NEWS

Greek film director-researcher discovers the forgotten Greeks of the Pamir mountain range

It seems like a fairy tale, one of those told by the Iskandari Pamirski in the heights of Tadzhikistan, but it is true. There in the depths of the East, in the inaccessible mountains of the Pamir range, are entire villages inhabited by descendants of Alexander the Great’s soldiers. Proud of their Greek origins, they have kept alive the memory of the Macedonian commander 20 centuries after he passed through their part of the world. The discovery of what were completely unknown villages was made by Greek historical researcher and film director Dimitris Manolesakis just a few months ago. He talked to Kathimerini about his journey into the Pamir and our distant compatriots. «Life is difficult here, very difficult, but with Iskandar’s help, all will be well, very well,» says the old man. His face is peaceful, his voice optimistic. Behind him, the peaks of the Pamir mountains stand against a clear blue sky. «Now that Dimitris has found us, we feel as if we are flying high into the sky,» he says, he says, his face shining ecstatically. His village, 4,000 meters above sea level, is indeed not far from the sky. The Pamir range is one of the highest in the world, but also one of the most isolated. These silent, rugged mountains of central Asia have never known invasion, except by one single leader some 2,333 years ago, and he was revered because he did not oppress the local people but drew them into his endless enthusiasm for life and learning. When he departed, he left behind some of his soldiers of whom traces can still be seen in the faces of their descendants, who still inhabit these mountains. Since then, the traditions have been retained, the faith kept. Not many invaders are the object of reverence, let alone deified, particularly after 20 centuries. Yet this is what Alexander managed to do. Or as they know him, Iskandar. They have named themselves after him: Iskandari Pamirski, the Alexandrians of the Pamir. Yet just a few months ago no one knew of their existence. Last fall, Greek historical researcher and film director Dimitris Manolesakis came upon them after persistent and painstaking exploration among the Pamir mountains in Uzbekistan, Tadzhikistan and the borders of Afghanistan, China and Kirghizia, in what used to be ancient Sogdia and Bactria, where, according to Marco Polo, lived the descendants of Alexander the Great’s troops. As it appears, they still live there. Manolesakis discovered five of these villages. There are more, but at a distance of several days’ journey. The five villages he visited are at heights ranging from 3,000 to 4,000 meters above sea level on different plateaus of the Pamir range. Greeks in the heart of Asia The first to mention the existence of descendants of Alexander’s soldiers was the British officer and philhellene Sir George Robertson, who in 1895 discovered the Kafir-Kalash in the Indian Caucasus in the Himalayas in what is now Pakistan, on the Chitral plateau. He made a study of the people and wrote a book about them. Manolesakis was the first Greek to make a film about the Kafir-Kalash, who believe in the gods of Olympus and retain ancient Greek customs (hence «Kafir» or unbelievers, i.e. non-Muslims), for Greek state television’s educational service. Several years ago he traveled to about eight of their villages in the inhospitable gorges of the Indian Caucasus. The descendants of Greeks in the Pamir were a genuine discovery; until recently they were unknown to the outside world. On his dangerous trip into the Pamirs, by jeep and on foot, he was helped by Professor Giorgos Michailidis of Tashkent and the historian and museum director Sohinbek Alloueddin. «I didn’t find them where Marco Polo said they were, but even higher; centuries ago they had fled to higher plateaus, probably to escape invaders,» said Manolesakis. «These people are proud of their origins, they tell amazing stories and legends about the strength, wisdom and generosity of Iskandar. Although they are Muslims, at least that is what they declare themselves, they believe in and worship Alexander the Great. They have deified him. They believe not only that he has divine power, but miracle-working abilities.» Their own religious leader, the imam, along with other clerics and local leaders, related on camera some of the miracles attributed to the god-king Iskandar. «If a woman cannot have a child, she goes to Iskandar’s grave to pray and when she comes back, she gets pregnant,» they say. Every spring and fall they go to pray at a grave which is high in the Yasmullah mountains, and which they believe is that of Iskandar. One of their ancestors found the grave about two centuries ago. It is obviously a cenotaph, but that is of little importance to the people who walk 68 difficult kilometers (42 miles) to honor Iskandar and to ask for his help. The five villages found by Manolesakis are scattered around the Pamirs and are not aware of each others’ existence. They call themselves by different names, according to the region they inhabit: Iskandari Pamirski (Alexandrians of the Pamir), Iskandari Kouli (Alexandrians of the Lake), and Kalashi Pamirski (Kalash of the Pamirs). The latter come from among the Kalash of the Himalayas in Pakistan. Obviously some of their number had been exiled from the Chitral plateau and sought refuge in the Pamir. Just as the Kalash of the Himalayas, the Kalash of the Pamirs have preserved ancient Greek customs, which they observe in secret places. The descendants of Greeks in the Pamirs speak a language that is a mixture of Farsi, Uzbek, Afghan and ancient Greek words and roots. «For example, they use the Greek phrase eis kalon to denote ‘beautiful’, and gynaik for woman,» said Manolesakis. Stuff of legends They have a number of legends about Alexander the Great. One of them refers to Iskandar as a very strong man who lifted a three-ton rock and put it between two distant points to form a bridge. Whoever can lift that rock, according to the legend, will see Alexander underneath, who will then rise up and read the Koran. Another legend, from the Lake region, tells of how the lake was created. Alexander arrived there with his troops ready to do battle with local tribes. However, shortly before the battle, the heavens opened and so much rain fell that the plain became a lake dividing the two armies. The battle was never fought and the two armies made peace. Many of Alexander’s soldiers stayed there and had families. Sometimes at dawn, the Alexandrians of the Lake see Alexander rising from the lake on his horse Bucephalus, or else the horse on its own, galloping around and mating with the local mares. Their legend about Alexander and the fountain of youth is slightly different from the Greek legend. A king offers Alexander some water from the fountain of youth, but tells him to think carefully before deciding. Alexander says he doesn’t want to become immortal; he wants his work to be immortal. The king explains to him that no one has ever drunk it for fear of living forever and suffering forever. The descendants of Alexander’s men are the subject of a documentary which will be part of a series directed by Manolesakis titled «Alexander of the Peoples,» being made under the aegis of the Foreign Ministry and the Thessaloniki prefecture. It aims to provide an approach the life and times of Alexander, through the memories of the peoples of Asia.