Sunday, June 27, 2010


Seriously, if people could just write in and ask questions, it would make it a lot easier to decide what to post about.

Sigilspc wrote me an email, pointing out that I had hex-mapped Central Asia, and asked, "Why has Afghanistan so often been the chosen grave of empire?"

I am prepared to answer the question; I've thought about this post off and on for months; and I will ask please to be forgiven for being pedantic about it.  If all the information isn't possessed, it is hard to make the argument, and there is a lot of information.  I will strive to be brief and yet comprehensive.

Starting at the beginning, then:

This is a rough piece of country, and probably won't be recognizable as Afghanistan to many gentle readers simply because the standardized border - the one that obliterates everything that surrounds Afghanistan - isn't depicted.  But places don't stop at borders, so the best way to think about this area is to throw out the political borders and look at the land.

So if the reader could please open the image, we can take a crack at Sigilspc's question.

To begin with, I'd like to draw attention to the large green space on the right side of the map, and the smaller green space on the top of the map.  The right is the Indus Valley, modern Pakistan or as it used to be called for many centuries, the Punjab.  This region continues to be one of the two most fertile river valleys on Earth, the other being the Ganges ... which, conveniently, continues from the Indus Valley eastwards.  Even in ancient times these lands contained millions of people, certainly a third of every human being on earth ... and even today a fifth of every human.  We're talking about, right now, a billion and a half people, stretching east and south of Afghanistan, right on the doorstep if you will.

Now, the top green area is the Amu Darya River valley, once known as the Oxus, which was Bactria for centuries before the arrival of Alexander the Great, and which was for two millenia prior to Genghis Khan's appearance a profoundly rich, intellectually focused center of learning.  Unfortunately, we don't know what those people were thinking, specifically, because they were massacred in their tens of thousands and the libraries all burnt to the ground, and the vast hordes of gold removed.  And now, keeping all that in mind, consider that to the west of this land is Persia, and just beyond that Mesopotamia and Egypt, so that the road west from this land of Bactria leads straight into the heart of the ancient, western world.

When I produced this map, I found these two green areas quite startling.  I had certainly heard about Bactria for decades, having taken Classics as a degree (literary works of ancient history) ... but having it demonstrated for me in this fashion really affected me.  The green on this map is land less than 2000 ft. above sea level.  The darker the green, the lower the land ... so that the area of the Indus is less than 500 ft., and the bottom of the Oxus - at least as far as the map depicts - is less than 700 ft.

If, then, we could pull out and look at the whole map comprehensively, there is a massive mountain wall between these two regions, not to mention a rather extensive desert that covers the southwest quandrant of this map.  The tan/orange hexes on the map range from 2000 to 7000 ft., while the purple areas are above 7,000 ft.  And when I say above that altitude, I mean the whole hex ... not just a few mountains.  Each hex on the map is graded according to the altitude points available in that hex, as obtained from the website on my links, the 'global gazatteer' on the left.  Just sayin', if anyone wants to check my work.  Have fun.

I should hope that most of my readers would have some idea of what the terrain in Afghanistan looks like - it is rarely mentioned that a great deal of it is so high above sea level that a great many of the readers who dwell along the Atlantic and Pacific oceans would have trouble breathing.  I live at 3,600 ft. normally, and my lungs start to hurt whenever I get above 7,000 ft., due to the thin air.  A substantial portion of Afghanistan, particularly the northeast corner (called Badakhshan), gets well above 12,000 ft.

Where it comes to travel - particularly the sort where goods are hauled from one place to another, 'up' and 'down' are more of a problem than 'far.'  We've lost this in our travelling consciousness because tunnels and carefully designed angles of ascent and descent in our highways have removed the problem.  While the Romans did some good work in that direction also, they managed to provide roads to a very small part of the world, and one which was nothing like the part of the planet we're looking at right now.

So in considering a loaded wagon, I consider the steady rise of land from sea level to 400 ft. over a distance of 20 miles is equivalent to a full day of travel (which, in a wagon, is 5 to 10 miles over flat ground, depending upon how heavily loaded).  It's not strictly accurate; but if you want to muck around with some math for awhile, and inclined planes over distances and elevations, you'll start to get a sense of what I simply taking for granted at this point in the argument.  When doing the math, remember that land does not allow a level vector 20 miles in length compared with another vector 400 ft. straight up - it tends to roll, up and down, and roads tend to weave left and right.  After beating my head over this problem some years ago, I simply had to accept an easy, straight-forward ratio, which I've already given.  One way or the other, the gentle reader will concede that going 'up' is not preferable to going 'forward.'  It wastes time.  It requires effort.  And hill slopes tend to include things like wheels slipping on the road, falling rocks, mud slides caused by excessive rain and washed out roads.  Nice, low valley roads are preferable.

For those who have never heard of the Khyber Pass, it would easily be the most important route in history.  On this map, it can be found to the upper left from the center of the map - where a 100-mile line of green hexes (20 miles per hex) climbs up from Peshawar to Jalalabad.  The actual pass is between these two points (not marked on the map), between two purple hexes.  Sorry about not marking it - I know its there, and I don't need to remind myself, so ... I haven't bothered to draw a symbol there.  But you can find it marked on any good map if you want to look for it.  In actual fact, a traveller must climb the pass and come down again (unlike my map where the elevation steadily increases) ... but that is because the river gets wild as it drives through the pass and the traveller must make way over a mountain spur.

The pass itself is not the most important feature.  What matters is that from Jalalabad, it is only 180 miles - nine hexes - to the lowlands of Bactria.  The road on my map climbs up to Kabol, then north through Charikar and thence NW.  There are other passes through the mountain range that dominates Afghanistan, but none provides easy passage from the Indus lowland towards Persia.  And that is the key!  Eastern Afghanistan is a gate, between the higher technology of the west and the vast population of the east ... and peoples have moved both ways on this road since, well, ever.  We are quite certain than when Pithecanthropus Erectus made its way out of Africa half a million years ago towards China and the East Indies, they came through this pass - in wave after wave, please note.

Note the highland in the middle of that road, in which Kabol is the heart.  If you check out this region on Google Earth, it will look dry, and brown, and lifeless.  This is because satellite pictures are best taken during the dry season, giving westerners the perception of desolation.  In fact, when monsoons are hitting the coast of India, this sizeable plateau (about the size of New Jersey) becomes rich, green and vibrant - not to mention cloud-covered.  This is the region that spawned the Moghul Empire that would in the 15th and 16th centuries conquer India and create the culture that would build the Taj Mahal.  And they would do it with wealth ... hordes and hordes of wealth, gained in part from the magnificent trade between east and west, but also from the vast amounts of gold, lead, copper, platinum, gemstones and additional untold wealth in natural resources.

Some recent report came out that estimated that there was a trillion dollars worth of untapped wealth under Afghanistan - which is a magnificent joke, for no other reason than that this is a surprise to no one.  We're talking about a huge mountain range which has been thrown up by the India tectonic plate slamming very slowly and for eons into the heart of Asia and throwing up unimaginable riches.  Riches which are still, tectonically, being thrown up.  Hah hah.

The possession of these riches has been, for literally all of human history, a motivation for kingdoms to 'seek their grave,' as Sigilspc puts it.  Of course, the Persians controlled it for two centuries, the Parthians for four, the Sassanians for four, the Mongols for three and then the Moghuls (descended from the Mongols) for another two and a half.  So I guess it has to be wondered just how long your descendents have to own a country before it becomes "a failure to succeed."  I'm quite certain the kings who ruled and who died in harness were entirely confident the land was firmly under their thumb.

That, I think, answers the question as to why.  The question of who follows along: the Mongols came from the north, where the land above the map is still known as Turkestan.  The Sassanians were Persians.  The Parthians were from the lands around the Aral Sea.  Rajahs from India threw out the Moghuls in the 1700s, and the British began their foolish escapades a hundred years after that.

The main reason why Afghanistan is known as a 'grave' is because for the last two centuries the most strenuous invaders have come from lands far from this region, and who are themselves not Islamic.  There is no comprehension of the dominant culture, the land itself is ridiculously rugged - and yet heavily populated - and has become ethnically fragmented to the highest degree.  In fact, until the British began 'uniting' the country, it never had been a single entity.  The high center is Hazara; the northeast is Aria, the lowland on the west, or left, side of the map is Seistan, the south desert was part of the lands beyond that Alexander the Great called Gedrosia ... these lands have had many names, and have been ruled or not ruled in a hundred different ways.  Some parts are far more peaceful than others, some are far richer, some are far more fertile, and so on and so forth.  The region is anything but homogeneous, though the press, the military, modern historians and virtually everyone I talk to seems to think it exists in the same single-minded headspace as Texas ... which, incidentally, would be the size of Afghanistan inside its political borders.

Borders which are not especially respected.  The actual territory in conflict covers almost this entire map ... and yet the allies are only resident in two parts: the aforementioned Kabul, and Qandahar, which is very near the center of this map.  Qandahar is at the bottom of a big series of river valleys that reach up into Hazara and the region I'm calling Zabulistan (which the Moghuls called it) ... valleys which join together to form the Helmand River, that line of green that flows through the Margow Desert, and was itself an ancient seat of culture (as mentioned, Seistan), which in turn was occupied by the Scythians before the Persians conquered them, and who had spread throughout the lands from Poland to Siberia by the time the Greeks encountered them on the north side of the Black Sea.

My point is that these are ancient lands, far more ancient that anyone remotely considers.  It is hubris to think that Afghanistan is a 'backward' country.  What's backwards is thinking that wealth is still a good reason to be there.


I do apologize.  Not much D&D here.  But it's a nice map, right?


Creeps said...

Bugger apologizing. I love a good history/geography lesson.

R said...

"So in considering a loaded wagon, I consider the steady rise of land from sea level to 400 ft. over a distance of 20 miles is equivalent to a full day of travel (which, in a wagon, is 5 to 10 miles over flat ground, depending upon how heavily loaded)."

I'm confused here - am I just reading this wrong? I would think that a wagon going up an incline would travel fewer miles in a single day than one on flat ground. Or are you saying that the wagon travels 20 miles overall, but the total distance is only 5-10 miles if you could fly straight there?

Alexis said...

Sorry that this is unclear. I mean that the time to cross the hex is increased by 1 day for every change in elevation of 400 ft. This is either up or down, given that a loaded wagon moving down a slope can be even harder to move than one going up slope.

Thus, if a wagon takes two days to cross from one hex to the next, this time is increased to three days if the destination hex is 400 feet +/- (or to 2.1 days if the destination hex is 40 feet +/-)

R said...

Perfectly clear now, thanks! I also wanted to mention that it's posts like these that remind me not to waste my creative energy and time on map-drawing of any sort. I'll mine the internet dry before I go back to fumbling around with a pencil and hex paper. Thanks for the material.

PatrickW said...

Yes, it is a good map and a nice little history lesson as well.

Carl said...

This makes me think of, "The Man Who Would Be King."

Vincent Diakuw said...

Brilliant post. Too bad "better" men than you haven't the time to think so clearly about Afghanistan.

Rick Marshall said...

Great post: interesting and informative. Thanks.

Ragnorakk said...

Faa! Lovely map, just lovely!