Settlements > Alexandria on the Caucasus

Alexandria on the Caucasus

Alexander the Great - Dove Decoration


Alexandria in the Caucasus: the Gandarian capital Kapiša-kaniš was repopulated with 4,000 natives and 3,000 Greek and Macedonian veterans in March 329. It was a permanent garrison or a Greek city, although many settlers felt that it was a punitive colony. Modern Chârikâr near Kabul in Afghanistan.

In the late winter, early spring of 329 BCE, the army of Alexander the Great, trying to attack the last Achaemenid king of Persia, Artaxerxes V Bessus, from an unexpected direction, made a detour through what is now called Afghanistan, and reached Gandara, the valley of the river Cophen (Kabul). This was an important crossroad: arriving from the southwest, a traveler could go to the east, to India, to the northwest across the Hindu Kush to Bactra, and to the northeast, through the Panjshir Valley, across the Hindu Kush, to Drapsaca. Bactra and Drapsaca were situated in fertile Bactria, a key satrapy in the Achaemenid empire.

Alexander needed a strong base for his crossing of the Hindu Kush, and founded a city, which, as usual, was called Alexandria. The city was in fact a refoundation of an Achaemenid settlement called Kapisa. About 4,000 native inhabitants were allowed to stay, and 3,000 Macedonian and Greek veterans were added. Later, more people were settled in the city, which must have been seen as a punitive colony by the Europeans who were left there. Still, the waters of the Kabul, Panjshir, and Khorband rivers created a fertile alluvial plain, and the city was to become very prosperous.

Alexandria-Kapisa has been identified and partly excavated on a hill near Begram - or to be more precise, east of Charikar -, 65 km north of modern Kabul. Not many finds date back to the age of Alexander, but the identification is uncontested.

A brief description of Kapisa is offered by the Chinese traveler Xuan Zang (603-664), a Buddhist pilgrim who visited the area much later, but before the rise of Islam changed everything. He saw the city well built by the Macedonians (3 km long) and mentioned that the country produced all kinds of fruit, wheat, and other cereals. Xuan Zang also mentions to the high, snow-covered mountains.

The Macedonians and Greeks had called them the Caucasus, the name they gave to the large mountain range that divided Asia into a northern and a southern half. According to their myths, the supreme god Zeus had punished the demi-god Prometheus, who had stolen fire from heaven and given it to humankind, by chaining him to a rock in the Caucasus. Every day, they believed, Zeus' eagle had come to devour Prometheus' liver, which miraculously was recreated every night. It is interesting to note that the ancient Iranian sacred book, the Avesta, calls this area Upari-Sena, "too high for the divine eagle", and that Xuan Zang also tells a myth about the divine eagle (more...).

After the death of Alexander in 323, Alexandria remained an important city, but in 303, one of Alexander's Successors, Seleucus I Nicator, gave it to the Indian king Chandragupta Maurya as part of a bargain in which he received 500 elephants. The city, which called itself Kapisa again, now belonged to the Mauryan Empire, but when it fell apart, it was captured by a Graeco-Bactrian army (184 BCE), and included in a new, Indo-Greek kingdom.

This was a multi-ethnic state, in which Greeks, Bactrians, western Iranians and Indians lived together. Greek religious practices, Iranian cults, Hinduism and Buddhism are all known from second-century Gandara. Coins were modeled on the drachmas of Athens, although they often had Indian legends. After c.125, an invasion of the Sacae, nomads from Central Asia, led to a new dynasty, but the multicultural society remained as it had always been. It also absorbed the Parthians, who became interested in the region in the first century BCE, and the Kushans, whose great leader Kanishka appears to have lived in the first half of the second century CE. Among the archaeological finds from Charikar are carved ivory plaques, statues of Buddha, Greek-style busts, a painted glass vase showing a Roman gladiator (from Syria or Egypt).

Alexandria in the Caucasus is located to the south of Bactria, in the mountains of the Hindu Kush. Alexandria in the Caucasus (medieval Kapisa, modern Bagram) was a colony of Alexander the Great (one of many colonies designated with the name Alexandria). He founded the colony at an important junction of communications in the southern foothills of the Hindu Kush mountains, in the country of the Paropamisade.

Note: In Classical times, the Hindu Kush were also designated as the "Caucasus" in parallel to their Western equivalent, the Caucasus Mountains between Europe and Asia.

Ancient cities founded by Alexander the Great in Central and South Asia

Alexander populated the city with 7,000 Macedonians, 3,000 mercenaries and thousands of natives (according to Curtius VII.3.23), or some 7,000 natives and 3,000 non-military camp followers and a quantity of Greek mercenaries (Diodorus, XVII.83.2), in March 329 BC. He had also built forts in what is nowadays Bagram in Afghanistan, at the foot of the Hindu Kush, replacing forts erected in much the same place by Persia's king Cyrus the Great c. 500 BC. The divinity of the city seems to have been Zeus, as suggested by coins of the Greco-Bactrian king Eucratides.

Indo-Greek capital

Alexandria of the Caucasus was one of the capitals of the Indo-Greek kings (180 BC-AD 10). During the reign of Menander I the city was recorded as having a thriving Buddhist community, headed by Greek monks. In Buddhist literature, the Greek (Pali: Yona, lit: "Ionian") Buddhist monk Mahadhammarakkhita (Sanskrit: Mahadharmaraksita) is said to have come from “Alasandra” (thought to be Alexandria of the Caucasus), with 30,000 monks for the foundation ceremony of the Maha Thupa ("Great stupa") at Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka:

"From Alasanda the city of the Yonas came the thera (elder) Yona Mahadhammarakkhita with thirty thousand bhikkhus." (Mahavamsa, XXIX)


Some archaeological evidence concerning Alexandria of the Caucasus was gathered by Charles Masson (1800–1853), providing insight into the history of that lost city. His findings include coins, rings, seals and other small objects. In the 1930s Roman Ghirshman, while conducting excavations near Bagram, found Egyptian and Syrian glassware, bronze statuettes, bowls, the Begram ivories and other objects including statues. This is an indication that Alexander's conquests have opened India to imports from the west.

Today the cities' remains feature a rectangular tell 500 by 200 metres in area and a nearby circular citadel about 3km northeast of Bagram Airforce base.

List of Alexandria's

+ List of Alexandria's


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