Cult of wine in the Hindu Kush
Some say the Kalasha people in Pakistan are descended from Alexander the Great and his army. The Greeks like the idea enough to put aid money into their valleys. But is the story true and if so, what does it mean?
Those few westerners who still venture into Pakistan will remember the remote Chitral region, on the Afghan border of the Hindu Kush, as a highlight of the journey. And if they happen to visit the Kalasha people who live amid its amazing scenery, they may feel as Alexander the Great did on discovering, at the end of his long Persian campaign, that the inhabitants of the town of Nysa (1) practised the same Dionysian rituals as those of his native land (2).
Unlike their neighbours, who have (relatively recently) converted to Islam, the Kalasha are polytheists. They use wine in their religious rituals and refuse to make women wear the burqa. Most surprising, in the Bumburet valley, one of three inhabited by the Kalasha, stands the Kalasha Dur, a large new three-storey building that bears a plaque with an inscription in Greek. It houses a school, a medical centre and a museum. Its pillars have Ionic capitals.
For several years, Wazir Zada, a young Kalasha, has been asking the parliament in Peshawar to recognise the rights of his ethnic minority. In these high pastures, there are few resources and little territory to be claimed, so it is a matter of defending cultural differences, like the production and consumption of wine. “All these calls to end our wine culture are hypocritical,” says Zada. “Many Muslims from the Chitral region come to drink here; there’s been wine in these valleys for a long time.”
Zareen Khan, who went to study in Peshawar as a young man, recalled that there were nearly 30,000 Kalasha in the 1950s. Most were pressured into converting to Islam. “There are only three thousand of us now,” he laments, pointing out a new mosque in the middle of the valley.
According to Khan, gold coins bearing the likeness of Alexander the Great were found in a cave in the Bumburet valley a few years ago. The Kalasha elders never mention the Macedonian conqueror, but young people talk about how he may have passed through the region and eagerly emphasise the benefits of the Kalasha Dur centre, where children are able to learn about their own culture.
The Kalasha Dur is largely the work of a Greek enthusiast named Athanasios Lerounis, a former teacher who has worked among the Kalasha for the NGO Greek Volunteers for nearly 30 years. In that time, many Greek teachers and doctors have worked in these remote valleys. In 2001 they received substantial financial support from Hellenic Aid, the Greek foreign ministry’s development cooperation and aid department. In April 2005 Greece and Pakistan signed a cooperation agreement that mentioned the “cultural links” between them, and under it, Kalashas have received scholarships to study in Greece.
Hellenic Aid will not say how much it has given, but according to Maureen Lines, head of the Hindu Kush Conservation Association, a British charity, the amount runs into millions of rupees (3). Such “cooperation” is usually justified by the passages from Arrian’s account that describe Alexander’s journey through Parapamisos (modern-day Hindu Kush) in 329 BC, or by more imaginative theories according to which the Kalasha are descendants of Ionian or Syrian prisoners whom the Greeks sent to the far ends of their empire.
There is no proven link between the Kalasha and Alexander the Great or his army. This region of the Hindu Kush was never part of the satrapy (an administrative division of the Persian empire) of Bactria, which Alexander conquered. Augusto Cacopardo, an ethnologist who has studied the question for 30 years, has found no trace of any figure identifiable as Alexander the Great in the oral traditions and mythology of the Kalasha. Linguistic studies have found no links between Greek and the Kalash language. The few morphosyntactical similarities that have led Greek scholars to fantasise about a connection are the result of their distant common origins in the Indo-European family of languages. The Kalasha are the last remaining Kafirs (a name that means “infidels” in Arabic), who lived in the part of Afghanistan today known as Nuristan well before Alexander arrived. Most converted to Islam less than two centuries ago.
Having observed the resurgence of the legend that descendants of the ancient Greeks were living somewhere in the mountains of the Hindu Kush, Cacopardo decided to trace its history. In the West, references to Alexander are mostly found in travel books (by Marco Polo and far later British explorers) and in literary myths (4). Cacopardo’s work revealed an even stranger fact: for many centuries, the legend was fostered by local Muslim rulers as a mark of identity. The rulers of Badakhshan gave themselves the title of Dhu al-Qarnayn (“He of the Two Horns”), used to describe a figure in the Qur’an traditionally thought to be Alexander (5). Cacopardo also found traces of Alexander in the traditions of the ancient rulers of Hunza and Swat, in Pakistan. One reason for invoking Alexander was that it allowed them to form local alliances on the pretext of an unlikely “fraternal bond” with their British conquerors.
Around 200 years after his invocation by the rulers of Badakhshan, Alexander has turned up again. Recent research by the psychosociologist Nikos Kalampalikis indicates that he has a growing role in the construction of the modern Greek identity. The legend’s reappearance in Greece seems to coincide with its reappearance in the Hindu Kush. Evidence of the revival can be seen in the standoff between Greece and the Republic of Macedonia, locked in dispute over identity and cultural heritage since the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (to give it the official UN title) gained its independence in 1991.
Greece still refuses to refer to its neighbour as the “Republic of Macedonia”, accusing it of having designs on the Greek province of the same name. In 1992 Macedonia’s adoption of a flag featuring the “Sun of Vergina”, a symbol discovered in 1977 in a tomb attributed to Philip II of Macedon (Alexander’s father), made the Greek government furious. In response to Greece’s protests, the Republic of Macedonia removed the symbol from its flag in 1995. But it renamed Skopje airport after Alexander the Great in 2007.
Both sides have sought to justify their identity by reference to those they consider “descendants”. This explains the funding recently given to aid programmes for the Kalasha. Greece has produced dozens of documentary films and books about the Kalasha in recent years. The Macedonians insist that the true descendants of Alexander live in Hunza, another part of the Hindu Kush. In July 2008 Prince Ghazanfar Ali Khan and Princess Rani Atiqa, of the Hunza people, were invited to Skopje where the prince declared that he was “honoured to be in my country, Macedonia” (6). Kalampalikis observes that a psychologist would describe this as “displacement”.
The revival of the Alexander legend has led to another cultural appropriation. As new methods of communication have made accessible many written and photographic documents on the Kalasha, they have unwittingly become a symbol of people struggling to assert their identity in a hostile Islamic environment. Every year Maureen Lines receives many requests for information from journalists who want to write about a people fighting against forcible religious conversion. Among those who divide the world into “civilised peoples” and “barbarians” (7), the idea of “descendants of Alexander the Great” has become popular, as shown by the many references on websites seeking to defend a homogenous western identity, national or religious (8).
The renewed interest in the Kalasha case can be explained by the troubling similarities between the big questions of identity raised by Arrian – otherness, barbarians and assimilation (9) – and those embodied today in theories such as Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilisations”, where the Other is most often Islamic. Did Oliver Stone’s film Alexander (2004) intend to draw a parallel between Alexander the Great and George W Bush (each being the son of a commander-in-chief trying to complete his father’s conquest of the Middle East)?
Cacopardo points out the likelihood that the Kalasha are, at least in this region, the last representatives of Indo-European pagan cultures that preceded monotheistic religions. Their religious rituals resemble the cult of Dionysos, who, in Greek mythology, came from the East. Illusions of identity can give rise to fantastic stories and surprising intellectual juxtapositions. The pairing of Huntington and Dionysos is not the most astonishing.
Nicolas Autheman is an international relations consultant
(1) Probably modern-day Jalalabad, Afghanistan, whose name stems from the ancient cult of Dionysos.
(2) See Arrian, The Campaigns of Alexander the Great, Penguin Classics, London, 1976. Written in the second century AD, this is considered to be the most reliable account of Alexander’s expeditions.
(3) Several tens of thousands of US dollars.
(4) See Rudyard Kipling, The Man who Would be King (1888) and the film of the same name directed by John Huston (1975).
(5) The Qur’an, 18:83.
(7) See Tzvetan Todorov, The Fear of Barbarians: Beyond the Clash of Civilisations, Blackwell Publishers Polity Press, 2010.
(8) References to the Kalasha can be found on many orthodox religious websites and on Altermedia.info, the original US version of which was established by David Duke, a former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
(9) A case in point is the revolt of Opis, in 324 BC, during which Alexander’s generals reproached him for having appointed Persians to some of the highest positions in his army.