The lost tribe of Alexander
July 24, 2006 8:51 AM   Subscribe

Legend has it the people of Nuristan, Kalash and Chitral are descended from deserters who stayed behind after Greek Emperor Alexander the Great’s army passed through the area more than 2,000 years ago, and for centuries they lived in splendid isolation. It was in this region that the first images of the Buddha were created. [more inside]
posted by nickyskye (24 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
These mountainous provinces are northeast of Kabul on the Pakistani border. The people there have different customs, dancing, music, religion and languages from others around them.

This remote part of the world has attracted many different visitors and it is possible to travel to this region on the Pakistani side.

Buddhist art from Gandhara.

The name, Nuristan, means Land of Light.

The expansion of the Greco-Bactrians into northern India from 180 BCE established the Indo-Greek kingdom.

Briefly about Alexander the Great, more.

A little more about the Hindu Kush Mountains.

Kunzite comes from Nuristan. It is a rare, pink-lilac gemstone, that fluoresces violet under UV illumination.
posted by nickyskye at 8:52 AM on July 24, 2006

Greco-Bactrian link that works.
posted by nickyskye at 8:58 AM on July 24, 2006

Right after I graduated high school, I looked up a visiting Chinese science journalist who was part of an exchange between China and the US. He had been part of an expedition to the Niya (relost in the wake of the Cultural Revolution but then re-rediscovered due to the fact that one guy in a village remembered where it was from his childhood), one of several buried Graeco-Buddhist trading cities located on the Silk Roads route in the Gobi desert. They located Buddhist temples next to those dedicated to the Greek pantheon, mosaics, and blond mummies. Fascinating stuff. Thanks for this great thread.

My dad will love these links.
posted by the_savage_mind at 9:40 AM on July 24, 2006

I had a friend in college that was convinced (in an Illuminati-sort of way) that the absence of Jesus from the bible between when he was a teenager and when he returned in his early 30s could be matched up with the timing of various Hellenistic images of Buddha from this area.
posted by thanotopsis at 9:54 AM on July 24, 2006

Neat, neat stuff - thanks! It seems far more the case than not that the really big new cultural ideas and historical developments arise in these sort of intersticial borderlands. Something about the fractal boundaries that's incredibly productive - in biology, cultural history, linguistics, and so on.
posted by freebird at 9:59 AM on July 24, 2006

Amazing post - I would be very interested to find out the results of the Spectator's study out in Pakistan.

posted by huskerdont at 10:34 AM on July 24, 2006

the absence of Jesus from the bible between when he was a teenager and when he returned in his early 30s could be matched up with the timing of various Hellenistic images of Buddha from this area.

One of many alternate Jesus theories involves travel to India both pre and post crucifixion.
posted by scheptech at 10:58 AM on July 24, 2006

One of many alternate Jesus theories involves travel to India both pre and post crucifixion.

Which may or may not be mixed up with St. Thomas, the Gospel of Thomas and the comparison/contrast of gnostic thought to buddhist (again, with emphasis on the interpretations in the Gospel of Thomas.
posted by the_savage_mind at 11:22 AM on July 24, 2006

I visited Chitral in 1994 and one of the Kalash valleys--a very picturesque valley, but the Kalash we encountered were already quite tourist-friendly. Once dominant in the Chitral valley, they now only number over 3000. While the Pakistani govt has taken a decision to try and protect Kalash culture, it is likely only a matter of time before the forces of modernization (e.g., better access to the valleys, increased tourism) soon win them all over. Here are two more articles about the unique tribe, from a Pakistani perspective.
posted by Azaadistani at 1:12 PM on July 24, 2006

In a similar vein Buddha to Christian saint
posted by khaibit at 1:27 PM on July 24, 2006

Eric Newby wrote a hilarious book, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush about his travels in Nuristan (also known as Kafiristan - its people are relatively recent converts to Islam).
posted by ereshkigal45 at 1:53 PM on July 24, 2006

Super excellently interesting links! Thank you nickyskye.
posted by Meatbomb at 4:56 PM on July 24, 2006

Apart from Eric Newby, William Dalrymple in his book In Xanadu also describes an encounter with people in this area who he believes & argues are descended from Alexander's left-behinds.

Gandharan buddhist art has long been of interest to me, not only for the Greek influence & the fact that it is the foundation stone for all anthropomorphic depictions of the Buddha, but also because Gandhara features in the closing song from the TV series Monkey:

A long time ago when men were all babes
There was a land of the free
Fantasy and dreams
Were its untouched wealth
And goodness and love were real

Each man desires to reach Gandhara
His very own utopia
In the striving, in the seeking soul
Man can see Gandhara

In Gandhara, Gandhara
They say it was in India
Gandhara, Gandhara
The place of light Gandhara

posted by UbuRoivas at 6:38 PM on July 24, 2006

The Coorgis {also known as Kodagu} in South Central India are also considered by some to be a 'lost' tribe of Greek soldiers who stayed and settled after Alexander left.
posted by infini at 8:27 PM on July 24, 2006

I wonder if there's any connection with the Takla Makan mummies of China? The backwaters of history are always a fascinating place to explore. Thanks, nickyskye.

More about one little eddy — the Siege of Chitral in 1895: what a spectacular area!
posted by cenoxo at 9:05 PM on July 24, 2006

Great post. Thanks, nickyskye. The BBC had an article and pictures of the Kalash last year.

cenxo, at 3000-years-old, I think the Takla Makan are much older than Alexander's army. Crazy proto-Celtic explorers, perhaps? They're one of hostory's most fascinating mysteries, IMO.
posted by homunculus at 10:00 PM on July 24, 2006

nickyskye: Great set of links!

Might add her that the Greek input to Indian culture is immense, much more than what yer average Indian realizes. For instance, while most know that we in India have had calendars for centuries before the Greeks, very few realize that the art/science of astrology is entirely Greek in origin. There's a very interesting verse attributed to a Gupta king demeaning this foreign fad of predicting the future, and how that was complete BS (I'm paraphrasing of course) It is quoted in the first Calendar Committee report by Saha and Lahiri, if anyone wants to look it up.

Additionally, our calendar has had irrevocably changed after its encounter with the Greeks; for instance, we adopted the seven-day-week and the twelve-month-in-a-solar-year, mostly as a result of the Greco-Chaldean influences. The Vedic people operated on a cycle that's approximately equivalent to five solar years.

infini: I had no idea about the Coorgis. Thanks for the link!
posted by the cydonian at 2:44 AM on July 25, 2006

Kathleen Jamie travelled alone and wrote about Northern Pakistan in The Golden Peak published 1992 and updated 2002 as "Among Muslims" As a single woman traveller she throws an interesting light on this then remote area.
Great post nickyskye. Thank You.
posted by adamvasco at 7:09 AM on July 25, 2006

What a cool thread! Thanks everybody for making it really wonderful with all the additional input, info and links! :)

I really enjoy stories about interesting cultural intermingling. Chinese Christians in Calcutta for example.

India (Pakistan and the North West Frontier in what is now Afghanistan where it borders Pakistan used to be part of India before the Brits divided things up) seems to have absorbed many cultures, some living in pockets, in different parts, with their own culture, like the Jews of India (also with some amazing history)and others get woven into the genetic brocade.

the_savage_mind, Nice additional link and interesting story!

thanatopsis, Supposedly Buddhist influence on Christianity.

The world's information highway from West to East and East to West had/has some intriguing two-way traffic.

, Now you prompted me to Google the genetics of the area and all I can find is that it's "complex".

ereshkigal45 What fun to have a new good book to read! thanks for the recommendation.

infini, Coorg is one of my favorite places on the planet! Love Mercara (one of the nicest 'hill stations' in India). Had no idea about the Coorgis. There are a couple of other tribes near there, tall, light skinned. The Todas and Kotas in the Nilgiri Hills by Ootacamund (nicknamed Ooty).

There has been speculation the Todas/Tokas may also be descended from the Greek, Sumerians or Babylonians.

Genetic study on the Todas and Kotas. They may be genetically related to the tribe in Coorg and also to the Greek descended tribes up in northern Afghanistan.
posted by nickyskye at 12:55 PM on July 25, 2006

very few realize that the art/science of astrology is entirely Greek in origin

Actually, the Babylonians had astrology well before Greece, where prognistication via stars wasn't taken seriously by the natural philosophers of the key, scientific age. Considering their proximity to Indian culture and India's antiquity, I wouldn't be surprised if they got some of it from Babylon as well. Also, the Persians had a developed astrological system, and they too would have had much more interaction with India in the period before Alexander.

The scientific discipline of astronomy is attributed (as far as we know so far... crap always changes given enough time and discoveries) to Greeks. Unfortunately, Aristotle also convinced a chunk of the world for a looooong time that the sun revolved around the earth, so make of that what you will.
posted by the_savage_mind at 2:34 PM on July 25, 2006

Speaking of migrant communities in the subcontinent, I don't think anybody has mentioned the Parsis / Parsees yet, descendents of Zoroastrian Persians, who fled to India over a millennium ago.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:21 PM on July 25, 2006

the_savage_mind: That's quite possible. Most of the (Indian) sources I read, refer to the inputs as 'Greco-Chaldean'. I suppose I never really thought about the term until now, but you're right, Chaldean is indeed Babylonian.

Actually, I should have been even more clear; I was referring specifically to calendars, and not astronomy in general. :-)
posted by the cydonian at 7:50 PM on July 25, 2006

Thales said that he learnt his astronomy in Egypt, I believe.
posted by homunculus at 10:44 PM on July 25, 2006

It depends on what you mean by Astronomy, homonculus. I don't mean to be flippant at all, btw. There's a continuum of Astronomy vs Astrology in the ancient world, and it's confusing and not very precise. What I had read was that Egyptian astronomy was incredibly limited and not particularly accurate (due to the fact that they, like the Babylonins, had a preschoolian equivalent of math) and based around doing a few practical things. In terms of actually developing the discipline in any kind of scientific manner, that's attributed to the Greeks. Though again, that may be ignoring someone else do to a current lack of evidence.
posted by the_savage_mind at 6:20 AM on July 26, 2006

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