There are friends, recurrent visitors, ghosts, and awe-inspiring evocations in one’s life. He embodies them all.
Why do we speak to the dead so often? On the eve of my thirty-third birthday, I indulged in this experience again. In bed, on the sixth floor of a modern Bangkok condo, I stared at the ceiling. It began to move, shapeshift, followed by dancing colours and a whizz. The wind blew on golden dunes, on golden locks. A caravan, a Gordian knot that came undone after a skilful hit. An army braving the scorching sun, diseases, the weight of their ill-suited armour, their doubts. Over the years, one may question one’s sanity.
I crossed paths with his men, with him. Far away from Thailand, on the plains of Iraqi Kurdistan, in the Libyan desert now painted across my bedroom walls, under the Gate of All Nations and the columns of Persepolis… I touched the charred stones that burned under his army’s flames. I heard no murmurs there. A commending silence, that tends to fall on places of great solemnity.
In front of Cyrus’ tomb in Pasargadae, I inquired. I wondered whether the Achaemenid elder would reprimand or congratulate him on the theft of his throne. A King could honourably accept defeat. A King praised enemies, valued their strength. Darius, on the other hand, fled, hid… Obama’s re-election campaign was in full swing and I was in Iran at the time, or, perhaps, 2,500 years ago.
In Ecbatana, I saw the mountains that greeted him. Snow licked the summits of modern-day Hamadan. In the countryside, a scenery of autumn foliage splashed its colours on a region of sturdy men, of stubborn, magnificent, nature. Apples and apricots were left to dry in the sun. I took a cable car with a group of local women who invited me for lunch. We smiled for photographs, and laughed in broken Farsi, English, and Arabic around raw almonds.
Traveling in a speeding car through the dusty plain of Gaugamela, between Erbil and Dohuk, I opened my hands to the dry air. A desolate place for a victory. I understood his fury: to see his prize, from a chariot, fade under a cloud of smoke. He had been so close. The car continued its solitary race on a neglected highway to catch an unnamed enemy. The sky offered no omen; it dominated the dust.
The sand from Siwa carried his mystery. I woke up before dawn. During the week between Christmas and the New Year, desert nights iced my limbs and skeleton. The sky turned purple, an oasis laid under an irenic spell. I left my squeaky bicycle against one of the mud fences. I broke into the Temple of Ammon through an unintended passage. There was no one; the tours would cram the main entrance gate in several hours. In the courtyard, the same venue he had walked in, the sun began to rise. It shot its orange fire right into the oracle room. I kneeled, alone. My body basked in the solar warmth of his divinity. I listened to sacred whispers. When I reached the rooftop later, an oasis of date palm trees looked as if they were set ablaze and a lake carried the mirage of a rich ocean. I escaped just before the rising voices of tourists came closer to the site.
I locked eyes with him in Athens, his marble bust framed by twisting wild curls. His muted glance stared above—at Ammon, Baal, Zeus, destiny. I stared at him, struck, at the perfect face. Endless youth, undying beauty at the foot of the eternal Acropolis. To carry and propel such a head, his neck must be robust, thick. I imagined the envying eyes of his foes wishing to crush it, the lips of Roxana and the courtesans embracing its skin. Life irrigated cold marble; it pulsated there.
Once I came close to Alexandria in Ariana, squeezed in the backseat of a shared taxi that smelt of sheep. Contemporary borders prevented me from reaching Herat and marvelling at the Citadel.
I bathed in legacies, gloom, dreams, transcending the boundaries of the world itself and those of a lifetime. My Bangkok room shrank, my ceiling danced to Bactrian tunes. I had turned off the AC, and the nearby BTS subway line shook the bed slightly. Subtle ground vibrations: it could have been elephants from the Indus basin, horses, the formidable phalanx…
Our conversations stripped reality of dullness. He condensed in himself a non-dual essence – neither past nor present, neither here nor gone. Only he can bend time and places to converge in the most uncanny of circumstances. I couldn’t betray his voice, his silences. Our exchange freely floated somewhere, in a place free from darkness. A place incarnated.
I asked A. that night: “What is a good life? Am I doing it right?” My Ancient Greek was rusty. He showed me three images.
Firs, the old Aristotle. I couldn’t hear the teachings; I only felt crisp Macedonian breeze brushing a withered beard. Young A. sat inattentively. He didn’t care about the cardinal virtues, justice, courage, prudence, and temperance. following teachings of Plato’s Academy. He should have listened to Aristotle, I thought.
Next, I recognised the sea, the Phoenician blue distinctly different from Greece’s. Tyre. I saw the siege, and his men constructing a victorious causeway that would enable a breach after arduous months. I saw fear in his eyes, the fear that his dream may collapse on this shore. He refused it with anger. He applied a ruthless sentence to Tyrians, to erase his moment of wavering.
Finally, I followed his gaze toward a last stroll. His footsteps led to Babylon, passing under the guardian animals of the Ishtar Gate. Mazaeus showed him the lions when they moved along the Processional Way. Above the mighty walls, he contemplated his new capital at night. The air had cooled, carried by the nearby Euphrates. The scent of delicate flowers and resins embalmed his clothes. He probably wondered if this was indeed the taste of victory. It wasn’t, it wasn’t over, it couldn’t be. He returned to the celebratory banquet.
From this evening, I have lived to be a year older than him. His achievements are daunting, embarrassing for a mere mortal. A boy who conquered the world. I sulked at another birthday milestone: there were no imperial stakes for me in the present or in the near future. Still, he exposed his weaknesses, the lessons we deliberately forget, the forgiveness we ignore, the greed we succumb to. He confessed his gratitude for the teachers we respect, for the hurdles we overcome, for the pleasures we savour.
A good life, I reflected again. I fell asleep eventually, aged, lighter and richer. I, too, was capable of gratefulness. I looked forward to our next poetic encounter. I have kept some secrets from A. He hasn’t invited me to Alexandria, yet. It may be an anachronous reverie, a ferocious distraction. I heard his injunction to seek the East, where the sun rises, to lift my eyes straight to the light, and abandon shadows behind me.
The following day, I set off along the busy Sukhumvit Road in Bangkok. Morning light, optimistic opportunities, as well as a cooler respite trigger my romantic inclination. The air hasn’t become saturated yet; the sky hasn’t blushed under a diaphanous veil as it will in the afternoon. Street food stall smells make my stomach growl. I pay for a bag of pre-cut pineapple that I quickly finish before taking the underground MRT to Chinatown.
Out from the Hua Lamphong train station, I join the narrow lanes, tiny capillaries, on the sides of Chinese-character-populated Yaowarat Road. I slither through the congested alleys, amidst shoppers, cart pushers, various sellers, until I reach a jetty on the Chao Phraya river. I stand behind the rope, waiting for the modest ferry to arrive. Waves gently lick the stilts of the pier.
The boat’s lazy cadence invites further daydreams. The engine buzzes like a thousand bees. We pass poor community dwellings that are half-collapsing into the water. Soon, they will be replaced by glitzy condos and shopping malls. When the sun hits the glistening tiles of centuries-old wats, transforming them into gold and gem lava, I am reminded of beauty. I adjust my eyes to the blinding sight.
On the other side of a wharf, light falls on a man. His hair doesn’t resemble harvested barley; his eyes appear to be of matching colours. Yet, the Thai man stands majestically, and looks back at me. Usually people don’t sustain direct eye contact, not with the confidence he displays. Who is he? I feel the weight of his stare as I turn my head away.
The adult A. would not have met Emperor Ashoka, the Maurya leader who institutionalised Buddhist pilgrimage to holy sites and spread the teachings throughout Asia following his conversion to the non-violent faith. Ashoka had grown sick from the gruesome scale of battlefield massacres. Did A. ever fight haunting memories? For him, human sacrifice was necessary.
He did not come across the Funan Kingdom, spreading from modern-day Myanmar to the Mekong Delta, its ruins still open for observation in Angkor Borei. The Funan Kingdom gave way to the Chenla (550 A.D. to 802 A.D.) before the advent of the great Khmer Empire. I believe his Greek eyes would have appreciated the sophisticated harmony of Siem Reap palaces, temples, complexes, and their administrative talent. What hybrid society could have emerged?
His space—were he to have pushed further East, leaving those unable to keep the pace face-to-face with the wrath he unleashed—would have continued deeper into Indianized and Hindu-influenced territories. His persuasion was based on strength, arrogance, and force. His interaction with Buddhism, and its non-belligerent ways, is one I can only imagine based on his regular discussions with me. My A. couldn’t be further removed from the ideas of ataraxia, equanimity, and apatheia, absence of passion. But, on rare occasions, his silences revealed unintended regrets.
In his political ingenuity, he seamlessly blended his own with local deities and beliefs, yet traces of exchange with Buddhists are scarce, except perhaps for Pyrrho, a philosopher from his entourage who stayed several years in India. Pyrrho imported to Greece the early core Buddhist concepts, notably that all “things” are impermanent, unsatisfactory, or cause suffering, and don’t exist in and for themselves. Absolute lies and truth are inscrutable. This greatly influenced the Ancient Stoics, centuries before Schopenhauer integrated Stoicism into his post-Kantian philosophy in the nineteenth century.
Could I ever imagine my A. following an ascetic body-and-mind regiment? His life is one guided by excess. Hungry for glory to the point of bulimia; thirsty and sensitive to let his anger, vindictiveness, and depravity get the best of him. He must have felt both horror and respect when the Brahmin Kalanos stepped into the pyre, self-immolating in dignity, without a scream. “We will meet in Babylon!” the old sadhu shouted before perishing, and so they did. The end of A.’s tempestuous earthly journey arrived on a fateful torrid June day. His weakness as he departed enraged him the most.
The tears of the Euphrates irrigate the narrow Chao Phraya. How did ancient Gandhāra, Bactria, and the Greco-Buddhist era, cradles of invaluable artistic treasures that have actively contributed to spreading the dharma through human representations, consider the elongated shadow of its founder? I need to ask him next time. The wet roofs of cherished wats may not evoke his legacy in the manner that remnants of Taxila or Bamyan do. But he is here, too, for me.
The boat makes a slight turn to berth the jetty, my point of disembarkation. The sun kissed my reddening face, bringing my contemplation of the immortal to a close. Am I within reach? In the greatest of Hellenistic company—always.