Magazine article Geographical

Gunpowder, Treason and Plot: The Pioneering Men Who Mapped Afghanistan. (Afghanistan)

Magazine article Geographical

Gunpowder, Treason and Plot: The Pioneering Men Who Mapped Afghanistan. (Afghanistan)

Article excerpt

Throughout the 19th century, British donned disguise and practised subterfuge to chart the rugged contours of central Asia. Their reports offer a fascinating insight into this remote land, and their social and political observations have resonance even today.

OUTSIDE THE MOB were baying for the blood of Sir Alexander Burnes. There was little point in reason and no chance of escape. Solemnly the Scottish-born explorer walked from his Kabul lodgings and was hacked to death by the chanting Moslem tribesmen. It was 1841, and another explorer's attempts to chart the hostile interior of Afghanistan had ended in murderous savagery.

Burnes was one of many 19th century pioneers who undertook the dangerous -- and often fatal -- task of mapping Central Asia. From the 1820s Afghanistan had become the focus of a frenetic period of exploration, as British India and Tsarist Russia sought to seize strategic and political control of the region. Intimate knowledge of the landscape was essential, but mapping was a perilous undertaking. Afghanistan, a land of steep-sided valleys and formidable mountain passes, was populated by tribal people, described by the early pioneers as resilient and religious warriors whose temperament has "never been attuned to peace". Early clues, perhaps, to the difficulties later faced by the British Army, communist Russia and now the US coalition. Burnes, before his bloody demise, referred to the Afghans as a violent race for whom revenge was considered a virtue.

The ill-fated Burnes was not the first to travel into Central Asia's hazardous lands. The 19th century Lancashire horse doctor William Moorcroft is today honoured as the father of Afghan exploration. Moorcroft was a man of many firsts -- the first British spy, the first to traverse northern Afghanistan via Kabul and cross into the kingdom of Bukara (now part of Uzbekistan) -- and the first Englishman to describe the Khyber Pass. He was also the first Englishman to qualify as a vet. His exploration of the Afghanistan area between 1819 and 1825 was aided by a courageous -- or foolhardy -- temperament. As now, most Afghan men carried guns, yet he ventured forth with an ill-armed caravan laden with precious goods and, rumour has it, gold.

Exploiting his skill as a vet in a land dependent upon domestic animals, Moorcroft survived the trip through northwest Afghanistan. This was home of the Uzbek tribes who today constitute much of the Northern Alliance rebel fighters opposing the Taliban. Finally, in 1824, he reached the banks of the fabled River Oxus (known today as Amu Dar'ya). So remote is the course of this muddy ribbon, winding from the Pamirs to the Aral Sea, that few Europeans have ever stood on its banks.

Moorcroft also became one of the first Europeans to discover the world's largest standing Buddhist statues, hewn out of rock at Bamiyan, northwest of Kabul. Today he would struggle to recognise these once splendid carvings. In March 2001 Taliban tanks began destroying the cultural icons in an attempt to eradicate the unique reminders of Afghanistan's diverse past.

Moorcroft died in 1825, but his death -- apparently from fever -- is surrounded in intrigue. His decomposed body was said to be buried in Balkh -- a town currently occupied by anti-Taliban fighters on the northern border of Afghanistan. Yet 20 years later French missionary explorers who reached Lhasa, 2,400km to the east, claimed an Englishman named Moorcroft, pretending to be a Kashmiri, had lived there for 12 years. Questions still remain as to the identity of the body buried in Balkh.

Alexander Burnes retraced Moorcroft's pioneering route in 1832. Burnes' brief was to assess the strategic importance of northern Afghanistan with particular attention to the feasibility of a Russian advance up the Khyber. Like Moorcroft, Burnes was a courageous eccentric, famous for eating onions wherever he went, believing a man could endear himself to "different climates and cultures if he is an onion-eater". …

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