Explorer, deserter, spy: The man who discovered the lost city of Alexandria

The lost city of Alexander the Great was found by a man whose story went untold. Now Edmund Richardson explores his life in “The King’s Shadow.” 

"The King’s Shadow: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Deadly Quest for the Lost City of Alexandria," by Edmund Richardson, St Martin’s Press, 362 pp.

Amateurs sometimes make astonishing archeological discoveries. In the 1870s, Heinrich Schliemann found the ancient city of Troy described in Greek literature. Some 60 years later, Basil Brown uncovered the Anglo-Saxon burial site at Sutton Hoo in England, a discovery that has been called “one of the most important archeological discoveries of all time.”  

We must add the heretofore obscure Charles Masson to that list. As brilliantly described by Edmund Richardson in “The King’s Shadow: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Deadly Quest for the Lost City of Alexandria,” Masson’s research in Central Asia made him one of the most important scholars of his time.   

In roughly a decade of work, Charles Masson was the first European to discover the ruins of Harappa in Punjab (now part of Pakistan) and to explore the giant Bamiyan Buddhas. He unlocked the extinct language known as Kharoshthi, and he found the Bimaran golden casket, which contains the earliest known datable image of the Buddha. This was, Richardson notes, “a world changing discovery: equivalent to finding the earliest known depiction of Jesus.” 

Most important, he found the ancient city of Alexandria Beneath the Mountains, which had been established by Alexander the Great some 2,000 years earlier. He didn’t just find a lost city – his explorations revealed that what started as a small military outpost quickly became “a multicultural world beyond the imagination of most nineteenth-century scholars. … Masson found ivory from India, coins from the Tang dynasty, silver from Constantinople and delicate Roman seals carved from red Chinese amber. … Masson had found the crossroads of the ancient world.”  

What makes the book especially fascinating is that there is any story to tell at all. Masson was born James Lewis, a young man with no money or education and therefore no prospects. So he joined the army of the British East India Company. After several years in the Bengal artillery, Lewis realized that he had no hope of advancement and deserted. Because he faced a death sentence if captured, he changed his name to Charles Masson.    

He made his way to Kabul, Afghanistan, which, fortunately for Masson, “was one of the most tolerant cities in the world.” Quickly accepted by the city’s ruling elite, Masson started looking for evidence that Alexander the Great had reached the area. But the British East India Company had spies everywhere and soon found him. Thinking that he still faced a death sentence, he agreed to become a spy. The company declined to tell him he had already been pardoned.

So Masson gamely set out to spy for the East India Company, maintain good relations with the people he was watching, and search for antiquities. Along the way, he met and worked with an amazing array of treasure hunters, spies, thieves, megalomaniacs, ne’er-do-wells, and mercenaries. These people could only exist in real life – no novelist would dare create characters this preposterous. His life was in serious danger countless times. And, at every turn, his superiors in the East India Company abused him shamelessly.    

Masson, though of course he could not know it, was working at the start of “the Great Game” when Great Britain, Russia, and Persia fought to dominate Central Asia. Mistakenly convinced that Russia planned to take control of Afghanistan, Great Britain launched the First Anglo-Afghan War to seize the area. Masson was horrified to learn that cherry-picked parts of his espionage reports had been used to justify the invasion and feared it would end in disaster. It did. 

The war was equally disastrous for Masson. He foolishly attempted to help a cruel and incompetent East India Company officer defend a city the British had captured. When the Afghans retook it, he was imprisoned for being a British agent. Eventually he was released with instructions to negotiate a settlement with the British. Unfortunately, the British officer he approached decided that Masson was a Russian spy. So he was locked up again. Months later he was freed, but any chance of returning to Afghanistan had evaporated. He made his way to Bombay and eventually to London.  

Masson wanted to turn his findings into a book to establish his reputation. But he had lost most of his notebooks, possessed almost none of the antiquities he had discovered, and had been so psychologically damaged by the experience that he could not produce a publishable document. The East India Company was anxious to cover up the Afghanistan fiasco and refused to help him even as it hid the antiquities he had found.  

“The King’s Shadow” is history in the best sense of the word – a well-told story that shines a clear and penetrating light on the past. While thoroughly researched and extensively documented, it reads like a thriller by John Grisham. But this is not only a story about Masson and his life. The book helps us understand the mystery of Central Asia and why the struggle to control it is such a central feature of our time. Conflicts often have a long fuse, and Richardson shows us when and why the fight over Afghanistan really began. 

The book also reminds us that, in some places, cultures have long mixed and learned from each other. Globalization, it turns out, did not suddenly emerge in the late 20th century.   

After he returned to London, Masson quickly disappeared. He was buried in an unmarked grave. No portrait of him survives. Eventually, the antiquities he discovered made their way into the British Museum, where they are finally being fully catalogued. 

As a new generation of scholars investigated the long and complex history of Central Asia, Masson’s name became more widely known and he was singled out as a potentially important figure. But the lack of documentary evidence about his life made it hard for writers to get a full picture of the man. Fortunately, after years of research on three continents, Richardson has succeeded. And, thanks to this marvelously readable book, Charles Masson has emerged from the shadows. 

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