Writing a book about Afghanistan a decade ago, horribly flawed though that book was, has affected my life in various ways. It has drawn me into projects that I trust will be less flawed, like the current one I’m pursuing with Professor Luca Olivieri on the earliest archaeological study of Swat, and in recent weeks my affection for the country has been a cause of great sadness, as I hardly need say. It has also introduced me to some very good friends, among them Owen Humphrys, someone I first met a long time ago while promoting that book.
Back then our conversation was about some remarkable photograph albums of Afghanistan in the 1920s that had belonged to his grandfather. More recently, though, I was delighted to discover that the focus of the book that Prof Olivieri and I are writing, Harold Deane, was also Owen’s great-grandfather. Pure serendipity, and Owen was able to share with me some material related to Deane, including the item I’m going to talk about here.
The item in question is a seven-page handwritten document entitled “Alexander’s Campaign in Afghanistan”. In fact this involves a broad (though in the nineteenth century not unparalleled) definition of Afghanistan, as it relates the Greek and Roman accounts of Alexander the Great’s campaigns in 327 and 326 BC to the territory between the Hindu Kush and the river Indus, today shared between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The document is a letter to Harold Deane, clearly an answer to one that Deane had sent the author, though now lacking the personalised cover sheet it must originally have had, and it is signed “J.W. Mc.Crindle 9 Westhall Gardens Edinburgh.” The letter can be securely dated, on internal evidence, to 1896.
John Watson McCrindle was a former principal of Patna College who also authored a series of books that collected together his translations of all the Greco-Roman texts that described India: Ancient India as described by Megasthenes and Arrian (1877); The Commerce and navigation of the Erythraean Sea (1879); Ancient India as described by Ktesias the Knidian (1882); Ancient India as described by Ptolemy (1885); The Invasion of India by Alexander the Great (1893); and Ancient India as described in classical literature (1901). McCrindle’s book on Alexander, published in 1893, by which time he had retired to Edinburgh, had presented the narratives of the Greek and Roman sources separately, but what he offers Deane in this letter is a synthesis of all those sources, McCrindle’s considered view of Alexander’s probable itinerary.
What was also happening in 1896 was that Harold Deane was working on the seminal article on the antiquities of Swat that is the focus of my work with Prof Olivieri, “Note on Udyāna and Gandhāra”, published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society for October 1896. It is clear enough that Deane had sought information from McCrindle as he was writing (or rewriting) this article, in the course of which he concerns himself with Alexander’s itinerary among a number of other things.
This makes McCrindle’s letter to Deane a very interesting piece of evidence for Deane’s thinking as he composed what was a pioneering contribution to the archaeology of Swat and its neighbourhood, and something entirely unanticipated–and for that I’m enormously grateful to Owen. We’ll be publishing the letter properly in the book we’re writing, but here I’m just going to pick out one detail with a view to illustrating “Deane’s thinking”.
Harold Deane was a keen amateur antiquarian and archaeologist, but we need to ask how he came by the knowledge that he imparted in this article for the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society. Swat, after all, was until 1895 a territory entirely beyond British control. But Major Deane was a Political Officer, and in particular he had accompanied a British military force that in 1895 invaded and occupied the lower part of the Swat valley as part of a larger mission to relieve a siege of British nationals in the princely state of Chitral.
As the Chief Political Officer accompanying this force, Deane brought to bear the language skills and familiarity with local culture that he had honed over a decade in similar roles on the North-West Frontier of British India. His article shares observations from before his service with the Chitral Relief Force, but the heart of it relates to the archaeological remains visible in the territory crossed by that force in its march toward Chitral. The most interesting aspect of this work, for me, is the intersection of a paramilitary colonial administrator and a pioneer of archaeological investigation in Swat, both of which Deane could undoubtedly claim to be. These two sides of Harold Deane are ultimately inseparable, but for a fuller discussion of all this you’ll need to read the book when it comes out.
In the meantime, though, there’s one detail in McCrindle’s letter to Deane (as I say, itself a response to an enquiry, or set of enquiries, from Deane) that I find especially suggestive.
This takes the form of a postscript from McCrindle answering a specific enquiry from Deane about the Malakand Pass:
“P.S. With regard to the road by the Malakand Pass. The only passages I can find in Strabo which can refer to it are — Book XV.i.26 “He (Alexr.) turned towards India and towards its western boundaries and the rivers Kôphês & Choaspes. The latter river empties itself into the Kôphes near Plemyrion1 after passing by another city Gorys2 in its course through Bandobênê and Gandaritis.[“] 27. [“]After the river Kôphês follows the Indus. The country lying between these two rivers is occupied by Astakeni (Assakeni) Masiani, Nysaei and Hippasii (Aspasii). Next is the territory of Assakenus where is the city Masoga — the royal residence. Near the Indus is another city Peucolaitis. At this place a bridge which was constructed afforded a passage for the army.[“]
1 v.l. Plêgêrion. 2 v.l. Gôrydalê
These are the only passages in Strabo which can have reference to Alexr.’s route through that part of Afghanistan. In preparing a 6th volume on Ancient India I searched through all Strabo for references to India & Afghanistan. J.W.Mc.C.”
The details here don’t really concern us. But Deane’s interest in Malakand, and interest in finding Malakand in classical texts, is something I find very intriguing. By the time he was writing his article for the Asiatic Society Deane was based in a fort at Malakand, the entrance to Swat at the summit of the Malakand Pass. But Malakand had also been the site of the first major conflict of the campaign to relieve Chitral, when British-Indian forces stormed the difficult approaches to the pass against opposition from the people of Swat. Christian Tripodi in Edge of Empire (2011), p. 85, calls the siege of Chitral “one of those instances of high drama, much like the siege of Mafeking during the Second Anglo-Boer War, that attracted a huge amount of attention throughout the Empire and pandered to public notions of national honour and imperial destiny.” The initial success at Malakand shared much of this perception of its heroic character.
In accounts of the capture of the Malakand heights and its aftermath, a regular point of reference is an ancient road to the summit of the pass, consistently referred to as a (or the) “Buddhist road”. George Younghusband, in the account of The Relief of Chitral that he wrote with his more famous brother Francis, describes the 60th Rifles happily chancing upon this road as they approached the summit (p. 88), and then its renovation and use after the capture of the pass as a supply route (p. 93). Much later Francis Younghusband recalled the latter activity “on an ancient road made in Buddhist times” when commenting in The Times (May 27th 1926, p. 14c, cf. H. Wang, Aurel Stein in The Times , 84) on Aurel Stein’s purported discovery of Aornos at Pir Sar.
One of the first things the British did when they had captured Malakand was to build the road pictured at the top of this post (by which I travelled to and from Swat a couple of summer ago), and when two years after the capture of Malakand a general uprising, beginning in Swat, spread right along the British Indian frontier, and the fort at Malakand was besieged, an ambitious young soldier/journalist named Winston Churchill regularly refers in The Story of the Malakand Field Force (1897) to a Buddhist road leading to Malakand that lies alongside the modern construction. Here it is on Churchill’s sketch map (top left), and here also, for no very good reason, is my photo from the modern road in 2018, looking in a roughly southerly direction toward Mardan.
It’s clear enough, then, that an ancient/Buddhist road, or one perceived as such, was a familiar feature of the approach to Malakand, and in addition that this old road was what Deane was concerned with when he asked McCrindle about Greek references to “the road by the Malakand pass”. In the event McCrindle is not able to offer him anything very useful, as neither of the texts of Strabo he cites can really refer to it. But why Deane wanted McCrindle’s opinion on the road is still an interesting question, and we Classicists are all-too prepared to speculate on the basis of limited evidence. I for one thought I understood exactly what Deane was wondering about this ancient road.
One difference between Ancient History and studying the late nineteenth century, though, is that the amount of evidence available restricts the need for such classical speculation. In this case another document provides the answer loud and clear, and it comes straight from the horse’s mouth.
Surgeon-Major L. A. Waddell may be best known these days for his quest in search of the landmarks of the Buddha’s life and ministry in northern India and Nepal, undertaken whenever he could secure leave from his official position. His prickly character, not softened by the toxic competition that developed to locate Kapilavastu and Kushinagar, is well conveyed in Charles Allen, The Buddha and Dr Führer: an archaeological scandal (2008).
In 1895, however, just a few months after the storming of the Malakand, Waddell visited Lower Swat, the area occupied by the British, “for the archaeological exploration of this ancient Buddhist land, formally called Udyana, and to secure sculptures for Government.” (In fact he was revisiting Malakand and Swat, since he had himself served in the Chitral Relief Force.) His official report to the government survives, rediscovered by Luca Olivieri, in an archival collection at the fort at Malakand, but that copy lacks the first page. Luckily Waddell was alert to the need to publicise his archaeological discoveries, though, and he published his report independently in issue 1224 of The Academy (October 19th 1895), pp. 321-2.
With reference to the road up to Malakand, he writes:
“On the following day I ascended the Malakand Pass by the so called ‘Buddhist road,’ as it has been lately named. It is an excellent ancient road, comparing favourably with the best mountain roads of the present day. It rises by an easy gradient, and several of its sections are cut deeply through the hard rock. It is quite possible that this may have been on the line of march of Alexander the Great in his invasion of India, as Major Deane suggests. Be this as it may, it is very probable that Asoka, Kanishka, and the powerful kings who held this country, used this road and gave it its present shape.”
Waddell is referring to a conversation with Deane rather than anything Deane had at this stage written, but his recollection clarifies what Deane had in mind (and in the process confirms what I had had in mind): Deane’s hunch was that the ancient route that had facilitated the advance of the British force over Malakand was also the road taken, two millennia before them, by Alexander the Great.
It was no such thing, as McCrindle diplomatically communicated to Deane. But this still amounts to a quintessentially imperial moment. I have blogged before about the European compulsion to find traces of Alexander at and beyond the North-West Frontier: here, for instance; and here is a twist on essentially the same story. Given the education of the men that found themselves there, and the culture of the army officer corps and Political Service, it proved seemingly impossible for British administrators and soldiers to dissociate this space from Alexander’s campaigns.
(C.A. Hagerman’s article, “In the footsteps of the ‘Macedonian conqueror’: Alexander the Great and British India”, International Journal of the Classical Tradition 16 (2009), 344-92, and his book Britain’s Imperial Muse: the Classics, imperialism, and the Indian Empire, 1784-1914 (2013), are very interesting on all of this.)
A general perception of Alexander as a civilizing force, combined with the insecurity inherent in a colonial intervention–the need to convince oneself that alien territory is comprehensible, and that, as a European, one has a right to be there–made him a favoured “charter myth” for British imperial activity in this part of the world. Where Alexander had trodden was a legitimate place for other Europeans also to wander.
But in this instance I think there is another, not unrelated impulse in play, one given particular emphasis by Hagerman. The storming of the Malakand was an action that demanded superlatives: Younghusband & Younghusband’s account makes that abundantly clear. Not far from Malakand Alexander had allegedly stormed the stronghold of Aornos, Mt. Ilam, because Heracles, a Greek hero who had trodden this ground long before Alexander’s Greco-Macedonian invasion, had once tried it (Arrian, Anab. 4.28).
The psychology of the Greeks and the British in Swat has always seemed to me to have much in common. But Harold Deane shared a thought with L. A. Waddell, and perhaps at Waddell’s suggestion wrote to J. W. McCrindle in pursuit of it, and the essence of that thought was that the glorious British capture of Malakand in 1895 was an exploit comparable in some significant sense to the achievements of Alexander the Great himself.
Many moons ago, offered an apple by a generous stranger in Afghanistan, I attempted to show off my limited Persian vocabulary. “Seeb!”, I said; “seb”, he corrected me, firmly. As later explained to me by Edmund Herzig, this was a good illustration of how Dari, Afghan Persian, preserves many older features of the language, and in particular retains sounds lost in the Iranian Persian that I had learned a little of. The word for “apple”, سیب, is in standard Iranian Persian “seeb”, but in Afghan Persian (and also in my nineteenth-century Persian dictionary) “seb”.
A parallel example, and the subject of this blog, is the word شیر, “sheer/sher”, which means three distinct things, lion(/tiger, cf. Shere Khan in the Jungle Book), milk or tap. In all of those meanings it is pronounced “sheer” in the Iranian Persian I studied, while in Afghan (and some Iranian) Persian the word for lion is pronounced “sher” (to sound like “share”; thanks to Roh Yakobi for helping me here). So in Afghan Persian شیر meaning “milk” and شیر meaning “lion” are homographs but not homophones, terms distinguishable in pronunciation, but not on the page. I’ll explain in a while why this is currently interesting me, but first a couple of illustrations of the play that the similarity and difference of شیر and شیر have encouraged.
The first was given me by Lindsay Allen, a reliable source of fascinating information about Iran. In this case it was that rare thing, Farsi on US network television. A very funny running gag in the comedy series 30 Rock, a TV programme about a TV programme, is an inexplicably successful gameshow called Homonym, where guests are asked which of the meanings of a word spoken by the host is meant, and always pick the wrong one. Homonym is succeeded by Celebrity Homonym, of course, and then becomes “the first US TV show to be broadcast in Iran”:
Presenter: “Next word: sheer, sheer.”
Contestant: “Sure: sheer, like a big cat.”
Presenter: “No, it’s the other one.”
Contestant: “Damn you!” (Lit. “Soil on your head!”)
Clearly the gag here depends on the Iranian Persian for “lion” and “milk” (or “tap”) sounding the same, “sheer”. But another illustration illustrates the potential offered by older pronunciation.
In Rumi’s Masnavi-ye Ma‘navi, considered one of the greatest works of mystical literature, we find the following couplet in a passage insisting on the superior spiritual status of the Sufi saint (1.263):
کار پاکان را قیاس از خود مگیر گر چه ماند در نبشتن شیر و شیر
‘Do not assess the deeds of the pure by analogy with yourself,/ though “lion” and “milk” are similar in writing.’
“Lion” and “milk” are both written شیر , but there would have been no ambiguity in meaning in the thirteenth century when Rumi was dictating his poetry since “sher” and “sheer” were as clearly distinguished in pronunciation as they still are in Afghanistan. The second شیر has to rhyme with the end of the previous half-line, “mageer”, so is “milk”; the first شیر must be “lion”. Furthermore, Rumi’s point clearly hangs on the difference in pronunciation: things may seem similar at the level of appearance, but are in a deeper sense as different as a big cat and milk. A speaker of contemporary standard Persian might not understand the line automatically, however, as for them the similarity of the words for lion and milk is not just a matter of their appearance on the page.
(A kind of riddling quatrain seems to have become associated with this moment in the Masnavi, though it’s not by Rumi. It takes the ambiguity of شیر “milk” and شیر “lion”, and expands on it:
آن یکی شیر است اندر بادیه وآن دگر شیر است اندر بادیه/ آن یکی شیر است که آدم می خورد وآن دگر شیر است که آدم می خورد
This combines the ambiguous شیر with other ambiguous words and phrases, so is a challenge to translate. The important thing to appreciate is that you can reverse the order of each half-line: “This one is a شیر in the desert,/ and the other’s a شیر in a jug./ One’s a شیر that’s a man-eater,/ and the other’s a شیر that man eats.”)
It’s time to reveal my interest in this piece of linguistic trivia. In collaboration with an Italian archaeologist of Swat in N-W Pakistan, Luca Olivieri, I’m working on a study of a “Political”, a diplomatic officer of the British Raj, named Harold Deane. From 1895 to 1901 Deane was in charge of the Malakand Agency, essentially in control of relations between the British and the unoccupied territories beyond the official border. So successful was he establishing and maintaining the British toehold at Malakand, the point of access to the Swat Valley, that in 1901 he was promoted by Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, to be the first Chief Commissioner of the North-West Frontier Province, when the latter was first established. Deane was as tough a customer as that abbreviated CV might imply.
But in an 1896 article in The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Deane also has a decent claim to have inaugurated the archaeological exploration of Swat, which through the work of such figures as Aurel Stein and Giuseppe Tucci and the Missione Archeologica Italiana in Pakistan has brought to light remarkable things in the last century. (Deane was close to Aurel Stein, who dedicated On Alexander’s Track to the Indus to him.) The military/intelligence role of this Political Agent and his archaeological interests were essentially indistinguishable: sites were investigated during military campaigns and information about archaeological remains were communicated by agents maintained in the independent territories. But his antiquarian interests also speak to the education and cultural horizons of the men who administered British India’s N-W frontier: Deane’s ground-breaking article ends with his observations on the location of Aornos, scene of one of Alexander’s most celebrated exploits. All in all, Deane represents an interesting figure in his own day and in ours, as we hope to show.
Deane died in 1908, in his mid-fifties. Whatever else his job was, it wasn’t good for the health. But he had a big fan in Olaf Caroe, himself Governor of NWFP half a century later. In his book The Pathans (1958, 421-2 and 456), Caroe offers a pen sketch of a man he saw as a model of an Imperial frontier operative (the accounts that follow of George Roos-Keppel and Sahibzada Abdul Qayyum are very interesting, too). In the passage that follows, Caroe contrasts Deane, an administrator actively engaged with the people he governed and thus ideal for the frontier, with a more conventional bureaucrat who happened to share a similar name:
“Later, Deane was appointed Deputy Commissioner of Peshawar at a time when the revenue settlement of that district was being undertaken by Louis Dane, an officer of great distinction who in due course became Lieutenant-Governor of the Panjab, but whose lot lay always in pleasant places. Dane’s spiritual home was in Simla and Lahore. One day a naive young Khan [member of the landowning class] in a Peshawar hujra [a guest house, but see this], puzzled by the similarity of names, asked one of the Khalil Arbabs [chiefs] what was the difference between Din and Den. The answer came: “The same as between Shir and Sher, only the other way round.” A pretty jest.”
Deane is the “sher”, Dane the “sheer”. Here I go nose-to-nose with a fellow Classicist, as Olaf Caroe was (perhaps not so unexpectedly) a graduate in Classics from Magdalen College, Oxford. He offers two explanations of the Arbab‘s joke, but clearly favours the first: “sheer” is the Persian/Iranian way of pronouncing the word for lion, “sher” the Afghan, and the Afghans “despise the Persians as soft creatures.” Thus Deane is a tough lion, Dane a soft one.
But I prefer the other interpretation, partly because it is clearly quite a cliché among Persian speakers. We never leave the borderlands of Afghanistan, where “sher” is a lion and “sheer” is milk. Deane is a lion; while Dane is no lion at all, but a milksop.
A nice illustration in itself of that peculiar frontier combination of intellect and machismo.