During 325 BCE, Alexander the Great completed his campaigns in India, having conquered any Indian kingdom that opposed his progress along the Indus River. Nevertheless, there were still more lands and kingdoms to conquer. Even though Alexander wanted to prolong his string of conquests, his fatigued troops refused to go further into India, so Alexander instead marched to the Arabian Sea and began his return trip westward, heading for Persia. He had an admiral named Nearchus lead the navy along the coastline, while Alexander, himself, set off across the land with the rest of the army.
Alexander was particularly interested in a region called Gedrosia, which corresponds to the modern borderlands between Iran and Pakistan. Alexander the Great had read tales about disastrous attempts to cross the Gedrosian desert—the semi-mythical queen Semiramis had supposedly lost all but twenty of her warriors in a crossing of the desert, and Cyrus the Great was said to have lost all but seven of his followers in a similar attempt. These stories made Gedrosia an enticing obstacle for Alexander the Great, for he was a man who loved to surpass old legends. Already, he proudly boasted that he had traveled farther into India than the god, Dionysus, and had conquered fortresses that supposedly thwarted Heracles. So, naturally, Alexander was eager to try his luck against the formidable desert.
No one really knows how many soldiers Alexander the Great had with him at this point. Most scholars estimate that he must have had a force numbering between 10,000 and 70,000 when he entered the Gedrosian Desert, not to mention the large number of civilians who decided to follow along behind the army. Alexander led these masses into an inhospitable land with little food and scarce water. In addition, there was such unbearable heat that the troops began marching at night to spare themselves from the unforgiving sun.
At first, navigating the region was fairly easy while the army could march along the coast, yet, Alexander eventually had to leave the sea and travel into the Gedrosian interior. When the army ventured deeper into the desert, sandstorms became a problem—the winds and sands obscured trails and landmarks used by the army’s guides. Whenever the guides lost their way, Alexander led the troops back to the sea so the guides could reorient themselves before heading back into the desert.
During the grueling march, Alexander’s army, and the civilians still following him, all began to die of thirst, starvation and exposure to the harsh environment. Almost all of the horses and beasts of burden died of hunger and thirst, or were eaten by the starving troops. The marching army left behind a trail of collapsed warriors who could not find the strength to keep moving. During the night marches, some people would fall asleep and wake up abandoned in the desert—others would never wake up at all. Even if Alexander’s parched troops found a source of water, there were people who were so thirsty that they drank themselves sick, or even to death.
At some point during the desert crossing, Alexander camped his forces by a small trickle of water running through the land. To keep his men from overindulging on the water, he set up a camp for the troops a short distance away from the stream. The civilians, animals, and much of the army’s supplies, however, were located closer to the water source.
This minuscule stream, Alexander and his followers would soon find out, was no ordinary trickle of water. Actually, the whole region where the army and the civilians chose to camp was a dried up riverbed, and the small rivulet of water was a drastically depleted river. The water running through the riverbed was supposedly fed by rain runoff from some far away mountains and foothills that could not be seen from the camp. As it happened, Alexander had the misfortune of staying in the riverbed around the same time that a severe storm was pouring an endless torrent of rain on those unseen mountains. Naturally, much of the water from that downpour rolled down the mountainside and hills into various streams feeding into the dusty riverbed in Gedrosia. As a result, during the middle of the night, the unassuming trickle in the riverbed rapidly increased to become a brook, then a creek, and finally a powerful river fed by a flash flood.
The sudden appearance of the river caught everyone by surprise. Alexander and his soldiers, who had camped furthest away from the stream, were able to escape the swiftly rising river. Almost everyone and everything else was reportedly lost in the flood—most of the civilians, animals, and supplies, except the weapons and armor that Alexander’s men already had on them, were taken by the river. Even after the Macedonian king saved his troops from the rising water, he had to carefully guard his men from over-gorging themselves on the newfound freshwater river.
The worst of the desert crossing was over when Alexander and his struggling army reached the city of Pura, the greatest settlement in Gedrosia. According to the historian Arrian (c. 90-173+), Alexander’s march through the toughest stretch of the desert was reported to have lasted around sixty days. No one knows how many lives were lost during the desert crossing, but percentages have been suggested as high as half of Alexander’s army or even seventy-five percent, not including the civilians, most of whom allegedly drowned in the river flood.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Modified version of Alexander charging across the Granicus River, c. 1909 by August Petrtyl, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Campaigns of Alexander by Arrian, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.
- Alexander the Great by Philip Freeman. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2011.
- Alexander the Great: The Story of an Ancient Life by Thomas R. Martin and Christopher W. Blackwell. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.