Alexander the Great had a Castle in Afghanistan
The locals call it Bala Hazar, which simply means “the Castle”. Locals will tell you that I was built by Alexander the Great 2,000 years ago, on his sojourn to India. It is a single elevated point outside overlooking the great Valley which runs East to West through Zabul Province, Afghanistan with a clear view of the provincial capitol. The Valley itself looks like a scene from the A Land Before Time, a story of an orphaned dinosaur.
To get there, you must travel up a winding switchback hill, past a graveyard of rusted cars. A rusted T-72 Soviet tank welcomes you to it’s gates. I could get no answer as to how that vehicle made it there, but it’s sunk into the dirt and serves as a constant reminder that this spot has been by walked by many passing Armies – The British, The Soviets, the Taliban, the Coalition Forces – so much so that it’s been called the Graveyard of Empires.
New structures have added to the monument – white buildings topped with bright green iron fences now line the lower part of the hilltop and house the fifth Kandak (company) of the Afghan Army. Their laundry often hangs on the fence, flapping in the wind or basking in the sunlight.
Past that, you must climb another set of switchbacks past a line of mud buildings that were crumbling, roofs caved in, and windows with blinds that still clung on by the hinges. The grass and weeds are starting to break apart the walls, and creep along the sculpture like slender fingers clawing their way to the sky.
I want to go there, but my escort, a large special forces soldier from the Baltic states with a weapon strapped over his shoulders, told me that he’d prefer that I didn’t.
“I don’t know if the ANA (Afghan National Army) have been using those buildings as a bathroom, so I would prefer you didn’t…” he pointed to the top of the hill that lay within the ancient compound walls and shepherded us up a winding foot path up the steep hill. We were climbing to the top.
There are tunnels in that hill, though most have caved in.
He pointed out the graveyard as we passed it. It was a leafless tree, blackened and somber, covered in green plastic that brushed the ground with the movement of the breeze. The graves themselves are just rectangles of stone, bricks and plastic canvas held down by rocks.
No one seemed to know who was buried there or what their significance was. But it was a graveyard. Which meant that westerners were told never to touch it – don’t even take photos, without the permission of a local because you don’t always know what might offend them.
On the peak of a hill, there is a round, glass gazebo offering a 360-degree view. They tell me that this glass dome was built by the Soviets, but no one knows exactly how old it is, and I couldn’t get anyone to confirm that particular myth. I was there with eastern Europeans escorts, who have their own views on the Russian footprint having so recently lived under the shadow of the Soviet Bear and none of it particularly favorable.
From inside the Russian dome, we can see the Coalition Forces base, marked by a white blimp floating at 2,000 feet in the air; Forward Operating Base (FOB) Apache.
The base looks like a city, the houses made of metal shipping containers, concrete bunkers and hastily erected wooden buildings. Instead of lightening rods, there are tall antennas and instead of normal cars, there are the behemoth armored vehicles like brown triceratops sleeping in the dirt.
I thought of how we are leaving soon – the final days of conventional soldier’s boots on the ground in Afghanistan were fast approaching. FOB Apache itself will disappear. Maybe there will only be the rubble, the old walls of concrete left behind. Maybe 2,000 years from now someone will marvel at the old American base that used to overlook the capital of Zabul Province.
Will the place that I have been living become the same Ozymandian tragedy of time; a symbol of once great military might, like the castle I was standing on. Will the future soldier or passerby from another Army marvel at the rocky ground I walk each day, as history repeats itself?
Afghanistan has been the host to many invading militaries. And yet, the Afghans still exist, with nothing but old crumbling relics of the past as a reminder that Afghanistan shall ever remain for the Afghan people.