Is Pir Sar Alexander's Aornos?
Despite worldwide acceptance of Pir Sar as Aornos, accounts of later travellers call for further exploration
By Gohar Ayub Khan
Alexander divided his army in two before entering India. The main bulk of the army he placed under the command of his generals Perdiccas and Hephastion, which came down following the river Kabul, captured the capital Peuceloatis (Charsada). Went on to Hund to build a bridge over the Indus and await the arrival of Alexander. He entered India in early 326 BC.
A smaller portion of the army he led himself with generals Perdiccus and Hephaestion, followed the river Kunar and turned east to enter Dir, Swat, Buner and then joined the Macedonian army on the Indus at Hund.

“Agra Taj, Agra Taj…,” so went the cacophony of the wagon conductors as we passed by a wagon stand on the outskirts of Agra. The calls were reminiscent of exactly similar ones we often used to hear at our own wagon stops while driving to the PAF base at Mauripur, for Agra Taj Colony is a dense locale not too far from there. This time it was surely different — we were driving to the actual Taj in Agra, while carefully skirting an Indian Air Force base that lies a few miles away from the famous mausoleum.

Accompanied by my wife, we had hired a private taxi for a Delhi-Agra roundtrip. We set out early in the morning, with a very talkative driver named Anwar, for company. A historian of some substance, Anwar was ever-ready with a commentary about any monument, temple or mosque that was visible from the roadside. After a three-hour drive from Delhi, over a highway studded with the most stubborn truck drivers, we stopped for a coffee break at McDonald’s near the huge Mathura Refinery complex. One could catch the whiff of petroleum in the air for miles.

Mathura, the birthplace of the legendary god Krishna of the Hindu pantheon and also an ancient centre of Buddhist learning, was visible from a distance. The gleaming Jamia Masjid built by Emperor Aurangzeb clearly stood out on the skyline. Anwar was quick to point out that the mosque shares a wall with the Garb-Griha Mandir without any fuss.

Driving further on, we stopped by at Sikandara near Agra. The small suburb houses Emperor Akbar’s mausoleum, said to have been designed and started by Akbar himself, but completed by his son Jahangir. The tomb’s four white marble minarets are said to be the precursors of those on the Taj Mahal. These are, however, disproportionately tall and contrast oddly with the main red sandstone structure. Any comparison with the Taj ends right there — as we were to find out soon.

Anwar advised us for an early lunch at Agra and it did not take us long to spot Bikanervala’s, the famous multi-menu eatery chain that boasts just about every culinary delight India has to offer. A hearty South Indian veggie fare filled us up and we hastened towards the Taj, lest the ticket booths there closed down for a one-hour lunch break. As we drove through Agra, it was hard to believe that it was once the imperial Mughal capital. Now a disorderly and dirty city with bubbling sewers and broken roads, it was only the Taj Mahal that beckoned weary travellers like us.

The ubiquitous touts, so often seen chasing tourists in the subcontinent, were busy beckoning in chatter all too familiar. (Guide chahye? Photo khichwayee ga? Achha dikhaen ge sab kuch, ispeshal… and so on). As we approached the ticket booths, an overpowering stench started to numb whatever remained of our sniffers. Litter, camel droppings and rubble were equally sore on the eyes. We wondered if our senses would be up to speed for the impending study of the world’s most beautiful building. At the booths we got a concessional ticket of Rs200 for being a Saarc member, compared to the other foreigners who are charged Rs700. Locals pay Rs35.

While walking towards the portal of the Taj, we noticed that we were inviting odd stares, which got us wondering. The mystery was resolved a short while later when we overheard a few ladies who seemed completely beguiled by the style of my wife’s shalwar-kameez, as well as the lawn print. They couldn’t resist asking us if we were Pakistanis, “because such lovely salwar suits were not seen in India,” they admitted. Suitably flattered, we thought it to be just the right note to start the tour.

Determined not to follow the hackneyed ‘visual’ cliché of the Taj as seen in the stereotype frontal images, we approached the monument cautiously. The Taj complex essentially consists of the imposing entrance portal, the beautifully laid lawns and fountains, two identical red sandstone structures facing inwards on either side of the Taj (one a mosque, the other a mehman-khana or guest house), a museum and the glorious mausoleum itself. Judgements as to the beauty of the building have been made ever since 1653, when it was completed and, I know of only one bigot of a philosopher called Aldous Huxley who described everything about the Taj as ugly. We had no preconceived notions and saw no harm in agreeing with the multitude about its beauty.

The structure, abutting the meandering sand banks of River Yamuna, is indeed, immensely attractive and pleasing to the eyes when seen as a whole — together with the large expanse of gardens and fountains as well as the minarets. Perfect proportions, delicate balance and extreme symmetry cannot be missed by any, but the most callous observer. Exquisite inlay work consists of colourful geometric and floral designs along with precious stones that embellish the somewhat sombre white marble.

The extremely fine calligraphy along the walls and arches is cleverly executed so that the size of Quranic verses increases with height, giving the illusion of a uniformly flowing script. The minarets particularly seem to act as sentinels, much like the military guards at modern tombs. I felt, however, that these could have been better embellished for they seem somewhat drab as far as decorative elements are concerned. No inlays, no calligraphy, no trimmings. One gets the impression that the minarets were done at the end, when two decades of drudgery had taken a toll on the workers as well as supervisors and, they wanted to get over with it, after all.

Well, that critique should suffice as I am no expert purveyor of fine art and architecture, really. Personally, I would lay more emphasis on the concept than the structure itself. Might one suggest that the Taj is one of the most beautiful funerary tributes ever.


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Like a faultless, lustrous Oriental pearl… a white jewel enclosed in a frame of cypresses… the soft lines of the mighty marble dome and defiant elevation of the four minarets… so perfect, so full of beauty, that one involuntarily passed a hand over one’s eyes, wondering whether it was not merely a beautiful dream or an unreal image. Like glittering bands of silver the cool marble ponds extended up to the sanctuary, bordered on each side by lofty cypresses and climbing roses, with dark luxuriant foliage behind… And the mind was irresistibly seized with a feeling of gratitude toward this woman whose spirit seemed to float beneath the lofty marble vaults, simply for having lived and been capable of inspiring a feeling deep and strong enough to be still perceptible… after a lapse of centuries.”

— Prince William

Of Sweden, 1915


Is Pir Sar Alexander's Aornos?

Alexander divided his army in two before entering India. The main bulk of the army he placed under the command of his generals Perdiccas and Hephastion, which came down following the river Kabul, captured the capital Peuceloatis (Charsada). Went on to Hund to build a bridge over the Indus and await the arrival of Alexander. He entered India in early 326 BC.

A smaller portion of the army he led himself with generals Perdiccus and Hephaestion, followed the river Kunar and turned east to enter Dir, Swat, Buner and then joined the Macedonian army on the Indus at Hund.

Arrian of Nicomedia writing nearly 500 years after Alexander describes Aornos thus, this is a mighty mass of rock in that part of the country, and even Herakles, the son of Zeus, had found it to be impregnable.

In the case of this rock my own conviction is that Herakles was mentioned to make the story of its capture all the more wonderful. It was ascended by a single path cut by the hand of man, yet difficult.

Alexander on learning these particulars was seized with an ardent desire to capture this mountain also, the story current about Herakles not being the least of the incentives. Pir Sar a natural mountain fastness lies on the right bank of the river Indus opposite Thakot and approximately four miles West as the crow flies from the town which is on the left bank. Pir Sar is at an altitude of 7,100 feet above sea level. The height and circuit of Aornos give by Arrian was 6,600 feet above sea level and circuit 22 miles, whilst Diodorus put the height at 9600 feet and the circuit at 11 miles.

Arrian, here as elsewhere our chief authority for all that concerns the great conquerors campaign, tells us that on hearing of the fall of Ora, the other Assakenoi, i.e. the people of Swat, all left their towns and fled to the rock in that country.

Sir Aurel Stien of the Indian Archeological Survey of India was granted permission by the Wali of Swat Miangul Gul Shahzada Sir Abdul Wadood to explore Pir Sar on the Indus. He was gived an escort and porters and started out from Saidu Sharif capital of Swat and reached Pir Sar on 26 April, 1926 AD.

Aurel Stein on his way to Pir Sar from Saidu Sharif found the Karorai Pass 6400 feet above sea level covered with fresh snow and the Shilkai Pass at 9400 feet above sea level covered with four to five feet of snow which had to be trampled by labourers to allow Steins party to cross over the pass.

Going up towards Pir Sar Stein was told the name of a mountain by a guide Una-Sar. He it seems came to the conclusion that he was near Aornos as it sounded close to Una. Una peak is at a height of 8,721 feet.

On the morning of April 27, 1926 after arriving at Pir Sar the very first thing Aurel Stein states, “The violent gusts of wind that shook my little tent during the night of my arrival on Pir Sar left but a poor chance of sleep before I rose next morning at day break. The icy blasts blowing down the Indus from the snow-covered ranges of Kohistan, comparatively so near, made it difficult to enjoy the view. It was the same throughout the three days that we spent on this exposed height.”

Fugitives from Swat would have died in droves during early March to mid April on Pir Sar from extreme cold winds, exposure and snow on the ground and the lack of supplies. It is inconceivable that Fugitives in thousands who left upper Swat would all have gone to Pir Sar the top of which is approx one mile long and three hundred yards wide. They would not have been able to take their animals to such a height for mere lack of fodder and deep snow in Feb-mid April 326 BC.

A very old Gujjar told Stein that the locals had never heard of Alexander having come to this region. He had heard from his elders that Pir Sar was the summer residence of Raja Sirkap.

The exposure and fatigue to which the men had been subjected during those happy days on the height of Aornos and the marches to and from it obliged me to make a two days’ halt at Chakesar. It felt warm enough down there at an elevation of less than 4,000 feet. Arrian mentions that after operations in Swat valley were completed, Alexander proceeded to take the capital city of Peukelaotis (Charsada). Incidentally it was already in control of the Macedonians.

Had Alexander come down to attack Peukelelaotis (Charsada) he would then on his way to Aornos (Pir Sar) have met up with his army at Hund on Indus. It just did not make sense that Alexander came down South from Swat to Penukelaotis (Charsada) then went close to his army near Hund, then up North to Aornos (Pir Sar) along the Indus.

Arrian describes how Alexander had trees cut to fill up a gully to enable him to attack the fugitives. On the fourth day the fugitives agreed to abandon the heights and disperse. Whilst they were in the process Alexander leading seven hundred of his soldiers clambered up to Pir Sar and killed many whilst some died falling off the cliffs. Where Herakles had failed, Alexander was master of Aornos.

From Pir Sar, Arrian mentions that the brother of Assakenos had taken refuge in the mountains with elephants and host of neighbouring barbarians (region of central Buner). Locals had fled to Abisares, i.e. to the ruler of Hazara. Alexander followed along the Barundu river meeting the Indus.

Ptolemy who was active in the fighting, writing to his tutor Aristotle describes Aornos as as the largest of the cities in the area. He states that it was over twenty miles in circumference and located at a height of eight thousand feet.

Professor Tucci who had done extensive excavation in Swat during the 1960s claims that Pir Sar is unlikely to be Aornos and favours Mount Ilam, 9200 feet above sea level in Buner overlooking the Karakar Pass, 4350 feet above sea level to be Aornos. Mount Ilam has been a sacred spot for Hindus since centuries.

Here again the question arises as to how fugitives from the Swat valley would survive for nearly over a month in open snow over six to eight feet deep.

It is obvious that Arrian and Diodorus were not familiar with the geography or topography of the region. It seems that Alexander did not go to Pir Sar (Aornos).

Despite worldwide acceptance of Pir Sar as Aornos, there is a need not to close the matter but to further explore the actual location of Aornos other than Pir Sar.


The writer is former speaker and foreign minister of Pakistan.


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