Sampul and Ram, from The Middle Way by Mihangel

“And they likewise, bound upon the Wheel, go forth from life to life — from despair to despair,” said the lama below his breath, “hot, uneasy, snatching… Enter now upon the Middle Way, which is the path to Freedom. Hear the Most Excellent Law, and do not follow dreams.”

Rudyard Kipling, Kim


Not everyone, perhaps, will be aware that for nearly two centuries the ancient Greeks ruled present-day Afghanistan, and for another two centuries ruled Pakistan and north-west India. But so they did. Sadly, we know much less about it than we would like. All their home-grown chronicles have perished. Western Greek, Indian and Chinese sources offer only meagre snippets of information. Coins of the Bactrian and Indo-Greek kings supply the broad but emphatically not the exact chronology. Archaeology is of limited help. Thus, although an overall pattern emerges, the detail remains highly uncertain, sometimes conflicting, and hotly debated. What follows is not only a story but, just as much, an attempt at a portrait of this little-known society. While I hope it is roughly accurate, it is inevitably much coloured — even perhaps a trifle rose-tinted — by my own interpretation and yet more by my own imagining.

At the same time I have included as much fact as I can. Menander, for instance, the greatest of the Indo-Greek kings, was indeed held in deep respect by his subjects. While the career and character of my protagonist Dion are fictional, there really was a Greek of that name in the right place at the right time. The inscribed pillar dedicated by his son Heliodorus to the great god Vishnu stands near Bhopal to this day. The tapestry used by Dion as a saddlecloth (see the title picture) was recently found in a grave near Khotan in China, recycled into a pair of trousers and still clothing the legs of a contemporary skeleton. In the Karakorams, all five of the passes which Dion crossed lie some 18,000 feet above the sea; small wonder that, a little later, the first Chinese to venture this way called them the Greater Headache Mountains. Those parts of the cities of Alexandria Oxiana and of Taxila that have been excavated were much as here described. The bad jokes in Chapter 6 are genuine Greek ones. And so the list could go on.

At the time this story took place — between about 160 and 125 BC — south and central Asia, like everywhere else, were very different from now, and a few words of explanation may help.

This territory and this subject matter, being strange to many readers, seem to demand illustrations. If you want to know where you are, you will find maps and a gazetteer at the end of this introduction. If you are interested in what the machines were like, you will find modern pictures there too. And if you like mental images of the characters, you will find in the text a number of Bactrian and Indo-Greek portraits of the period — including some from the finest coins ever minted by the Greeks — to show how they saw themselves and, occasionally, how they were seen by Indians.

Anyone familiar with Kipling’s Kim will recognise that I owe it much. The issues it raises of identity and allegiance, combined with its vivid first-hand picture of the diversity of India, make it, in my view, one of the best novels of all time. Its narrative and descriptive genius, however, is far beyond my power to emulate.

I am also indebted to Ben, Hilary, Jerry, Paul and Pryderi for commenting on my draft, to Gardner for guiding my faltering footsteps along the Middle Way, and to Jonathan for everything.

October 2014

Map detail, showing Dion's route between Alexandria Oxiana and Srinagari

Map showing the larger region that is the setting for The Middle Way

Gazetteer of ancient place-names and their modern equivalents

Adane Aden, Yemen
Alexandria Oxiana Ai Khanoum, Afghanistan
Anourogrammon Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
Aphrodito Atfih, Egypt
Arabian Gulf Red Sea
Arachosia Southern Afghanistan
Bactria Northern Afghanistan / Tadjikistan
Baktra Balkh, Afghanistan
Bardaotis Bharhut, Madhya Pradesh, India
Barygaza Bharuch (Broach), Gujarat, India
Batanagra Leh, Jammu & Kashmir, India
Berenike Madinet-el-Haras, Egypt
Bukephala Jalalpur, Punjab, Pakistan
Chaurana Khotan, Xinjiang, China*
Cyzicus Belkiz Kale, Turkey
Emodon Kunlun Range, Xinjiang, China*
Erythraean Sea Indian Ocean
Gandhara Pakistan / Punjab, India
Hydaspes River Jhelum, Kashmir, India / Punjab, Pakistan
Hyphasis River Beas, Himachal Pradesh / Punjab, India
Imaus Karakoram Range, India / Pakistan
Kashi Varanasi (Benares), Uttar Pradesh, India
Kaspiria Kashmir, India
Klysma Suez, Egypt
Komedai Pamir Range, Tadjikistan
Kophen Kabul, Afghanistan
Koptos Qift, Egypt
Krokodilopolis Madinet-el-Faiyum, Egypt
Labokla Gagangear, Jammu & Kashmir, India
Lithinos Pyrgos Tashkurgan, Xinjiang, China*
Maurya empire ruling much of India to c.185 BC
Memphis Mit Rahina, Egypt
Methora Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, India
Middle Sea Mediterranean
Moeris Faiyum Oasis, Egypt
Myos Hormos Quseir al-Quadim, Egypt
Notou Keras Cape Guardafui, Somalia
Nubia Sudan, approximately
Oxus River Amu Darya, Afghanistan / Tadjikistan
Ozene Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh, India
Panchala Farrukhabad region, Uttar Pradesh, India
Paropamisadai Hindu Kush Range, Afghanistan / Pakistan
Parthia Iran and Iraq, approximately
Patala Thatta, Sindh, Pakistan
Pataliputra Patna, Bihar, India
Ptolemaios Potamos Nile-Red Sea canal, Egypt
Rhapta Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania
Sagala Sialkot, Punjab, Pakistan
Sakai Scythians, people of central Asian steppes
Saketa Ayodhya near Faizabad, Uttar Pradesh, India
Seres people of China proper
Sogdiana Uzbekistan / Tadjikistan / Kyrgyzstan
Soita Yarkand, Xinjiang, China*
Srinagari Srinagar, Jammu & Kashmir, India
Sunga Indian empire following Maurya
Syagros Ras Fartak, Yemen
Taprobane Sri Lanka
Taxila Taxila, Punjab, Pakistan
Thebes Luxor, Egypt
Tocharoi people of Taklamakan Desert, Xinjiang, China*
Tomis Bahr Yusuf canal, Egypt
Vidisa Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh, India
Yona Indian name for Greeks

* Xinjiang, although part of China now, did not come under Chinese influence until long after the date of this story.


A man using a tula / kelon

Tula / kelon

Woman working a jhula


A cam'maca


A baiga in use


A halysis

Halysis / chain lift

A tympanon

Tympanon / bucket wheel

A kochlias

Kochlias / snail

A rice pounder

Rice pounder

A cane crusher

Cane crusher