At the ‘crossroads’ (Benjamin, 1969) between remembering and forgetting, one may glimpse how the relationship between later cultures and the ancient world has been shaped by the awareness of loss; by the presence of what cannot be recalled.
James Lewis lived at that crossroads – searching for antiquity, erasing his own past. He was at once traveler, magician, ‘the great pioneer of Afghanarcheology’ (Rowland, 1976), and British deserter, under a death-sentence. Escaping across the plains of India in July 1827, he cast aside his former name and became Charles Masson, an American from Kentucky. This paper traces his subsequent journey into Afghanistan, into the then-blank spaces of the map (Lawrence, 1845), in search of the lost cities of Alexander the Great; it argues that the case of Masson demonstrates why, when examining the reception of antiquity, forgetfulness and elision demand as careful scrutiny as remembrance.
I begin by outlining how officials and adventurers constructed their identities through the ancient world, in nineteenth-century India (Hall & Vasunia (eds.) 2010). Alexander Burnes traveled toAfghanistan, driven by the ‘desire that I had always felt to... visit the conquests of Alexander.’ The Afghans called him ‘the “second Alexander,” the "Sikunder sanee"’ (Burnes, 1834). Josiah Harlan, an American soldier of fortune, planted the Stars and Stripes atop the Hindu Kush; returning to America, he too was acclaimed as a second Alexander (Macintyre, 2005).
Masson’s relationship with antiquity, however, took shape not as a memory-project, but as a dialogue between the desire to remember and the desire to forget. Drawing on recent scholarship concerning the edges of remembrance (Flower, 2006, Cook & Tatum, 2010), I argue that narratives of his life are likewise caught between memory and absence.
(In his diaries, Masson often alters not just the months, but the years in which he visited certain places.)
Crossing the Hindu Kush, as Haji, as physician, Masson forever asked after the past – were there any ancient tombs? Had any coins been found? (Masson, 1842) Simple denial was the typical response. Burial mounds eluded his excavations; his companions were moving on. The past perpetually seemed just out of reach. He traced and retraced the routes of Alexander in his mind, wondering if his army had perhaps seen the same hills.
In July 1833, on the plains of Bagram, Masson discovered a genuine city of Alexander –and the second half of my paper explores his relationship with the site. Alexandria of the Caucasus was founded in 329 BCE, and its location had long been a puzzle; Masson was the first to identify it (Whitteridge, 1985). First, he recovered a single ancient coin – reluctantly brought out by a villager, after threats from his Afghan escort. Then, a few more coins. Then dozens, then hundreds, until sixty-eight thousand ancient coins were dispatched by camel-train to Calcutta, then by ship to the British Museum (British Library MSS. Eur. E168).
His accounts are uniquely revealing: details of bribes – one official paid entirely in fruit – and sudden violence. The empty spaces ofthe map were richly laden with memories – but Masson found identification of his finds challenging. Many weeks’ travel from the nearest library, with no books of his own (robbers had descended), he relied upon extracts from Gibbon – copied out by hand and sent across the mountains (British Library MSS Eur.E161/6-7). Half fulfilled, half frustrated, his excavations hovered between fact and fiction as artfully as himself.
In Masson, I conclude, we may see that when looking back to the ancient world, remembrance should not take the stage unchallenged; that which has been erased and forgotten –fundamental to every engagement with antiquity – must also beallowed its place. (Today, Alexandria of the Caucasus is covered with concrete; NATO’s Bagram airbase has been constructed atop the plain.) Otherwise only half a dialogue with the past may emerge; only half a self.
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