I have two working lives: gardening and ancient history. Sometimes they intersect to each other’s benefit. I have just enjoyed an intersection, one which has taken me into new territory. It will take you there too.
Last week I wrote about the Pakistan Flower Show in Karachi, but what about wild flowers elsewhere in Pakistan? I had gone there to lecture on Alexander the Great during his conquests in the Indus River Valley in 326-325BC. I went with further items in mind: a faraway monument, built in his honour, and a flower bulb, unnoticed by him, which botanical experts in Britain need to verify. The results will live with me always.
In Balochistan, a particular species of fritillary is attested in scientific literature, quite unlike the fritillaries we grow in British gardens. It is not a Crown Imperial, one of those bulbs with a foxy scent, tall stems and hanging flowers of brick red or yellow. It is Fritillaria gibbosa, a rhinopetaloid fritillary with wide-open flowers, from two to 10 on each short stem.
In Iran, gibbosa’s flowers are known to be pink. In Pakistan they are believed to be grey with purple markings. Conservation and forestry experts in Balochistan were asked on my behalf if they knew it. Near Quetta they did, so off I set with Harriet Rix, whose sharp botanical eye has been trained by her father Martyn Rix, world expert on the fritillary genus since his doctorate on it at Cambridge. She had the camera and I had decent boots.
Conservation and forestry experts in the Quetta region guided the expedition, along with four ladies in headscarves, four guards with rifles, a gentleman in a broad pinstriped suit and pointed tan shoes and another who explained to me that his favourite book in English is Jane Austen’s Emma.
We set off into the barest of stony plains, framed by the blue-grey Balochi mountains, heading for an area known to our experts for gibbosa fritillaries among parched vegetation. The plain and mountains are also known for wolves, big ibex, scrawny foxes and leopards. Snakes squirm at ground level, though the deadly Russell’s viper which bit some of Alexander’s officers is better attested further south.
Within half a mile we found a yellow-flowered tulip, a relation to the pink and white Lady tulip that many of us grow at home. It is a joy to see the biodiversity of our gardens growing without gardening in the wild. By a rough track, Harriet then spotted a low-growing iris, probably Iris stocksii, as we eventually learnt with her father’s help. After a prolonged scramble over stony tracks, we and the pointed tan shoes reached the fritillary’s general area: we were rewarded by six bulbs in early flower. They made the entire trek worthwhile.
Grey is indeed their main colour, complemented by a ring of maroon, quite unlike the sombre snakehead fritillaries which are nowhere finer than in the meadows of Oxford. So we sat down to fathom what pollinated them. Two of the riflemen mounted guard by one cluster and five of us sat cross-legged round the other. While Harriet and I noticed columns of black ants, possible pollinators, my companions discussed wolves. Did I know that young wolves bring food for old wolves? Did I know that a man wolf only does sex with one and the same lady wolf and is faithful?
Opting for ants as pollinators, we had to restrain our hosts from digging up one of the bulbs as a gift. They showed the most touching delight at our delight in what local knowledge had been able to show us. By now, three weeks later, there must be hundreds of gibbosa fritillaries flowering in this dry plain.
Back at our starting point, the ladies brought out a chocolate cake which they and their mothers-in-law had prepared for the occasion. It was decorated with red hearts on sticks and prefaced with gold lettering saying “Trust and Smiles Are Very Precious”.
Throughout Pakistan I found this heart-warming kindness and hospitality, such generosity and joy in districts recently ravaged by floods, perched on the edge of bankruptcy and branded with a red warning in our Foreign Office’s guide for tourists.
From grey fritillaries we proceeded to Alexander’s battlefield: far away in Punjab, on the river Jhelum, Alexander fought a masterly battle against Indian King Porus and his war elephants, at least 85 of them, perhaps as many as 200. The battle is ever with me as in 2003, in Thailand, I served in the Hollywood cavalry that enacted Oliver Stone’s version of it in his film Alexander against armoured elephants in a vast botanical arboretum. Before his battle Alexander’s beloved horse Bucephalas died. In his honour Alexander founded a city called Bucephala on the bank from which he crossed the river and won.
After I gave a lecture in Athens and mentioned Bucephalas about 10 years ago, the cultural attaché of the Pakistan embassy sent me images of a remarkable modern tribute, a big white Alexander monument, funded by donors and the embassies of Greece and Pakistan. Near the little town of Jalalpur, they installed it as a study centre to encourage searches for the site of Bucephalas’s city, what Buddhist texts 1,000 years later still called the “jewel of the shining horse”.
On a huge platform, bronze plaques commemorate the Alexander Monument, funded by, among others, Abdul Qadeer Khan, father of Pakistan’s atomic bomb. Built from 1998 to 2011, the “centre” was declared open by ambassadors from the EU: now it is padlocked and festooned in barbed wire. The white paint is peeling off the big Greek pillars on the platform and the study rooms and lone computer have gone mouldy.
The map endures, tracing Alexander’s march from Pella in Greece to Punjab and back: I pointed out his route down the Indus to my patient driver Naveed and to Wasim Raja, best of guides, a self-styled descendant of King Porus.
The trees planted by the ambassadors are labelled “Estonian trees”: they are Australian bottlebrushes with red plumes of flower. Below the huge terrace, however, I scented lemon trees, planted among bushes of white-flowered Justicia, the Malabar nut, wild in Punjab.
King Porus had grey elephants but this centre is a shining white one. White elephants, imposed from on high, decay; fritillaries, growing from below, endure. As I looked out to the elephant battlefield beyond, a trio of birds floated past whose colour, size and flight implied they were hoopoes. The hoopoe is credited with a tale of Indian origin in Greek texts, already hinted at in Aristophanes’ comedy The Birds. They are the aptest symbols of Helleno-Indian contact.
On the walls of the centre’s study room stand extracts from a familiar book, my own account of Alexander’s battle, published in 1973 by Allen Lane. They are credited to “the author Mr Allen Lane”: near the furthest point of Alexander’s march they realise the famous publisher’s dream of writing a bestseller. I will not be suing for breach of copyright.
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