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There are thirty Alexandrias between Africa and India
on 15 November 2009
This is one of the best Michael Wood documentaries, a modern journey that is undeniably epic in scale. Twenty thousand miles from the snowy peaks of Vergina in Macedonian Greece, through modern-day Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, and India.
Unfortunately, events in Iraq (the journey took place in the mid-1990s) meant that he could not reach the site of the battle of Gaugamela. Instead, we are compensated by time spent exploring the paths and problems that had Alexander had in his approach to the Persian capital of Persepolis. He also has trouble in Afghanistan, but not necessarily from the Taliban; rather, it was the terrain and the bandits in the mountains that caused problems.
Thankfully, this is no docu-drama: no, it is Wood himself who makes the journey whether it is by foot, by train, yacht, tractor, bus, car, helicopter, van, AWAC (!), lorry, horse, or warship. And his knowledge of languages is clearly impressive, seemingly being able to communicate directly or throgh interpreters in Turkish, Makrani, Baluchi, Urdu,or Pashtun.
The series is not as academic as his search for the Trojan Wars; rather, it is more of a travelogue, but he tries to remain as faithful to the sometimes contradictory sources as possible. Wood's key problem is untangling the facts from the legend. With the writings of the contemporary Callisthenes in hand, together with those of Arrian and Curtius, who wrote three-to-four hundred years afterwards, he attempts to make sense of the disagreements that exist in the documentary sources.
By following in Alexander's footsteps, Wood claims to have made some insights into Alexander's character. For instance, walking along the coast of south-western Turkey, he deduces that Alexander did not always plan ahead, that he was an obstinate man, and that many of his successes depended on luck. He also locates the spot - at Siwa in the Egyptian desert - where you can still stand on the same stones that he stood upon, perhaps the only place on earth where this is possible.
Throughout the series of four episodes, Wood seeks out modern day resonances in the stories and legends still told in the communities along the way. In Persia it is the Zoroastrians who tell their side of Alexander's march through their lands. Whilst with the Kalash of the Hindu Kush he drinks with possible descendants of Alexander's army. Wood does not shrink from examining the dark side of Alexander, such as his self-deification, his crucifixion of Callisthenes, and what would now be termed `war crimes'. Come the end of the journey, Wood's admiration for Alexander is tinged by the hero's foolhardiness and trickery: "A man broken in the end by the loneliness and insanity of absolute power."
The set comes with a thirty-six minute interview (presumably shot in 2005 - it refers to the Oliver Stone movie), in which Wood says that to try and tell Alexander's story without following it on the ground would be a meaningless exercise. He also says how his view of Alexander was affected y the still-living traditions that he encountered along the way, traditions that viewed Alexander as accursed rather than gifted by the gods. He also tells how some of the trips were organised, especially to Afghanistan, and he comments on the Hollywood films that have been made with their `negative ending problem'.