After a decade of conquest, Alexander the Great and his army believed that they had reached the end of the earth. He had travelled as far as Afghanistan and the Arabian sea, and further than any Greek before him. He was ‘king of everywhere and everything at last’. Thinking that the boundaries of the earth had been reached and a limit had so been set to his ambition, Alexander wept because there were no more worlds to conquer. So writes Edmund Richardson in his new book, ‘Alexandria: The Quest for the Lost City’, published by Bloomsbury.
This week, two most unusual books capture the magic that is Afghanistan. Richardson’s book uncovers a treasured past and the true story of a vagabond antiquarian who called himself Charles Masson in 1830s Afghanistan. The other, ‘Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul’, published by Vintage, is a personal travel book by Taran N Khan that draws on her time in Kabul between 2006 and 2013.
Afghanistan, meaning the Land of the Afghans, has been a strategic location throughout history, serving as a gateway to India and a route between the Mediterranean and China. Many followed Alexander in their quest to conquer this part of central Asia.
Edmund Richardson covers the period from the 1830s onwards and marks a time called the Great Game, when various nations battled to make the region part of their empire. Charles Masson, the central figure in the book, was in fact the pseudonym of one Private James Lewis, a British soldier in the East India Company. He had deserted and changed his name to Charles Masson, and claimed to be American.
Through various means, he ended up as a vagabond in Kabul. There, he discovered by chance that he had a talent for archaeology when he uncovered some gold coins with Greek inscriptions. He went on to discover the 2,000-year-old Bimaran casket – solid gold, encrusted with garnets and carrying the earliest known depiction of the face of the Buddha. Bimaran is thought to be the ancient city, Alexandria, founded by Alexander and his soldiers.
When the East India Company found out that Private James Lewis had set himself up as an American called Charles Masson, they decided to use him as a spy, spying on the Shah of Kabul. As the Russians and the Americans were to find out in the 20th century, taking on Afghanistan is not to be taken lightly. The move set off a whole series of events involving Russia, Britain and Persia, culminating in Britain’s invasion of Afghanistan.
It was a miracle that Charles Masson survived to be a spy. At one stage he was chained up in a dungeon with no food, yet he went on to be offered his own kingdom. Rudyard Kipling used this in the fictional story ‘The Man who would be King’, which was turned into a Hollywood movie starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine in 1975. What appears to have sustained Charles Masson in all his adventures was his love of Afghanistan and its people.
Ode to Kabul
In ‘Shadow City’, Taran N Khan also shows her love of the country. Khan spent a number of years on and off in Kabul, after the Taliban had been driven out from the city. Her writing is a mixture of history, travel, memoir and poetry.
In a recent Tertulia interview with Khan, she told us she wanted to let the reader wander with her into the myriad and beautiful lives of the people of Kabul, as an antidote to the 40 years of conflict we hear so much about. She even went on an archaeological dig following in the footsteps of Masson and helped out on a movie production.
The history of Afghanistan has had so many chapters and so many faces. When we asked Khan how she felt about the current withdrawal of troops from the country, she described the sense of foreboding, anger and apprehension felt amongst her friends remaining in the country.
When she arrived in 2006, there had been hope, but by the time she left in 2013, this had already begun to fade. Her book, though beautiful, is tinged with some sadness for the hardships, past and future to come, endured by the wonderful people of Afghanistan.
Bríd Conroy and her husband Neil Paul run Tertulia – A Bookshop Like No Other at The Quay, Westport.