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 in Areia (Herat, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria of the Prophthasia/in Drangiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Arachosia (Kandahar, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Caucasus (Begram, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria of the Paropanisades (Ghazni, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria Eschate or Ultima (Khodjend, Tajikistan) - 329 Alexandria on the Oxus (Ai-Khanoum OR 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 Rambacia (Bela, Pakistan) - 325 Alexandria Oreitide - 325 Alexandria in Opiene (confluence of Indus & Acesines, India) - 325 Alexandria on the Indus - 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)

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Khyber Pass into India

On their return from Sogdiana (see: End of Alexander’s Campaign in Central Asia), the Macedonians spent a well-deserved rest of six months at Alexandria-in-the Caucasus (Begram) in the heart of the Kabul Valley.  Here, Alexander worked hard to reshuffle and reorganize his army.

[Map is from the Encyclopaedia Britannica]

His strategic phalanx was dismantled since it no longer served its purpose after the Bactrian guerilla wars. The mounted Lancers joined the Companion Cavalry together with the skilful horsemen from Bactria and Sogdiana to which he added 2,000 horse-archers from Spitamenes’ nomads.

On another level, the commanding posts needed to be redistributed after the execution of Philotas and Parmenion and the murder of Cleitos. Their detachments were split up between Ptolemy, Hephaistion, Perdiccas and Leonnatus.The Royal Shield Bearers were promoted to the title of Silver Shields (Argyraspids) led by Seleucus and Nearchus, under the supreme command of Neoptolemus. The Royal Squadron of Companions remained under Alexander’s own command. These Cavalry Commanders and trusted squadron-leaders enabled him to divide his army more freely between different locations at any one time.

That winter of 327 BC, the entire army is on the march again with their forces divided in two. Hephaistion and Perdiccas are sent ahead to the Indus in order to prepare the crossing of that river with half the Companions and all the mercenary cavalry. The timing is well chosen to avoid the summer heat upon arrival in India. Alexander with the other half of the troops starts his march up the Kunar Valley into the Swat Valley in modern Pakistan.

There is little or no information about the expedition of Hephaistion and Perdiccas as they are heading east. It is clear that, in order to reach the Indus River they have to cross the Hindu Kush Mountains once again. The obvious route this time leads over the Khyber Pass. Even today, the main road from Kabul to Peshawar runs over the same mountain pass.

The Khyber Pass is situated at an elevation of 1070 meter and is 53 kilometers long. In width, the passage varies between 3 and 137 meters, meaning that the Macedonians had to cope with the inevitable bottlenecks. On top of that, the Khyber Pass is walled in by steep cliffs towering at 200-300 meters above the men’s heads.

It is not known how long it took Hephaistion and Perdiccas to get across the pass, only that they marched to Peucelaotis and hence to the Indus. Their instructions, according to Arrian were that they had to take all the places they encountered, either by force or by agreement.

Peucelaotis, however, resisted. Hephaistion besieged the town for thirty days after which the defenders surrendered, maybe simply because their governor, Astes, was killed in the process. The newly appointed governor was a certain Sangaeus who had deserted Astes some time before to join Taxiles. This made the man trustworthy.

Eventually Hephaistion and Perdiccas reached the River Indus at Ohind/Hund (near modern Attock) in the Punjab. Here, they built a fleet of thirty-oared galleys and a pontoon bridge of linked boats spanning the river, which at this point is at least 400 to 500 meters wide. This operation is not to be underestimated for although the bridge was constructed far upstream in the Punjab region, the river is fed by snow and glacial meltwater from the Karakorum, the Hindu Kush and the Himalaya Mountains and its annual flow is known to be two times faster than that of the Nile or three times that of the Euphrates and the Tigris combined.

Even in antiquity, historians tend to focus solely on Alexander but his generals also excelled in their missions, which were multiplied from Sogdiana and Bactria onwards. The War of the Diadochi that broke out after Alexander’s death certainly proves – if proof needed – how capable each and every one of his generals were. Well, they certainly had an excellent master!

[The Black&White picture is taken by John Burke, 1879-1880]

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Two more bronze ship rams recovered

In recent years, underwater archaeology near the Egadi Islands west of Sicily has yielded several ships’ rams. The counter stood at eleven pieces, of which one was Carthaginian (see: Sicily and the Sea, temporary exhibition in Amsterdam). This year, two more battering rams simply named Egadi 12 and Egadi 13 have been recovered from the sea bottom.

Like the previous ones, these ship’s rams belong to the Punic Wars opposing Rome and Carthage during the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. One of the newly recovered rams carries an antique Punic inscription, which may confirm that it belonged to a Carthaginian ship.

Beside these wonderful and unique rams, ten bronze helmets of the Montefortino type have also been recovered. One of these helmets is decorated with a lion skin motif surrounding the central knob. Interestingly, the one Carthaginian ships’ ram that was presented at the exhibition Sicily and the Sea mentioned above was decorated with a Montefortino helmet.

These results are quite promising for next year’s excavation season!

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Hellenistic gymnasium found in Egypt

After the death of Alexander the Great, his general Ptolemy became the ruler of Egypt and took the country into the Hellenistic world. As his empire grew, more and more Greek speaking settlers moved to the newly founded city of Alexandria and generally to the entire Nile delta.

These newcomers mingled with the natives and soon Greek sanctuaries arose next to existing Egyptian temples. Besides, they also built monuments for their own comforts like baths and gymnasia. In the delta villages, these buildings were generally financed by the wealthy Greek inhabitants and by the men governing the institutions.

In one such village, Watfa, situated five kilometres east of Qasr Qaroun in the Fayum area, the very first Hellenistic gymnasium in Egypt has been discovered. Well, this is what the media tell us. We should not forget, however, that in antiquity Egypt was much larger since it also included modern Libya.  Over there, the city of Cyrene proudly shows its Hellenistic Gymnasium also called Ptolemaion in honor of Ptolemy VIII who built it in the 2nd century BC. When the Romans arrived in the first century AD, they paved the wide grounds and turned it into a Forum, that was eventually called Ceasarion. (see: Cyrene, founded by the Greeks).

Watfa is the modern name for Philoteris, founded in the 3rd century BC by Ptolemy II Philadelphus who named the town after his sister/wife Philotera. It is estimated that in those early years, Philoteris counted approximately 1200 inhabitants of which one third was Greek speaking.

The gymnasium of Philoteris is composed of the main building arranged around a courtyard, a large hall for meetings that was adorned with statues and a dining hall. The running track met the standard racing distance of a stadium, i.e. about 180 meters. It is hard to imagine in this now desert landscape that the gymnasium was once surrounded by lush gardens. No measurements are given but I assume they may come close to the impressive 85 x 96 meters of Cyrene.

In those days, such a grand building was a matter of prestige for here the young Greek upper class would meet not only to be trained in sports but also to learn to read and write, and to enjoy philosophical discussions as was customary in their homeland.

Until now, the existence of gymnasia in the Egyptian countryside was known from inscriptions and papyrus documents only but the find at Watfa is the icing on the cake. It also shows the huge impact the Greeks had in the Egyptian countryside.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Ancient Theater unearthed in Thouria

The Greek Peloponnese seems to be a stepchild when it comes to archaeological discoveries and makes the headlines only occasionally.

Source: E-Kathimerini
 All Images Credit: Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports

This time the news comes from Thouria, which is to be found about ten kilometers northwest of Kalamata at the southern end of the peninsula where a theater from the 4th century BC has been discovered. The remains do not look spectacular as only the orchestra and the first tiers of seats have survived. What is surprising are the three parallel groves running around the orchestra (with a perimeter of 16.3 meters) which suggest that the stage was movable.

The theatre faced the west, offering a great view over the plain of Messenia with in the distance the shimmering waters of the Messenian Gulf.

The site of Thouria was discovered about ten years ago and has been identified thanks to inscriptions found among the shards and architectural remains revealing the size of Thouria. Based on the descriptions left by Pausanias and Strabo, we know that Thouria possessed many sanctuaries like a Temple of Athena, a goddess who was specially honored since her image appears on Roman coins. More famous was the Temple of Atagartis, a Syrian goddess not unlike Venus located next to the fish tanks  - it is not surprising that she was represented as a fish.

A citadel with parts of the antique wall including rectangular towers from the 4th century BC is still commanding the city.

From the classical era all the way down to the Roman occupation, Thouria sided alternatively with the Messinians and with the Spartans although their coins bear the initials of the Spartans.

It will be interesting to follow further excavations in and around Thouria.

[For this picture and more, see Realm of History]

Monday, January 1, 2018

De Griekse Oudheid in Vijftig Levens (A History of Ancient Greece in Fifty Lives) by David Stuttard

Flipping through a book at a shop – in this case the bookshop of the Archaeological Museum of Leiden (Netherlands) - is quite different from buying one via the Internet. Actually holding it in my hands and marvelling at the pictures and the many familiar names made me fall in love with this book and I’m certain this would not have happened clicking through the page on the internet. There is that extra dimension like when holding a paper book as opposed to an eBook.

This is how I ended up buying this Dutch translation of A History of Ancient Greece in Fifty Lives by David Stuttard (ISBN 978-0500252055). Yet the language is not important, it all is about the book’s contents.

Stuttard starts with a chapter Of Gods and Heroes without whom Greece could not exist. Next, he tackles the many men (and one woman, Sappho) who made Greece great working chronologically and putting them in their own historical context: The Era of the Tyrants, Greece in Peril, the Age of Pericles, World War, Fallout, The Age of the Dynasts, In the Shadow of Rome and finally Lives in a Mirror.

Instead of relating the history through battles and dates, he selects key figures from each era and through them projects Greece’s rich past using the views and contributions of politicians, philosophers, kings, artists, generals, etc. The result is a most comprehensive and easy to read history of Greece, taking it to a human scale.

Great care has been given to the presentation of this book, with occasional inserts and appropriate pictures. It makes very captivating reading.

Unfortunately I cannot recommend the translation in Dutch, "De Griekse Oudheid in Vijftig Levens" (ISBN 9-789401-905725) where words have been mistranslated (speaking of Spaniards instead of Spartans, for instance) and sentences have been twisted to mean the opposite of what is intended. I discovered most of these errors in the chapter on Alexander the Great, which makes me wonder in how much the rest of the book is trustworthy. 

David Stuttard has been informed of this unfortunate situation and is taking action.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The ancient city of Phaselis is sinking

It is a well-known phenomenon that the southern coast of Turkey is sinking and this can easily be seen off the coast of Andriake where tourists take tours in boats with a glass bottom to visit the remains of the sunken city of nearby Kekova. This is due to the fact the African platonic plate is pushing against and sliding over the Asian plate.

In antiquity, Phaselis was a privileged anchoring place since sailors could profit from the sheltered Southern Harbor which is generally used by today’s tourists or the Northern Harbor that was and is accessible under all weather conditions, either by southwesterly and northeasterly winds. The Naval Harbor, in turn was located deep inside the Northern Harbor, and clearly was extremely well protected. The harbor slowly silted up creating marshy lowlands where mosquitoes thrived and, in turn, caused health problems. Today, this is a field of waving reeds populated by loud croaking frogs (see also: Phaselis and its three harbors)

Thanks to recent studies, geologists now have determined that almost two meters of ancient Phaselis have sunken under sea level over the past 2,000 years. This is best seen is at the entrance of the Northern Harbor where two islets near the entrance are all that remains of the pier that once connected the lighthouse at its far end to the mainland.

Turkey southern coastline is slowly submerging with averages between three and nine centimeters each year. Once you know what to look for, you can easily find many examples of sunken houses and sarcophagi all along the Mediterranean from Caunos to Patara, to Simena and Side, including Phaselis.

The movement of the tectonic plates generates earthquakes which have hit the areas of Lycia and Pamphylia since antiquity. Especially catastrophic was the earthquake of 141 AD (well-documented because Opramoas of Rhodiapolis donated large sums for the reconstruction of more than 30 Lycian cities between Telmessus in the west and Phaselis in the east) and the one that occurred on the 5th of August 240 AD when the same cities were destroyed once again.

This means that Phaselis is only one such example, but the phenomenon is worth noticing when walking among the beautiful remains of these once so proud and prosperous cities!

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Porus vs. Alexander, the Indian Way

There have been serious discussions on Facebook and other media about the new Porus TV serial presenting history from the Indian point of view. This is a far cry from our Western view of Alexander’s campaign in that part of the world and most probably will come as a shock to us. Besides, a TV series of 260 episodes is far beyond our pace and concept of things.

But then, it may be worth watching at least some of these episodes which are set in grand Bollywood style as after all they may not be too far away from what Alexander found when he arrived in India and met Porus and the other opulent rulers in India. If this kind of pomp and opulence may seem exaggerated to our eyes, just imagine the effect it had on Alexander. It is so much beyond our vision of the world, even today and we easily tend to forget the impact this must have had on Alexander and his Macedonians. It is something to think about when watching this series. The teaser is an excellent introduction to the feel of the setting:


It is obvious that the Indian producers are not following Greek historians literally but the main story line of Alexander winning the Battle of the Hydaspes over Porus is respected. Also, Philip and Olympias are easily recognizable and the Macedonian part – as opposed to India's flamboyant colours and opulent glitter - is tuned down to single coloured clothes and set in classical decors. The actor playing the role of Alexander has been chosen with light eyes and his hair has been discoloured to match the picture we generally have of the Macedonian King (although his body language is not).

Little of Porus exploits have been recorded in Indian history, meaning that there is little information to go by. As a result, the Indian film producers let their imagination flow freely and did not shy away from creating a pretty extravagant setting in which they feel very comfortable, no doubt. The Alexander part, on the other hand, is following a pretty faithful storyline.

So let’s brush aside our prejudices and look at history from a different angle altogether. This is the first episode:


All following episodes can be watched on this link of Sony Liv.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The story of a Thracian Chariot

Speaking of chariots, our thoughts automatically go to Egyptian, Assyrian, Scythian, Greek and Roman examples but hardly any Thracian. The picture of one such Thracian chariot including the skeleton of two horses was a recent top hit on Reddit.

Thracia was Macedonia’s northern neighbor and roughly covers today’s Bulgaria, Eastern Greece and western (European) Turkey. The Thracians were fierce fighters and it took King Philip, Alexander’s father, several battles to finally subdue them. When Alexander crossed the Hellespont into Asia, a contingent from Thracia was among his troops.

In today’s Bulgaria, a tomb of a Thracian nobleman was discovered in 2009. His brick tomb also contained a chariot and the man in armor was buried with precious gifts of gold rings and coins, together with a silver cup depicting a Greek inspired Eros. Typically, this kind of burial was popular 2,500 years ago and continued far into Roman times. To the Thracians, chariots meant prestige, power and authority and they evidently wanted to carry these values with them into the afterlife.

The splendid chariot and its horses seen on the photograph were discovered in 2008. The wooden chariot was covered in bronze but unfortunately the decoration scenes from Thracian mythology are difficult to make out. It is estimated to be 1,800 years old.

The dead horses were not part of the animal sacrifices that accompanied such a burial but pigs, sheep and deer were. It is assumed that the horses pulled the chariot into place and were killed on the spot before being buried together will their owner and all the rich burial goods.

Such tombs are very much sought after by looters who get good prices for the precious sacrificial gifts on the black market. In our present case, luckily, the tomb was excavated before the looters got there and the finds will go to the museum for all to enjoy.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

An Alexandria in Kurdistan - Iraq?

Two and a half thousand years after his death, the name of Alexander is still making good PR. As soon as some ruins or artifacts are being found somewhere near the presumed route the conqueror took during his campaign through Asia, there is a rush to connect them to Alexander. Maybe wrongly, maybe rightfully so – time will tell.

The spot this time is situated in northern Iraq, actually in the Kurdish region near the city of Qalatga Darband which according to some daring researchers could be a city founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BC. Qalatga Darband is located a good one hundred kilometers east of the battlefield of Gaugamela, meaning that the assumption is not entirely improbable. Other theories link the site to the late Hellenistic era or even to the transition period from Hellenism to Parthian rule. The very name translates into Kurdish as “Castle of the Mountain Pass”, a strategic location where the Little  Zab River cuts through the mountain range to empty eventually into the Tigris River.

Qalatga Darband was discovered in 1973, but excavations in this troubled region started  first by the French in 2013 followed by the British in 2016 who used the terrain to train Iraqi archaeologists. Unfortunately the latest unrest after the Kurdish referendum for independence has forced the last foreign experts to leave.

The once so proud archaeological tradition in Iraq is in a very poor state after the Iran-Iraq war, the Gulf War and more recently the invasion of IS. Many sites have been looted or simply bulldozed, meaning that history has been obliterated altogether. Others remain inaccessible and based on aerial and satellite surveys there are still many more to be explored. But the days of excavations by foreign nations are no longer acceptable and the Iraqis will have to do it themselves – hence the training mission of the British Museum that is set to run until 2020.

In the meantime, the discovery of two statues at Qalatga Darband seem to indicate that the site was once a thriving hub on the route from Greece to Mesopotamia and Persia – possibly linking it to Alexander because one of the unearthed statues could be his portrait (a second statue looks like Aphrodite). Of course, it will take far more research and excavations in order to confirm the link with Alexander as there are many gaps in the facts and figures that came to us.

The grass-grown walls of Qalatga Darband, running down to Lake Dokan
The fortifications defended the western border of the young Parthian Empire. In the foreground is one of the square towers under excavation. 

The Kurdish region seems to be rich in archaeological sites as satellite images have found some 354 sites! One of the images taken near Qalatga Darband  and shared in the article from The Guardian shows an overgrown fortification wall interrupted every twenty meters or so by a square projecting tower – a very tempting project!

In the end, I’m afraid that Qalatga Darband is not high on the list of researchers and archaeologists as bigger names from history will claim priority once the staff is properly trained. After all, Iraq is home to rich historical sites like Nimrud, Ctesiphon, Nineveh, Ur, Uruk, Babylon, Borsippa, Hatra, and Seleucia-on-Tigris to name just a handful.