The fortress of Kurganzol: on the trail of Alexander the Great in Central Asia

How did Alexander the Great tame rebellious provinces? According to the ancient sources, he established a chain of fortresses to keep the peace after insurrection in Uzbekistan. In 2003, one of these posts was finally found, allowing Leonid M Sverchkov and Nikolaus G O Boroffka to follow in the footsteps of the celebrated Macedonian king.


In 329 BC, Alexander the Great crossed the Oxus river, before embarking on a new campaign of conquest. Most likely he made his passage near Kelif, where the only river rapids occur, matching the account provided in ancient texts. To reach the river, Alexander had travelled from Baktra, the ancient capital of Bactria, and now modern Balkh, near Mazar-i Sharif in Afghanistan. His destination was Sogd (Sogdiana), which he proceeded to conquer. A year later he was forced to return to Bactria and Sogd in order to put down rebellions. After suppressing these uprisings, Alexander decided to secure the region by erecting six fortresses. According to the ancient sources (Curtius Rufus VII.10,13-16), he personally selected locations on high ground that were not too far apart, ensuring that if a post were attacked, its defenders would not have to wait long for help. It is only recently that one of these fortresses has been identified archaeologically, in a region where remains of the early Hellenistic period are scarcely known.

We know from the ancient literature that Alexander the Great established a series of fortresses to secure his rear in 328 BC, but the first trace of one of these posts was only found in 2003. Recent excavations have shed remarkable light on one of Alexander’s garrison posts. Here, the Kurganzol fortress is seen, under excavation, from the Baysun plateau.

Finding the fortress

L M Sverchkov discovered the fortress at Kurganzol in 2003. It lies in the Baysun basin of modern Surkhandar’ya Province in southern Uzbekistan, roughly 100km north of Termez and around 1km south-west of Baysun train station. The fortress is positioned on a high spur of the Hissar mountains, 924m above sea level. The cliffs on the southern side of the fortification are practically vertical and dozens of metres high, but to the north lies the comparatively even surface of a rocky spur, which merges into the plateau of the Baysun basin.

A map of southern Uzbekistan, locating important sites mentioned in the text.

Systematic excavation of the fortress began in 2004, and by 2008 its interior had been completely exposed. It is round in plan, and has an interior diameter of about 35m. The fortification walls are 3-4m thick, and still partly preserved to a height of over 2m. This stout rampart is bolstered by six round towers on the northern and eastern sides, where the fortress did not benefit from the extra protection presented by the cliffs. All of the towers were accessible from the interior via narrow doorways. Inside were arrow-shaped slits, reminiscent of loopholes in medieval castles. The cavities at Kurganzol, however, probably served to ventilate the walls, which were made of sun-dried mud bricks that needed to dry out properly. Perhaps the slits were also useful for lighting the interior. What is certain is that the c.4m thickness of the walls would have prevented archers from aiming effectively at advancing enemies. The gaps were later closed up, presumably after the walls had stabilised. A single gateway on the northern side of the rampart gave access to the rocky spur and plateau beyond, as well as an unfortified village. This settlement was separated from the fortress by a ditch, and had sadly been destroyed by modern agricultural activity. The fortress itself survived at least one attack, during which the wall between towers 3 and 4 was damaged and had to be rebuilt. Thick burnt layers in the four northern towers also testify to a violent assault, which reduced their wooden innards to charcoal and ash.

Kurganzol fortress was founded on this rocky spur of the Hissar mountains. The dramatic cliffs are dozens of metres high, adding to the imposing nature of the fortification. Did Alexander the Great personally select this commanding position?

Excavations revealed that inside the fortress lay sets of rooms that had been built up against the rampart. Anyone entering the installation would find a suite directly to their left (east). This range seemed to have catered for a variety of activities. One room had a cellar below, still full of storage jars and tableware. To the west of the gate lay another set of rooms. We called the largest the ‘dining room’, in part because it was connected to a smaller, more utilitarian adjunct that seems to have served as a kitchen. This contained a fireplace, storage pots dug into the floor, and even a ‘service hatch’ connecting it to the ‘dining room’. Indeed, those excavating the rooms found a stack of forgotten bowls still lying on the sill of the ‘service hatch’. Directly opposite the entrance lay a third building. It is tempting to view this as the ‘commander’s quarters’, as the occupant would have been well placed to keep a watchful eye on comings and goings, while also enjoying his own accommodation safely at the back of the fortress. The inhabitant controlled an adjoining store building, large enough to keep the garrison well stocked. There was a large room in which rows of storage vessels had been dug into the ground along the walls. The large storeroom contained two hefty wooden posts, placed along the central axis, which supported the roof.

Inside one of the fortress’s six towers. The arrow-shaped cavities resemble loopholes that archers could fire from, but the thickness of the fortress wall would have rendered them useless for that purpose. It is more likely that they allowed the mud-brick walls to dry more effectively.

Outside the buildings was a large open courtyard, completely smoothed over with gypsum plaster, which held an invaluable commodity: water. At the heart of the fortress was a round basin, from which a narrow overflow-channel issued, running under the south-west rampart to the cliffs beyond. In peaceful times, the water basin may have been fed by a channel that passed through the fortress gate and outer village, before reaching a spring several kilometres distant. Rain would also have topped it up, while some large transport jars found during our excavations were admirably suited to the task of carrying in water. These pots have one flat side, a large opening for filling, and a flask-mouth for emptying. The flat side made transport on pack animals (donkeys or horses) easier – and water is sometimes still transported in a similar way today.

The Kurganzol fortress. The towers are found on the side that was not protected by cliffs, while various ranges of rooms have been found in the interior. Those that preserved traces of their possible function include the ‘dining room’, ‘kitchen’, ‘cellar’, ‘storehouse’, ‘commander’s quarters’, and – in the centre – water basin.

The biggest surprise awaiting the archaeologists also concerned water, and lay in a narrow room directly west of the gate, placing it on the right as you enter. In this innocuous-looking space lay a find that is unique in Hellenistic Central Asia: a fired clay bathtub. This amenity may reflect favourably on the hygiene regime practised by the soldiers, or perhaps hint at the presence, at least temporarily, of persons of higher social standing. After all, it should not be forgotten that this is the region where Alexander the Great married Roxana, daughter of Oxyartes, one of the local nobles.

Garrison life

Archaeological excavations in settlements rarely uncover spectacular finds, a rule of thumb that is even more true of remote military garrisons. In the case of Kurganzol, the purely military nature of its purpose did not encourage expectations of refined public buildings or luxury goods. Sure enough, the bulk of the finds consists of pottery, either whole vessels or fragments. Although the region was part of the Achaemenid Empire before Alexander’s campaigns, one of the remarkable features of the excavations was that no pottery reflecting this earlier Persian tradition was found, underlining the fortress’s status as a new foundation.

This panoramic view of the interior of Kurganzol is looking north towards the unexcavated gateway (centre). To the left is the range including the ‘dining room’ and ‘kitchen’, while to the right (in shadow) are rooms that include the ‘cellar’. In the foreground of the photograph is the courtyard where the water basin lay.

As well as the large storage jars mentioned above, which were only stable when dug into the ground, the garrison made use of various smaller pots, jugs, bowls, plates, and cups, all of which were wheel-thrown. Tellingly, this range reflects the general variety of Greek shapes. Particularly characteristic are some bowls and low plates, generally known as ‘fish plates’, and kraters (for mixing wine), which have no local predecessors whatsoever and can only be explained as a product of external influence: specifically, the arrival of Greeks. For the most part, the tableware had probably not been transported in Alexander’s baggage train all the way from Greece. Instead, it is more likely to have been produced by potters who were among the artisans travelling with Alexander’s army. Unsurprisingly, most of the pots are rather simple cooking and eating vessels intended for daily use. Such no-frills utensils offer a glimpse of the spartan life led by the soldiers manning the fortress. One exception is an elegant handle, ending in an animal head biting into the rim of a jug. Some bowls have also been coloured with a blackish slip, which is reminiscent of pottery from the Hellenistic Greek homeland. Once again, it may well have been produced somewhere closer to hand, such as part of the former Persian Empire, which had been conquered by Alexander somewhat earlier.

A unique find for Hellenistic Central Asia: a fired clay bathtub. Excavation co-director Nikolaus Boroffka tests it for size.

A couple of fragments of pottery preserve marks resembling writing, which may have been inscriptions, or simply marked the contents, producer, or owner. While all the Greek pottery was wheel-thrown, some locally produced hand-made vessels were also found, often imitating the form of the newly introduced Greek pottery. One hand-made local pot even bears the image of a rather sketchily incised bird among fir trees. Other finds are few, but include weaving equipment, iron knives, and slag from purifying and smithing iron. As well as shedding light on the routine duties undertaken by the soldiers manning the fortress, this evidence for textile production and metalworking highlights just how self-sufficient they were. Of the weapons we more commonly think of when we consider military garrisons, only stone sling-shot was left behind when the soldiers left. Such projectiles were terrifyingly effective when launched by accomplished slingers.

Some of the large pots found during the excavations would have been well suited to transporting water around (above). The flat side would have made them easier to carry on donkeys, a means of carrying water that can still be seen in the region, as this photograph (below) from 2010 demonstrates. Image: Curt-Engelhorn-Stiftung/Anatolij Sujew

Analysis of animal bones recovered from the fortress reinforces this sense that the soldiers were well equipped to look after themselves. As well as herding sheep, goats, and cattle, and keeping some pigs, the garrison also looked after horses, donkeys, camels, and even chickens. Dogs were also present. Despite having access to all of these domesticated animals, the soldiers also ventured into the hinterland to hunt game. Gazelle, red deer, wild boar, and hares all ended up on the menu. The soldiers were highly selective when it came to picking their prey, though, and rarely killed other animals, such as onagers (wild asses), foxes, buzzards, storks, or ravens. Two conclusions that can be drawn from this study of the animal bones are especially interesting: on the one hand, the presence of red deer indicates that woodland must have existed nearby, providing a striking contrast to the near-treeless Baysun basin of today. On the other, some of the horses had been butchered and presumably therefore eaten. This is very unusual behaviour for Greeks, but might perhaps tally with the ‘Scythian-Massagetae’ mercenaries that ancient historians mention served in Alexander’s army. When viewed alongside the presence of local hand-made pottery, it seems quite possible that the garrison at Kurganzol was a mixed one comprising both Greeks and locals.

Three of the pottery finds from the fortress. One is a krater (below), indicating that even in this remote outpost the garrison enjoyed opportunities to mix – and consume – wine. A rare example of more sophisticated pottery comes from a handle in the form of an animal, biting the rim (below left). One hand-made local pot is decorated with a sketch of a bird among trees (below right). Note: these finds are not shown to the same scale.
Image: Curt-Engelhorn-Stiftung/Anatolij Sujew

Of course, the soldiers’ diet was not dependent on meat alone, and analysis of flotation samples show that wheat and barley were grown, while wild pistachios and almond trees were relieved of their produce. Juniper was used as the main building wood, but willow (possibly also used for basketry), poplar, tamarisk, and ash grew in the area too. These may have populated the woods where red deer roamed, and they certainly indicate a more verdant environment, at least along the watercourses, than the bleak landscape that greets visitors today.

Remedy for a restless region

Radiocarbon dates from the burnt beams found in the gutted towers during 2004 supported a date late in the 4th century BC for the fortress, but another surprise was provided by dendrochronological analysis of a large timber from the storage building in the south of the fortress. Its bark was well preserved, while a connection to the tree-ring standard of western China has made it possible to determine that the tree was felled in 329 or 328 BC – thus fitting extraordinarily well with the time frame of Alexander’s campaigns in the region and the reported building of rearguard fortresses.

A fantastic reconstruction of the original appearance of Kurganzol fortress, Alexander’s solution to ensuring security once the bulk of his forces departed. Although this post does appear to have been attacked, all the indications are that it was peaceably abandoned once stability was achieved. Image: Curt-Engelhorn-Stiftung/faber-courtial

Given the breadth of evidence that has been accumulated, the fortress at Kurganzol is highly likely to be one of those built by Alexander the Great. Its strategically excellent position may well have been determined by Alexander personally, to ensure that his grip on this restless region could be stabilised while his army advanced further north. Despite signs that the fortress was directly attacked, it was apparently abandoned peacefully at the beginning of the 3rd century BC, when its aim had been achieved and the region was fully under Greek control.

A reconstruction of the route of Alexander’s army.

The fact that one of the fortresses Alexander the Great founded in Central Asia has been identified is remarkable, while its complete excavation has allowed us to produce a lively virtual reconstruction. What is more, locating the fortress provides us with a clearer understanding of how other places named in the ancient texts slot into the wider region (see map below). Taking into consideration the descriptions of the ‘countries’ of Margania or Marginia (not to be confused with Margiana in the modern Merv region of Turkmenistan) allows them to be located in the vicinity of Kurganzol. The neighbouring ‘countries’ of Paretakena (north-east), Bubakena (east), Oxiana (south), and Nautaka (north-west) also find their geographical places. Following the description supplied by the ancient authors, the route Alexander’s army took can now be understood: crossing the rivers Ochos (modern Pyandzh, southern tributary of the Amu Dar’ya, whose ancient name is reconstructed as Vakh) and Oxus (modern Vakhsh, northern tributary of the Amu Dar’ya), they marched in a fairly straight line to Bandykhan (largest Persian city in the Surkhandar’ya Province of modern Uzbekistan), Kurganzol, Poenkurgan (an early Hellenistic site in the Baysun basin) to the Iron Gates gorges (near modern Derbent, which means ‘barred gate’ in Persian) and on to conquer Sogdiana and Marakanda/Samarkand.

All images: N G O Boroffka or L M Sverchkov, unless otherwise stated


Dr Leonid M Sverchkov, Fine Arts Scientific Research Institute, Tashkent/O‘zbekistan Badiiy Akademiyasi. San‘atshunoslik Ilmiy-Tadqiqot Instituti, Toshkent, Mustaqilik Maydoni 2, 100028 Toshkent, Uzbekistan. Email:

PD Dr Nikolaus G O Boroffka, Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Eurasien-Abteilung, Im Dol 2-6, Haus 2, 14195 Berlin, Germany. Email:


L M Sverchkov (2007) ‘Ellenisticheskaja krepost’ Kurganzol. Raskopki 2004 g. Trudy Baysunskoy Nauchnoy Ekspedicii’, Archeologiya, Istoriya i Etnografiya 3, pp.31-66; trans. from Russian as L M Sverchkov (2008) ‘The Kurganzol Fortress (on the history of Central Asia in the Hellenistic Era)’, Ancient Civilizations from Scythia to Siberia 14.1-2, pp.123-191.

N Boroffka (2009) ‘Eine Gründung Alexanders in Asien’, Damals 41.10, pp.10-13.

L M Sverchkov (2013) Kurganzol – krepost’ Aleksandra na yuge Uzbekistana, Tashkent: SMI-ASIA.