Alexander the Great

“Alexander the Great,” History of Greece, and the Greek People: From the Earliest Times to the Roman Conquest, 1892, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, DF214.D96.

Alexander the Great

356 BCE - 323 BCE

He sponsored the exploration of the coastline of the Arabian Sea between the Indus River and the Persian Gulf.

To put it simply, Alexander the Great conquered most of the known world. After the explorations of Sylax in 510 BCE, there is very little recorded information on Greek exploration along the Arabian and African coasts, until the time of Alexander the Great, son of Phillip of Macedonia, came along. It was his conquests and commercial endeavors that ended a two-generation halt in ventures along the coasts of Africa and Arabia. When his military conquests opened up new opportunities for trade across Asia, Alexander explored the Indus and decided to create additional routes by sea to the riches of Asia. The exploration of the coastline of the Erythraen Sea (modern-day Arabian Sea) was intended to open up a sea route from the Indus to the Euphrates. Covering an expanse of shoreline from present day Pakistan and the Indus River, to the Persian Gulf, this voyage was sailed east to west.

Alexander chose Nearchus to command the expedition of 150 ships and 500 men. Nearchus or (Nearchos) was an officer in the army of Alexander the Great. Probably born on the island of Crete, his family settled in Amphipolis in Macedonia during the reign of Phillip around 357 BCE. Older than Alexander, he served as friend and mentor to the young man. Nearchus was exiled by Phillip and recalled to Alexander’s side only after the death of Phillip. Alexander appointed him Satrap of Lycia and Pamphylia in 334-333 BCE, one of the new king’s earliest appointments.

In 328 BCE, Nearchus was recalled from his post to rejoin Alexander’s forces in Bactria and was sent on a reconnaissance mission to mainly learn about elephants. In 326 BCE, Alexander made him the admiral of a fleet of ships he wanted built at Hydaspes. In an interesting financial twist, Nearchus had to put up his own money to have the fleet built. While not an experienced sailor, Nearchus did have enough nautical knowledge to direct ship repairs when some of the ships in his fleet were damaged.

In a report of his adventure, Nearchus stated that Alexander’s army was to parallel the coastline of Baluchistan in order to provision the ships and men. This proved true in only the first part of the voyage and the ship crews were forced to come ashore many times to search for food and water. Monsoon gales caused a 24-day delay in September of 325 BCE as they began the expedition from Kachari. Sailing along the coast, three of the ships were lost in a storm, while their crews swam to safety. The remaining vessels were able to connect with one of Alexander’s officers who provisioned the ships, so the voyage continued. The explorers encountered inhabitants along the coastline, many of them quite primitive and savage. One group of natives was still hunting with wooden weapons and using stone tools, having no iron. Nearchus reported the savages wore the skins of wild animals and fish. (These were probably porpoise or whale hides.)

He encountered a tribe he called ‘turtle eaters,’ who ate the meat of turtles and used the shells for hut-roofs, and he sailed along the coast of Gedrosia where the savage ‘fish eaters’ lived. Further along on the journey, Nearchus and his ships came to an island reported to be uninhabited.

According to Nearchus:

"The natives said that this island was sacred to the Sun and was called Nosala, and that no man was willing to put to shore on it; whosoever came to land there in ignorance, vanished. Nearchus indeed says that one boat with a crew of Egyptians vanished not far from this island, and the chief officers of that ship strongly urged about this, that they vanished having put to shore on the island through folly. Nearchus sent a thirty-oared ship to sail in a circle round the island, with orders not to bring it to land, but to shout to the men as they sailed as close as possible, and to call out the name of the helmsman and any other well-known name. But as none heard, he says he sailed to the island himself, and forced the unwilling sailors to land; and that he stepped on shore himself and proved the story about the island to be a fable.”

Nearchus had found Astola, 12 miles offshore from Kalami and still the center of a sun-worshipping society. Nearchus and his fleet met up with Alexander at Carmania after Alexander’s forces had crossed the Gedrosian desert. The ships continued on as far as the Euphrates River before rejoining Alexander at Susa in early 324 BCE.

Nearchus was married to the daughter of Barsine, the mistress of Alexander. He was given a crown, in honor of his exploits on behalf of Alexander, and the king intended to make Nearchus Admiral of the Arabian invasion fleet. Alexander’s untimely death changed those plans and the last mention of Nearchus is as an advisor to Demetrius in 313-312 BCE.