Aornos was the Ancient Greek name for the site of Alexander the Great's last siege: "the climax to Alexander's career as the greatest besieger in history" according to Robin Lane Fox, a biographer of Alexander. It was mentioned by Arrian. Aurel Stein suggested that Aornos was located on Pir Sar – a mountain spur above narrow gorges in a bend of the upper Indus River, just to the west of Thakot in the Pakistani Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
Variants of name
- Ἄορνος (Ancient Greek)
- Aornos (according to Arrian and Diodorus)
- Aornis (Curtius)
- Aornusi (Arrian)
- Varana/Varaṇā (वरणा) (V. S. Agrawala)
The siege took place in April 326 BC, at a mountain site located in modern Pakistan. Aornos offered the last threat to Alexander's supply line, which stretched, dangerously vulnerable, over the Hindu Kush back to Balkh, though Arrian credits Alexander's heroic desire to outdo his kinsman Heracles, who allegedly had proved unable to take a fort that the Macedonians called Ἄορνος Aornos (according to Arrian and Diodorus; Aornis according to Curtius; elsewhere Aornus): meaning "birdless" in Greek.
Origin of name
According to one theory, the name is a corruption of an Indo-Iranian word, such as *awarana "fortified place". According to Arrian, the rock had a flat summit well supplied with natural springs and wide enough to grow crops: it could not be starved to submission. Neighboring tribesmen who surrendered to Alexander offered to lead him to the best point of access.
The geographer Aurel Stein suggested that Aornos was located on Pir Sar – a mountain spur above narrow gorges in a bend of the upper Indus River, just to the west of Thakot in the Pakistani Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. However, the Indologist Giuseppe Tucci has instead proposed a site at the summit of Elum Ghar (Mount Ilam), a site significant in Hinduism, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Ptolemy and Alexander's secretary Myllinas (rather than the famous Eumenes), reconnoitered and reinforced a neighboring spur to the west with a stockade and ditch. His signal fire to Alexander also alerted the defenders of Pir-Sar, and it took two days of skirmishing in the narrow ravines for Alexander to regroup. At the vulnerable north side leading to the fort, Alexander and his catapults were stopped by a deep ravine. To bring the siege engines within reach, an earthwork mound was constructed to bridge the ravine with carpentry, brush and earth. The first day's work brought the siege mound 50 metres (55 yd) closer, but as the sides of the ravine fell away steeply below, progress rapidly slowed; nevertheless, at the end of the third day, a low hill connected to the nearest tip of Pir-Sar was within reach and was taken, after Alexander in the vanguard and his first force were repelled by boulders rolled down from above. Three days of drumbeats marked the defenders' celebration of the initial repulse, followed by a surprise retreat. Alexander hauled himself up the last rockface on a rope. Alexander cleared the summit, slaying some fugitives (Lane Fox), inflated by Arrian to a massacre, and erected altars to Athena Nike, Athena of Victory, traces of which were identified by Stein.
Mention by Panini
V. S. Agrawala writes that according to Greek writers Punjab was full of towns, centres of Industry and economic prosperity. Many of these figured as forts of centres of defence such as the famous town of Massage (Maśkāvatī) or Aornos (Varaṇā) in the country of Ashvakas.
V S Agarwal  writes names of some important tribes in the Ganapatha, which deserve to be mentioned as being of considerable importance. We are indebted to the Greek historians of Alexander for the information that most of these were republics. These tribes include - Hāstināyana, Āśvāyana, Āśvakāyana. The first is mentioned in Sutra VI.4.174, the second in IV.1.110, and the third in Naḍadi gana (IV.1.99)
[p.454]: While describing Alexander’s campaign from Kapisa towards the Indus through Gandhara, the Greek historians mention three warlike peoples, viz., Astakenoi, with capital at Peukelaotis, the Aspasioi in the valley of Kunar or Chitral River and the Assakenoi settled between the Swat and the Panjkora rivers, with the capital at Massaga, and more especially in the mountainous regions of the Swat. The Paninian evidence throws light on these three names for the first time:
- (a) Aspasioi = Ashvayana; in Alisang or Kunar Valley
- (b) Assakenoi = Ashvakayana; in the Swat valley and highlands, with capital at Mashakavati
- (c) Astakenoi = Hastinayana; near the confluence of Swat with the the Kabul, with capital at Pushkalavati.
The Asvayanas and the Asvakayanas were the bravest fighters of all, being strongly entrenched in their mountainous fortresses. Alexander himself directed the operations against them. The Ashvakayana capital at Massaga or Masakavati is given in Bhashya as the name of a river (IV.2.71), that should be looked for in that portion of the Suvastu in its lower reaches where Mazaga or Massanagar is situated on it at a distance of 24 miles from Bajaur in the Yusufzai country. In times of danger the Asvakayanas withdrew into the impregnable defences of their hilly fortress which the Greeks have named Aornos. It appears to be same as Varaṇā of the Ashtadhyayi (see ante, p.69, for its identification with modern Uṇrā on the Indus). The Greeks also mention another of their towns, viz., Arigaeon, which commanded the road between the Kunar and Panjkira valleys, and is comparable with Ārjunāva of the Kashika (ṛijunāvām nivāso deshaḥ, IV.2.69).
V S Agarwal  writes that We are told by the Greek historians of Alexander how the impregnable nature of the defences of Massaga and Aornos forts (Mashakāvati and Varaṇā) helped the heroic Ashvakayanas of Gandhara in offering resistance to the invaders.
V.K.Mathur writes that Panini mentions Varaṇā in (IV.2.82). This has been reported near Varana (वरण) tree. This is located between Sindhu and Swat Rivers. Ashvakayanas were the inhabitants of this place.
Arrian writes.... WHEN the men in Bazira heard this news, despairing of their own affairs, they abandoned the city about the middle of the night, and fled to the rock as the other barbarians were doing. For all the inhabitants deserted the cities and began to flee to the rock which is in their land, and is called Aornus1. For stupendous is this rock in this land, about which the current report is, that it was found impregnable even by Heracles, the son of Zeus. I cannot affirm with confidence either way, whether the Theban, Tyrian, or Egyptian Heracles2 penetrated into India or not; but I am rather inclined to think that he did not penetrate so far for men are wont to magnify the difficulty of all difficult enterprises to such a degree as to assert that they would have been impracticable even to Heracles. Therefore, I am inclined to think, that in regard to this rock the name of Heracles was mentioned simply to add to the marvellous-ness of the tale. The circuit of the rock is said to be about 200 stades (i.e., about twenty-three miles), and its height where it is lowest, eleven stades (i.e., about a mile and a quarter). There was only one ascent, which was artificial and difficult; on the summit of the rock there was abundance of pure water, a spring issuing from the ground, from which the water flowed; and there was also timber, and sufficient good arable land for 1,000 men to till3. When Alexander heard this, he was seized with a vehement desire to capture this mountain also, especially on account of the legend which was current about Heracles. He then made Ora and Massaga fortresses to keep the land in subjection, and fortified the city of Bazira. Hephaestion and Perdiccas also fortified for him another city, named Orobatis, and leaving a garrison in it marched towards the river Indus. When they reached that river they at once began to carry out Alexander’s instructions in regard to bridging it. Alexander then appointed Nicanor, one of the Companions, viceroy of the land on this side the river Indus; and in the first place leading his army towards that river, he brought over on terms of capitulation the city of Peucelaotis, which was situated not far from it. In this city he placed a garrison of Macedonians, under the command of Philip, and then reduced to subjection some other small towns situated near the same river, being accompanied by Cophaeus and Assagetes, the chieftains of the land. Arriving at the city of Embolima4, which was situated near the rock Aornus, he left Craterus there with a part of the army, to gather as much corn as possible into the city, as well as all the other things requisite for a long stay, so that making this their base of operations, the Macedonians might be able by a long siege to wear out the men who were holding the rock, supposing it were not captured at the first assault. He then took the bowmen, the Agrianians, and the brigade of Coenus, and selecting the lightest as well as the best-armed men from the rest of the phalanx, with 200 of the Companion cavalry and zoo horse-bowmen, he advanced to the rock. This day he encamped where it appeared to him convenient; but on the morrow he approached a little nearer to the rock, and encamped again.
1. This seems to be the Greek translation of the native name, meaning the place to which no bird can rise on account of its height. Cf. Strabo, xv. 1. This mountain was identified by Major Abbot, in 1854, as Mount Mahabunn, near the right bank of the Indus, about 60 miles above its confluence with the Cabul.
2. Cf. Arrian, ii. 16 supra.
3. Curtius (viii. 39) says that the river Indus washed the base of the rock, and that its shape resembled the meta or goal in a race-course, which was a stone shaped like a sugar-loaf. Arrian's description is more likely to be correct as he took it from Ptolemy, one of Alexander's generals.
Arrian writes....ON the first day his army constructed the mound the length of a stade; and on the following day the slingers shooting at the Indians from the part already finished, assisted by the missiles which were hurled from the military engines, repulsed the sallies which they made against the men who were constructing the mound. He went on with the work for three days without intermission, and on the fourth day a few of the Macedonians forcing their way occupied a small eminence which was on a level with the rock. Without taking any rest, Alexander went on with the mound, being desirous of connecting his artificial rampart with the eminence which the few men were now occupying for him. But then the Indians, being alarmed at the indescribable audacity of the Macedonians, who had forced their way to the eminence, and seeing that the mound was already united with it, desisted from attempting any longer to resist. They sent their herald to Alexander, saying that they were willing to surrender the rock, if he would grant them a truce. But they had formed the design of wasting the day by continually (delaying the ratification of the truce, and of scattering themselves in the night with the view of escaping one by one to their own abodes. When Alexander discovered this plan of theirs, he allowed them time to commence their retreat, and to remove the guard which was placed all round the place. He remained quiet until they began their retreat; then taking ‘yoo of the body-guards and shield-bearing infantry, he was the first to scale the rock at the part of it abandoned by the enemy; and the Macedonians ascended after him, one in one place another in another, drawing each other up. These men at the concerted signal turned themselves upon the retreating barbarians, and killed many of them in their flight. Others retreating with panic terror perished by leaping down the precipices; and thus the rock which had been inexplicable to Heracles was occupied by Alexander. He offered sacrifice upon it, and arranged a fort, committing the superintendence of the garrison to Sisicottus, who long before had deserted from the Indians to Besstts in Bactra, and after Alexander had acquired possession of the country of Bactria, entered his army and appeared to be eminently trustworthy.
He now set out from the rock and invaded the land of the Assacenians; for he was informed that the brother of Assacenus, with his elephants and many of the neighbouring barbarians had fled into the mountains in this district. When he arrived at the city of Dyrta1, he found none of the inhabitants either in it or in the land adjacent. On the following day he sent out Nearchus and Antiochus, the colonels of the shield-bearing guards, giving the former the command of the Agrianians and the light-armed troops2, and the latter the command of his own regiment and two others besides. They were despatched both to reconnoitre the locality and to try if they could capture some of the barbarians anywhere in order to get information about the general affairs of the country; and he was especially anxious to learn news of the elephants. He now directed his march towards the river Indus3, and his army going forward made a road, as otherwise this district would have been impassable. Here he captured a few of the barbarians, from whom he learnt that the Indians of that land had fled for safety to Abisares, but that they had left their elephants there to pasture near the river Indus. He ordered these men to show him the way to the elephants. Many of the Indians are elephant-hunters, and these Alexander kept in attendance upon him in high honour, going out to hunt the elephants in company with them. Two of these animals perished in the chase, by leaping down a precipice, but the rest were caught and being ridden by drivers were marshalled with the army. He also as he was marching along the river lighted upon a wood, the timber of which was suitable for building ships; this was cut down by the army, and ships were built for him, which were brought down the river Indus to the bridge, which had long since been constructed for him by Hephaestion and Perdiccas.
2. The name Indus is derived from the Sanscrit appellation Sindhu, from a root Syandh, meaning to flow. The name Indians, or Sindians, was originally applied only to the dwellers on the banks of this river. Hindustan is a Persian word meaning the country of the Hindus or Sindus. Compare the modern Sinde, in the north-west of India, which contains the lower course of the Indus. In Hebrew India was called Hodu, which is a contraction of Hondu, another form of Hindu. See Esther i. 1; viii. 9. Krüger changed ωδοποιειτο into ωδοποιει
- Lane Fox, p. 343ff.
- Arrian Anabasis Book/4b
- Sastri 1988, p. 54.
- Lane Fox (1973); Arrian.
- V. S. Agrawala: India as Known to Panini, 1953, p.454
- V. S. Agrawala: India as Known to Panini, 1953, p.73
- V S Agarwal, India as Known to Panini,p.453-454
- V S Agarwal, India as Known to Panini,p.487
- V.K.Mathur:Aitihasik Sthanavali,p.833
- Arrian Anabasis Book/4b, Ch.28
- Arrian Anabasis Book/4b, Ch.28