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Historian Michael Wood traversed seventeen countries, trekking through the Zagros Mountains to find the lost site of Alexander's battle at the "Persian Gates," drinking black tea in the Hindu Kush, listening to ancient stories of Sikander e Aazem, and crossing the Makran Desert with twenty-three camels. He traveled with Lebanese traders, Iranian pilgrims, Afghan guerrillas, and other local people on a journey that took him through many of the twentieth century's major trouble spots, including Beirut and Kurdistan.
Wood bases his account of Alexander's conquest on the texts of Greek and Roman historians, but he also reconsiders the Greek adventure in terms of modern ideas on colonialism, orientalism, and racism. The Macedonian conquest, which has mainly been seen through Greek sources, is illuminated for the first time by medieval travelers' narratives, newly discovered oracles, and prophecies on papyrus or clay tablet.
At the heart of Wood's powerful story is the towering, enigmatic character of Alexander the Great. He ascended the throne at twenty, conquered much of the known world before he was thirty, and was dead by the age of thirty-two. A ruthless politician, brilliant military tactician, devoted son, family man, lover of both women and men, Alexander was known for his extreme generosity as well as his ferocious cruelty. Following in the conqueror's footsteps centuries later, Michael Wood overhears the words of the fabled Greek mermaid who calls to passing sailors: "Great Alexander still lives!"
Alexander ascended the Macedonian throne at the age of 20, conquered much of the world known to the ancients by 30, and died aged 32. Born in 356 b.c., Alexander was shaped by barbarian and classical forces: His mother, Olympias, was intensely devoted to strange religious cults, but Alexander was tutored by one of the great philosophers of all time, Aristotle. When Alexander succeeded to the throne in 336 b.c. after his father's assassination, he became the master of a kingdom that already dominated a Greece exhausted by the war between Athens and Sparta. Shortly after becoming king, he ruthlessly suppressed an uprising by the city of Thebes, then invaded Persia, Greece's ancient enemy. Wood retraces Alexander's astounding victories over Darius at Granicus and Issus; his easy victories over Phoenicia and Egypt, where the oracle of Zeus declared him "son of God" and where he founded Alexandria, destined to become one of the great cities of the ancient world; his invasion of Babylonia and his completion of the destruction of Darius' army at Arbela and Persepolis; and subsequent conquests of central Asia and India. Wood meditates on the transformed landscape of Alexander's world, his frequent atrocities (like the sacking of Persepolis and the massacre of the Branchidae), and his lasting legacy of destruction. To this day, in many countries Alexander touched, the name Iskander is a byword for destruction, ambition, and greed. Nonetheless, Wood points out, although Alexander's conquests were transient and his empire short-lived, his rule was a critical turning point for the ancient world, generating creative energies and contacts between East and West that would never have occurred otherwise.
Wood has thoughtfully recreated one of ancient history's most fascinating periods.
Posted July 7, 2014