Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Alexandria by Edmund Richardson

Remnants of an Army by Elisabeth Butler. 

Alexandria, a historical biography of amateur archeologist James Lewis, is a book I enjoyed very much for it succeeds to be interesting on multiple levels. 

First of all, it is captivating read, at moments even a page - turner, with its many narrative surprises, fascinating characters and cliff-hanger-ending-chapters.
Edmund Richardson brings us a deeply researched biography of a James Lewis  (1800–1853) a.k.a Charles Masson, a soldier with the British East India Company, who in 1827 deserts the Army and walks, on foot and with a single companion into the Thar desert in search of the mythical city known as "Alexandria under the Mountain". It is also known as "Alexandria in the Caucasus", a fabulous city created by Alexander himself.
This is the beginning of  narrative worthy of all  the best fictions you ever read. I will not divulge what Masson uncovers in his digs in Afghanistan, but he is the hero of the book and a few pieces he uncovers are still prized artifacts in the British museum.

Alexandria is also the kind of book that leaves the reader, more clever with the ways of the world, after turning the final page. There is the "Great Game" Geo-political for instance, the political climate in which Masson travels, does his research, his diggings and his discoveries. There is the increased meddling of the British into Afghan politics, culminating into the first Afghan - Anglo war. A conflict launched by a British invasion and legitimated by "fake news" ( The Russians meddling in Afghan politics ).  On a more human level, there is the race and the competition for fame and wealth of a handful of adventurers and amateur archeologists. They fiercely grub in the Afghan soil searching for lost cities, treasures, gold and gems. It is a no-holds-barred fight and one cringes at the destructive methods that are used to uncover ancient tombs and price-less pieces of art.  Kipling was inspired by these ruffians for his story "The Man who would be King". All of this is thoroughly researched. The notes at the end of the book total nearly 60 pages for a novel of 260 pages.

Finally, there is a post-modernist tang to this history book, in the sense that it skeptically and ironically reframes what we learned at school, the so-called common knowledge,  the history we were brought up with.

Alexander the great ? Not always so great after reading this book, but what a convenient historical figure  for 19th century politicians who endorse conquest "to bring civilization".

There  was no hard frontier between east and west. The border towns, cities, civilizations merged the best of east and west and were therefore wealthy and striving. Afghanistan was Buddhist before the Arabs conquered the country. The destruction of the irreplaceable Buddha statues of the Bamiyan valley in March 2001, was just "mopping up", a last chapter in eradicating the remnants of a non Islamic culture.

Avarice, plunder and political opportunism will bring you further than mere intellectual curiosity. The famous Archeologists Schliemann and Evans were in fact destroyers and looters.
And men like Richardson are doomed to be forgotten.

Some British officers behaved like savages in Afghanistan and  Pakistan. You are not likely to forget the civilizing works of Lieutenant Loveday.

In the end, the bullies win most of the time; the meek lose most of the time.

An excellent read.