Kalash women in traditional dress take part in the Chilam Joshi festival celebrating the arrival of spring at Bumburet village, 2022.

In search of the lost “Greek” tribe of Alexander the Great

A trek through the Hindu Kush to seek out the ancient Kalash people, who claim descent from Alexander’s army

This article is taken from the August/September 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

One hundred and twenty-seven years ago, a mysterious Afghan pagan tribe, the Kalash, fled Islamic religious persecution to three secretive valleys in a remote corner of what is now north-western Pakistan. In 1998, when I was visiting Lahore, a Pakistani friend told me that little was known about the Kalash, except that they still lived largely as their people had back in their homeland for more than 2,000 years.

The Kalash, rarely visited by outsiders, claimed descent from Alexander the Great’s troops who had campaigned through their Hindu Kush homeland. In their refuge, they were said to still practice a similar culture and religion to that of ancient Greece, even worshipping Zeus as their paramount god.

The Kalash claimed descent from Alexander the Great’s troops who had campaigned through their Hindu Kush homeland

In 330BC, Alexander established many cities across what is now Afghanistan — with thousands of his soldiers left to inhabit them, keep order, with his generals to rule them. More than 10,000 of his troops married local women and stayed behind. He gave the cities Greek culture with artists, musicians, architects and artisans. They built outdoor theatres and gymnasiums, and erected countless marble statues of Greek gods.

Nudging the remote north-eastern edge of Afghanistan, the mountain town of Chitral, the provincial capital, was ruled by the ul-Mulk royal family until 1947, when it was swallowed by Pakistan. At breakfast the morning after I arrived in search of the Kalash, Prince Siraj, the grandson of Chitral’s last king, told me that near the turn of the nineteenth century, the entire Kalash tribe of about 50,000 spread across the high mountains of Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush bordering Chitral.

Scorned by Afghan Muslims as kafirs, their homeland was a secluded, mysterious place called Kafiristan, or Land of the Unbelievers. That was where Rudyard Kipling set his epic story, “The Man Who Would Be King”, first published in 1888 in Kipling’s collection of short stories, The Phantom Rickshaw and other Eerie Tales. It was later made into a fanciful but entertaining film. Two rogue British soldiers, played by Michael Caine and Sean Connery, travelled to Kafiristan, where the Connery character is mistaken for a god.

So little was known of the ethnic group in 1888 that the Bombay-born Kipling based his story on vague rumour and his fertile imagination. The movie plunged even further from the truth with John Huston, the director, depicting the Kafirs, or Kalash, as resembling shaven-headed, ancient Egyptian priests clad in white robes.

Towards the nineteenth century’s end, the Sultan of Kabul, Abdur Rahman, brutally put down 40 rebellions during his 21-year reign. Following the gruesome example of the invading Mongols five centuries earlier, he built towers formed from the heads of thousands of defeated rebels who dared challenge him.

In 1895, he turned his attention to the Kalash. He decided their presence in his domain, with their free-wheeling, timeless lifestyle — a religion with multiple carved gods, rampant wine drinking, especially at their bacchanalian religious festivals, and exuberant fornication, even sanctioned adultery — was an abomination, a flagrant public insult to Islam, and thus to himself.

“The Sultan ordered all the Kalash to convert to Islam immediately,” Prince Siraj told me, “if not, he would declare a jihad against the Kafirs, and his troops would slaughter, by beheading, all those who resisted — men, women and even their children.”

Invading Kafiristan, he renamed it Nuristan, Land of the Enlightened, and offered the Kalash a simple choice: convert to Islam immediately or die by the sword. Almost all converted. Those who resisted and were captured, were slaughtered.

Siraj alerted me to an account of the massacre in mountain climber Eric Newby’s classic book A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. The prince had the well-thumbed book in his small library. In 1956, Newby met many Nuristanis while climbing mountains in their territory. He spent several weeks in Nuristan and encountered many of their villages. He wrote that it was “like being back in the Middle Ages”. Newby described how just one clan stood their ground when confronted by the Sultan’s troops and refused to convert. “The Kafirs suffered heavy losses from artillery fire, many hundreds dying in the flames when they put their own villages to the torch.”

The last bands of Kalash, 3,000 men, women and children, with their ancient culture entirely intact, survived because they fled across the border to the three isolated valleys in Chitral, a dozen miles from Afghanistan in royal ul-Mulk territory. “It takes a few hours from here driving over a rough mountain track to reach them,” Siraj told me. “It’s their remoteness that helps keep pure and strong their ancient Afghan ways. I admire them for that.”

After breakfast, Siraj took me to a waiting jeep. The driver, Jandool, was in his mid-twenties, slim, wiry and with a cocky look that complemented the rakish tilt of his fawn coloured Chitrali beret, the same headgear as the Afghan pakol.

A gandau funerary figure of a male riding a horse, carved from a single piece of Himalayan cedar

Our Jeep kept pace with the muddy Chitral River for about an hour, and then we crossed a bridge and drove in the direction of nearby Afghanistan, ascending a mountain track more suited to alpine goats. As Jandool edged the Jeep around canyons and up steep gorges strewn with boulders, the track just a few feet wider than the Jeep, I kept my eyes averted from the dizzying drops and trusted in God and my lion-hearted driver.

“This is Bumboret,” Jandool said as we reached the first Kalash village, four hours later. It was almost hidden in a cleave cut by a glacial river between two steep mountains of the Hindu Kush lined with dense stands of cedar, holly oak and fruit trees. The entrance was marked by a pole stuck in the ground and bearing a sign painted in green in Urdu, Pakistan’s lingua franca, and in Arabic.

Kalash People’s Development Network activist at a Kalash temple at Brun, a village in the Bumboret valley

“The Saudi missionaries put it up,” Jandool replied to my inquiry, “The sign says that it’s Allah’s will that the Kalash will be converted to Islam. They’re now in this valley attempting to convert the Kalash to their Sunni version of Islam.”

The valley teemed with orchards and vineyards, among them apricot, pear, mulberry and apple trees. The Kalash made wine for their own use from the mulberries. A rabble of long-haired goats scurried out of our way, herded by a fair-haired girl carrying a set of pan pipes. On the way, Jandool had taught me Kalash greetings. “Ishpadta baba,” (“hello sister”) I called out. She smiled shyly. ‘Ishpadta baya,’ she returned (“hello brother”).

The primeval homes of the Kalash village nearby were embedded in the mountainside, and were made of mud, logs and hundreds of flat rocks stacked carefully in tight layers. The homes were piled one on top of the other up the slope. Your neighbour’s verandah also served as your roof.

Women sat outside in the morning sun spinning goat wool and cuddling babies. Other women washed clothes in an icy glacial stream, and little girls skipped down a mountain path wearing in their hair golden flowers picked from the slopes.

A Kalash girl in brightly coloured homespun dress

The women’s everyday traditional costume, worn from infanthood to old age, was one of the most spectacular I had ever encountered. Their homespun black robes were colourfully embroidered, and their heavy shu’shut headdresses hung down their backs like a horse’s mane. Woven into them in intricate patterns were scores of cowrie shells, different coloured beads and tiny bells. From their necks dangled a dozen strands of brightly coloured beads. Many of the women and children had small, inky starbursts tattooed on their faces.

The Kalash women did not wear veils, and their European appearance was startling. In contrast to most Pakistanis, who tended to be swarthy, the Kalash had pale skin. Most were fair-haired, there were even blondes and the occasional redhead, and they had aquiline noses and blue, green or grey eyes outlined with black powder from ground-up goats’ horns. Most of the women stared defiantly at me or turned away, ignoring my hello in their language.

Alerted by Siraj, I was looking for Athanasios Lerounis, a Greek mountaineer, and spied him sitting outside in the sun. He told me he had stumbled on the Kalash five years earlier when he was climbing near here. He was stunned by their affinity with ancient Greeks, but was sceptical at first when they told him they were descended from Alexander’s troops and regarded him as a blood brother:

After spending several days with the Kalash, I was convinced they spoke the truth. There is so much similarity, not only in the way they look. They sacrifice goats at outdoor altars like the ancient Greeks, and worship the same sky gods, such as the goddess of the hearth, Jestar. We Greeks call her Estai. Di Zau is their king of the gods. We call him Te Zeus.

Lerounis was not the first outsider the Kalash told about their origin. The British historian Michael Wood wrote, “Here in Victorian days, ragged chieftains produced Hellenistic bowls for British administrators which they claimed had been given to them by Greek kings and proved their right to rule: such stories their ancestors had told to Marco Polo.”

The Kalash women did not wear veils, and their European appearance was startling

That contention, oft repeated in these parts, is disputed but has also received scientific support. The Pakistani geneticist, Qasim Mehdi, working with researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine on a world genetic map, found that the Kalash, unlike other Pakistani peoples, shared DNA markers with those of Germans and Italians. “The finding tended to support descent from Alexander’s troops,” Qasim told me by phone, “because Alexander welcomed troops, mercenaries, from other parts of Europe into his army.

Two decades after my first visit in 1998, I returned to find the security situation in the three valleys had plummeted. Just across the border in Afghanistan, Taliban militia had murdered more than a hundred Nuristanis — Kalash whose ancestors converted to Islam in the late nineteenth century. The Taliban claimed they were faking their devotion to Islam and reverting to age-old Kalash customs such as drinking mulberry wine, dancing, singing and loose sex.

Taliban militia armed with assault rifles were even seen prowling the mountains near the Kalash’s three valleys. In 2009, five masked Taliban attacked the compound where Lerounis lived. They shot dead a policeman on guard and kidnapped the Greek. The Taliban demanded a US$2 million ransom, and the release from a Pakistan jail of three imprisoned Taliban commanders in exchange for Lerounis’s release. The Taliban held him captive for eight months, and then let him return to the Kalash. Lerounis has raised $4 million in aid, mostly from the Greek government, to build schools and clinics for the Kalash.

It got worse. In 2014, the Taliban posted on their website a one-hour anti-Kalash video which opened with film of their scenic valleys in Chitral, and then announced that it was going to conduct, “an armed holy struggle against the Kalash”. Dawn, a respected Pakistani newspaper, reported that the Taliban declared, “We want to make it clear that the Kalash will be eliminated if they don’t embrace Islam.”

The Pakistan military high command responded by sending the elite Chitral Scouts, a highly trained army unit, to patrol and protect Kalash territory and the border with Afghanistan. But, in 2022, few Kalash venture from their villages after dark.

On my first visit in 1998, an hour’s drive deeper into the valleys of the lost tribe of Alexander, and thus much closer to the Afghanistan border, brought me to the village of Rumbur. It spread along a narrow valley where layers of mud huts ascended a steep hill like an ancient tribal skyscraper. Three fair-headed girls aged about ten squatted by a stream washing dark robes by pounding them on rocks.

In the open square by the houses, villagers gathered around a Kalash holy man, Kasi Khushnawaz. He was also the tribe’s storyteller. The Kalash were subsistence farmers, too poor to have TVs or radios, and, anyway, there was no electricity in the three villages then. So, Kasi drew a throng of children, men and women who squatted in the dust to listen as he retold ancient tales. He was a small, slender old man with twinkling eyes. “Sikander e Aazem (Alexander the Great), the Two-Horned One, came to where we then lived across the mountains in Afghanistan. Before he departed, he left behind some of his men led by a general called Shakalash who settled with his troops in those valleys, and they married local women. We, the Kalash, are their descendants. We Kalash are named after the general.

The reference to Alexander as the Two-Horned One was intriguing because he had been depicted many times on ancient Macedonian coins wearing a helmet adorned with a pair of goat horns. Had someone in recent times put Kasi up to that to legitimize the Kalash claim, or had the legend really been handed down through the millennia? When I asked Kasi, he spurned any talk that it was a recent addition to the Kalash collection of legendary tales. “It’s always been the way we described Sikander in our stories,” he said.

His heavy eyebrows met as he told me that the remaining Kalash were under strong pressure to convert to Islam

When the story ended, Kasi led me up a notched log ladder, the Kalash version of front doorsteps, to the village’s largest house standing alone on the other side of the square. It faced the mud huts. Seated on a porch overlooking Rumbur was the Kalash leader, Saifulla Jain, a stocky, middle-aged man.

His heavy eyebrows met as he told me that the remaining Kalash were under strong pressure to convert to Islam. “The Saudi missionaries have plenty of money and they offer work to our men in Chitral if they become Muslims,” he said. “You can see we are a very poor people and it’s a great sacrifice for our men to refuse. Some do convert.”

He continued, “We have a rule that if any Kalash convert to Islam, then they can’t live among us anymore. They must leave our villages. This is often sad, it splits families, but it’s necessary for us to keep our culture intact. There are so few Kalash now, but our ancestors defied the sultan long ago and we will not bow to the Muslims.”

Saifulla turned solemn. “There’s also our religion. I pray to Di Zau that in 2,000 years from now, we Kalash will still be honouring our gods.” He led me up a steep mountain path to the village burial ground. Once, the Kalash carved life-sized, wooden warriors astride horses to guard the graves of loved ones, just like the Macedonians in Alexander’s time.

Now, just a single effigy of a warrior in a helmet and fighting tunic remained in the graveyard, a scattering of mounds at the edge of a pine forest. The six-foot-high statue, carved from oak, stood by an old grave. “All the other funerary statues were stolen, and you can find many in museums across the world. We’d like to get them all back, but we know it’s impossible.”

The Kalash used to leave their dead above ground to rot in open coffins, their worldly goods stacked around them, but now they buried them under the earth. “We can’t leave them in the open anymore because the Muslims around here robbed the open graves.”

That desecration was recent. When Wilfred Thesiger journeyed into the Kalash valleys across the border a half century earlier, he found ten carved wooden statues at the foot of open graves. “Corpses were in view, laid out in open wooden coffins and then taken to a corner of a field and left there to disintegrate above ground,” he wrote in his Among the Mountains.

Despite Muslim incursions, Saifulla said, the Kalash were defiantly keeping their culture intact. A curious annual fertility ritual, still performed, was a unique expression of their culture which I suspect did not emanate from Alexander’s troops. A fit young virgin boy, aged about 14, was sent high into the mountains to spend the entire Spring season alone with the goatherds. He had to gorge himself on their milk every day and come back down to the village as summer approached, immensely fat.

The boy then had to choose any female he favoured in the village, a married woman or a young girl his age even if she was a virgin, willing or unwilling, to have ritual sex.

No wonder the Sultan of Kabul was horrified by the Kalash. Horror of sinful horrors, their women could even initiate and effect divorce and have open affairs with other men before returning to their compliant husbands. Saifulla confirmed that the Kalash made their own mulberry wine, and their festivals usually turned into bacchanalia with even girls in their late teens getting tipsy by nightfall and propositioning men for a tumble in the dark.

A curious annual fertility ritual, still performed, was a unique expression of their culture

On the way back to Chitral, we gave a lift to Kasi, and stopped at a house built into the side of the mountain with four others piled on top of it. Inside, it was dark and smoky because there was no chimney. A woman squatted by the fireplace on the bare earth floor with her four children, three girls and a boy, aged from two to six. The hardship of her life was etched in the premature lines marring her face.

Kasi told me that the Kalash religion had as its central theme the conflict between the pure and impure in life. Because the priesthood was exclusively male, it was predictable that men were pure, or onjesta. Goats and the high pasture were also pure, while women were impure, or pragata. Even in her own home, a Kalash woman was tormented by the relentless ritual of pure and impure. The Kasi, or priests, made the women constantly undertake rituals to cleanse themselves. Those included burning juniper to bathe in the sacred fumes and splashing goats’ blood over the body.

Saifulla had told me that one of the four major Kalash festivals which were tied to the seasons, summer’s Uchao, was to be celebrated at Rumbur beginning the following day to greet the harvesting time. So, I secured two rooms for us at a small guesthouse in Rumbur. At noon the next day, I walked to the cleared sacred ground, an outdoor temple above the village at the edge of a cliff overlooking the lush, green valley. A stream ran by thick clusters of fruit trees. There, I witnessed scenes that, with very little change, would have been the same for millennia back in their mountain homeland in Afghanistan.

Kalash men celebrate Uchal summer festival at Chitral

A few paces above the open-air temple on the precipice, a large rock jutted out. Steps had been carved into the rock for the Kasi to reach it. The rock was stained with dried blood. It was where the Kalash sacrificed goats to their gods, as Lerounis had told me, by slashing their throats.

Pillars carved from oak with scenes of goats in pasture held a roof over the sacred dancing ground, but the temple had no walls. Hundreds of Kalash had gathered there, and were already in high spirits. A dozen men beat large flat circular drums as the throngs of women eerily wailed hymns to their gods. Lerounis had told me that the women improvised the lyrics, and each song could last as long as two hours.

Groups of seven or eight women locked together in each of a dozen lines by gripping each other’s shoulders and waists. The lines repeatedly circled the sacred ground, merrily colliding into each other, and then swinging around in tight circles. The lines then broke off into individual women holding their arms high and weaving their hands in florid patterns to the thud of the drums.

The young girls and women wore their finest horse-mane headdresses, colourful ankle-length festival dresses, scarlet, gold and black, covered with lavish embroidery, cowrie shells, and with many strands of beads piled about their necks. The men were clad as usual in the Pakistani baggy pants and grey shirts that flapped about their knees. They stood watching the women and clapping in time to the drums, but did not join them.

Saifulla came over to greet me. I was the only foreigner there. “We dance so joyously because it pleases our gods,” he explained. As the afternoon lengthened, the singing and dancing became more frenzied. The mulberry wine flowed freely. At dusk, the many circles of women joined into one giant circle as they sang wildly and clapped in time to the drums. The clamour swelled to an enthralling roar.

The Kalash seemed inexhaustible. One of the hymns they sang was to Disni, the female life giver. “Oh Disni, Keeper of the temple. Giver of milk to human beings, Protector of Infants: You keep the milk flowing. You bring sensuality to we humans.” Perhaps, excited by that last line, young women began making suggestive remarks and offering sexual invitations to young men. Prince Siraj had told me that sex was not as constrained as in many traditional cultures, especially their Muslim neighbours, with the Kalash accepting sex before marriage and adultery as woven into the human condition.

I had seen something similar to the Kalash religious festive outburst of lust at Lo Manthang in outer Tibet where customs had hardly changed in a thousand years. At Teeji, a three-day annual exorcism of the medieval walled city by masked Buddhist monks performing dozens of religious dances, on the final night, when the invisible devils had been expelled, there was an eruption of socially accepted, unrestrained, sexual action.

Prince Siraj had told me that sex was not as constrained as in many traditional cultures, with the Kalash accepting sex before marriage and adultery as woven into the human condition

Tibetan adults, married and unmarried, paired off with chosen partners in the narrow dark alleyways, or out in the fields. A senior lama told me the adults were given social license to have sex with whomsoever they liked until the sun rose on the following day.

In Lo Manthang I politely returned to the guesthouse at sunset before the Bacchanalia began, and it was the same at Rumbur. At 7pm, Jandool and I returned to the guesthouse for a dinner of shish kebab and unleavened bread. Saifulla had left us a couple of jugs of mulberry wine, vintage three weeks. It had a tart but pleasant taste and Jandool and I swiftly finished the first jug and enthusiastically got stuck into the second.

“I’ll sing you a Chitrali song,” Jandool said as he held his mug a little unsteadily in the air for yet another toast. He put it down and began drumming with his fingers on the table as he sang in the Central Asian quavering voice style. “It was about hunting giant ibex in the high mountains near here,” he said. “Now it’s your turn.”

I had the perfect choice for a feisty Chitrali whose ancestors, Jandool had told me, fought the British army in a siege at Chitral town a century earlier. My grandmother came from a fiercely Irish Catholic family. She was raised to scorn the British as colonial invaders. When I was young, she taught me an iconic ballad of Irish resistance, written during the failed 1798 rebellion: “At the Rising of the Moon”.

I never shared her anti-British feelings. But it was a great drinking song. So, I drained my mug, explained the meaning to Jandool, and then launched into it, banging the mug to the martial rhythm. Outside, the Kalash in song mingled with our effort inside. As we sang of rebellion against invaders, and the Kalash sang of enthusiastic, rampant sex, it was surely the first ever meeting of carousing Kalash and Irish.

Siraj had told me that as the night deepened, with the Kalash emotions enflamed by the mulberry wine and the wild music and dancing, many lovers would slip away into the dark for a more personal celebration. Well before then, Jandool and I stumbled down the corridor to our rooms with our arms draped about each other’s shoulders. I fell swiftly into sleep on the hard-mattress guesthouse bed with my compliant partner for the night, a lumpy pillow.

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