In the 11th-century Persian classic Book of Alexander, the great world conqueror goes to the farthest reaches of the world, only to have a wiseman show him what he was looking for, in a mirror—self-awareness. But as Edmund Richardson shows here in his powerful retelling of the life of Charles Masson, we do not live only to know ourselves. We are social animals and we care very much what others think about us. Alexander’s quest led, if not to gnostic knowledge, then to undying fame. Masson’s quest for Alexander’s lost city in the Hindu Kush ended in poverty and obscurity. What did Masson lack that other great explorers and archaeologists had?
Masson’s career as an archaeologist started inauspiciously. He deserted from the British Army in India and turned fugitive with a price on his head. Richardson suggests that Masson rejected Britain’s imperialist mission in India. But it is also the case that many European soldiery deserted in order to enjoy more lucrative posts in the rival armies of the Afghans, the Sikhs and the Mahrattas.
Masson walked through the Thar desert into Baluchistan and then Afghanistan, where his flight transformed itself into a quest to uncover traces of Alexander the Great. He immediately found something quite different: from the Giant Buddhas of Bamiyan to buried stupas; he was the first European to encounter the great civilization of the Kushans and the Greco-Bactrian kingdoms of Central Asia. He collected thousands of coins with bilingual inscriptions, and deciphered the Kharosthi script used by Afghanistan’s 1st century BC rulers. This attracted the attentions of Afghanistan’s actual rulers, the Emir Dost Mohammad, who took a liking to the strange Englishman and provided some protection to him from marauders, grave robbers and fanatics, enabling Masson to make extensive excavations on the plains of Bagram. Masson’s achievements were all the more remarkable as he was entirely self-taught, and had access to almost no books during his 20 years in Afghanistan.
Tragically for Masson, the success of his excavations also attracted the attentions of India’s British rulers. Identifying the archaeologist as the former deserter, they dragged him into the web of intrigue and aggression designed to secure India’s northwest frontier for Britain.
I don’t want to provide a plot spoiler here. Richardson tells his tale like the spy mystery it is, with twists and turns right out of a Le Carré novel. The story is further enlivened by an improbably-cast set of adventurers and rogues, attracted to the prospect of quick riches that early 19th-century India offered. Josiah Harlan, an American from Philadelphia, alternately offered his exaggerated talents as a soldier to Dost Mohammad as well as his blood-enemy Shah Shojah, as well as the enemy of both men, the Sikh Maharaja Ranjit Singh (to whom he also sold his non-existent medical knowledge). The most endearing habit of Josiah Harlan was to brandish the Stars and Stripes as he mustered his Pashtun mercenaries. Less comic is the Neapolitan mercenary Avitabile, who ruled Peshawar for Ranjit Singh and festooned the ramparts with human body parts. Masson could not enjoy the sumptuous banquet provided by Avitabile because of the smell of rotting cadavers.
But perhaps the most disagreeable characters encountered by Masson were his imperial minders. While there were several decent and ethical officers who helped Masson in his work, most simply saw him as a tool to be exploited in their own career progression. There are several sociopathic types in the junior imperial positions who found themselves in charge of kingdoms and peoples; of these very few met the heroic expectations of the Victorian reading public. We meet Lieutenant William Loveday, who fed his servants to the dogs to punish their lack of alacrity. We also encounter Alexander Burnes and recognise him as a fickle, superficial narcissist. Both Loveday and Burnes expiate their faults with their grisly deaths.
Yet it is Alexander Burnes whose explorations and adventurers in Central Asia are remembered today, and while few remember Masson. Richardson suggests that Masson’s discoveries ran counter to the prevailing, imperialist project. Masson showed that ancient Afghanistan had been a melting-pot of culture, with Greeks alternately worshipping Zeus and the Buddha. The British wanted to see Alexander as a precursor of their more exclusively European empire. Masson bitterly accused the British of wanton adventurism in Afghanistan. Before the First Anglo-Afghan War, no one wanted to believe him. After that disastrous conflict, no one wanted to be reminded of it.
Masson should have enjoyed a great legacy as a scholar but lacked the chutzpah of a Burnes, a Schliemann or a Lord Kinross to exploit his finds. He relied on the kindness of others, and ultimately was betrayed. As an anti-imperialist he was before his time. The Dutch author Multatuli, published his screed against imperialism, Max Havelaar, two decades after Masson’s book. Max Havelaar became a global bestseller and changed Europeans’ perceptions about their empires. Masson’s Afghanistan book was published and quickly forgotten.
Richardson’s writing conveys a strong sense of place. He describes the moldy Writers’ Building in Bombay, the lonely Sufi shrine on the Bombay beach that bids departing travelers’ farewell, the austere fort of Kalat rising above the deserts of Baluchistan. This book also reads like an 18th century epistolary novel, as Richardson lets the illusions and fantasies of the British, raised on Milton and Pope, to speak for themselves. Meanwhile the point of view of the Baloch and the Pashtuns is echoed with snippets of folk ballads.
The title of this engaging book misleads—this is less of a quest for the lost city of Alexandria than one for human dignity. A ghazal of Rumi might provide a more suitable subtitle “I am tired of seeking demons and wild beasts, my desire is humanity.”
David Chaffetz is the author of Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou (Abbreviated Press, November 2019). He is working on a new book about the horse in Asian history.