assuring the Macedonians and Greeks that this was a place to which they had a valid claim.

The Heracles that came to India with Alexander entered the local artistic repertoire. This is a link to a Heracles apparently from Pakistan, now in the Ashmolean Museum, and here is a fragment of a jug handle from Charsadda, ancient Peshawar, which represents either Heracles in his lionskin, or Alexander as Heracles in his lionskin (from M. Wheeler, Charsada p. 115 and pl. XXXVIb; for a similar artefact, cf. J. Marshall, Taxila 2.433 and 3. pl. 130f, no. 226b):

I did find myself wondering if this silver repoussé head found at Sirkap, Taxila by Marshall (but stolen from the Taxila Museum in 1999), and identified by him as Dionysus or Silenus (J. Marshall, Taxila 2.614-5), might actually be Heracles, who is often depicted garlanded and drinking, and more often than Dionysus depicted bearded:


More dramatically, and excitingly, Heracles found his way into the visual language of Buddhism, a religion of which the Indo-Greek kings who ruled this area in the second century BC, indirect heirs of Alexander, seem to have been significant patrons, the most famous such king, Menander, especially. In Gandharan art Heracles becomes Vajrapani, a figure accompanying the Buddha who holds the vajra or thunderbolt (this is what his name Vajrapani means) which symbolises the power of Buddhist insight, but also regularly sporting a lionskin and/or physically evoking Heracles. Here is one of a very large number of Vajrapanis I snapped in Swat and Peshawar, this one in the Swat Museum in Saidu Sharif, and originally from the site of Nimogram:

Why this Heracles/Vajrapani became so important to Gandharan Buddhist art is a matter of much debate. Vajrapani has the role of guiding and protecting the Buddha, and the physical presence represented by Heracles suits that well enough. One explanation by Katsumi Tanabe, though, emphasises the connection of the vajra with the Indian god/hero Indra, a god of war (also, like Heracles, fond of a drink) who is regularly represented attending the Buddha: the Gandharan Vajrapani, so the theory goes, is a Greek-influenced realisation of some version of this same Indra (my thanks to @kaeshour for pointing out to me that Indra is called vajrapani with a small v, so to speak, in the Mahabharata and elsewhere).** (Heracles is certainly very good at being mistaken for non-Greek hero-deities, whether Indra or Melqart or Verethragna.) Tanabe cites this Vajrapani in the Peshawar Museum, who clearly carrries more than a hint of Heracles, but also wears Indra’s characteristic spherical cap (also to be seen on the Kanishka casket, where Indra and Brahma attend the Buddha):

I am way beyond any knowledge of what I’m talking about by now, needless to say, but what anyone can see here is an interesting mix of heroic exploits localised in Swat. Olivieri plausibly explains the idea in the Alexander historians that Heracles had tried and failed to capture Aornos as a Macedonian/Greek reinterpretation of a local myth, maybe a story of Thraetaona or Indra, Persian and Indian versions of the Indo-European dragon-fighting hero.*** From many centuries later comes a peculiar appropriation of similar heroic myth for the Buddha. It is a story concerned, as in the classic form of such stories, with a dragon and a water source crucial for agriculture. As told in Xuanzang’s account of his travels, the dragon Apalala was interfering with the flow of the river Swat, on which the valley’s prosperity of course depends, and the Buddha, out of his universal pity for creation, persuaded the dragon to relent. He did so either by striking the mountainside himself with the vajra, Indra’s characteristic weapon, or by bringing along with him Vajrapani, brandishing the vajra, as the muscle.

In either case, some more or less distant relation to the story that Alexander’s army heard in Swat had persisted and entered Buddhist belief, and it isn’t hard to see how Heracles could also have maintained an existence for centuries in this resonant environment. The transformation from Alexander’s ancestor to an attendant of the Buddha and enforcer of his universal empathy is pretty remarkable, all the same.

After the Buddha subdued the dragon, according to Xuanzang, he left this imprint of his feet in the rock, the size of which is supposed to vary with the merit that the viewer has accrued (I’ve left my own feet visible to give an idea how huge they are, and how colossal my, and now your, merit is). These footprints were also seen by Faxian and Song Yun, both also Chinese monks, in the fifth and sixth centuries, and by Aurel Stein in 1926, at Tirat on the right bank of the Swat: they are now in the Swat Museum at Saidu Sharif.

Song Yun says that it looks like an imprint left by the Buddha in the mud, and in the well-watered, fertile, much-coveted, and for all these reasons sacred valley of the Swat that certainly seems appropriate.

Read Swat I

*G. Schopen, “The Buddhist ‘monastery’ and the Indian garden: aesthetics, assimilations, and the siting of monastic establishments,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 126 (2006), 487-505;

**K. Tanabe, “Why is the Buddha Sakyamuni accompanied by Hercules/Vajrapani? Farewell to Yaksa-theory,” East and West 55 (2005), 363-81;

***L. M. Olivieri, “Notes on the problematical sequence of Alexander’s itinerary in Swat, a geo-historical approach,” East and West 46 (1996), 45-78.

About Llewelyn Morgan

I'm a Classicist, lucky enough to work at Brasenose College, Oxford. I specialise in Roman literature, but I've got a persistent side-interest in Afghanistan, particularly the scholars and spies and scholar-spies who visited the country in the nineteenth century.

2 responses to “Swat II: on Heracles’ track to the Indus”

  1. onemillionphotographs says :

    Beautiful photos, thank you for sharing!

  2. mypoetrystuff says :

    If classicism were a landscape, I guess it would look like the mountainous regions of Central Asia – a largely inaccessible place, dominated by some great peaks, sprinkled with a few lush valleys, inhabited by a persistently mysterious set of peoples: so naturally, you follow in the footsteps of Hercules, Alexander and the British, trying to make it your own somehow, because you know that you never will. The reality remains secret and hidden, even when it stands out as big and bold as Elam. A scholar’s paradise.

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