Alexandria Review by Edmund Richardson – The Quest for the Lost City | History books
In the hot summer of 1840, the young orientalist Henry Rawlinson arrived in Karachi and anxiously sought out his mentor, the pioneer archaeologist of Afghanistan, Charles Masson. The rumors he had heard alarmed him deeply.
Rawlinson was a rising star: he had recently made a name for himself helping to decipher the ancient Persian cuneiform script; but he considered Masson to be a much greater scholar. For more than a decade, Masson had wandered, alone and on foot, discovering Afghanistan, collecting coins and inscriptions, studying ruins and making sketches.
The Hellenistic bilingual coins that Masson had sent to Calcutta, struck by men with names such as Pantaleon, King of North India and Demetrius Dharmamita, were like miniature Rosetta stones. They had provided researchers with the key to understanding the region’s deeply hybrid and Greco-Buddhist ancient history. The Heliochles of Balkh coins were typical: they featured a Roman profile on one side – large nose, imperial arrogance in the eyes – but on the reverse Heliochles chose a hunchbacked Indian Brahmini bull as a symbol.
Masson was also the first Western archaeologist to visit the ancient cities of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro. It was he who first made known the lost Hellenistic Buddhist golden age of Gandhara by unearthing the still oldest images of the Buddha. His most spectacular find was solid gold encrusted with garnet Bimaran box it is now one of the greatest treasures of the British Museum. Here, classical figures of the Buddha stand under arches of round arches, muscles rippling under the diaphanous folds of his toga. He stands with his eyes half closed, his hair oiled and combed into an upper knot; her face is full and round; and firm and proud lips – the Buddha cast in the form of Apollo.
Above all, Masson had done more than anyone to uncover the traces left by Alexander the Great in Afghanistan and to identify, in the Shomali plain outside Kabul, the site of the legendary lost city of Alexandria under the mountains. For Rawlinson, as for many subsequent scholars, Masson was a true pioneer and a true hero.
Yet despite all of his extraordinary accomplishments, Masson has remained an enigma. Despite clear traces of a Cockney accent, he claims to be “an American gentleman from Kentucky”. It was a cover story few believed, and Masson had recently been jailed by the East India Company on suspicion of espionage when he was arrested wandering, undocumented, on the borders of Afghanistan. The company kept him in solitary half-starved for six months, on an occasional diet of stale bread and mutton guts, which seems to have almost bothered him.
Certainly, when Rawlinson finally made Masson run to the earth in the alleys of Karachi, he was horrified by what had happened to the man he had long revered as the greatest archaeologist of his time: “I went in town to see Masson whom I have heard and read so much, ”Rawlinson wrote in his diary. “I found him in a miserable hovel talking to some almost naked and half drunk Belochés. I stayed with him for several hours and was extremely saddened by everything I witnessed. His language was so insolent at first that I thought he had become quite silly. I think his mind is really giving way.
Masson’s story has fascinated generations of writers, and he weaves his dark path through Peter Hopkirk’s many books on Central Asia. The big game at Rory Stewart Places Between. When I was looking for mine The Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 1839-1842I came across a reserve of letters from Masson at the Indian National Archives. It was clear that he was in detailed and confidential correspondence with two of the great masters of Central Asian espionage, Claude Wade and Alexander “Bukhara” Burnes. I remember thinking back then what a wonderful book its story would make, encompassing the wildest shores of archeology, exploration, and the mantle and dagger of The Great Game’s espionage. But so much about Masson were unclear, and in my books, as so often before, Masson has remained a fascinating figure on the fringes of the main tale, eclipsed in death, as he was in life, by better known, better connected and more powerful. Men.
It is only now, with this superb biography, that the story of Masson is told in full for the first time. The result, evocatively written, impeccably researched and painstakingly noted, but with the rhythm and intricacy of the skillfully woven plot of a John le Carré novel, is a small masterpiece. He solves most of the mysteries of Masson’s story and deserves all the praise he will undoubtedly win.
The story that Richardson painstakingly pieced together from records from three continents tells a very different story from that told by Masson himself. It turns out that Masson’s real name was James Lewis of the Bengal Artillery. He was a self-taught, working-class Londoner who enlisted in the East India Company army. Then, in 1827, he faked his own death at the siege of Bharatpur and vanished into the night. He wandered like a fakir through Hindustan, skirting Mughal Delhi to avoid attention. Somehow, he made his way north from Bikaner through the deep void of the Thar Desert, before reappearing, hungry, bloated and skinned, at the court of Bahawalpur, in the present day. Pakistan.
There, Masson was recruited into a mercenary force formed by American adventurer Josiah Harlan, the self-proclaimed Prince of Ghor and one of Rudyard Kipling’s role models for The man who wanted to be king. Harlan aimed to reclaim Afghanistan for the ousted king, Shah Shuja ul-Mulk, but the expedition quickly collapsed and Masson was left alone and friendless amid war-ravaged Afghanistan. Here he was soon stolen of most of his possessions and even of his clothes. He was unable to return to India where he was wanted – the company had sentenced him to death for desertion – so he had no choice but to beg the way to Kabul, where he quietly began his search. historical.
Under the protection of the very intelligent and curious Crown Prince of Kabul, Akbar Khan, and armed with a copy of Arrian Life of Alexander the Great, Masson became the first Westerner to explore the ancient archeology of Afghanistan. Following in Alexander’s footsteps, he methodically excavated Buddhist stupas and Kushan palaces and quickly located the remains of lost Alexandria.
It was here that Masson’s excavations really began to bear fruit: “Before the onset of winter, I had accumulated one thousand eight hundred and sixty-five copper coins,” he wrote, “beside a few coins. silver, and many rings, seals and other relics. Piece after piece, the same words were engraved on it in ancient Greek: “Basileus Basileon”, “King of kings”; Yet these were clearly Buddhist coins and many of them were in buildings that appeared to be Buddhist monasteries. Dutly, Masson began sending the selection of his finds to the New Asian Company in Calcutta. Slowly the history of the Bactrian Buddhist Greeks began to come together.
It was his former mercenary commander, Josiah Harlan, who informed the authorities of Masson’s past. When the East India Company’s spy master, Claude Wade, learned the secret of Masson’s true identity as a deserter from the EIC, he blackmailed him into becoming an “intelligencer,” posing both the threat of capital punishment and the appeal of a pardon. It did not end well. Once Masson was associated with the business, he became a marked man. He was finally forced to leave Kabul in 1839, just before the company got confused in the catastrophe of the First Anglo-Afghan War.
Masson’s political advice and his intimate knowledge of Afghanistan have been ignored. The result was a conflict which its first historian described as “a war started aimlessly, pursued with a strange mixture of vagueness and timidity, ended suffering and disaster, without much glory attached to the governing government either. . , or the large body of troops that led it. No advantage, political or military, was gained. “
Masson returned to England, to die in poverty near Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, in 1853 “of uncertain brain disease”. He was buried in an anonymous grave. His invaluable finds and scholarly discoveries have been appropriated by the company, and it is only now that its full realization has finally become clear. Richardson writes at the end of his heartbreaking book: “No statue has ever been erected in Masson. No marble mausoleum has been erected. Not even a portrait survives. But with the publication of this utterly brilliant biography, he finally has a fitting memorial.