Michael's Dispatches

Alexander the Great


img_5641_webSunrise over Farah

07 April 2011

Afghanistan contains many treasures of ancient history.   Climate conditions here preserve old structures whose origins often remain a mystery.


Alexander stormed through here a thousand years before the Arabs introduced Islam.  Today, after travelling around Afghanistan, it’s easy to see why invading Armies give up; people who can raise and deploy an Army to these parts soon realize there is not much worth having, while deploying an Army is expensive.  For those Armies deployed to reap treasures, even if they won, what could they win?  (More recent mineral discoveries not withstanding.)  Meanwhile, we are the first to try to plant democracy.

farahThe green pin in the background is the location of Alexander's Citadel in Farah.

In Farah, about 74 miles from the Iranian border, is a giant citadel said to have been built by Alexander the Great.  The Google Earth image above shows the current runway used by US and Italian troops in Farah.  It’s noteworthy that our modern military base was built so close to where Alexander put his fort roughly 2,300 years ago.

In Farah province today, there is a serious Taliban presence but relatively little fighting, partly because we have few troops there.  I have seen US Navy and Army, and also Italians.  There is sometimes light fighting in the city, but I’ve never seen any during my two trips to Farah.  Afghans I’ve talked with say the military has created goodwill here, though it can be said with certainty that outside the city security gets dicey.

alexander-citadelThe two corners near the orange pins are exactly one kilometer apart.

Kris Leboutillier and I loaded up with some Afghans and drove a short distance down to the citadel.

Up on the citadel wall is what the Afghans say is an old hotel.  I splashed about a dozen photos and stitched them into this panorama: Gigapan including old hotel.

(Note on Gigapans.  There are two parts: the robot, and the software.  The robot is useful for making incredible images that are perfectly aligned, but the robot is heavy, requires a tripod, and takes time.  The software (am using AutoPanoGiga) only needs contiguous images to stitch the panorama.  It doesn’t matter if the images are made with the robot or by hand.)

img_5661_webThe Coalition military base is about halfway between here and that mountain.

We trudged up the rampart at a corner of the citadel and came across several boys, including the two above.  Down inside the citadel there were a few shepherds with a couple flocks of sheep.  In the far distance were hulks of old Soviet-style vehicles.  The place is huge.  The opposite corner of the citadel is exactly one kilometer from this corner.

As I set up the Gigapan robot, a man approached to talk with our interpreter, saying he was an opium addict and he wanted help to kick the addiction.  He looked sad, saying he could not go back to his village or his brothers would kill him.  There are loads of opium addicts in Afghanistan.  One of the best books I’ve read in the last decade is Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, by Ahmed Rashid.  I once called Mr. Rashid in Pakistan to talk more about opium.  In his book, Mr. Rashid described the Taliban method for helping people to kick the habit:

“Ordinary people said they were too scared to take hashish after the Taliban had forbidden it.  For those who did so clandestinely, the Taliban had devised a novel approach to curing hashish addiction.  ‘When we catch hashish smugglers or addicts we interrogate and beat them mercilessly to find out the truth,’ said Abdul Rashid.  ‘Then we put them in cold water for many hours, two or three times a day.  It’s a very good cure,’ he added.  Rashid then strode into the jail and pulled out several terrified prisoner-addicts to talk to me.  They had no hesitation in agreeing that the Taliban’s shock therapy was effective.  ‘When I am beaten or in cold water I forget all about hashish,’ said Bakht Mohammed, a shopkeeper and a hashish dealer who was serving three months in jail.

Well, at least the Taliban are good for something.

img_2636_webAfghan man checks out the Gigapan robot at the Citadel in Farah.

And so, on that first day I shot a Gigapan with a 200mm lens, and that night rendered the panorama and decided to come back the next day using a 400mm.  If you’ve come this far, better to do as best you can, and I figured this Gigapan might be useful for students or researchers.  The higher resolution might help.  So the next day, Kris and I came back with the 400mm and made 208 RAW 21 megapixel images for this Gigapan.

If you click through to the image, you’ll see some “snapshots.”  Clicking on a snapshot zooms to the point of interest.

The Gigapan turned out well: Inside the Citadel

If you notice something interesting in the Gigapan, please feel free to make a snapshot and leave a description.  For instance, I found in the image a barefoot guy on the ground.  Is he dead?  Passed out from opium?  I have no idea, but Afghans said that people come to the caves in the citadel to use drugs.  Alexander’s citadel has become a minor opium den.

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Cricket · 10 years ago
    The Gigapan was fascinating. I've been following your dispatches for several years and find that pictures make the story more personal.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Kelli · 10 years ago
    wow, and I love your comments with the pullouts... awesome... thanks.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Hank · 10 years ago
    What's with the blimp? :-*
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    Dave A · 10 years ago
    Aerostats - surveillance platforms, see http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/afghanistan/2010-09-27-spy-balloons_N.htm
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    Marine DAD · 10 years ago
    Hey I see Osama Bin in one of the tunnels!!http://www.michaelyon-online.com/components/com_jcomments/images/smiles/lol.gif

    Another Great Pic Michael Keep them coming, Love the night/star pics.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Richard · 10 years ago
    Mike -
    Great to see that you have the time to sort through some older photos, and check out new technology to aid your impressive skills. The technology helps, but it is your eye for subject matter, framing and exposure, and, above all, being where the action is.
    Now... about those hundreds of hours of video ... Or are you saving those for retirement?
    Richard in Singapore
  • This commment is unpublished.
    i.mostyn · 10 years ago
    Michael the images so striking and the descriptions vivid... you stand out as the most upfront and unbiased reporter I have ever seen... your work is an example to all who are now and come after...
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jason Burkett · 10 years ago
    My last tour in Afghanistan was in Farah, we could see the Citadel from the FOB. Farah is a great city and the local ANP were great to work with.
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    Colin · 10 years ago
    I noted part of the wall has domes and portion of a arch is seen on the left side, is the wall hollow for the most part? also it appears that they made use of natural formations and built upon those with mud bricks, correct?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Leyla · 10 years ago
    Wow! That was totally cool!
    I would have loved to have checked out some of those ruins!
    I was in Egypt in the early 90's and stayed there for 6 months so the archeologist in me just goes nuts when I see ruins.
    Best of luck and please stay safe and again thank you for sharing!

  • This commment is unpublished.
    Chase · 10 years ago
    Hey Michael, do you have any idea how the military has created goodwill in Farah?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Michael Yon · 10 years ago
    [quote name="Chase"]Hey Michael, do you have any idea how the military has created goodwill in Farah?[/quote]


    I asked Afghans about it. Sounded like based on job creation. This is based on two separate trips to Farah (this year and last). I should carefully point out that, as with Kandahar, there is Farah city (Kandahar city), and Farah province (Kandahar province)...and I am more specifically talking about the city if Farah. Now, last year I visited a village that we bombed and killed (I think) something like 70 people. I was right there and the men were working on a road. We had no effective security and the workers welcomed us.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Violette · 10 years ago
    scanning + the GigaPan : from low right to left: man in white clothes in town,man in shadow running toward town.In the "wilderness"found sharp luminous circles [?]2em snoozing sheppard,2 pigeons side by side,a black bird planning to look for sneaks[?]...will look further later !
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Caroline · 10 years ago

    the GigaPan is amazing. Thank you.
    Please take care of yourself. I look to your posts for the truth of what our troops face.

    God go with you.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    John Welch · 10 years ago
    I find your work extraordinary in every sense of the word.So much for so little except my congratulations and prayers for Gods Speed may your work continue in safety.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Dannyboy · 10 years ago
    The taliban good for something? Hashish is a harmless drug. Now alcohol, there's a real killer and ruiner of lives and families.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    RonC · 10 years ago
    That mega-pic is absolutely awesome, Michael! Very much worth all your time and effort.

    Violette, just for kicks, I found 8 men, one large dog, 7 sheep and one bird in flight.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jeffrey Pauk · 10 years ago
    Michael- Thanks for the GigaPan. I am sure it will keep me as well as my kids occupied for quite awhile looking for "treasures"

    I know you had mentioned being with the 101st. Do you have any plans to go to FOB Sharana this embed? I am a Scoutmaster of a Boy Scout troop and one of my Eagle Scouts is stationed there. As a result, our troop has adopted his unit and are sending care packages and letters to all of them.

  • This commment is unpublished.
    Zhang Fei · 10 years ago
    Question for Mike. According to the Washington Examiner, ISAF is releasing captured Taliban after 96 hours of detention: Afghan rules of engagement force U.S. soldiers to free insurgents caught red-handed Is this true?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Zhang Fei · 10 years ago
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Martin Claybold · 10 years ago
    Although Afghanistan is a beautiful place to visit as a tourist, its harsh terrain is suitable only for the tough ones and not the American couch potatoes

    gun holsters
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Tom Green · 10 years ago
    The landscape looks like southern/central Arizona.

    Mr. Yon - any word on the your book delivery? Ordered it last year and nothing so far.

    Great photo work, good stories and good to see you out with the USAid dudes. It's still opm but the interaction is real close.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Trappin · 10 years ago
    Slightly to the left of gigapan snap shot "rare bird" is a rather large urn, jar, or brass bottle setting atop the decaying rampart.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Daniel Harrison · 10 years ago
    When I was a platoon leader in Farah 09-10 we arrested opium addicts with the city ANP in the one of those side caves of the fortress. Disappointing to see that things haven't progressed beyond that.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    JohnF · 10 years ago
    I've been in on the gigapan program since the beta phase, almost 5 years now. It's addictive, and vast panoramas are possible. Michael is using the Gigapan Epic Pro unit, which is somewhat large, but enables you to use a large DSLR+lenses, there is a Epic 100, which handles small DSLRs and large bridge cameras, as well as the Epic, which is for your basic P&S cameras. If anyone is at all interested in serious gigapanning, the Epic Pro is probably the route to take, given the robustness of the robotics and the well-thought-through software; for the rest of us, the more pedestrian units work well. I'll be upgrading to the Epic Pro this summer in order to put some serious glass on the unit (and use battery packs to exceed 700 pictures (single battery capacity)).
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Michael Yon · 10 years ago

    The Gigapan is great. Have been using the AutoPanoGiga software for stitching as is much better than what comes with the Gigapan itself. Insofar as the battery, I made one Gigapan with 770 images, but I wouldn't be surprised if the battery held up for a couple thousand images. (I don't know, but based on experience so far I would not be surprised.)

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