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Quest for a conqueror

Millenniums after Alexander the Great subdued the then-known world, a local professor tracing his route is moved by its ageless wonders and unchanging perils.

Published December 18, 2004

[Photos courtesy of John Prevas]
In the Gedrosian desert of southern Pakistan, one of the world’s most dangerous and inhospitable spots, Alexander the Great suffered his largest casualties, says John Prevas, who visited the area while researching his book on the ancient king.

Prevas, center, sits with Pakistani soldiers in the Swat Valley, on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
photoJohn Prevas, professor of Latin and Greek and Roman History at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, sits beneath a replica of a relief titled “Alexander’s Triumphal Entry into Babylon” that hangs in his Belleair home. Prevas has just published a book on Alexander the Great: Envy of the Gods: Alexander’s Ill-Fated Journey Across Asia.
[Times photo: Carrie Pratt]

BELLEAIR - Thoughts of robbery and kidnapping, of anti-American militia shooting without provocation, of his hired driver losing control and careening over the dizzying edge of a mountain-hugging road, intruded on scholarly reflections as John Prevas chased history across the Middle East.

The author and Eckerd College classics professor traced the path of Alexander the Great for a book on the conqueror's quest two dozen centuries ago. He sought ruined cities and desolate mountain passes, drinking gallons of hot tea proffered by curious villagers in Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He went to Iran, formerly Persia. He missed Babylon, where Alexander died, in what is now Iraq. He was only miles away but a modern war raged, closing the borders.

Prevas made two trips, spending three weeks in Iran in 2003 and six weeks in five countries in 2004, to research Envy of the Gods: Alexander the Great's Ill-Fated Journey Across Asia, published this month by Da Capo Press. First it took two years, countless phone calls to embassies and several schmoozing lunches with government officials to get his visas.

"Slowly, suspicions were overcome as to why an American author, living in Belleair, Fla., wanted to travel to Shiraz, Iran, on a Greek passport," Prevas, who has dual citizenship, wrote in his travel diary.

After all the difficulty getting there and the visions of potentially deadly encounters, the realization hit that he could blow it in a silly misstep, when he tried a couple of dried figs, for instance, at the marketplace in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, taken from the grubby hand of a proud vendor. He knew as he swallowed that he would get sick. He suffered intermittent diarrhea for weeks.

"I kept eating. The food was so good," he says.

"The vegetables had so much flavor, the meat had so much flavor. An Iranian apple is ugly, but I've never tasted anything like it," he says.

There are countless books about Alexander. Prevas, the adventurer, wanted to make his 3,000-mile journey the difference.

"Alexander and I traveled over the same roads, deserts and mountains. The topography has hardly changed," he writes in the acknowledgments for Envy of the Gods.

"But the world I traveled through to research this book is a far more dangerous and much less peaceful place than it was when Alexander and his Macedonians passed through it."

* * *

When Oliver Stone's Alexander debuted at movie theaters in November, Prevas averaged two to three interviews a day as an expert on the subject, speaking on NPR, CNN International, Fox and others. He watched the film from the back of a Tampa theater with a penlight, scribbling 15 pages of notes.

"The movie was riddled with inaccuracies," Prevas says. "Chronologically, it was a mess." But Stone, and actor Colin Farrell, did "capture the essence of Alexander: intelligent, sensitive, vulnerable and dangerous."

Prevas says Stone wants "to bring mainstream America its first gay action hero." Greek attorneys have sued the director over the homosexual portrayal. One reviewer said the three-hour epic "seems a couple of heartbeats away from turning into a gay porno film."

Alexander was not gay, Prevas says, but bisexual. At the time, men believed they could intellectually bond only with other men. Alexander had 365 concubines - a harem of women to pleasure the king. He also slept with young boys. Called catamites, the boys traveled with Alexander's armies, and in Greek society were educated sexually and intellectually by older men, Prevas explains.

But "the lesson we learn from Alexander," Prevas says, "is the arrogance of power."

"He began to believe his own propaganda." He saw himself as a living god, then systematically "purged" those who disagreed with him. When his soldiers said they would fight no more, he marched them across the Gedrosian desert as punishment, a "horror" which killed half his men.

In his 32 years, Alexander conquered an area that became the largest empire in the ancient world, sweeping from Asia Minor to India, Egypt to Russia, and ruled 13 years. He died June 11, 323 B.C., the cause still uncertain. Historians speculate he was poisoned. More recent theories suggest an infection, perhaps encephalitis or typhoid, killed him.

Alexander defeated the Persians, taking vengeance for the Persians' victory over the Greeks 150 years earlier. He failed, as nations fail today, Prevas says, to learn that power corrupts and, in the end, is fleeting.

* * *

In an airy, contemporary condominium near the Belleview Biltmore Resort & Spa, Prevas places a cup of freshly brewed espresso on the granite island but does not sit. His back has been bothering him, he says. Tan and slim, he looks 10 years younger than his 61 years.

For a world traveler, he finds Florida agrees with him. He moved here four years ago from Washington, D.C. "I couldn't stand the winters. I couldn't stand the traffic. I couldn't stand the hype," he says.

His wife, Mavis Gibson, commutes to her D.C. career as a commercial interior designer. This month the couple will go to Cannes, France, where they have a home.

Born in Baltimore, with a master's degree in educational psychology from Johns Hopkins University and a law degree from Antioch School of Law in D.C., Prevas teaches two courses a semester at Eckerd, Latin and either Roman or Greek history.

Envy of the Gods is Prevas' third book. He traveled the route of Greek mercenaries through the mountains of eastern Turkey and along the Black Sea in 2000 for Xenophon's March: In the Lair of the Persian Lion, published in 2002. His first book, Hannibal Crosses the Alps, published in 1998, followed six summers of exploring the mountain passes of the southern French Alps.

"That was not hard work, but love's labor," Prevas says. "It was summer. The views were magnificent. The food was incredible."

Not so his quest for Alexander. Relentless heat (temperatures soared into the 130s), crazed drivers (he says the Iranians are the worst) and impoverished populations made travel grueling. He drank four liters of bottled water a day and still became dehydrated. There was no alcohol in most of the largely Muslim countries. And few women out in public. Most were completely veiled in black, he says, their faces startlingly white.

Prevas intentionally brought his Greek passport, leaving his American one behind. With his skin darkened by the sun, he told people he was from Greece. Americans are targets now, he says. In Pakistan, he wore the long white shirt and balloon pants of the natives, his Pakistani "pajamas." He should have shed them before flying to Uzbekistan, where even the women wore blue jeans, and he gratefully washed down beef kebabs with cold Russian beer.

He explored newly discovered ruins in an orange grove outside Taxila, Pakistan, where a boy was sent ahead to beat a stick and scare off cobras.

He drove the Khyber Pass, "18 miles of hell. For centuries it has been the path between east and west, (carrying) a non-stop caravan of human misery."

He stood on the vast steppes of Uzbekistan, and thought, "This is where Ghengis Khan came from."

Real life was always more problematic than communing with ancient ghosts.

In a small room with no windows and carpets covering the floor, he shared tea with a Pakistani man. The man lifted a carpet, revealing a trap door. They were sitting on an arsenal and tons of TNT. Prevas purchased a $70 AK-47 and a single clip of ammunition. "The gun was a piece of crap," he says. He never had cause to see if it would actually fire.

Only once did Prevas fear he was in serious danger.

Searching for a pass called the Persian Gates, where Alexander suffered one of his greatest defeats, he drove into the Zagros Mountains in southern Iran with his driver and a newly made friend, Riaz, a 25-year-old medical school graduate from Geneva whose parents fled Iran during the revolution.

In a small village about 100 miles from the Iraqi border, they were told of an older man who might know of the pass. The man invited them into his house, where they sat cross-legged and shoeless on rugs, the three visitors facing their host, whose back was to the door. As they talked, two men "sort of drifted into the room," then a third and a fourth, Prevas says. "They were big, young men, unshaven. And not smiling." The driver explained Prevas was Greek, a professor from America working on a book about Alexander.

"When they heard the word America, all of a sudden people stiffened. The mood turned," says Prevas. The younger men began asking stern questions. They demanded Riaz's identity card. "Riaz had gone absolutely white." They asked for Prevas' passport. "There was no way I was going to turn that over," he says. "It was my only way out of the country."

Prevas told the driver to ask their host what was going on. "We have been invited into your home as a guest, and in Islam, isn't a guest protected?"

The older man then intervened, scolding the younger men. Stay for dinner, he urged. They said they must go. They walked to their car, accompanied by about 80 villagers. "We're hugging and kissing. I say, "How about a picture?' I couldn't resist it," Prevas says.

He has no photos to share. Riaz, shaken, forgot to turn on the digital camera.

* * *

The market in Shiraz, Iran, is overwhelming in its abundance. For perhaps 4,000 years, vendors have daily sold fruits, vegetables and spices from sensual mounds of color and aroma. Prevas bought saffron and curry and other spices to take home as gifts. He filled a 19-inch suitcase with Ziploc bags of spice, praying that the sniffer dogs at Washington Dulles International Airport would not care.

In October 2003, when he first began his travels to track Alexander, Prevas flew from Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, to Shiraz. The view from the left side of the airplane was of mountains in Iran. The passengers on the right, he says in his diary, looked toward Iraq.

He was going to see Persepolis, capital of the Persian Empire, where the palaces of the Persian kings were looted and burned by Alexander in 330 B.C.

Not that much had changed in 2,000 years, he thought. Differences in culture and religion and politics still roiled the region.

"Over the next several days I returned . . . to spend time photographing these ruins. Sometimes I would just sit in one of the palaces," he writes, "and enjoy the view over the fertile valley and the Zagros Mountains beyond."

He was overwhelmed by a sense of history. He is frustrated by our inability to learn from it.

"I would think of all that had transpired here, and it touched me."

Susan Aschoff can be reached at or 727 892-2293.

[Last modified December 17, 2004, 15:58:55]

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