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An image of Alexander the Great from an ancient mosaic housed in Pompeii, Italy.

Detail of Alexander the Great from an ancient mosaic housed in Pompeii, Italy. The Greek Alexander was idealized during the Roman Empire.

Alexander in Afghanistan

Historian will show new evidence on the conqueror

By Gayla Marty

Published on April 14, 2005

Alexander the Great was only 20 years old when he became king of northern Greece and marshaled a coalition to set out and conquer the world. When he died at the age of 32, his territory stretched from Spain to India and his reputation was larger than life.

Afghanistan has changed names over the 23 centuries since, but it's still a land-locked knot of mountains prone to droughts, blizzards, and floods. It was Alexander's toughest challenge, and he never subdued its citizens completely. The British in the 1800s and the Soviets in the 1900s met similar fates. Will the United States' experience in the 21st century be different?

Frank Holt, a history professor at the University of Houston and an expert on Alexander the Great, will weigh in on this question and more when he delivers the 2005 Frederick and Catherine Lauritsen Lecture in Ancient History on Friday, April 15, in Minneapolis (see details below).

"When it comes to Afghanistan, there are some eerie parallels between Alexander and George Bush," says Holt. He cites the language from the two leaders' speeches before building their coalitions and their campaigns. Afghanistan was also one of the few places where Alexander really tried to intercede in local custom, says Holt.

Books by Frank Holt

Into the Land of Bones: Alexander the Great in Afghanistan (due early summer 2005)

Alexander the Great and the Mystery of the Elephant Medallions (2003)

Thundering Zeus: The Making of Hellenistic Bactria (1999)

Alexander the Great and Bactria: The Formation of the Greek Frontier in Central Asia (1988)

The Greeks in Bactria and India, ed. (1985)

Today bounded by Iran, Pakistan, China, and former Soviet republics, Afghanistan is nearly three times as big as Minnesota and its population is more than five times larger. The loss and vandalism of valuable ancient inscriptions, texts, and artifacts under the Taliban and warfare have drawn international attention.

"You do have to think about how things will play out in a place like Afghanistan," says Holt. "No superpower has been able to [conquer] it. Afghanistan is not a 'nation' in the sense we're used to, with its four major regions centered around cities that are closer to other countries than they are to each other."

Holt has never been to Afghanistan but has traveled often to Greece and works closely with a global network of archaeologists, numismologists (people who study old coins), and other historians. He has published several popular books and articles on the mysterious aspects of Alexander's experiences in Afghanistan.

A major ongoing controversy centers on Alexander's personality: was he a brilliant visionary spreading civilization and peace or a megalomaniac wreaking death and destruction?

New evidence in a breathtaking stash of gold coins, found only eight weeks ago in Afghanistan and recognized in part because of Holt's work, "removes doubt about whether he pushed his image as a god," he says. The lecture will include illustrations and photographs.

Alexander would be 2,361 years old this year if he walked into a movie theater to watch another blockbuster about himself. But he'd probably be mystified by what he saw. Recent movies have done a poor job of portraying him as a great military leader, says Holt, and missed the inherent drama and excitement of his life.

The Annual Lauritsen Lecture was endowed in 2002 to the Department of History by Frederick and Catherine Lauritsen. Fred Lauritsen, a U alumnus, recently retired from teaching at Eastern Washington University and has a special interest in coins and art from the eastern part of the Greek world.

"This is an opportune moment for the University community to inquire into Afghanistan's ancient past," says Eva von Dassow, associate professor of history. "It's a subject about which most of us know almost nothing, but it...calls for urgent attention while modern Afghanistan strives to recreate itself as a state."

"Alexander the Great: New Evidence From Afghanistan," will be presented on Friday, April 15, 3:30-5 p.m., 120B-C Andersen Library, Twin Cities campus, West Bank. A reception follows the presentation. Please RSVP to Amanda Nelson in the Department of History, nelso808@umn.edu .

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