Michael's Dispatches

Alexander the Great

img_5641_webSunrise over Farah

07 April 2011

Afghanistan contains many treasures of ancient history.   Climate conditions here preserve old structures whose origins often remain a mystery.


Alexander stormed through here a thousand years before the Arabs introduced Islam.  Today, after travelling around Afghanistan, it’s easy to see why invading Armies give up; people who can raise and deploy an Army to these parts soon realize there is not much worth having, while deploying an Army is expensive.  For those Armies deployed to reap treasures, even if they won, what could they win?  (More recent mineral discoveries not withstanding.)  Meanwhile, we are the first to try to plant democracy.

farahThe green pin in the background is the location of Alexander's Citadel in Farah.

In Farah, about 74 miles from the Iranian border, is a giant citadel said to have been built by Alexander the Great.  The Google Earth image above shows the current runway used by US and Italian troops in Farah.  It’s noteworthy that our modern military base was built so close to where Alexander put his fort roughly 2,300 years ago.

In Farah province today, there is a serious Taliban presence but relatively little fighting, partly because we have few troops there.  I have seen US Navy and Army, and also Italians.  There is sometimes light fighting in the city, but I’ve never seen any during my two trips to Farah.  Afghans I’ve talked with say the military has created goodwill here, though it can be said with certainty that outside the city security gets dicey.

alexander-citadelThe two corners near the orange pins are exactly one kilometer apart.

Kris Leboutillier and I loaded up with some Afghans and drove a short distance down to the citadel.

Up on the citadel wall is what the Afghans say is an old hotel.  I splashed about a dozen photos and stitched them into this panorama: Gigapan including old hotel.

(Note on Gigapans.  There are two parts: the robot, and the software.  The robot is useful for making incredible images that are perfectly aligned, but the robot is heavy, requires a tripod, and takes time.  The software (am using AutoPanoGiga) only needs contiguous images to stitch the panorama.  It doesn’t matter if the images are made with the robot or by hand.)

img_5661_webThe Coalition military base is about halfway between here and that mountain.

We trudged up the rampart at a corner of the citadel and came across several boys, including the two above.  Down inside the citadel there were a few shepherds with a couple flocks of sheep.  In the far distance were hulks of old Soviet-style vehicles.  The place is huge.  The opposite corner of the citadel is exactly one kilometer from this corner.

As I set up the Gigapan robot, a man approached to talk with our interpreter, saying he was an opium addict and he wanted help to kick the addiction.  He looked sad, saying he could not go back to his village or his brothers would kill him.  There are loads of opium addicts in Afghanistan.  One of the best books I’ve read in the last decade is Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, by Ahmed Rashid.  I once called Mr. Rashid in Pakistan to talk more about opium.  In his book, Mr. Rashid described the Taliban method for helping people to kick the habit:

“Ordinary people said they were too scared to take hashish after the Taliban had forbidden it.  For those who did so clandestinely, the Taliban had devised a novel approach to curing hashish addiction.  ‘When we catch hashish smugglers or addicts we interrogate and beat them mercilessly to find out the truth,’ said Abdul Rashid.  ‘Then we put them in cold water for many hours, two or three times a day.  It’s a very good cure,’ he added.  Rashid then strode into the jail and pulled out several terrified prisoner-addicts to talk to me.  They had no hesitation in agreeing that the Taliban’s shock therapy was effective.  ‘When I am beaten or in cold water I forget all about hashish,’ said Bakht Mohammed, a shopkeeper and a hashish dealer who was serving three months in jail.

Well, at least the Taliban are good for something.

img_2636_webAfghan man checks out the Gigapan robot at the Citadel in Farah.

And so, on that first day I shot a Gigapan with a 200mm lens, and that night rendered the panorama and decided to come back the next day using a 400mm.  If you’ve come this far, better to do as best you can, and I figured this Gigapan might be useful for students or researchers.  The higher resolution might help.  So the next day, Kris and I came back with the 400mm and made 208 RAW 21 megapixel images for this Gigapan.

If you click through to the image, you’ll see some “snapshots.”  Clicking on a snapshot zooms to the point of interest.

The Gigapan turned out well: Inside the Citadel

If you notice something interesting in the Gigapan, please feel free to make a snapshot and leave a description.  For instance, I found in the image a barefoot guy on the ground.  Is he dead?  Passed out from opium?  I have no idea, but Afghans said that people come to the caves in the citadel to use drugs.  Alexander’s citadel has become a minor opium den.

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