A River Runs through This Journey of Discovery about Pakistan's History

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The Thursday Book EMPIRES OF THE INDUS By Alice Albinia JOHN MURRAY, Pounds 20 Order for Pounds 18 (free p&p) on 0870 079 8897

How little we know about Pakistan. For a country at the troubled centre of geo-politics, with a population greater than Russia's, the general perception gets not much further than "hard-line military state, with attitude". So this bid to trace Pakistan's great river, the Indus, from mouth to source, is all the more welcome for its erudition. With a background at SOAS in London, Alice Albinia is well placed to unpick the country's complex history in this impressive debut.

One oddity about Pakistan, given its rivalry with India, is that so much of the Indian cultural heartland should lie within its borders. The Rig-Veda is set there and "the demonised neighbour is actually Hinduism's motherland", containing the river that gives India its name. Alexander the Great famously reached the Indus at the end of his epic eastern campaign, a story Albinia tells with verve and erudition, and did so just as Buddhism reached the area. As a result, statues of Buddha in Swat and Gandhara have a Grecian poise: "Greek and Indian art-forms, languages and social structures commingled like rivers for a brief and mutually sympathetic moment."

Taxila went on to flourish as an ecumenical university under Indo- Greek rulers such as Menander. …