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The Lost Children of Alexander the Great: A Journey to the Pagan Kalash People of Pakistan

02/21/2014 10:28 pm ET | Updated Apr 23, 2014
  • Brian Glyn Williams Professor of Islamic History, U. Mass Dartmouth; author, 'Inferno in Chechnya' and 'The Last Warlord'

The New York Times recently published an article that had a fascinating description of the Kalash, an ancient ethnic group living high in the remote mountains of Pakistan's Hindu Kush. For centuries this light-skinned, pagan people have claimed to be the long-lost descendants of Alexander the Great's world-conquering armies, which invaded this region in the fourth century B.C. The animist Kalash are outwardly different from the darker-skinned Pakistani Muslims who live in the lowlands below them, so it seemed plausible. However, there had been no proof of this remarkable claim until the geneticists quoted in The New York Times found that the Kalash people's DNA seems to indicate that they had an infusion of European blood during a "mixing event" at roughly the time of Alexander's conquests. This isolated people are thus most likely the direct descendants of the ancient Greek-Macedonian armies who set up outposts in this region 2,300 years ago.

Few outsiders have visited this forgotten tribe, whose homeland is located near the inaccessible mountain border of Taliban-controlled zones of Afghanistan. But in 2010 I and a friend, Adam Sulkowski, made a journey to the snow-capped Hindu Kush in search of this ancient European pagan people living in an unstable Muslim country. This is our story.

University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, Spring 2010

For a number of years now, I have been teaching a class for the history department in which I do a "tour" of the great empires of antiquity, from pharaonic Egypt to Viking Europe. But for all my students' interest in the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Egyptians and the Romans, it is the exploits of Alexander the Great that inevitably lead to the most questions. Recently one of my students in History 101 asked me during class what happened to the far-flung garrisons of Greeks and Macedonians who were settled in the far corners of Alexander's vast empire. I told her that over the succeeding centuries they disappeared or were absorbed by succeeding waves of invaders. All that was left of the Greeks who left their Mediterranean homeland to settle in distant lands of Africa and Asia was the occasional coin, spearhead or amphitheater testifying to the conquests of one history's greatest leaders.

But then, after some thought, I corrected myself and told her the legend of the Kalash people of Pakistan.

High in the snow-capped Hindu Kush on the Afghan-Pakistani border lived an ancient people who claimed to be the direct descendants of Alexander the Great's troops. While the neighboring Pakistanis were dark-skinned Muslims, this isolated mountain people had light skin and blue eyes. Although the Pakistanis proper converted to Islam over the centuries, the Kalash people retained their pagan traditions and worshiped their ancient gods in outdoor temples. Most importantly, they produced wine much like the Greeks of antiquity did. This in a Muslim country that forbade alcohol.

Tragically, in the 19th century the Kalash were brutally conquered by the Muslim Afghans. Their ancient temples and wooden idols were destroyed, their women were forced to burn their beautiful folk costumes and wear the burqa or veil, and the entire people were converted at swordpoint to Islam. Only a small pocket of this vanishing pagan race survived in three isolated valleys in the mountains of what would later become Pakistan.

After class the student came to me and asked me if I'd ever visited the Kalash tribe of the Hindu Kush. Wistfully I told her I had not, but that it was my dream to do so.

I remember her response vividly. "Dr. Williams," she said, "you're always telling us to get passports and get out see the world. Why don't you take your own advice and just do it?"

Lahore, Pakistan, June 2010

A student's challenge can be a powerful thing, and in June my colleague from the business school, Adam Sulkowski, and I set out to travel into the Hindu Kush on the Pakistani-Afghan border to see this ancient race for ourselves.

But when we arrived in Lahore after flying through Abu Dhabi, Rafay, our Pakistani host, reacted with caution toward our bold dream of visiting the lost descendents of Alexander the Great.

"It's a dangerous, two-day journey off-road into the mountains," he warned us. "But that's not the most important obstacle you'll have to overcome. To get to the remote homeland of the Kalash, you need to cut through the Swat Valley."

Rafay then pointed out our intended route on a map, and Adam and I groaned. Our dream was falling apart. We both knew that the Swat Valley was a stronghold of the Pakistani Taliban. In 2007 the Taliban brutally conquered this beautiful, alpine-like valley and forced a puritanical version of Islam on the local people. They also used the valley as a springboard for sending suicide bombers throughout Pakistan.

"But all hope is not lost," Rafay continued. "The Pakistani army just reconquered most of the valley this winter and have opened the main road through it. If you don't stray from the road and there is no fighting, you just might be able to pull it off."

Nervous about the prospect of adding a journey through a war zone to our trip to the Kalash, Adam and I then traveled to the capital, Islamabad. There, after much searching, we found an ethnic Pashtun driver who claimed to have once traveled to the remote homeland of the Kalash. He not only knew the route but had a tough SUV to get us there.

After haggling for the price of the trip, we set out driving across the burning plains of Pakistan, where the heat soared to 120 degrees. Finally, after traversing the country from the Indian border to the Afghan border, we arrived at the mountains.

And what mountains they were. The Hindu Kush are an extension of the Himalayas and soar to 25,000 feet. As we drove into the tree-covered mountains, the temperatures blissfully began to drop. While we found respite from the heat, everyone grew tense. Saki, our driver, warned us that we were now in Taliban territory. We had entered the Swat Valley.

We had not traveled far before we were stopped at the first of many Pakistani army checkpoints we would encounter. When the soldiers manning it discovered that there were two Americans in the truck, they strongly warned us to avoid leaving the road. One of them asked us to sign our names in a registration book and proclaimed that we were the first foreigners to enter the Swat Valley since the Taliban had taken it in 2007.

That night we stayed in Dir, a Swat Valley village that locals claimed had briefly served as a hiding place for Osama bin Laden when he fled Afghanistan in 2001's Operation Enduring Freedom.

Rumbur, Kalash Village, Pakistan

The next day we made it safely out of the Swat Valley after crossing a mountain pass at 10,000 feet, and a nearby glacier. We were now in the scenic Chitral Valley. We drove up this valley for several hours before our driver grew excited. Gesturing to the dark mountains on our left, he said one word with a grin: "Kalash."

With mounting excitement we left the main "road," crossed a large river and began to drive up a mountain trail straight into the mountains. This continued for a couple of hours before the narrow valley opened up and our exhausted driver announced that we had finally arrived in Rumbur, the most isolated of the Kalash valleys. Having made our way from Boston to Abu Dhabi to Lahore to Islamabad to Swat to Chitral, we had finally reached our destination in the high mountains on the Afghan border. It was now time to meet the Kalash.

It did not take us long to find them. Adam was the first one to spot a Kalash shepherdess in the trees, wearing a stunningly bright peasant costume. After seeing the faceless burqas of the women of the Swat, the contrast between Muslim women and this Kalash woman could not have been greater. As we drove along we saw several more brightly clad Kalash women. But when we tried to take their pictures, they shyly ran off and hid behind trees. Worried that we might break some local taboo regarding photography, we continued on our way.

Soon we entered the Kalash village of Rumbur. The wooden houses were built in steps above one another, going up the valley's walls, and the village square filled up with Kalash curious to see us. Among them was Kazi, the village holy man. Everyone stood back as he approached us and heard our request to stay with the Kalash for a few days and learn about their culture. Kazi, a wizened man with twinkling eyes, heard us out and thought about it for a while. After some thought he finally smiled and gave us his blessing. He proclaimed that as blue-eyed "pagans" (the Kalash believe that in worshiping the Trinity, Christians worship three gods), we were like the Kalash and therefore welcome to stay with them.

With that, everyone's shyness was forgotten, and the village men and women proudly posed for photographs and allowed us into their homes. Once again, the contrast to the Pashtun Muslims in Swat and greater Pakistan was tremendous. The conservative Muslims of Swat had women's quarters in their houses where no outsiders were allowed. Here the women were free and dressed in beautiful folk costumes that seemed to belong to a different era.

During our stay we hiked up into the mountains overlooking the Afghan border and were taken to the Kalash people's outdoor temples. There they made sacrifices of goats to their ancient mountain gods. Sadly, most of their ancient wooden idols had been stolen or defaced by neighboring Muslim iconoclasts who found them to be heathen abominations. We were also told that one of the local leaders who fought in the courts to protect the Kalash from such problems had recently been assassinated. On many levels we sympathized with the Kalash -- who were losing numbers to conversion to Islam -- as a dying race facing an existential threat. And I must say that after the heat, pollution and crowds of Pakistan proper, we found this pristine mountain enclave filled with incredibly hospitable farmers and shepherds to be a veritable Shangri La. Over and over again we were invited by smiling Kalash into their simple wooden houses for meals, where we talked about life beyond their remote valley. Most Kalash had only left their valley a few times in their life, usually to go to a neighboring Kalash valley for a marriage or to celebrate a great festival.

On our final evening in Rumbur, the villagers held a great feast for us. We celebrated with the famous Kalash red wine. My most endearing memory of the mystical night was of Adam doing a snake dance with a local elder, snapping his fingers in rhythm and dancing lower and lower to the ground in the center of the clapping audience.

The next morning we were woken to the sound of cows being led by children through the misty village. We said our goodbyes to everyone and drove out of Rumbur. As I looked back I saw several Kalash girls standing on a terraced hill above us and waving to us in their bright costumes. With our driver, a Pashtun Muslim who had never drunk before, recovering from the previous night's festivities, we took leave of our hosts and left this fragile mountain enclave to make our long journey out of the mountains. It was now time to reenter Pakistan proper, a land that seemed far removed in space and time from the ancient rhythms of the Kalash.

For photographs of the Kalash pagans of Pakistan's Hindu Kush taken during this expedition, click here. (The journey begins in the Pakistani lowlands in Lahore.)