Alexandria's founded by Alexander

Alexandria's founded by Alexander the Great (by year BC): 334 Alexandria in Troia (Turkey) - 333 Alexandria at Issus/Alexandrette (Iskenderun, Turkey) - 332 Alexandria of Caria/by the Latmos (Alinda, Turkey) - 331 Alexandria Mygdoniae - 331 Alexandria (Egypt) - 330 Alexandria Ariana (Herat, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria of the Prophthasia/in Dragiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Arachosia (Kandahar, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in the Caucasus (Begram, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria of the Paropanisades (Ghazni, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria Eschate or Ultima (Khodjend, Tajikistan) - 329 Alexandria on the Oxus (Termez, Afghanistan) - 328 Alexandria in Margiana (Merv, Turkmenistan) - 326 Alexandria Nicaea (on the Hydaspes, India) - 326 Alexandria Bucephala (on the Hydaspes, India) - 325 Alexandria Sogdia - 325 Alexandria Oreitide - 325 Alexandria in Opiene / Alexandria on the Indus (confluence of Indus & Acesines, India) - 325 Alexandria Rambacia (Bela, Pakistan) - 325 Alexandria Xylinepolis (Patala, India) - 325 Alexandria in Carminia (Gulashkird, Iran) - 324 Alexandria-on-the-Tigris/Antiochia-in-Susiana/Charax (Spasinou Charax on the Tigris, Iraq) - ?Alexandria of Carmahle? (Kahnu)

Monday, March 27, 2023

Timeline of Main Arabic/Persian Sources writing about Alexander

Complementary to my previous blog post: Persia's Historical Memory of Alexander, a new Chapter in Robbert Bosschart's Updated Version 2023 to his book All Alexander's Women, it is helpful to consult the following Table. 

It contains a list of the foremost Persian and Arabic authors who, in their works, referred to Alexander the Great. They were far away from the historical figure we know, but it remains impressive how, so many centuries later, the king's name still lived on in their tales and imagination.

(in order of publication date)
622-750 AD: Ibn-al Muqaffa (720-756), a Persian intellectual in Fars, translates the last version of the Khoday-Nama (compiled by Zoroastrian clerics on orders of the Sassanid king Khosrow II, and published in 622 AD) into Arabic in 750 AD.
670-800 AD: Ibn Abbas, governor of Basora c. 670 AD, and other authorities after him, order Arabic translations to be made of (parts of) the Alexander Romance written by the pseudo-Kallisthenes in the 3rd century BC, and later edited in Syriac; these are the texts that allow
—c 800 AD: Abu Zayd Umara (c 750-815) to compile his book Qissat al-Iskandar Dhu’l Qarnayn. He has also used oral sources, but at least half of his text contains the material from these earliest Arabic versions of the Alexander Romance. Afterwards more Arabic translations of Greek or Syriac texts on Alexander become available in the Abassid caliphate, especially under al-Mamun (813-833).
820-850 AD: Ashmaí (Basora, 740-828 AD), the first lexicographer in Arabic Mesopotamia, composes a text titled Nihaya. One generation later, this text is revised by a so-called pseudo-Ashmaí, who says he has also used Muqaffa's work. The resulting 'extended Nihaya' contains a 46-page chapter on Alexander with 1336 verses, making it by far the most complete Alexander tale of those times. The Persian influence shows through in the fact that this Nihaya already endows Alexander with a Persian pedigree (kinship with the royal dynasty) – but at the same time warns: "Not all Arabic authors are agreed on this".
870-920 AD: Abu Hanifah Dinawarí, (815-896 AD), prolific Persian writer on many different themes including History, states that the opinions of his various sources remain divided: "Some of them make him a descendant of the Persian dynasty, but others say he was the son of Philip of Makedon". Most negative on Alexander is Abu Jafar Muhammad al-Tabarí (839-923 AD), a famous Muslim Persian savant who publishes a History of the Prophets and the Kings that copies the condemnation of 'Alexander of Rum' from the Sassanid Khoday-Nama translated by Muqaffa.
c 930 AD: Abu al-Hasan al-Masudí (Baghdad, 896 - Cairo, 951) geographer and historian who, on a long journey in 915 through Persia has also found -in Estakhr- some books with historic content about bygone eras of the country, publishes the first Arabic manuscript that correctly places Alexander's rule in Persia within the framework of a World History.
957 AD: Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Razzaq, governor in the Persian city of Tus, orders a committee of 'book-owners' (including both Muslim and Zoroastrian savants) to compile a history book out of all their material. By its varied provenance, their end product inevitably contains texts that contradict each other, like pre-Islamic ánd Arabic translations of the Alexander Romance on one hand, and the Sassanid Khoday-Nama on the other. Some of their material even has roots in the tradition of Parthian minstrels. They complete their work in 957. Their text in Persian, known as 'the Prose Shah-Nama', is no longer extant.
1010 AD: Hakim Abu-l-Qasem Ferdowsi from Tus (935-1020 AD), the poet who is still today revered as a national celebrity in Persia, publishes his 'national epic' Shah-Nama. As he states in the Preface, he has versified the 'Prose Shah-Nama' but also added other material. His saga counts over 100,000 verses, of which only 2458 refer to Alexander. They first ascribe a legitimate Persian pedigree to him, but later (following the Khoday-Nama tradition) turn Alexander into a bloodthirsty foreign conqueror.
—c. 1015 AD: in times of sultan Mahmud in Ghazna, an erudite at his Court writes out a compilation of local storytellers' stock tales about Alexander, now known as the Eskandar-Nama. This popular text keeps close to Arabic/Persian translations of pseudo-Kallisthenes' Alexander Romance, but adds some episodes from other sources: it includes tales that are not found in any other work. It has Alexander in the sole starring role, and calls him by the much-respected Islamic name of "Dhu’l Qarnayn". But to entertain the audience, it humanizes him by turning him into the comical figure of the man with multiple wives and all the ensuing (sex) problems. The author of this Eskandar-nama remains unknown, as the initial part of the manuscript has been lost. The oldest copy, dated to the 14/15th century, is held in the private collection of Sa'id Nafisi in Tehran. It was edited by Professor Iraj Afshar in 1964, and translated into English by E. Venetis in 2017.
1030-1100 AD: Abu Taher bin Musa al-Tarsusí publishes, at some yet unknown point in this period, a written version of the Persian storytellers' rendition of a popular folk tale known as the Darab-Nama. His text leaves the negative Sassanid/Zoroastrian propaganda aside. It gives Alexander a 'co-star' role in a Persian national epic in which a fictional "princess Buran-dokht" shines forth as the main character. She is gradually revealed as a stand-in for the ancient Persian goddess Anahita, 'She who grants the monarchy'.
Most episodes in the text are stock tales of local storytellers, but the Darab-Nama also preserves some ancient material inherited from Parthian minstrels and reminisces factual deeds of the historic Alexander in Persia. Various extant manuscripts were collated by Professor Zabihollah Safa to produce his definitive edition of the Darab-Nama in 1965-68. 

1203 AD: Abu Muhammad bin Yusuf, «Nizami Ganjavi» (1141-1209 AD), still a much-admired Persian author, publishes his Sikandar-Nama, the 'canonic' version of Persia's literary sagas on Alexander. He embellishes the well-known Arabic/Persian versions of the Romance, but also includes details from Greek-sourced historical writings about Alexander.
The second part of Nizami's saga, usually called the Iqbal-Nama, situates the Alexander' Dhu’l Qarnayn' of Koranic fame clearly within the Oriental' Wisdom Literature' tradition. 

—1466 AD: as researched by Professor Faustina Doufikar-Aerts, the manuscripts (dated to Hegira 871=1466 AD) numbered 3003 and 3004 of the Aya Sofya collection in Istambul, confirmed the existence of a popular Arabic Sirat Al-Iskandar tradition. Its manuscript texts are attributed to many different storytellers. In the case of the Aya Sofya manuscripts, the narrator is an Ibrahim ibn Mufarij as-Shuri from Tyre. His version does include the theme of Alexander's 'legitimate' Persian pedigree, but for the rest basically represents the latest Arabic evolution of a Wisdom Literature concerning Iskandar "Dhul’l Qarnayn". These texts do not contribute any new data to the known biography of the historical Alexander. 

Saturday, March 25, 2023

Persia's Historical Memory of Alexander

Robbert Bosschart has just published an Updated Version 2023 to his book All Alexander’s Women, which deserves special attention.

Of particular interest is this newly reworked Chapter Persia's Historical Memory of Alexander, where the author focuses on the Persian side of history. The Achaemenids did not have a counterpart for the Greek writers and chroniclers, and relied instead on the verbal transmission of Alexander’s life and deeds by mouth of their storytellers.

This new information is too good to be kept hidden in the dust of times, and I am very happy to share hereafter the most important information together with some of the magnificent illustrations. 

Persia's Historical Memory of Alexander

For Persia’s own first-hand memories of Alexander perforce we have to rely on oral history: all the published testimonies available today originated from texts of local storytellers, later written down and ‘enriched’ by scribes, poets or translators.


Early Persian/Arab authors who included history themes in their writings, based their texts both on oral history accounts and on written documents. From Umara in the 7th century AD up to Masudí in the 10th century they used all sorts of sources, including the first Arabic translations of the pseudo-Kallisthenes’ Alexander Romance.
As times went by, the most popular versions of Alexander’s exploits became more and more sensational and sexy, big adventure tales usually known as the Iskandar-Nama, the Book of Alexander. As a result, their reports about Alexander’s reign are quite entertaining literature, but in historical accuracy ‘few and far between’.

Therefore it is interesting to find that the only text with specifically Persian memories of Alexander’s life and deeds is, again, that of a simple storyteller. Or not exactly ‘simple’, for Abu Taher al-Tarsusí describes himself as «a compiler of histories and narrator of mysterious facts». The saga that Tartusi published under the title of Darab-Nama (‘Tale of Darius’) was a written version of an ancient folk story. From the 12th century AD on it became very popular.
The oldest manuscript we have is dated to 1580 AD, in an edition illuminated with precious miniatures made in India for the Mughal emperor Akbar. Painstaking research on this and other, later versions finally yielded in 1965 the definitive edition of the Darab-Nama. In his introduction, Professor Zabiholla Safa underlined that the text is based on oral source material that is much older than the Arabic translations of the Alexander Romance. In other words, the Darab-Nama reflects Persia’s own historical memory. 
Its title is rather misleading, because only 386 of the 1159 known pages concern Persia’s glory years under the revered figures of Darius the Elder and his successor. But the bulk of the text, 773 pages long, displays an elaborate tale of how his fictional granddaughter, princess ‘Buran-dokht’, first opposes, but finally permits Alexander’s conquest of Persia. 
A unique characteristic of the Darab-Nama is that here, Alexander does not get the brilliant leading role. That privilege is reserved solely for the purely Persian personage Buran-dokht. As long as the story takes place in Persia, Alexander is even portrayed as a hotheaded, at times stupid or cowardly, and always vulnerable young man, with no special military talents. More than once, Buran-dokht has to come and save him. Only after the story has moved to foreign lands, Alexander is allowed to become a brilliant warrior and wise statesman.

The Iskandar-Nama became a popular (and often hilarious) 
adventure tale with lots of action and sex

Of course, like many other works of oral literature, the Darab-Nama has been compiled over the centuries by successive storytellers. This makes it even more impressive that in Tarsusí’s final version, the text still manages to retain Persia’s popular memory of three historical facts concerning Alexander. 
The most extensive of the three is the (re)appearance of a goddess from a legendary past, Anahita. Time and again she intervenes to promote and protect Alexander’s kingship. To begin with, as Nahid, Alexander’s secret mother, who succeeds in placing him on the throne of the Western empire called “Rum“. Then she pops up briefly as queen Aban-dokht, who becomes his lover, and presents him with the capital of Persia, Estakhr. Finally she shines forth on hundreds of pages as the divine Buran-dokht, who ends up marrying him and setting him on the throne of the empire. Which means that even in islamic Iran, popular folklore still remembered –from 1500 years back!– the goddess Anahita, her role as Giver of Kingship, and her blessing for Alexander.

The second historical fact reported about Alexander in the Darab-Nama refers to his double Persian marriage «according to core royal usage»; that is, the multiple political marriages practised by Cyrus the Great and Darius the Great in the 6th century BC. This is told as follows:
«Buran-dokht took Alexander by the hand, made him sit on the throne and saluted him as King of Iran. Then they sent messengers and letters from Estakhr to all the provinces to announce that Buran-Dokht and Alexander had married. 
The gates of the treasuries were opened, gold was distributed profusely, and with both of them installed on their thrones on equal footing, they had seven months of celebrations. In accordance with the core royal usage, Alexander was also given in marriage the daughter of King Shahush».

So here Alexander marries a daughter of king Darab and a daughter of a king called Shahush. History tells us that in Susa, in 324 BC, Alexander married princess Barsine/Stateira, daughter of Darius III, and the princess Parysatis, last daughter of a king we know as Artaxerxes III Ochus, but who was called ‘Vahush’ in Old Persian. So the «daughter of King Shahush» in the Darab-Nama evidently is the daughter of Shah Vahush, as Artaxerxes III was known to his court.

The Persian warrior-queen Buran-dokht repeatedly 
saves Alexander from his enemies. 
Here she defeats the Indian king Poros, when she grabs 
his war elephant by the trunk and overturns him.
(Miniature illustrating a Darab Nama manuscript of 1720 AD, 
now in the Staatsbibliothek of Berlin)

The third popular memory of a historical fact embedded in this saga recounts Alexander’s decision to promote mass-marriages for the better integration of conquerors and conquered into one realm; a theme that takes up some 20 pages in the Darab-Nama. This is how the story goes:
Alexander and his army happen upon an island of women, and thousands of these invade the camp «searching for men». Alexander suspects that in reality they may be hostile, but soon understands they only want to make love —and then fears that his own men will “go berserk”, causing even worse problems. So he allows his wise chancellor –whose name is given as Plato— to apply a miracle-working solution.
Plato calls upon the women and asks them: «By the will of God, and so be all the Angels your witnesses, will you give yourselves in legal union to the men that will enter your city?» They agree. The storyteller concludes: «When the women were trying to seduce the men, it was the work of the Devil; but as soon as they were conveniently and legally married, it became God’s work, and Alexander could no longer be held responsible for any problems arising of their arrival».

Clearly, this is a remembrance of the mass-marriages (in reality, the legalization of de facto marriages) that Alexander organised in parallel with his double wedding at Susa in 324 BC. Out of his own purse, as Arrian reports in VII, 4, 8, he paid dowries for the Persian and other Oriental women who had taken up with his officers and soldiers, so they could be legally married.
The list totalled some 10,000 dowries, and the classical sources say that Alexander disbursed over 10,000 talents of silver for them; an amount equivalent to 150 million dollars of today. It is understandable that these marriages, converting thousands of concubines into legal wives, left an indelible memory among the Persians. 

Just as important was Alexander’s pledge that he would care for their offspring. Arrian notes in passing that he promised his veterans that their children from Oriental partners “will be educated as Makedonians”. But Diodoros tells more: he registers (in his Book XVII, 110, 3) that Alexander has set up a specific fund and appointed the necessary teachers to ensure that the 10,000 children his men have had with “women who were taken in war” will be educated “as is the right of free men”.

Alexander and his wise chancellor Plato receive Queen Sabaterah, 
who reigns over an island where only women live, 
and they all want sex with men. 
Plato will ensure that they become legal spouses.
(Miniature from the 1720 AD manuscript of the Darab-Nama)

In Book XVIII, Diodoros adds that Alexander had decided to apply his integration policy on a much broader scale:
«…he intended to establish cities and to transplant populations from Asia to Europe and in the opposite direction from Europe to Asia, in order to bring the largest continents to common unity and to friendly kinship by means of intermarriages and family ties».
Alexander’s intermarriage policy found lasting approval in Persia, as shown by the positive comment of the storyteller in the Darab-Nama on the “miraculous solution” devised by Plato. In fact, all three of Tarsusí’s historical storylines, repeated again and again in the saga, must have met with notable approval of his Persian audience. After all, no storyteller makes a living by irritating his public.

Around the year 1000 AD, the prominent court poet Farrukhi Sistaní affirmed: “The story of Alexander’s exploits and his travels has found listeners everywhere, and everybody knows those tales by heart”. So Tarsusí and the storytellers before him had to take into account that among their public, there always would be people who remembered some previous version of the Alexander Romance.
As a case in point, their public in Ghazna could perfectly well remember an Eskandar-Nama compiled around 1015 AD out of stock tales of Persian storytellers that simply copied episodes from the pseudo-Kallisthenes Romance, with some fancy (and errors) added. In that text, Alexander is the undisputed hero of the saga. But to entertain the audience, this Eskandar-nama turns him into a comical figure who not only conquers kingdoms, but also women galore. He seduces princesses, amazons, warrior beauties, servant girls, widow queens, noble dames and even fairy queens (!) far and wide. With the result that this Alexander suffers all the problems of a bumbling man with too many wives and/or concubines.
When Alexander is listening to the deathbed pleas of king Darab, who begs him to treat his family well, Roxana makes her appearance in this Eskandar-Nama. “She is still young, you could marry her,” suggests Darab. (Here, Roxana is said to be not a daughter, but one of the wives of the Persian king.) Alexander answers hastily that this is a petition he will not agree to:
“God forbid that I should desire your wife, for I already have four wives, all free women, plus 40 concubines from here and from Greece.”
Roxana is an unavoidable heroine in all the Oriental translations of Romance episodes. So she also has to appear in the Darab-Nama. Well, more or less. When introducing his top star the princess Buran-dokht, Tarsusí takes the precaution of telling his public that «elsewhere she was also called Roshanak».
In other words, despite the fact that the following 773 pages prove without a shadow of doubt that his majestic Buran-dokht has nothing in common with the insignificant Roxana, Tarsusí still thought it wise to bow –if only once– to the Alexander Romance.

For my comments on Robbert Bosschart’s Third Edition, please refer to my earlier blogpost: All Alexander's Women.

Monday, March 20, 2023

The secret of Roman concrete

The splendor of Greek temples and theaters is not only visible to the onlooker but resides in the architectural technique itself, i.e., fitting the stone blocks together without using concrete. 

We don’t know who is responsible for the idea, but we think the Romans are the actual inventors of concrete – a modern material! Whether walking through the remains of cities like Pompeii, visiting amphitheaters, or stopping at the many aqueducts around the Mediterranean, we’ll see sturdy brick walls held together with layers of cement. In the glory days of Rome, these walls were all covered with marble slabs that were reused after the decline of the empire. 

To make their cement, the Romans mixed lime, shale, clay, and aggregate rocks to create a substance that we call cement today.

The material turned out to be so strong that it defied time (and, I dare say, their own expectations). Striking Roman buildings such as the Coliseum and the Pantheon in Rome (see: Linking the Pantheon in Rome with ancient Mausoleums) are still standing after two thousand years. I wonder if any of our modern buildings will have such a long life. 

A recent study revealed that Roman concrete contained calcium-rich deposits, known as “lime clasts,” which are considered impurities in modern concrete and thus removed. These clasts are a kind of millimeter size white chunks of rock that provide a self-healing capability. 

To find out how these lime clasts influenced Roman concrete, scientists produced samples of both Roman and modern cement using what is called “hot-mixed concrete.” After the material dried and hardened, they cracked the samples and poured water through the cracks. Two weeks later, it appeared that the cracks in the Roman example had completely restored themselves, and no water flowed through the material – a self-healing process. The modern concrete, lacking the lime clasts, never healed, and the water kept running through the cracks. 

Today’s environmentalists highly acclaim that the Roman type of concrete could reduce the impact of cement production on our environment and cut down carbon emissions. 

We had to reinvent the wheel! The Romans may not have been aware of air pollution, but instead of walking in their footsteps, we invented replacement procedures that are detrimental to our world.

Saturday, March 11, 2023

How Macedonian is a Macedonian shield?

When talking about Macedonian shields, our thoughts automatically turn to those carrying a 16-rayed star like the one on the lid of King Philip's golden larnax displayed at the Museum of Vergina. 

What should be simple and straightforward, in reality, isn't. 

The first king to use the Macedonian sun emblem may be Archelaus (413-399 BC), i.e., well before Philip II came to power. In Alexander's days, the number of sun rays varied from eight to twelve or sixteen. Alternatively, the center of the shield could be a disc that remained blank or was filled with a Gorgon's head, the face of Heracles, etc. Such a disc was usually surrounded by a varying number of crescents. Other shields may seem unadorned, but it has been documented that many were painted only. That would make sense when looking at the row of armor and shields lining the street in Dion. The monument was commissioned by Alexander after his victory at the Granicus. 

As I have come across many examples of shied decorations, either on paintings, reliefs, coins, or other works of art, it might be interesting to highlight some examples. 

For a start, today's flag of the Republic of Macedonia shows a sun with 16 rays, the so-called "Vergina-Sun." 

A bucranium found in Apollonia Pontica, modern Sozopol, Bulgaria, shows an eight-rayed star, which leads that country to claim that the origin of the "Vergina-Sun" is theirs (see: The Origin of the Macedonian star was Thracian?)

The excavations in Albania have so far yielded several examples of shields they call Illyrian but look very Macedonian at first glance. I was told that the difference with a Macedonian shield was the curving. Whether that is true or not, I don't know (see: Looking for Illyrian remains in Albania).

At the small Museum of Apollonia, Albania, I saw my first Illyrian shield from the 4th century BC that looked very much like the Macedonian one. A series of triple crescents surround the central Medusa head with shiny eyes.

The Skanderberg Museum proudly exhibits an Illyrian shield with similar half-crescents but with a six-rayed star at its center.

Two Illyrian shields are embossed on a leather belt buckle at the Archaeological Museum of Tirana. In this case, we see a central disc surrounded by respectively four and five larger double crescents. 

From the same period, a striking limestone mold for a leather shield cover was found in Egypt. It was made for soldiers of Ptolemy in 330 BC. It has typical Macedonian features with a central Medusa head surrounded by triple concentric circles holding a small eight-rayed Macedonian star (see: Alexander's Legacy. Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam). 

The Tomb of Agios Athanasios from the era of Alexander has been attributed to a Macedonian nobleman. Although looted in antiquity, the narrow frieze above the entrance holds precious information about Macedonian daily life and its army in blasting colors. The lively scenes have been photographed in detail and digitally restored for all to examine at the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki (see: The Macedonian Tomb of Agios Athanasios in Thessaloniki). Of particular interest are the three shields, two of which show an eight-rayed star surrounded by a broad-colored rim. These shields are painted, as are other examples on the walls of grave monuments. It remains an intriguing question whether shields used in combat were painted as well. Color coding may have contributed to bringing soldiers of the same unit together. Still, I fail to see how Alexander's Macedonians would have carried paint to maintain the distinctive coding during the many skirmishes and battles.

A unique set of shields can be admired inside the Tomb of Lyson and Kallikles in Lefkadia, Greece (see: Alexander's schooling at Mieza). The one painted in the north lunette has a blue eight-rayed star at its center and is edged with a crown of leaves. The shield in the south lunette is defined as the 'familiar Macedonian' shield with an empty disc at its center and surrounded by eight crescents. The tomb is dated to c.250 BC. 

Another specimen is a bronze shield from the collection of the Getty Museum in Malibu, California. It definitely has a Macedonian look because of the central six-rayed star (see: A magnificent Greek shield). The inscription reveals that it was made in Pontus on the Black Sea for King Pharnaces I. Since we do not know when exactly Pharnaces died, we can only assume it was made between 160 and 154 BC, when his brother Mithridates IV succeeded him to the throne. 

From the cities that disappeared under the ashes of Mount Vesuvius after the eruption of 79 AD, I like the fresco from Boscoreale, now at the Archaeological Museum of Naples (see: Fresco of a Macedonian at Boscoreale). The painting, based on a mid-3rd century BC original, was retrieved from the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor and shows a scene in which the principal figure sits next to an eight-rayed Macedonian shield resting at his feet. According to some sources, it would depict Antigonus II Gonatas (the son of Demetrius I of Macedonia) with his mother, Phila, or simply be the personification of Macedonia and Asia/Persia.

Another magnificent fresco is still in situ at the Villa of Poppea, Nero's wife, in nearby Oplontis. A life-size view of the Temple of Apollo with eight-rayed Macedonian shields painted between the columns covers a wall in the large sitting room. Wow! 

Later rulers and countries held Alexander and Macedonia in great esteem, and the Romans' admiration is an obvious example!

Saturday, March 4, 2023

Another isolated Hellenistic Mausoleum

Years ago, upon leaving the site of Ptolemais in Libya, I was pleasantly surprised by the remains of a Hellenistic Mausoleum (see: Ptolemais, heritage of the Ptolemies in the Cyrenaica). It looked abandoned and neglected; nobody could tell me anything about it. 

Presently, another similar Mausoleum has been spotted in Darende, near Malatya in eastern Turkey. In antiquity, the city’s name was Melitene, a vital crossing point over the Tigris River not unlike the role played by Zeugma (see: Zeugma, Border-town along the Euphrates River) and Dura Europos (see: Dura Europos, last stop on the Euphrates). It was also the end of the highway coming from Caesarea, modern Kayseri. The Romans fortified Melitene in the 2nd century AD to control access to the upper Tigris and southern Armenia and to defend themselves against the invading Parthians. Procopius of Caesarea, living in the 6th century AD, described Melitene’s theaters, agoras, and temples, of which nothing has been discovered until now. 

Scholars have established that this Mausoleum has the shape of a Greek temple built in Hellenistic style, not unlike the well-known Nereid’s Monument in Xanthos (see: Xanthos, the greatest city of Lycia), now at the British Museum in London. Based on its appearance and decorative features, the Mausoleum of Darende has been dated to the 2nd century AD. 

This building is meant to honor the deceased, although no inscription of any kind has been found to reveal his name. The monument shows four Ionian columns attached to the brick wall on each side. Between the columns and approximately four meters above ground are closed window niches, except for one on the west and one on the east side, which are open. All niches are framed between two small columns and crowned with an arch. Underneath each niche are thick wrought garlands like those often carved on Roman sarcophagi. 

The Mausoleum is about 6.5 meters high and is built in a perfect square of 6.65x6.65 meters outside. The entrance door was on the west side. The inside shape is rectangular, measuring 3.48x4.5 meters. This difference is because the interior chamber has a barrel vault supported by a thicker north and south wall. 

Presently, a restoration project has been started to support the damaged parts of the Mausoleum to preserve it in the best way possible for the future. The dirt covering the original stone floor will be removed, and the roof will also be cleared. 

Today, the Mausoleum lies hidden among the vast apricot orchards for which Malatya is famous, as the region provides 80% of Turkey’s production.

Monday, February 27, 2023

About daily life after Alexander the Great

How exciting to read about daily life as it was after the conquests of Alexander! It sounds like a fiction story, but the truth may be closer than we think! 

Artificial Intelligence, AI, in short, is a relatively new digital means that offers endless possibilities with unexpected results. Machine learning is a branch of AI researchers use to read faint traces of ink on still rolled-up papyrus scrolls. If successful, this technology opens exciting possibilities to decipher Herculaneum's thousands of carbonized scrolls. 

These latest results have been published in Live Science. The study concentrates on an otherwise “lost book” that supposedly discusses the dynasties that succeeded Alexander. 

Although till now only small fragments can be read, hopes are high to learn more about the Macedonian leaders that followed in the wake of Alexander. So far, the names of Seleucos and Cassander have been recognized together with “several mentions of Alexander himself!” 

[Picture from Live Science, credit Michèle Hannoosh]

The “lost book” is one of the many works discovered at the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum. Other books contain writings by Philodemus of Gadara, an Epicurean philosopher who lived from c. 110 until 30 BC and resided in the city. 

The fragile carbonized scrolls ended up at the Institut de France in Paris. Over the years, several attempts were made to unroll the scrolls, but they failed. The papyri crumbled into bits and pieces or volatilized into pure dust. 

Clearly, AI gives us new hope to unravel more about our past.

Friday, February 17, 2023

An introduction to Pyrrhus of Epirus

It was quite a surprise to stand face-to-face with Pyrrhus in Albania. It happened at the entrance to the Skanderberg Museum in Kruje, where his life-sized bust stood right next to the imposing relief figure of Skanderbeg, Albania’s hero. 

Pyrrhus of Epirus was a great-nephew of Olympias and cousin of Alexander the Great – not a small introduction. He was born in c.319 BC – not the right time to be the heir to the Molossian throne of Epirus. He got caught up in the fiery dispute between the sons of Cassander and Thessalonica, and reigning briefly as a minor he had to flee his homeland. He joined the court of Demetrios I (Poliorketes) as an exile, and in 301 BC, aged 18, he fought at the Battle of Ipsus

As a pawn in the War of the Diadochi, Demetrios, to befriend Ptolemy gave him Pyrrhus as a hostage. That’s how Pyrrhus arrived in Alexandria. Well, it was not the worst place to grow up, and Pyrrhus most certainly took advantage of the situation, not unlike what Philip II had done at the court of Thebes. He made his way in Egypt and eventually married one of Ptolemy’s daughters, Antigone

Four years later, in 297 BC, with Ptolemy’s support, Pyrrhus returned to Epirus and began taking control of his own life. He started expanding his kingdom by annexing Illyria. His ambitions were not small, for when Antigone died, Pyrrhus made three diplomatic marriages to live peacefully with his neighbors. His first wife was Lanassa, the daughter of Agathocles, tyrant of Syracuse. Her dowry was the islands of Leucas and Corcyra (modern Corfu). The next bride was the daughter of King Audoleon of the Paeonians living north of Macedonia. His third marriage was to Bircenna, daughter of the Illyrian King Bardylis II. Demetrios Poliorketes as king of Macedonia, it should be said, had married Pyrrhus sister. 

By 288 BC, Pyrrhus turned against Demetrios and succeeded in getting the Macedonian army on his side. With Lysimachos as his new ally, they jointly ruled over Macedonia. Only for a while, though, since Lysimachos still had his mind set on all of Macedonia and expelled Pyrrhus. 

Once more, Demetrios and Pyrrhus made peace, which was again short-lived. When in 286 BC, Demetrios invaded Asia Minor, ruled by Lysimachos; the latter asked Pyrrhus to invade Thessaly to attack Demetrios from GreecePyrrhus soon defeated Antigonus GonatasDemetrios’ son, who surrendered Thessaly to him to make peace. 

Pyrrhus’ empire now included half of Macedonia, larger Epirus, and Thessaly. Yet, he still wanted more and eyed Magna Graecia, including the wealth of Sicily. His opportunity arose when Taras (modern Taranto) called for his help to repel an imminent Roman attack. Pyrrhus led his army across the Adriatic Sea, including 20 war elephants. He was victorious at Heraclea (modern Policoro southwest of Metaponto) in 280 BC and a year later at Ausculum (modern Ascoli Satriano south of Foggia)

At this point, Pyrrhus decided to stay in Italy, offering his help to Syracuse. He successfully lifted the Carthaginians’ siege in 278 BC and, in return, was proclaimed King of Sicily. The Medagliere, the strongbox room at Syracuse’s Museum proudly exhibits coins of King Pyrrhus

His moment of glory would not last either because of the renewed threat from Carthage, ending Pyrrhus siege of Lilybaeum (modern Marsala) in a disaster. The people of Syracuse then decided not to continue the war. The Carthaginians defeated Pyrrhus in 275 BC on his return to Syracuse

At the end of that same year, Pyrrhus sailed back to Epirus, which, in his mind, offered new opportunities as his son, Ptolemy, tried to expand the kingdom. The next campaign took Pyrrhus to Argos in the Peloponnesus, where caught in a narrow street, he was killed by a woman who threw a tile from the housetop. 

This was not the death a man like Pyrrhus would have planned. He had fought in so many battles, always leading his men. He had been schooled by Demetrios Poliorketes, who had walked in the footsteps of Alexander and his father, Philip. He was not meant to die such an inglorious death. 

In the 2nd century AD, Pausanias witnessed a memorial to King Pyrrhus at Argos, integrating a panorama ‘carved in relief.’ The king was buried in his capital Ambracia (a colony of Corinth in Epirus). 

Pyrrhus may have led a glorious life, but the Macedonians resented him because he let his Gauls plunder the tombs of the Macedonian kings at Aegae – an unforgivable crime!

Saturday, February 11, 2023

Wearing silk is immoral in the Roman Empire

With his expansion far into eastern Asia, Alexander had opened a vast section of the Silk Road. In the following centuries, the Graeco-Bactrians, the Indo-Greeks, and the Sogdians played an important role as middlemen in this chain where goods were exchanged between East and West. 

The road between China and the eastern Mediterranean was nearly 6,500 kilometers long. Travel was dangerous, and robberies were frequent. The goods changed hands on the way. In this process, each intermediary increased the price to cover their own expenses and make a profit. 

To reduce the expenses, especially those for the silk from China, the Romans opened a sea route by the 1st century AD. It started near Hanoi in modern Vietnam, with stopovers in harbors on the coasts of India and Sri Lanka, all controlled by China. The shipments eventually reached Roman-controlled ports in Egypt and the northeastern coast of the Red Sea. From there, they could handily be distributed around the Mediterranean

Two centuries earlier, from the 1st century BC onward, silk had become the luxury fashion par excellence. In those days, the Romans still thought silk was obtained from tree leaves. Pliny the Elder tells us that the Seres (Chinese) used the woolen substance from the tree leaves, which they soaked in water and then combed off the white down from the leaves. 

Chinese silk was sold at exorbitant prices. It was far more expensive than gold, which caused a colossal outflow of this precious metal. In fact, the acquisition of silk hurt the Roman economy badly. 

In pure despair, the Roman Senate issued several edicts to prohibit wearing silk, more so since they had decided that silk clothes were decadent and immoral. Seneca (c.3 BC - 65 AD) goes as far as declaring: I can see clothes of silk, if materials that do not hide the body or even one's decency, can be called clothes ... Wretched flocks of maids labor so that the adulteress may be visible through her thin dress so that her husband has no more acquaintance than any outsider or foreigner with his wife's body. 

It is surprising to read that in the 1st century AD, women were still (or again) considered a man’s property, although men themselves didn’t shy away from wearing silk outfits!

Saturday, February 4, 2023

Afghanistan, where history keeps repeating itself

The war in Afghanistan is no longer making headline news since the U.S. withdrew its troops in a sudden and short-term operation. What’s new, we might ask. The answer is nothing. 

Alexander spent three years of his life in Central Asia fighting an ever-elusive enemy of tribes that no longer fought each other but joined forces against the invader. In the 5th century, the Huns wreaked havoc; Genghis Khan, at the head of the Mongols, rampaged the region in the 13th century; Tamerlane repeated the operation a century later; and the Mughal dynasty followed suit in the 16th century. Even Islam spreading brotherhood among men could not achieve any result. The more recent invasions by Britain in 1839-1842 and 1870-1880, the Soviet Union in 1979-1989, and the United States in 2001-2021 only repeated their predecessors’ fatal outcomes.  

Who are we to call Alexander’s campaign in Central Asia a failure when later invaders with far more sophisticated means did not fare any better? Alexander was a military genius, and no one has been able to surpass him – certainly not here in Afghanistan. 

Those looking for a complete analysis on the situation in Afghanistan will find useful information in Frank Holt’s book Into the Land of Bones, Alexander the Great in Afghanistan. The author draws an excellent comparison of Alexander’s achievements with those of later invaders. He asserts that the only way to rule the country should imply that the conqueror subdues every warlord because one single exception would erase all previous successes. Isn’t that precisely what Alexander tried to achieve? 

The French archaeologists who worked in Afghanistan early last century upon the invitation of King Mohammed Zahir were confronted with the double face of the local population. During the day, they gathered around to look and give a helping hand, while at night, they would destroy the statues and steal the precious artifacts. Tribal elderly, generally strong Islamic believers, destroyed many human statues as soon as they were unearthed. Altogether, many unique artifacts were destroyed overnight or disappeared on their way to the Museum in Kabul (see: Le trésor perdu des rois d’Afghanistan by Philippe Flandrin). Typically for Afghanistan, not even the king could overrule the tribe elderly! 

Under these circumstances, it is impressive that the gold treasure from Tillya Tepe, a tomb hill in the northwest corner of Afghanistan, has survived. The content of these six tombs was barely rescued when the Soviet Union entered Afghanistan in 1979 and safely transferred to the Museum in Kabul (see: Bactrian Gold, the Hidden Treasures from the Museum of Kabul). The Museum suffered greatly from the ensuing civil wars and was repeatedly plundered, and artifacts were stolen. The worst, however, was still to come when in 2001, the Taliban decided not only to destroy the huge Buddha statues at Bamyan but also to annihilate the 2,500 statues and reliefs of the Museum. However, a handful of brave Afghans rescued the Tillya Tepe treasure and locked it away in the vaults of the Presidential Palace. They managed to keep the place a secret. By 2004 the government of Afghanistan decided that the situation was safe enough to bring the gold artifacts out in the open again, but the Museum in Kabul was no longer fit to shelter this precious collection. Based on their earlier collaboration, they contacted the Musée Guimet in Paris and, together, they agreed to send these rich finds on a traveling tour around the world. 

Today, with the ruling Taliban, the country is still dominated by its warlords, who consistently cling to their traditions and mistrust all foreign intrusion.