Having defeated the tribes of Bajaur and Lower Dir, Alexander made for the fortified towns of Bazira and Ora. Today, we know these places as Brikot and Udegram in Swat. Hard battles were fought, but the Pakhtuns were routed from both places in succession. I am prepared to face abuse from modern Pakhtuns who believe, erroneously, that they are an invincible race.
The defeated tribes fled, so Alexander learnt in Ora, to the rock of Aornos. Word had already reached Alexander about the impending approach of King Abisares of Kashmir at the head of a large army, to marry up with the Pakhtuns in a bid to defeat the invaders. Fearing that the united force sweeping down the forested slopes east of Ora would be a match hard to suppress, Alexander hurried to destroy the fugitives on Aornos.
Of Aornos, the Greek historian Arrian, writing three and a half centuries after Alexander tells us: “The circumference of Aornos is said to be about 25 miles and its height, not including the peaks, nearly 8,000 feet”.
From Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador to the court of Chandragupta Maurya, we know that the base of Aornos was washed by the Sindhu River. There have been contenders for Aornos. The peak of Ilam just south of Mingora in Swat is one. While Ilam fits Arrian’s description, it is far from the Sindhu — or any other river. The hill of Ranighat in Buner is another. While this is a little ways off the Sindhu, it does not have arable land.
Studying the geography of Alexander’s conquest of Bazira and Ora, we have to agree with Aurel Stein’s conclusion that the only hill that can fit the picture of Aornos is Una Sar. Sitting in the great crook where the Sindhu makes an eastward arc and overlooking Chakesar to the southwest and Besham to the north, Una Sar is 8,587 feet high with the river flowing around its three sides.
Now, Una in Pashto is pronounced with the nasal-palatal ‘nr’ that we hear in several languages in Pakistan. Because the westerners could not produce that hard rolling syllable, they simplified it to a simple ‘r’ sound. They dropped the ‘sar’ for they understood it meant ‘peak’.
When Alexander made the top of Aornos, he found that the tribes had taken refuge on a slightly lower adjacent peak that we today call Pir Sar — Saint’s Peak. The area where Alexander was positioned is known as Burimar. Behind his forces was the peak of Una Sar, rising 1,000 feet higher and in front was a saddle about 300 feet lower beyond which, and well out of the range of Alexander’s artillery, was the Pakhtun sanctuary. To attempt storming across the depression was suicidal. Knowing this, even as they waited for Abisares’ reinforcements, the Pakhtuns taunted Alexander from the safety of their haven.
Even today, Una Sar is quite thickly forested with pine. In the 4th century BCE, it would surely have been a veritable forest. And so Alexander ordered every soldier in his army to bring one hundred pine logs, cut and dressed. These were dumped in the depression of Burimar and filled up with soil. By and by, the earthwork extended far enough to permit archers and artillery to bombard the refuge-seekers of Pir Sar.
The Pakhtuns sent an offer to surrender on terms. But their actual plan was to draw out the parleys until nightfall when they would be able to escape under cover of darkness. Then, as now, treason was common and Alexander was informed of the Pakhtun plan. As they removed their pickets in preparation for withdrawal and as day passed into night, Alexander, accompanied by 700 soldiers, attacked the men on Pir Sar.
A great slaughter took place on the hill of Pir Sar, some of whom would surely have been buried on the peak. I believe no saint is buried on the hill, but it is the memory of so many good men giving up their lives for their country that sanctifies the hill.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 6th, 2011.
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