On July 4th, 1827, Private James Lewis deserted his post in the British East India Company’s army base in Agra, India. He was soon a wanted man. As a fugitive traveling the region, he assumed the name Charles Masson, passing himself off variously as a scholar, a physician, and an adventurer. He would eventually come to Afghanistan. Throughout his journeys, he was fascinated by the lore of Alexander the Great. The following is excerpted from Edmund Richardson’s The King’s Shadow: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Deadly Quest for the Lost City of Alexandria.
Masson was a long way from safety. No westerner had ever tried to travel through Afghanistan like this before: with no money, no servants and no official protection. Day by day, month by month, James Lewis the ordinary soldier slipped further away, leaving Charles Masson the illusionist in control. Hesitantly, he became a doctor for a while, applying “cold water, cobwebs, and pressure” and staring intently at a battered copy of The Edinburgh New Dispensatory. He spent a rainy season in Ranjit Singh’s great capital, Lahore, in the mansion of one of the Maharaja’s European mercenaries, Jean-François Allard.
Day by day, he would sit in Allard’s flower gardens, listening to the rain drumming on the rooftops and wincing at the screams of Allard’s prisoners. (Allard’s hospitality for his less favored guests featured thumbscrews and forced labour.) In the distance was the tomb of the great Mughal courtesan Anarkali, a dream-like first draft of the Taj Mahal. It housed the harem of another of the Maharaja’s mercenaries, Jean-Baptiste Ventura. If the tomb made Masson think of his days in Agra with the Bengal Artillery, he kept those thoughts to himself.
Every day, Masson wondered how long he could keep his stories up in the air. And the answer the world gave him was always: as long as he wanted to. So, in a particularly rash and homesick moment in 1830, he decided to try his act on the British.
A few weeks later, Major David Wilson, the officer in charge of the British station at Bushehr in the Persian Gulf, noted the arrival of Mr Masson, a American traveler, “from which country he had been absent about ten years.” Day after day, Masson spun out his tales: the fields of Kentucky, the parties of St Petersburg and the jewels of Tehran. His accent may have wavered, just occasionally, as he told tales of countries he had never seen. Masson took advantage of Wilson’s hospitality for months. Never for a moment did the officer suspect that he was opening his finest wines for Private James Lewis, late of the Bengal Artillery, wanted deserter.
From Bushehr, Masson made a leisurely circuit of the ancient cities of the Persian Empire, taking in Tabriz and Baghdad, entertained by British officers along the way. On the road, he met another storyteller.
In the village of Soh, just north of Isfahan, under the arches of an ancient golden caravanserai, he was introduced to the hakim bashi, or chief physician, of the Shah of Persia. The solemn-looking young man, reclining under a heap of bedclothes, glanced up sleepily at Masson. He introduced himself, improbably, as “Signor Turkoni” from Milan. “In course of time the village authorities came with a breakfast furnished by the village which was spread before the hakim bashi of the King of Kings.” Signor Turkoni confided to Masson that “at Tehran his skill was called upon to devise remedies for the ailments of the harem beauties,” but he was currently on the run from his Armenian wife, “whom it appeared, for he took no care to conceal it, that he had quitted without the ceremony of taking leave.”
At Baghdad, Masson learned that “the Signor, a mere boy, had some years since arrived there from Constantinople, and a physician who resided with the Catholic Bishop had given him a number of empty phials, telling him that if he had any wit or genius, he had nothing to do but to fill his phials with variously colored liquids and he might make a fortune. Without the least knowledge of medicine, the youth did as he was recommended.”
In every spare moment, Masson was reading. He devoured the ancient historians of Alexander: Plutarch and Arrian, Quintus Curtius Rufus and Diodorus. He had travelled and wondered alone for so long, and now here were the stories he had been dreaming of. Masson read like a man possessed, copying out page after laborious page by hand. He soon saw that everything Harlan had told him about Alexander had only scratched the surface.
There are many stories about Alexander the Great. None of them are entirely true.
The facts are scanty. Alexander was born in 356 bc to Philip II, king of Macedon. He was taught by Aristotle himself. At the age of twenty, Alexander took the throne after his father’s assassination. Two years later, he led his army east, crossing into the Persian Empire. In strategic terms, this was like Belgium deciding to invade Russia: not so much foolhardy as suicidal. Persia was the world’s superpower, with gigantic armies and a seemingly limitless treasury. But Alexander seized control of it in a series of astonishing campaigns. He won every battle that he fought, no matter the odds. Eventually, he overthrew Darius III, King of Kings, and proclaimed himself Lord of Asia.
Alexander now had more wealth and power than any European in history. But he was not satisfied. He marched his army onwards, east into Afghanistan and India, into battles with elephants and unknown kings, to the edges of the known world and beyond, until his exhausted soldiers laid down their arms on the banks of an Indian river and would go no further. Alexander died in Babylon at the age of thirty-two. His empire was disintegrating before his body was cold.
This is already an incredible story. And so much about it is puzzling: why did Alexander keep going? What was it all for? Historians have been trying to understand Alexander ever since his death. For the most part, they have failed. Who Alexander was, and why he did what he did, remain mysteries. No one, apart from Jesus, has been talked about so much and understood so little. But the more Masson read about Alexander, the more he realized one thing: he wanted to keep us guessing.
Alexander left Greece with an official historian in tow, Callisthenes. Callisthenes was going to write the definitive account of Alexander’s expedition. But before he could do that, Alexander had him executed. Callisthenes may have been crucified, though some historians gave him a slightly more pleasant end: after being “chained up for seven months” he was said to have died from “obesity and something he caught from a louse.” Alexander hacked giant gaps out of his own story, and dared posterity to fill them.
In the years after Alexander’s death, no one could agree on the facts about his life. Weird and magical tales began to be told about him. In Jewish histories, Alexander sacrifices to the God of Israel at the Temple of Jerusalem. (No: Alexander never set foot in Jerusalem.) In Egyptian fables, an exiled pharaoh sneaks into the bedroom of Alexander’s mother and is revealed to be Alexander’s true father. (Definitely not.) There are Amazons, a journey to the bottom of the sea, and even a voyage to Eden. (No, on all counts.) Alexander became a legend.
Masson wanted to know Alexander. What was he like, before he was Alexander the Great? No one called him that until long after his death. Even then, the title may have been invented by Romans, not Greeks. But where to begin? Alexander left no diaries. He killed his own historian. But there was, Masson realized, one way into Alexander’s mind: his lost cities.
Lost cities have hypnotized the world, ever since Plato first told of Atlantis:
Now, on the island of Atlantis, there was a mighty and wondrous empire. Its power stretched over the whole island, and several others, as well as over much of the mainland. The men of Atlantis had conquered Libya and Egypt, and the lands of the west … But then there came earthquakes and floods. And in one terrible day and one terrible night, all the fighting men sank into the bowels of the earth. And the island of Atlantis disappeared into the depths of the sea.
In the 19th century, it was not the loss of Plato’s Atlantis, but Alexander’s cities, which haunted people’s dreams. Alexander founded cities wherever he went: to this day, no one is sure how many Alexandrias there were. The ancient historian Plutarch puts the number as high as seventy, others as low as two dozen. To complicate matters still further: what counts as a city? Obviously a gigantic metropolis like Alexandria in Egypt should make the list, but how about a settlement more like a fortified army camp: a place of safety for soldiers too old, or too badly injured, to keep going? In 1831, two things were generally agreed: almost none of the Alexandrias had been found, and finding one would be a world-changing achievement.
Back in Bushehr, Masson put aside his tales about St Petersburg and Kentucky and spun a very different yarn for Wilson. Drawing on every bit of his new knowledge, he told of how, some years previously, he had stumbled across the site of one of Alexander’s lost cities. Alexandria Bucephalia was one of the strangest Alexandrias: it was named in honor of Alexander’s horse, Bucephalus, and was founded in May 326 BC, on the banks of a river in present-day Pakistan. To this day, its location remains a mystery.
“I arrived in the Punjab under unfortunate circumstances,” Masson told Wilson, “having lost all my books and other property some time before, and my memory, although it retained the grand features of Alexander’s memorable expedition, failed me as to the minute details which would have been most serviceable in conducting an investigation.”
In the course of my enquiries among the oldest people in a small village near, I learned that there had formerly existed two cities, one on each bank of the river. I repaired to the spot pointed out as the site of one of them, and found abundant vestiges of a once large city, but so complete had been the devastation of time, that no distinct idea of its form or architecture could be gleaned. I set people to work in the ruins, and their exertions were rewarded by the discovery of coins in gold, silver and copper of Alexander the Great, in all twenty-seven, with the same figures and inscriptions, excepting one. On the one side was the bust of Alexander and on the reverse a dismounted lancer with the inscription “Bucephalia.”
“I now remembered,” Masson went on, “that in an action of the banks of the Hyphasis, Bucephalus was wounded and died in consequence thereof, and that Alexander in commemoration of his much-prized charger founded two cities which he named after him, at least so writes Plutarch. I therefore had no difficulty in supposing the cities which once stood here to be the ancient cities of Bucephalia.” At this point, Wilson was on the edge of his seat. There was more, Masson told him: a gigantic mound was almost certainly the tomb of Alexander’s beloved horse, but he could not find a way into it, “it being closed on all sides without any appearance or sign of an entrance.”
Wilson was in awe. Did Masson still have those coins? Could he see them? Alas, no. “Mr Masson’s means at that time being small, he could not continue the excavations. Unfortunately he was robbed during a severe illness he had at Multan on his way back to Sind, of such of the coins as had remained in his possession.” With regret, Masson confessed to Wilson that none of his notes, sketches or maps survived.
That was not surprising, since Masson appears to have made the entire story up.
Wilson soon informed Britain’s envoy to Persia, John Campbell, of his guest’s remarkable discovery. Campbell was just as intoxicated as Wilson had been: he pressed money onto Masson and told him he could count on his support, if he should discover any more of Alexander’s cities. Masson was shocked. He had not expected his tale to work so well.
Masson did not realize it, but he had recently stumbled across a genuine lost city. In fact, he had found an entire lost civilization. A few weeks after he left Lahore, before he set out for Bushehr, he found himself in a corner of the Punjab which no western traveler had visited for over a thousand years. After an exhausting day and “a long march,” Masson was pushing through undergrowth “of the closest description,” with little idea of where he was. Then the trees thinned, the landscape opened out and he found himself staring at the ruins of Harappa. An enormous artificial mound loomed up in one direction, surrounded by weeping fig trees, their trunks cracked and broken with age. “To the west was an irregular rocky height, crowned with remains of buildings.”
Masson was spellbound. For as long as the light lasted, he searched for clues: what was this place? On the ground, he came across “two circular perforated stones, affirmed to have been used as bangles, or arm-rings, by a fakir of renown.” But he could find little else but swarms of gnats. Masson was looking at the ruins of a city far more ancient than any Alexandria, a place that would eventually become one of the most significant archaeological sites in Asia. Over 4,000 years ago, Harappa was a vast, thriving metropolis, awash with gold and bronze, fantastical sculptures and delicate seals emblazoned with unicorns. No European had set eyes on it for thousands of years. But that day, Masson could not find a way to tell its story. Try as he might, the ruins remained stubbornly silent. He could not make them speak.
In Bushehr, Masson was in no hurry to move on. But he knew he had to make a decision. What next? The road to London was, if not open to him, then at least relatively clear. He was beyond the East India Company’s reach. By a series of miracles, he had stayed alive and out of sight. So why, one day, did he leave the comforts of the British Residency behind, bound not for London, but once more for Kabul?
The answer was simple: Alexander. If Masson made it home to London, he would be returning with nothing. But all those months alone in India and Afghanistan had convinced him of one thing. He could understand Alexander the man—not Alexander the legend—better than anyone ever had. He could tell Alexander’s story in a way that no one else ever had. But to make the world listen, he had to find something concrete: not just a story about one of Alexander’s lost cities, but an actual Alexandria. And that meant he had to return to Afghanistan.
Bravery did not come naturally to him, but, curled up on one of Wilson’s sofas, nibbling on halva, the journey seemed worth the risk. Why not try? His disguise seemed foolproof—and surely, by now, the East India Company must have forgotten about him. This was his chance. Masson knew that for people like him, chances like this came only once in a lifetime.
In April 1831, Masson set out for Kabul once again. Masson’s first journey through Afghanistan had almost killed him. But this time was going to be different—because, this time, Masson was different.
The first people to meet the new Charles Masson were three unlucky soldiers. He took passage across the Persian Gulf, and the soldiers boarded his ship when it was preparing to drop anchor at Karachi. With the lazy confidence of petty officials, they detained Masson and the crew. Days went by. The soldiers would not release them without a hefty bribe, and neither Masson nor the crew would open their purses.
“Two of the three soldiers with me,” Masson remembered, “were so little inclined to be civil, that I ordered the crew to give them nothing to eat; after enduring hunger for two days, they were constrained to hail a fishing-boat, into which they stepped, and regained the garrison.” That left one soldier. “Observing my medicine-chest, he would not be satisfied unless I gave him medicine. Judging the opportunity a good one to rid myself of him, I administered a smart dose of jalap,” a super-strength laxative. The third soldier was soon in the grip of miserable, uncontrollable diarrhoea. Pale and twitching, doubled over with cramps, “he was also glad to hail a fishing-boat and to rejoin his companions.” Shortly afterwards, Masson disembarked serenely in Karachi.
Unknown to Masson, he was still a wanted man. The East India Company had a very long memory. In the town of Ludhiana in northern India, a few streets away from the threadbare court of Shah Shujah, a quiet, sinister-looking man was listening to whispers from across the subcontinent. More and more of them were about a deserter who now went by the name of Charles Masson.
From Karachi, Masson headed north up the coast to the town of Sonmiani, hoping to find some merchants heading for Afghanistan. What Masson calls “my metamorphosis” now became clear. “I was sitting alone,” he remembered, “in my hired apartment in the bazaar of Sonmiani, when one of the merchants, a stout well-dressed person, came in front of my abode, evidently with the intent to address me, but after a short gaze, he turned about and went his way. The fact was, I was sitting cross-legged on my cot, and, according to the fashion here, without a shirt; and not being in the best humor in the world, my appearance was not very prepossessing. I guessed the cause of the merchant’s abrupt departure; and to be prepared, in case of another visit, clad myself in clean white linen, and, preparing coffee, seated myself a little more gracefully. The beverage I drank from a sparkling tumbler, in default of china, and before me I had two or three books. In a short time the Pashtun reappeared, probably without any notion of accosting me, whom he had rejected as beneath his notice, but chancing to direct a glance towards me, he seemed astonished at my metamorphosis; and before he could recover from his surprise I addressed him with a courteous and sonorous “As-Salaam-Alaikum” [Peace be upon you]. He, of course, gave the responding salutation, “Wa-Alaikum-Salaam” [And upon you be peace], and advanced to me. I invited him to sit down.“ The merchant was heading north that very evening. “In God’s name,” he asked Masson, “are you going with me?” Masson replied, ‘“In God’s name, I am,” when he took my hands, and placing them with his own upon his eyes, assured me that he would do my kismet on the road.”
Masson had learned the greatest skill of all: how to disappear—and reappear the next moment, as whoever you wanted him to be.
The Pashtuns say that when God created the world he had a heap of rocks left over, out of which he made Afghanistan. Crossing the Afghan borderlands, even in good company, was an arduous journey. But to Masson, everything seemed strange and beautiful. Dusty brown plains and wide fertile valleys gave way to red-gold mountain foothills and snow-covered peaks. Dazed from lack of sleep, “I could almost have imagined,” he wrote, “that I was traveling in fairyland.” He had fallen in love with this land.
Life on the road was taking its toll on Masson. His clothes began to disintegrate. His hair began to stick up at all angles. His eyes became flecked with red. But Masson could now put this persona to work. He swaggered into the ancient city of Kalat with an air of ineffability, a slight, crazed-looking man in rags, who could have been anyone or anything. It was not long before the town came calling. Din Mohammad Khan, an Afghan nobleman and failed alchemist, was particularly taken with Masson. “Din Mohammad,” Masson remembered, “made two trifling demands of me—to provide him with a son, and to instruct him in the art of making gold.”
The alchemist kept a close eye on the comings and goings of travelers, and “the more unseemly the garb and appearance of the mendicant, the greater he thought the chance of his being in possession of the grand secret.” When Masson arrived in Kalat, Din Mohammad ordered one of his household “to bring all the limes that could be procured; some bright idea had flashed across his mind that a decisive result could be obtained from lime-juice. At other times he was seeking for seven-years’-old vinegar.” For a few weeks, Masson was a happy alchemist’s apprentice. In the land of illusionists, he had become a virtuoso.
The last leg of Masson’s journey to Kabul, again in the company of merchants, passed smoothly. When four enterprising Balochi attempted to extract money from the travelers, Masson greeted them warmly and invited them to smoke a pipe together. A few minutes later, the Balochi were unconscious on the ground, ‘as if by enchantment’. The pipe had been packed with enough hashish to knock over a tiger.
Few sights in the world could match Kabul, as it was then. From a distance, across the plains, the great stone walls of Dost Mohammad’s fortress, the Bala Hissar, loomed up. Before it, the city was laid out: a warren of ancient houses and bazaars, selling iced mulberries sprinkled with rosewater, heaps of sweet-smelling melons, walnuts, figs and pomegranates. Behind the Bala Hissar, snow-capped mountains towered over the city.
The road to Kabul led past groves of fruit trees, which covered the ground in blossoms, and precisely tended formal gardens. Set apart from them, shaded by plane trees, was the tomb of Babur, the great Mughal Emperor. As news of their arrival spread, friends and relatives of the merchants poured out of the city to greet them on the road, “decked in their holiday garments, and bringing offerings of radishes and lettuce. I had no relatives or friends to welcome my approach, but, as a companion, I was admitted to a share of the delicacies: and my feelings permitted me to participate in the joy of those around me.”
On 9 June 1832, Masson walked through the gates of Kabul, after a journey that had lasted almost five years. “I saw the country and its inhabitants, in a point of view,” he reflected, “under which no European is perhaps again likely of having the opportunity to observe them.” Half dazed, he walked up through the streets, marveling at the richness of the city. “The day of my arrival was distinguished by the presence in the bazaar of cherries, the first-fruits of the year … It is scarcely possible that Kabul can be surpassed for the abundance and variety of its fruits, and, perhaps, no city can present, in its season, so beautiful a display.” In the old Armenian quarter, in the shadow of the Bala Hissar, he rented a little room with his remaining silver. Looking out over the city from his new home, drinking a cup of iced buttermilk, he felt, after years of wandering, as if he had come home.
There’s an old Afghan proverb: “First comes one Englishman as a traveller; then come two and make a map; then comes an army and takes the country. Therefore it is better to kill the first Englishman.” He did not know it yet, but Masson is the reason that proverb exists. He was the first Englishman.
Excerpted from The King’s Shadow: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Deadly Quest for the Lost City of Alexandria, by Edmund Richardson. Copyright, 2022. Published by St. Martin’s Press. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
Featured image: A sketch of Kandahar, December 1841
James Rattray (1818-1854) – The British Library