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Unwilling To Stop And Unwilling To Go On: Alexander The Great’s Afghan Campaign

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Alexander the Great was undeniably the greatest military commander in history. He took over his father’s throne at just 20 years old and immediately began a campaign the likes of which the world has never seen. He fought battle after battle, forging the largest empire on earth—all without losing even once. As he rampaged across Western and Central Asia, he founded countless cities that stand to this day. Millenia after his death, military geniuses like Napoleon painstakingly studied his battles to learn from his success. He unquestionably earned his moniker—Alexander was Great.


But with such a spotless military record, Alexander’s conquests seem almost like they were…easy. With his elite troops and unmatched tactical genius, he started from the unassuming Macedon in Northern Greece and wrought the largest empire the world had ever seen, spanning from Greece in the West all the way to India in the East. But while his remarkable conquests in Persia and his far-reaching campaign to India take center stage in the history books, there’s an often-forgotten chapter of Alexander’s legacy that was anything but easy.

Alexander’s campaign in Afghanistan has become a mere footnote in his legacy—perhaps because it was the region where the great warlord saw the least success. Like many other military superpowers would after him, from the British Empire to Russia to NATO, Alexander waltzed into Afghanistan with all the confidence in the world, but he left battered and bruised, with very little to show for it. The region chewed him up and spit him out, and while he never explicitly “lost” any battles in his time there, it’s hard to so he won much of anything either. In fact, historians have claimed that the brutal Afghan campaign marked a shift in Alexander—from infallible Golden Boy to a cruel, paranoid shell of what he once was.

So why did Alexander enter Afghanistan in the first place? Since this is history, there’s no simple answer to that question, but to boil it down, Alexander brought his army to the land that was then known as Bactria on the hunt for a man named Bessus, who was the only man standing between Alexander and the throne of the Persian Empire.

By all accounts, that throne ought to have been Alexander’s. After his remarkable victory at the Battle of Gaugamela, he and his rag-tag band of Macedonians had essentially overthrown Darius III, the Persian Empire’s King of Kings. More than anything else, Alexander wanted that title for himself, but there was one hitch in his plan—Bessus. Before Alexander could capture Darius alive, the usurper Bessus had Darius killed and named himself King of Kings. He started calling himself Artaxerxes V and immediately retreated to mountains of Bactria.

Now, Alexander could have simply ignored Bessus, taken whatever title he wanted, and moved on with his conquering ways—but that was not how Alexander thought. He saw himself as the rightful ruler of the Persian Empire, and Bessus as a usurper. He was going to bring the man to justice—and he was going to take his men into hell to do it.

Chasing Bessus into Bactria, Alexander faced an immediate obstacle: the Hindu Kush mountains. These formidable peaks straddle modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan, and leading an army across them was a herculean feat in the fourth century BCE. Many Macedonians died in the frozen peaks, but when they finally reached the other side, they found no respite. Instead, they stumbled straight into the deserts of Northern Afghanistan. The Macedonian army’s trek was recorded later by the Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus, and he did not paint a pretty picture:

“The lack of water, mentioned above, is such that desperation produces a parching thirst even before a natural craving to drink appears. For 75 kilometers no trace of water is to be found…The heat of the summer sun scorches the sands and, when these start to heat up, everything on them is baked as if by perpetual fire. Travel by night seemed bearable because dew and the early morning freshness would bring relief to their bodies; but with the dawn comes the heat, draining with its aridity all natural moisture and deeply burning the mouth and the stomach. So it was their resolution that failed first, and then their bodies. They were unwilling to stop and unwilling to go on.”

Despite these nightmarish conditions, Alexander and his men made it across the Hindu Kush and through the desert—but their obstacles did not end there. Afghanistan’s geography also offered military challenges which Alexander had never before faced.

Alexander the Great in battle

To this point, Alexander had won battles through his ingenious use of his army—but Afghanistan presented few open battles where he could show off his brilliant tactical mind. Rather, the conflict here was slow and brutal—guerrilla warfare and sieges that left Alexander and his men exhausted and disillusioned. The frozen mountains and blazing deserts of the region were a far cry from the battlefields they were used to, and “glorious battle” seemed to be a thing of the past.

Alexander spent two agonizing years in Afghanistan, a major chunk of his historic campaign across western and central Asia. Granted, he didn’t leave the brutal landscape empty-handed: His primary goal in Bactria was to capture the traitorous Bessus, and he accomplished that. The rival claimant to the throne of the Persian Empire was dealt with, and Alexander could rightfully call himself the King of Kings. But the price he paid for that luxury was extreme.

Alexander’s most successful enemy in Afghanistan was the land itself. He lost far more men to the frigid peaks of the Hindu Kush or the scorching Northern Afghan desert than to any military resistance he faced. And when he did try to engage enemy forces, he found himself playing a frustrating game of whack-a-mole.

The classical historian Plutarch described the Afghan tribesmen’s guerrilla tactics as a Hydra out of Greek myth—whenever Alexander cut off one head, three more would grow in its place. The mountains and caves of Afghanistan ensured that the fighting was never truly done, and a new enemy was always lurking around the corner. When it actually came to fighting, Alexander’s armies still managed to win each battle they faced, but the seemingly unending nature of the conflict weighted heavy on their morale.

Fighting in Afghanistan was a Sisyphean task, and Alexander’s grip on the region started slipping the moment that he left. While it was considered a part of the enormous Empire that he left after his death, control of the territory was tenuous at best. Revolts began almost the moment that Alexander dropped dead, and they seemingly never truly stopped. Rebellion was simply a reality for any foreign state that attempted to claim sovereignty over the unforgiving landscape.

While his time there was harrowing, Alexander still managed to leave his mark on Afghanistan. He founded many cities as he chased Bessus across the region, some of which still exist today. The most notable is the city of Kandahar, which he named Alexandria Arachosia (in fact, it’s believed that the name Kandahar itself is derived from the Persian name for Alexander, Iskandar). He also found his famous bride, the beautiful Roxana, whom he loved above all others, in the region. But while Alexander left his mark on Afghanistan, Afghanistan also left its mark on him.

The ruins of Alexander the Great’s castle in Afghanistan

Afghanistan has always been an unforgiving land. It is a region of extremes, with fertile plains, scorching deserts, and frigid mountains. Alexander was not the first to invade this extreme landscape, and he would certainly not be the last—but like the British, the Soviets, and most recently, the Americans and NATO, the rugged terrain and the rugged people it breeds would prove no easy obstacle. Alexander accomplished what he set out to do in Afghanistan, but the price was extremely high. It started his shift from a legendary military prodigy into a cruel, paranoid warlord who would drink himself to death.

I’ve heard tell that history repeats itself, and the repeated invasions of Afghanistan are nothing if not proof of that. The entire time he was present in the region, Alexander faced geographical hardship and resistance from hostile locals who had little interest in his grand dreams of conquest. Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Young British Soldier,” was written more than 2,000 years later, when the British Empire tried to accomplish was Alexander could not, but his words would have undoubtedly rung true with Alexander’s Macedonian soldiers as well:

“When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,

And the women come out to cut up what remains,

Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains

An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.”

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Margaret and Roumania Peters: Forgotten Champions

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On the Court

Today, women tennis champions like Venus and Serena Williams get paid millions of dollars in endorsement deals, prize winnings, and celebrity appearances. But for a long time, the sport was not only an amateur pastime—leaving even its top athletes unable to make a living from their talent—it was also heavily segregated by race.


In America, black athletes were effectively barred from playing against white athletes, and thus barred from competing in the most publicized matches, until 1950—when Althea Gibson (a tennis player herself) competed against a white player. As a result, the world never saw what many of the top athletes of the 1930s and 1940s were truly capable of. In fact, it almost never saw them at all.

If it had, maybe we would more easily remember the great tennis sisters who came before Venus and Serena: Margaret and Roumania Peters.

Margaret and Roumania Peters: Forgotten Champions

Tennis Stars Are Born

Margaret Peters was born in 1915, and in 1917, her little sister Matilda Roumania followed. The two girls were almost inseparable growing up in the Georgetown area of Washington, DC, so when Margaret began playing tennis at around 10 years old, it was only natural that Roumania (as she was known) joined too.

Their beginnings were humble: the two girls often played in Rose Park, located near their house, on terrain that was hardly Wimbledon-worthy. As Roumania later recalled, the court had “sand, dirt, rocks, everything. We would have to get out there in the morning and pick up the rocks, and sweep the line and put some dry lime on there.”

Nonetheless, their hard work paid off, and soon they were playing with the American Tennis Association. As this was still a segregated, Jim Crow-era America, the ATA was an exclusively African American league. In 1936, Margaret and Roumania attended the annual ATA tournament; Roumania made it all the way up the brackets, losing only in the finals.

And that was just the beginning.

Rose Park Recreation Center – Washington, DC

Pete and Repeat

At that ATA tournament in 1936, both girls were scouted and then recruited as tennis players for Tuskegee University, a historically black college. At the time, Margaret was 21 years old and Roumania was only 19—and not yet finished high school. When they were both offered full, four-year scholarships, Margaret agreed to the deal only if she could wait until Roumania was old enough to enroll in Tuskegee. They entered the school together the next year.

Margaret and Roumania attended Tuskegee from 1937 to 1941, honing their skills and rising up in the ATA ranks. Most good athletes have signature moves, and the Peters sisters became particularly known for their slice serves, which used an underspin to keep the ball low, as well as their chop shots, which used a now-rare technique that returns a serve with an underspin.

Yet while both girls were talented singles players, they really shone together—earning them the nicknames “Pete” and “Repeat.” They won no less than 14 doubles titles in their tenure as world-class athletes, a record for the time. This understandably gained them fame, and the girls performed for luminaries like Gene Kelly, as well as members of the British royal family. Black theater owners would even show the Peters’ matches in cinemas.

But there was a big problem.

Amateur Hour

For all their fame, the Peters siblings were stymied by the state of both tennis and American culture in their prime years of the 1940s. For one, tennis only entered the professionally-oriented Open Era in 1968. Before this, players competing in most large tournaments had to be amateurs, and thus had to pay for their own equipment, transportation, and miscellaneous fees, all while getting no remuneration. For another, most of the prestige of tennis competition in the era was centered in whites-only clubs, leaving the Peters sisters out in the cold.

Photograph of Queen Elizabeth II presenting Althea Gibson with the Venus Rosewater Trophy at the 1957 Wimbledon Women’s Singles Championships.

Times were changing, but far too slowly. In the late 1940s, African American superstar Althea Gibson rocketed through the tennis world, and after persistent lobbying the powers that be caved and invited Gibson to the Nationals in 1950, effectively breaking segregation. Gibson, however, was a full decade younger than Roumania Peters; by the time tennis opened up, the Peters girls were no longer at their full strengths.

This is not to say that they finished their careers unaccomplished. Aside from their 14 ATA doubles titles, Roumania also won multiple singles titles on her own individual steam. In fact, the youngest Peters sister won one of those titles against none other than Gibson herself; Roumania is still the only African American woman to have ever defeated the Grand Slam champion.

In 1977, the Peters were rightly inducted into the Tuskegee Hall of Fame—but by then, life was much different for the sisters.

The Retired Life

With the odds stacked against them, Margaret and Roumania simply couldn’t support themselves on tennis alone, but this didn’t mean they floundered. The two sisters got masters degrees—Margaret actually got two—and became teachers later in life, with Roumania even teaching at Howard University. Margaret remained unmarried, but in 1957, Roumania wed a man named James Walker, giving birth to two children, Frances Della and James George.

In 2003, while Venus and Serena Williams were dominating tennis, Roumania died at the age of 86. Never one to be too far apart from her little sister, Margaret died a year later, in 2004.

Gone and Not Forgotten

Just after the peak of their athletic careers ended, the Peters witnessed some of the biggest upheavals of the 20th century, inside the tennis world and beyond—from the desegregation of the sport to the wholesale Civil Rights Movement. Though many may not remember their names today, Margaret and Roumania Peters were an essential foundation of this history—not just for women’s tennis or African American players, but for tennis as a whole.

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How Did Bob Marley Die?

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Jim Morrison. Kurt Cobain. Jimi Hendrix. Many talented musicians have died tragically young from the self-destructive habits of their superstar lifestyle. But while we often place reggae singer Bob Marley in the ranks of these rock gods gone too soon, few people know the truth about Marley’s early death. So how did Bob Marley die?


RIP Bob Marley

Bob Marley wasn’t necessarily known for fast and reckless living; a Rastafarian icon, Marley infused reggae music with his spiritual beliefs of gentle love and beautiful harmony. Yet on May 11, 1981, he died at just 36 years old. It felt sudden, but those who knew him had actually spent years preparing for his death.

That’s because back in 1977, the legendary singer was diagnosed with a malignant, and eventually fatal melanoma just underneath one of his toenails. When he died fewer than five years after his diagnosis, Marley was deeply mourned in both his home country of Jamaica and around the world.

His death was tragic, but there’s much more to the story than that.

Bob Marley FactsGetty Images

Death Comes for Marley

You see, many people believe that Marley could have been saved.

When the cancer was first diagnosed, Marley’s doctors suggested amputating the toe to give him a better chance for survival. However, the singer refused. Although this might seem irrational, he actually had a good reason: his religious beliefs prevented him from amputating, as Rastafarian tenets state that the body is a temple and that no part of it should be cut off.

Instead, Marley went with a less invasive but ultimately less effective procedure. He simply had the nail and nail bed removed with the help of a skin graft from his thigh. Ever the trooper, Marley and his band continued planning the world tour for the album Uprising, even after finding out about the cancer. The tour saw Marley reach new heights, playing his biggest-ever crowd in Milan and even playing the iconic Madison Square Garden in New York. For now, it seemed like the storm had passed.

But dark days were coming.

Bob Marley FactsGetty Images

Die Another Day

Near the end of the Uprising tour, Marley’s illness had taken a toll on his body, and it began to show. Just two days before a concert in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in September 1980, Marley suddenly collapsed while jogging in New York City’s Central Park. He was rushed to the hospital, where doctors performed a series of tests—and the results were devastating.

The tests revealed that the small melanoma from his toe had spread over the past three years, and was now infecting his brain. In an incredible feat, Marley still made it out to his scheduled Pennsylvania show, but this appearance would be the last concert of his world tour. His team canceled the rest of legs, and Marley—again partly in accordance with his religious beliefs—began to seek out alternative medicines to fight for his last scraps of life rather than submit to chemotherapy.

It was a radical, peaceful choice in keeping with his religion, but it did not delay his death.

Bob Marley FactsGetty Images

Dying Wish

Although Marley tried to keep the cancer at bay by eschewing certain food and drinks, after eight months it became clear that the end was near for the cultural icon. The alternative methods had not stymied the cancer. Bravely facing up to his fate, Marley made a heartbreaking decision to go back to Jamaica to live out his days.

But in a cruel twist of fate, he was denied the chance to die in his beloved homeland.

In May 1981, a very sick Marley was traveling home from Germany to Jamaica. In the middle of the flight, his vitals plummeted. When the plane landed in Miami, Florida, he was rushed to the hospital so doctors could try to save his life.

This time, however, there was no hope to be had: Bob Marley died in Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Miami. Before he left this world, though, Marley had one last act to finish.

Bob Marley FactsGetty Images

Gone But Not Forgotten

Just before he died, with the melanoma rapidly spreading into his lungs and deeper into his brain, Marley gave his son Ziggy some final advice, father to son: “Money can’t buy life.” They were fitting words for a man who lived by his own harmonious principles and died on his own terms.

After his death, the world felt robbed of one of its brightest stars. There was one consolation: in the end, Marley made it to Jamaica. The country gave him a state funeral on May 21, 1981, following Rastafarian traditions for the ceremony. He was buried alongside his guitar in a chapel near where he was born.

During the funeral, Jamaica’s Prime Minister Edward Seaga gave the eulogy, saying that, “Bob Marley was never seen. He was an experience which left an indelible imprint with each encounter. Such a man cannot be erased from the mind. He is part of the collective consciousness of the nation.”

Bob Marley FactsShutterstock

To Die, to Sleep, Perchance to Dream

The story of how Bob Marley died is not one of partying and excess, but of a principled man unwilling to compromise for modern medicine. In many ways, this makes him an even more tragic figure than some of his fellow fallen rock stars. The melanoma that killed him at the age of 36 might have been managed and eventually defeated, had he only wanted it.

This, however, was not the way that Marley chose to go. Instead, he fought the cancer in his own way, and succumbed when it was his time. It was his life, and he chose how to leave it. Though he is still dearly missed, we have his many albums and inedible songs to help remember him by.

Rest in peace, Bob Marley.

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The King Who Fell To Earth: The Life And Mysterious Death Of Albert I Of Belgium

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Albert I was King of the Belgians at a very tumultuous time in the country’s history. He ruled through World War I and the Treaty of Versailles, and oversaw his nation’s reconstruction after the War ended. Despite such an eventful reign, it’s not this that he’s remembered for—it’s his sudden and tragic demise in a mountaineering accident. The circumstances surrounding his death immediately drew suspicion, leading to the rampant spread of rumors and conspiracy theories about the monarch’s tragic end. So what really happened to King Albert of Belgium on that fateful day?


A Death in the Family

Albert I was born on April 8, 1875, the grandson of the first King of the Belgians, Leopold I, and the nephew of the reigning king, Leopold II. At that point, he was third in the line of succession, following his father and his older brother, but when Albert was just 16, tragedy struck. His brother, Prince Baudouin, died after a bout of the flu. He was only 21 years old. Prince Baudouin’s sudden death sparked many rumors and conspiracy theories—notably, one that said the Prince had died in a situation remarkably similar to the mysterious suicide of Prince Rudolf of Austria just two years earlier.

With the death of his older brother, Albert found himself in a position where he would inevitably become King of the Belgians. His father, Prince Philippe, although next in line for the throne, was already 54 at the time of the Prince Baudouin’s death. Prince Philippe would go on to pass away in 1905, while his older brother Leopold II was still on the throne. When Leopold II died in 1909, it was time for Albert to take his place as King.

Albert I FactsWikimedia Commons
Prince Baudoin of Belgium

War Hero

By that time Albert had already married, to a Bavarian Duchess named Elisabeth, and the couple had had three children. The first few years of his reign went relatively smoothly, especially since his subjects regarded his stable home life favorably. In the final years of Leopold II’s reign, a public scandal had erupted over human rights abuses in the Congo, Belgium’s only colonial property. The Belgian government had wrested control of the colony from the monarch shortly before his death. Albert’s first few years of rule must have seemed like a fresh start after all the public disgrace that had been heaped on Leopold II over the episode. But all the goodwill in the world couldn’t make up for what would befall Albert—and Belgium itself—in the ensuing years.

At the outset of World War I, Belgium found itself stuck between Germany and France—and not just geographically. German forces demanded safe passage through to France, claiming that France planned to invade Belgium to get through to Germany anyway. Belgium refused Germany, leading the Germans to invade Belgium on August 3, 1914. As a result, Britain was then forced to declare war on Germany the next day.

Albert became commander of the Belgian Army and led numerous campaigns to drive the German forces back, but ultimately, his army wound up pushed back into a small area, where they remained entrenched for years. Albert fought alongside his men while his wife worked as a nurse, but the entire time, he tried to encourage other diplomats to negotiate peace with Germany, seeing the damage that the occupation was doing to his kingdom. The forces at war ignored his pleas, however, and eventually, Albert led the drive that liberated Belgium.

When the War ended, Albert and his family returned triumphantly to Brussels, where he spoke to his subjects about the future of the kingdom. He assisted in the Paris Peace Conference in April 1919, but his advice—to not punish Germany too harshly, in an attempt to quell future hostile behavior—was largely ignored, despite Belgium’s heavy losses during the War. He also did what he could to help rebuild his realm, working with the Belgian Ministry of Internal Affairs to create the King Albert Housing Fund for communities that had been destroyed, among other initiatives.

Shutterstock

Tragedy in the Mountains

Albert was known to have a strong interest in mountaineering, so when he asked his driver to pull over so that he could go for a short climb on the afternoon of February 17, 1934, it wasn’t seen as an unusual request—although later, everything that led up to that moment would come into question. He was climbing the Roche du Vieux Bon Dieu in a Namurois village called Marche-les-Dames. Albert’s driver watched him navigate the rocks from where they’d parked. The moment the King went out of sight was the last time that he was seen alive.

As minutes turned into hours, the driver knew something was wrong—after all, the King had an engagement in Brussels to get to that night. He went to the nearby village to ask for help, and soon enough, a search party was formed. At around 2 AM, one of the volunteers stumbled across Albert’s body. He looked to have died of a massive head wound. Albert’s involved role in WWI had made him a name around the world, and when news broke of his tragic death, both his subjects and the rest of the world mourned.

Albert I FactsShutterstock

Dark Rumors

Almost immediately after Albert’s death, whispers about foul play began to circulate. Yes, the king was aging—58 years old at the time he died—and his eyesight wasn’t perfect, but he was also an expert climber with many years of experience, including in solo climbs, under his belt. Many of those closest to him claimed that Albert had told them he planned to stop climbing—so why would he have undertaken such a dangerous climb alone?

One First World War hero-turned-fascist activist gave a speech in which he alleged that despite Albert’s actions during the war, the King’s push to negotiate peace during WWI had angered the wrong people, and that was the reason he’d been targeted for assassination. Others claimed that he must have been killed in another location and had his body dumped in the mountains as a convenient cover-up.

Beloved among his subjects, the area where Albert died became a place of pilgrimage, with many taking souvenirs from the site—rocks, leaves, other debris. A century later, one of these souvenirs would finally provide some insight into that fateful day, finally shutting down some of the more insidious conspiracy theories about the king’s death. A journalist found one souvenir hunter who had taken some blood-stained tree leaves from the site. He purchased the foliage, then had it sent for DNA testing. In 2016, the blood was compared to samples from some of Albert’s descendants, and it came back a match—meaning that the King had, in fact, died at the scene of the climbing accident.

Albert I of BelgiumShutterstock
Albert I in 1919

The King Who Fell to Earth

Albert was a beloved monarch who saw his subjects through one of the worst periods in history, and it was hard for many to accept that he’d died alone and helpless in such a sudden and violent way. Although the revelation provided by the DNA testing did settle some of the speculation surrounding Albert’s death, conspiracy theories are always more intriguing than a simple explanation, and people will believe what they want to believe—and so, sadly, Albert’s legacy will always be as much about the mysterious circumstances surrounding his tragic death as about his honorable actions as monarch.

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