Sunday, June 26

Alexandria by Edmund Richardson review: the search for the lost city | History books

In the hot summer of 1840, the young orientalist Henry Rawlinson arrived in Karachi and began eagerly searching for his mentor, the pioneering archaeologist from Afghanistan, Charles Masson. The rumors he had heard alarmed him deeply.

Rawlinson was a rising star: he had recently made a name for himself by helping to decipher the ancient Persian cuneiform script; but he looked at Masson as a much greater scholar. For more than a decade, Masson had wandered, alone and on foot, exploring Afghanistan, collecting coins and inscriptions, studying ruins, and sketching.

The bilingual Hellenistic coins that Masson had sent to Calcutta, minted by men with names like Pantaleon, King of North India, and Demetrius Dharmamita, had been like miniature Rosetta stones. They had provided the key for scholars to understand the deeply hybrid ancient Greco-Buddhist history of the region. The Heliochles coins from Balkh were typical: they featured a Roman profile on one side – large nose, imperial arrogance in the eyes – but on the reverse Heliochles chose a hunchbacked Indian Brahmini bull as his symbol.

Masson was also the first Western archaeologist to visit the ancient cities of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro. It was he who first unveiled the lost Hellenistic Buddhist Golden Age of Gandhara by unearthing what are still the earliest extant images of Buddha. His most spectacular find was solid gold inlaid with garnet. Bimaran coffin which is now one of the British Museum’s greatest treasures. Here, the classical figures of the Buddha are placed under semicircular arches, the muscles undulate under the diaphanous folds of his robe. He is standing with his eyes half closed, his hair greased and tied in a bun; his face is full and round; and firm and proud lips, the Buddha emitted in the form of Apollo.

Above all, Masson had done more than anyone else to uncover the footprints left by Alexander the Great in Afghanistan and identify, on the Shomali Plain outside Kabul, the site of the legendary lost city of Alexandria beneath the mountains. For Rawlinson, as for many later scholars, Masson was a true pioneer and hero.

Yet despite all his extraordinary accomplishments, Masson remained an enigma. Despite clear traces of a Cockney accent, he claimed to be “an American gentleman from Kentucky.” This was a cover story few believed, and Masson had recently been jailed by the East India Company on suspicion of espionage when he was arrested wandering, undocumented, across the borders of Afghanistan. The company kept him in solitary, half-starved confinement for six months, on an occasional diet of stale bread and sheep entrails, something that appears to have come close to discouraging him.

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Certainly, when Rawlinson finally brought Masson to the ground in the backstreets of Karachi, he was horrified by what had happened to the man he had long revered as the greatest archaeologist of his day: “I came to town to see Masson of whom I have heard and read a lot, “Rawlinson wrote in his diary. “I found him in a miserable shack talking to some almost naked and half drunk Belochees. I stayed with him for several hours and everything I witnessed hurt a lot. His language was so insolent at first that I thought he had gotten pretty silly. I think his mind is really giving in. “

Masson’s story has fascinated generations of writers, and it traces its grim path through many books on Central Asia by Peter Hopkirk. The big game to Rory Stewart’s The places Come in. When I was researching my own The Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 1839-42I found a stash of Masson’s letters in the National Archives of India. It was clear that he was in detailed and confidential correspondence with two of the great masters of Central Asian espionage, Claude Wade and Alexander “Bukhara” Burnes. I remember at that moment I thought of what a wonderful book his story would be, spanning the wildest shores of archeology, exploration, and the cloak and dagger of the great spy game. But much of Masson was unclear, and in my books, as so often before, Masson remained a fascinating figure on the fringes of the main story, overshadowed in death, as he was in life, by better known, better connected and more powerful. mens.

Only now, with this magnificent biography, is Masson’s story told in its entirety for the first time. The result, evocatively written, impeccably researched and painstakingly annotated, but with the pace and complexity of the cleverly woven plot of a John le Carré novel, is a small masterpiece. It solves most of the mysteries in Masson’s story and deserves all the accolades it is sure to earn.

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The story that Richardson has painstakingly reconstructed from archives on three continents tells a very different story than the one Masson himself told. It turns out that Masson’s real name was James Lewis of the Bengal Artillery. He was a self-taught working-class Londoner who had enlisted in the army of the East India Company. Then, in 1827, he faked his own death at the Siege of Bharatpur and disappeared into the night. He wandered like a fakir through Hindustan, skirting Mughal Delhi to avoid attracting attention. He somehow made his way north from Bikaner through the deep void of the Thar Desert, before reappearing, hungry, blistered and skinned, at the court of Bahawalpur, in what is now Pakistan.

There, Masson was recruited into a mercenary force made up of the American adventurer Josiah Harlan, the self-described Prince of Ghor and one of Rudyard Kipling’s role models for The man who wanted to be king. Harlan aimed to reconquer Afghanistan for the overthrown king, Shah Shuja ul-Mulk, but the expedition quickly fell apart and Masson was left alone and friendless amid war-torn Afghanistan. Here they soon stole most of his possessions and even his clothes. He was unable to return to India, where he was a wanted man (the company had sentenced him to death for desertion), so he had no choice but to beg his way to Kabul, where he calmly began his historical investigations.

Under the protection of the highly intelligent and curious Crown Prince of Kabul, Akbar Khan, and armed with a copy of Arrian’s Life of Alexander the Great, Masson became the first Westerner to explore the ancient archeology of Afghanistan. Following in Alexander’s footsteps, he methodically excavated Buddhist stupas and Kushan palaces and in no time had located the remains of the lost Alexandria.

It was here that Masson’s excavations really began to bear fruit: “Before the beginning of winter, I had accumulated 1,800 and 65 copper coins,” he wrote, “plus a few silver, and many rings, seals, and other relics. “. Coin after coin had the same words stamped in ancient Greek: ‘Basileus Basileon’, ‘King of kings’; however, these were clearly Buddhist coins and many of them appeared on buildings that looked like Buddhist monasteries. Obediently, Masson began to send the selection of their finds to the new Asiatic Society in Calcutta Slowly, the history of the Bactrian Greek Buddhists began to come together.

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It was his former mercenary commander, Josiah Harlan, who briefed authorities on Masson’s past. When the East India Company spy chief Claude Wade learned the secret of Masson’s true identity as a defector from the EIC, he blackmailed him into becoming an “intellectual”, threatening both with capital punishment. as with the lure of forgiveness. That didn’t end well. Once Masson partnered with the company, he became a marked man. Finally, he was forced to leave Kabul in 1839, just before the company incurred the catastrophe of the First Anglo-Afghan War.

Masson’s political advice and intimate knowledge of Afghanistan were ignored. The result was a conflict that its first historian described as “a war started without wise purpose, carried out with a strange mixture of recklessness and timidity, ended after suffering and disaster, without much glory to the government he led, or the great body of troops that fought it. No benefits, political or military, have been obtained ”.

Masson returned to England, only to die in poverty near Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, in 1853 “from an uncertain disease of the brain.” He was buried in a nameless grave. Both his invaluable findings and his academic discoveries were appropriated by the company, and it is only now that his full achievement has finally become clear. Richardson writes at the end of his heartbreaking book: “Statues were never placed on Masson. Marble mausoleums were not erected. Not even a portrait survives. “But with the publication of this absolutely brilliant biography, he now has, at last, a fitting tribute.

Alexandria: The Quest for the Lost City is a Bloomsbury publication (£ 25). To support The Guardian, request your copy at Shipping charges may apply.

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