Evaluating “Loser”

We always mention the winners of history, but what about the losers? This question surfaced in last year’s Early Modern World class, and with that statement, and the name suggested by a student, the class LOSERS of HISTORY was born.

Napoleon, Hannibal, Pyrrhus of Epirus, Cleopatra, Varus…these are the losers that come to my mind immediately. After thinking and discussing this further, the lenses of loserdom open. Who lost without any chance of fighting back? Who lost nobly? Who lost, but regained their position in different ways?

Also, what constitutes being labeled as “loser”?

The image above comes from a city that no longer exists, and most have never heard of: Hadda. It was administered by the Greek descendants of Alexander the Great’s crew, after they rode the wave of conquering the world. Alexander’s campaign ended with his death, and I will leave it up to my students to determine if he is one of the “losers” of history.

Hadda was a Buddhist site in what we call Afghanistan today, not too far away from the Khyber Pass. Alexander ran for his life through the pass as he headed through what we call Pakistan and India now. Many of the cities he founded still exist: Raqqa, in Syria. Alexandria, in Egypt. Kandahar and Herat, in Afghanistan. The soldiers in Alexander’s army wouldn’t recognize the modern names, nor would they recognize the religion of Islam now dominating this area, in all of its myriad forms of expression.

Hadda and nearby Jalalabad thrived as Buddhist pilgrimage cites through the centuries after Alexander and through the centuries of Christian and Islamic presence. Alexander’s successor in the area, Seleucus, administered from a Buddhist and Zoroastrian center of learning named Kabul. Seleucus walked into a city once administered by Persians, only to eventually lose it to India’s Gupta Empire, which spread Hindu thought and teaching, already established in this area.

Hadda was destroyed by the Taliban during the last war. The Taliban took Jalalabad earlier in August. Kabul is in chaos as I write this. Loss, especially in Afghanistan, is written into the landscape.

This Buddha survived shifting ideologies, Silk Road trade, Christian missionaries, and British colonialism before landing in the Met. Either purchased, excavated, or stolen, it traveled from Tibet to the Met, twenty years before Tibet fell to China. The Taliban would have destroyed it had it stayed in Afghanistan along with centuries of historical record. But here it is in New York, a city resting on what was the Lenape land destroyed by the Dutch and British.

Losing and winning is, of course, relative. The Taliban won this time. Moderate Muslims lost. Non-Pashtun Afghanis await their fate. Years earlier in this area, the Soviets lost. The British lost. The Gupta, the Greeks, the Persians, and all those whose names lost to history either won or lost this area. Borders shift, names go unremembered, time moves forward. One day this Buddha head will break down to the lime and gypsum and aggregates that make up its stucco, just as the paint has already faded. But for today, it sits at the Met, 1,500 years old and going strong, winning.

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