Alexander the Great’s long-lost Greek descendants in Pakistan?
by James Mayfield (Chairman, European Heritage Library)
The Kalash tribe live on the Afghan-Pakistan border between the abstract regions of Nuristan and Chitral, a heavily tribal region both with adherents to the rigid Islam for which the area has become famous as well as traditional tribal religions. The remote territory is often called “Kafiristan” by scholars and locals due to their perceived adultertation of or apostacy from the dominant manifestation of Islam in north Pakistan (“kafir” is the Muslim and Arabic term for infidel). Many locals and scholars consider that the tribes of the region, including the Kalash, are all related as the “Nuristani” ethnic group of Nuristan province (meaning “Land of Light”). The term “Land of Light” likely refers to the ancient title employed by early Aryan, Iranian, and Tajik peoples as being the noble people borne of light. Some have claimed that the Nuristanis — and thus the Kalash — were called “People of Light” because of their adoption of the true of Islam, but this theory is rather fanciful considering that many (including the Kalash) are infidel polytheists. Others point to the historical legacy of Iranian Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism — emphasizing the timeless clash between darkness and light — as the etymology of the Land of Light.
The name of the tribe, Kalash, means “wearers of black,” although they wear an eclectic array of bright and dark colors, especially for festivals. There is common use of cowrie shells on dresses of women, a trait common among ancient or primitive peoples as an expression of wealth or clan affiliation. They are described as the only pagans in Pakistan and the surrounding Hindu Kush, since the Buddhists, Manichaeans, Jewish Khazar merchants, and Hindus had long been displaced or forcibly converted by the jihad of the Ghorid, Ghaznavid, Delhi/Lodi, Timurid, and Mughal sultanates since the 10th century. They have unique cultural professions and rituals of their own, such as winemaking (of course, forbidden or haraam in Islamic jurisprudence), elaborate sewing and textiles, and shoemaking. They have a strange ritual of sending teenage boys into the harsh forest terrain for nearly a year and, if they survive, they can have their way with any number of women during the duration of the ritual. Obviously, this is highly heterodox in comparison with the dominant moral and religious ethos of Pakistan, but it surely is not a notably Greek tradition either. There is little gender segregation unlike their Muslim neighbors, who eat, sleep, pray, and work separately. They have intense funeral and mourning rites in which women dance in circles, sacrifice goats and cattle, feast, and drink. They apparently seldom eat meat, in part derived from the inordinate expense of forfeiting livestock in this wickedly poor and desolate region. Alcohol is integral in their religious life, as it was in the Greek culture and cults of Dionysus as well pre-Islamic Iranian culture. They apparently reject eating or slaughtering chickens, even claiming that introducing poultry into Kalash society would intimate their extinction, and they have criticized Muslims for doing just that. The women wear headdresses, scarves, and veils, and the men often wear headcoverings, kufis (Islamic skullcaps), and Islamic-derived garb. Women remove their headscarves when in mourning, likely to signify emptiness and absence. It seems that, having been divorced from the hegemony suffered by adjacent tribes and equally divorced from their possible Greek roots (if indeed they are Greek), they are now in all respects their own sociocultural identity and heritage. Today numbering less than 4,000 by some estimates, deforestation, overdevelopment, terrorist attacks by Mujahidin against these kafirs, high mortality, and conversion make many presage that this society is close to extinction, and that the strictly Islamic qualities of Pakistan (especially the North West Frontier) stifle their independent cultural and religious survival. The danger that results from being among the only polytheist in a fervently conservative Muslim country like Pakistan perhaps suggests that there are far more Kalash than reported, many having either forgotten or abandoned their roots either with conversion to Islam or assimilation into the dominant social culture.
Classifying the Kalash is difficult because of the region’s legacy of demography exchange and foreign hegemony. Mixing, although uncommon because of the antagonism between the new invaders and their conquered subjects and the very remote geography of the Kalash people, further complicates defining these people as ethnic Greeks. Their blue and green eyes may simply be a result of rare and isolated recessive genes that have been known by geneticists to occur due to isolated genetic parentange and even inbreeding and mutation. Light eyes, sometimes present among Turks and Iranians but seldom among Greeks, are not enough to define them as Greeks or related to any European race. The vast majority of Greeks (even in Greece) tend to have very dark hair, brown or hazel eyes, and olive skin. It is difficult to describe them as being Greek when their genetic features are uncommon in Greece but more common in the local region among Pamirians and Tajiks.
Kalash foundation myths describe their progenitor and founder as a “horned-god” and an equestrian conquerer with demon horns. Alexander was sometimes depicted in writings, imagery, and numismatic evidence to have donned a dual-horned helmet with red tassels (although this is often highly exaggerated). This is significant in tracing their lineage to Alexander and his conquering army. Perhaps their claim of “descent” from Alexander the Great and “his army” originally referred to soldiers conscripted in Alexander’s campaign after his conquests in Iran, regardless of their race. The Kalash may mean that they descend from the political legacy of Alexander’s empire (as most of Eurasia did for many centuries) rather than descending from Alexander’s Greek settlers themselves.
One useful tool that some scholars have emphasized in determining the Greek ancestry of the Kalash is their religion. However, there is no appearance of Greek gods under different names. The location of the Kalash dictates that it could have been imported from other local cultures or merged to form a distinct Kalash tradition that has nothing to do with Greeks. There is firstly a great emphasis on dualism (light/good and darkness/evil) that is surely influenced by the Buddhist, Manichean, and Zoroastrian heritage of the region stretching from Tajikistan to Kashmir under Iranian hegemony. The Kalash apparently divide their worldview into a system of male and female realms, and gendered aspects of reality and life ruled over by gods and goddesses. The Kalash worship nature, animals, and spirits. None of these religious qualities seem to derive from original Greek religion of Alexander. No Zeus, Hera, Apollo, or Athena. No titans and Promethian myths. Of course, the Kalash as possible Greek settlers could easily have invented and adopted their own religion by drawing from eclectic local inspirations. Therefore, religion fails to be a good litmus for determining an Alexandrian and Greek link. The modern religious mysticism of the Kalash may simply be a blend of the Greco-Kushan Buddhist tradition and Zoroastrian/Manichean dualism that evolved into its own new form after the jihad of invading Muslim sultanates abolished Buddhism and destroyed nearly all temples and statues of the Buddha in India. There is much influence from the more core tenets of Hinduism or its Vedic predecessor that came to India in the 2nd millennium BCE via the Aryan invasion. Belief in Indra and emphasis on the bull/cow are present, revealing links with Iranian and Vedic tradition. The Kalash emphasis on fertility rites, nature, statues, and gendered gods is common to the Vedic, Hindu, Mahayana Buddhist, and Manichean traditions that dominated the region throughout history.
It would seem that the Kalash are simply yet another one of many unique and disparate tribes found throughout Central Asia, the Pamirs, and the Kush with what are abstractly described as “European” features. Many of these settled in the region with Alexander’s expansion, many with the Turkic and Hunnic conquest. Many are simply Iranians with recessive eye color genes who spread east via early Persian conquests. Almost certainly, they are not Greek or migrants from Europe, nor are any of the “white” tribes of Central & South Asia, the Pamirs, or the Hindu Kush. Blue eyes and light-brown hair in Tajikistan and the Tarim Basin of China does not translate to European immigration or invasion.
The imaginary Silk Road trade routes stretching from Constantinople to Kashmir and Damascus to Samarqand and China mean that an eclectic array of religions, languages, and small ethnic minorities traversed the vast Asian territory for millennia. Small Greek commercial and colonial communities were known to have settled and traded as far away as Afghanistan and thus the Pamir and Nuristani regions where the Kalash “Greeks” may live. But the dominant Greek cultural, political, religious, and linguistic legacy in the region only began with the world-conquerering campaigns of Alexander the Great.
In the 4th century BCE, Alexander the Great led the Greeks and Macedonians against Achemenid Persia, obliterating the Shah Darrius’ armies at Gaugamela before he was assassinated by his own satrap Bessus. By conquering Persia — the largest empire the world had ever known — Alexander subdued a realm including Egypt, the Levant (Arabia), Iran, Iraq, the Caucasus, Anatolia, Greece proper, Afghanistan, most of Central Asia (Sogdiana), and half of Pakistan to the Indus River before his armies were brutally repelled at India. After he died of debated causes, his empire immediately collapsed into independent warring monarchies dominated by ethnic Greek sovereigns who officially promoted the Greek language, culture, settlement, Greek education, and religion. The largest in Asia was the Seleucid kingdom. In 260BCE, the Seleucid satrap (governor) Diodotus broke off in Afghanistan to create the foundations of a resplendent Bactrian kingdom which would later become a focal point of the transmission of Buddhism to the world. Whilst the rest of the Alexandrian Greek successor states in east Asia would fall to the Iranian Parthians and other invading tribes, Greek Bactria (Afghanistan) would endure as an evident Greek legacy for centuries. Even after the remaining Greek monarchy had been destroyed and absorbed into the empire of the possibly blue-eyed and red-haired Buddhist Tocharians, the native Irano-Bactrian language of the succeeding Buddhist kings was written in the Greek alphabet. Foreign ethnic Greek travelers were able to communicate in Greek as late as 44AD and get a Greek-based education, 190 years after the ethnic Greek hegemonic minority ruling caste had been dismantled. The Greek cultural and religious legacy endured for centuries before being subsumed under the conquests of other cultures, especially the Parthian Iranians, eastern Huns (Hepthalites), and the Guptas.
There is no proof that the Kalash tribe analyzed in this article is in any way connected with this transmission of Greek culture and genetics. They were surely incorporated into the legacy of Alexander’s Greek conquests as the whole region was. Therefore, the Kalash’s myths of the horned-god Alexander most certainly means that the Kalash simply passed down oral tales of Alexander’s conquests in the region rather than implying any genetic connection to the Greeks or Europeans. It must also be remembered that much of his army, especially in Asia, was not Greek or European at all, but consisted of Iranian and other minorities.