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)

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Dilemma at Pakistan’s National Museum: save it or trash it?

One example of many is the looting of some 395 rare artifacts that had been seized in 2012 as they were underway to Faisalabad, Pakistan. The experts claim that they belong to the Gandhara Civilization (see: Old Buddhist complex discovered in Pakistan) and may have originated from Taxila and Mehrgarh both in modern Pakistan. 

Looting and smuggling is of all times and happens everywhere – unfortunately! We praise ourselves when the police track down the culprits and their precious cargo in order to return it either to its initial finding place or to the nearby museum where, we assume, the unique artifacts will be taken care of. 

[Picture from Archaeology News Network]

Sadly, in the present case, such a straightforward assumption is far from reality as it involves the National Museum of Karachi. It has transpired recently that hundreds of artifacts and dozens of archaeological sites have been seriously neglected by the country’s authorities responsible for the preservation of antiquities. Among these objects are five sculptures of Buddha heads, three of them standing four feet tall and two about three feet. Instead of being carefully studied, cataloged and stored away, they have been found on top of a pile of garbage at said Museum of Karachi. 

This clearly illustrates the incompetence and carelessness of the government officials in place. Lying there in plain sight for many months, exposed to wind and weather, there is no excuse for such negligence! Antiquity robbers and looters are pointed with the finger and highly condemned, whereas government officials are able to get away with such a crime – because it is a crime! 

It has been reported by museum employees who want to remain anonymous that rare treasures from the Indus Valley and similar civilizations have also found their way to the museum’s dump site. The director, however, claims that a total 100,000 objects in stone, wood, metal and even paper are carefully checked and stored; adding that every single piece inside and outside the museum building has been carefully recorded. The museum’s most valuable piece is the statue of the King Priest from Mohenjo-daro, and which the Director says is safely stored away. It is rarely on display, although copies may be shown. 

Whatever is happening in Karachi remains obscure, to say the least, but there is no smoke without a fire and I find it extremely upsetting when our heritage is mistreated in such a manner!

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Antakya’s rich collection of mosaics

Antakya in Turkey is the modern name for Laudetia, which Seleucus Nicator named after his mother. It was later renamed Antioch-on-the Orontes. Today, the city is most famous for its rich collection of mosaics that is displayed in the local Hatay Archaeology Museum and worth a visit by itself. 

It is not surprising that during the construction works to build a new hotel, a mosaic from the 2nd century AD has been discovered. It is being described as a hand-woven carpet and with its 1050 square meters as the largest single piece mosaic in the world – although this may be exaggerated. 

Because of its size and shape, the mosaic will remain in place. It has clearly been wracked by repeated earthquakes in the area (see: Eyewitnesses of an earthquake in Antioch-on-the-Orontes). 

Luckily, the hotel owner sees the archaeological find as an extra opportunity to lure clients and visitors alike and turn his project into a museum-hotel which he’ll name Necmi Asfuroǧlu Archaeology Museum. Beside the mosaic, some 200 artifacts from Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Islamic and Ottoman times have been unearthed and will find a place in this future museum. 

Surely another reason to visit Antakya soon!

[Pictures from onedio]

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

The fertile valleys of the Hindu Kush

Atlas Obscura is a newly created site (2021) aiming “to inspire wonder and curiosity about the incredible world we all share”. In fact, it was an article about the preservation of grapes in the foothills of the Hindu Kush that caught my attention. 

The location is the village of Aqa Saray at about half an hour drive north of KabulAlexander land, as far as I’m concerned. The place is described as being surrounded by vineyards and fruit trees. 

When Alexander arrived in the area in late 330 BC, he realized that it was too late in the year to march across the Hindu Kush (see: From Afghanistan into Bactria across the Hindu Kush). For that reason, he settled his army near Begram (later being renamed as Alexandria-in-the-Caucasus) at the junction of the Cophen (Kabul) River and the Panshir River overlooking a broad plain framed with snowy peaks. The army got a breather of several months in this valley where they found food and fodder in abundance. 

The fertile soil and dry-warm climate are ideal for apple, apricot and cherry trees to grow, as well as for vineyards. Presently, the production of grapes is officially estimated at 1.5 million tons. Further south, it is mainly pomegranates and melons. In winter, however, the snow falls heavily over the Hindu Kush and the mountains are covered with some twenty meters of snow. 

The climate has not changed much since Alexander’s days, so it is easy to imagine that the local people still live the same way as they did then. 

Here in Aqa Saray, there seems to be a living proof of that old heritage being kept alive. They actually are using containers made of mud-straw which they call kangina to preserve their grapes. The containers actually seal off the contents and keep out air and moisture – not unlike our modern plastic containers. The result is truly astonishing, particularly for the preservation of their grapes as they look perfect and remain fresh for at least five or six months, i.e., all through the winter! 

The above article mentions that this technique existed for centuries in these parts of Afghanistan and I can’t help wondering for how many centuries. Maybe all the way back to the days Alexander and his Macedonians occupied the land? 

The making of these containers has no secret. The villagers use the available clay and mix it with water and straw to obtain the desired consistency to create the bowls. They then are left to dry in the sun for approximately five hours. Once the recipients are ready, the grapes are put inside and the containers are sealed with more mud. The Taifi grape is preferred since it has a thicker skin and is better adapted for this kind of conservation technique. These preserved grapes are one of the favorite dishes served during the Nowruz or New Year meals to the many guests who come together for the occasion. 

It would be interesting to be able to turn back the clock of time, wouldn’t it?

[Pictures are from the Atlas Obscura]

Friday, April 2, 2021

The complex site of Taxila

Until now, I pictured Taxila as one big city as it is in modern times. What threw me off was that ancient sources talked about the three ancient cities of Bhir, Sirkap as well as Sirsukh instead of Taxila. Meanwhile, modern archaeology has established that Taxila is composed of 18 separate sites of great cultural value. This demanded a closer and more in-depth study of the matter. 

From the 6th century BC onward, the city of Taxila was known by the Persian Achaemenid kings, who turned it into an important hub on their Royal Road from Persepolis to Central Asia. For AlexanderTaxila was the first major city he encountered on this way into India. It also was the residence of King Taxiles, who came to meet him while he was still in Sogdiana. He had promised to join his forces to those of Alexander but he died before they could meet. True to his father’s word, Omphis (also called Mophis or Ambhi) received Alexander in Taxila (see: Alexander crossing the Indus at Ohind). 

We will recall that Omphis had provided supplies to Hephaistion and the Macedonians as they were bridging the Indus River. When both kings met outside the city, Omphis  handed his fifty-six elephants over to Alexander, together with an impressive herd of livestock including 3,000 bulls dressed up for sacrifices. 

The site of Bhir is actually the place where this meeting took place in 326 BC since Omphis palace stood on top of a mound that carried that name. This same location was later occupied by Chandragupta Maurya (see: Was Chandragupta inspired by Alexander?) and his grandson, Asoka. As the latter introduced Buddhism in the Gandhara region, the first Buddhist monastery was erected at this very spot at some time in the 3rd century BC. By the 2nd century AD, this construction was replaced by the Dharmarajika Stupa, remains of which still are visible. 

With Alexander, Greek knowledge and science reached Taxila. Here, philosophers and the like met and developed science, mathematics and astronomy. 

Sirkap emerged at a later date. After Alexander’s conquest, the eastern part of his empire was ruled by the Seleucid kings till about 250 BC. By then, power was taken over by the self-proclaimed King Diodotus I of Bactria, who laid the foundations of what became the Greco-Bactrian Empire. These Bactrian Greeks advanced into the Gandhara region and erected their well-planned city of Sirkap as part of Taxila. For the next five hundred years, Greek remained the lingua franca and the influence of Greek art and beliefs lived on (see: Unique Hellenistic heritage in Pakistan). 

This link is confirmed by the Greek philosopher Apollonius of Tyana (15-100 AD) who described Taxila as being rich with Greek type of constructions. This happened in the 1st century AD and it is generally accepted that he was talking about Sirkap.

As a result of the heavy traffic on the Silk Road that connected Central Asia to China, business flourished while the population mingled with the Scythians, the Parthians and later the Kushans. Besides silk and other precious goods, Buddhism also spread steadily in the wake of Buddhist monks travelling to China, Korea and Japan. It was under the Kushan emperors that a new form of art blossomed blending classical Greek expression with local art forms. This became known as the Gandhara Art, which produced the most remarkable statues of Buddha and Bodhisattvas (see: Indo-Greek art or the influence of Hellenism on Buddhist art). 

One of the oldest Stupas is the so-called Round Stupa from the 1st century AD. The largest sanctuary is the Apsidal Temple; measuring 70x40m with a square nave and several rooms used by the Buddhist monks. It also presented a building in apsidal shape – hence its name. It may have been decorated by a Greek artist but the earthquake of 30 AD destroyed most of the building. 

Of particular interest in the Double-Headed Eagle Stupa which displayed pilasters of Greek design with Corinthian columns. It has a strange combination of a Greek temple and a Hindu shrine. The ensemble is crowned with a double-headed eagle as originally found in Babylon. The theory is that the idea spread to Scythia and was introduced to the Punjab by the Saka rulers. 

The large Dharmarajika Stupa already mentioned in Bhir, was situated not far from Sirkap. It was built with the sole purpose of housing relics of the Buddha and was surrounded by several monastic buildings. 

The most recent city is Sirsukh, which was founded by the Kushans after 80 AD. King Kanishka had decided to abandon Sirkap and to build his own new city in a typical Central Asian style. The city was surrounded by a strong fortification wall that was almost five kilometers long and more than six meters thick. Its particularity was that the face of these walls was covered with diaper or diamond shaped masonry. Until now, the city proper could not be investigated properly because today it is buried deep underneath the low richly irrigated land. Sirsukh was completely destroyed by the Huns who invaded the Punjab around 500 AD.

Monday, March 29, 2021

A personal approach to the cause of death for Alexander the Great

About two years ago, I posted a blog about the death of Alexander based on the analysis made by Dr Katherine Hall, a Senior Lecturer at the Dunedin School of Medicine and an academic of the University of Otago, New Zealand. Her conclusion was that the king did not die from excessive drinking, poisoning or any other disease, but from the neurological disorder called Guillain-Barré Syndrome, in short GBS (see: Did Alexander the Great die from an infection?) 

It so happened that a few days ago, I saw another article mentioning this diagnosis of Guillain-Barré Syndrome. It was published by the New York Post in early 2019, just like the one I commented on above. The title of their article Alexander the Great was ‘buried alive’ after disease paralyzed him was true propaganda to trigger the attention of the readers. 

This Guillain-Barré Syndrome rang a bell with me and I returned to my own blog to look at the many theories about Alexander’s death. In my previous research, I found that gastroenteritis was presented as the main cause for GBS and I had stopped there. This time, however, I started a new search. As a result, I found that Healthline as well as The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes include a lung infection as a possible cause of GBS although the gastroenteritis is more widely quoted and admitted. This is very distracting because we are led to overlook this lung infection that is mentioned so casually.

At this point, I recalled how Alexander had been fatally wounded during the Malian attack and how he hovered for many days between life and death. An arrow, three feet long, had hit him piercing through his corselet deep into his chest above his breast. It has not been established whether the barbed arrow had been readily removed by Perdiccas who cut it out with this sword upon the king’s order or if it was skillfully operated by his physician. Alexander was hemorrhaging and lost a lot of blood. Because the arrow punctured the wall of his lung, the king was breathing air and blood through the cut, meaning that he suffered excruciating pain at each and every draw of breath. In time, his skin stuck to his lung and according to some sources the wound kept oozing a mixture of fluid and blood. History, afterwards, remained silent about the health conditions of the king.

It is clear, however, that Alexander never entirely recovered from this injury. His extensive march through the Gedrosian Desert will not have done him any good and the unhealthy conditions of the marshes surrounding Babylon were a fertile ground for infection. This is precisely what I was thinking of when I read that GBS may have been caused by a lung infection. His immune system had attacked his nervous system, which led to gradually paralyzing his body, including the eyes but not his brain! Hence the title of the article that Alexander was buried alive.

The death of Alexander remains shrouded in many mysteries because so much has been hushed and covered up. After the king was pronounced dead, we are flooded with stories of the many conflicts among his generals about his succession but it appears nobody showed any concern for Alexander’s body. None of the ancient authors like Arrian, Diodorus or Plutarch spend any ink on what happened next; they all remained silent about it. 

Only Curtius tells us what happened afterwards:“when at last his friends had leisure to care for Alexander’s lifeless body, those who had entered the room saw it corrupted by no decay, nor even by the slightest discoloration. The vigor too which comes from the breath of life had not yet left his face. And so the Egyptians and Chaldeans who were ordered to care for the body after their manner, at first, as if he were still breathing, did not dare to lay their hands upon him; then after praying that it might be right and lawful for mortals to handle a god, they emptied the body of entrails, the golden coffin was filled with perfumes, and the emblem of his rank was placed upon the king’s head”. 

This could mean that Alexander was in a coma during those days of neglect or that he was in a state of near-death. The medical knowledge of that time had no way to diagnose this as we would today. However, it is comforting to hear that the priests prayed that it might be right and lawful for mortals to handle a god before they started the embalmment. I like to believe that their prayers were answered.

Among modern historians and as far as I know; only Robin Lane Fox has put his worries about Alexander’s health in writing. He stated that the wound would hamper the king for the rest of his life and that walking would be “an act of extreme courage” – nothing less! Whenever possible, Alexander travelled by horse, chariot or boat. So much for the faithful reports of our historians!

In the end, it is my personal opinion that this Guillain-Barré Syndrome is a very plausible cause for Alexander’s death and not his presumed drinking bouts as advertized by ancient and modern historians alike.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

All’s well that ends well

End of 2017, I wrote a post about Caligula’s megalomania (see: A sample of Caligula’s megalomania) and the pleasure vessels he built for his own entertainment at Lake Nemi, some 30 kilometers south of Rome. 

Caligula’s pleasure vessels were short lived as he was assassinated about a year after they were launched. After being stripped of their precious content, they were intentionally sunk. Over the past 2,000 years, fishermen and treasure hunters regularly retrieved small treasures from the wrecks. Among those finds was a square piece of inlaid marble which features a geometric pattern using green and purple porphyry, serpentine and molded glass. It was acquired by a private party in the early 1970s and was turned it into a small coffee table. 

Apparently, the owners were not aware of the mosaic’s origin until an unexpected encounter in 2013 revealed the true origin of the marble piece. 

Today, it has been announced that the looted treasure has been returned to Italy where it has found a place in the Museum of Roman Ships on the shores of Lake Nemi.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Corinth before the canal was built

 It is common knowledge by now that Corinth was famous for having two harbors. As the city is straddling the isthmus between mainland Greece and the Peloponnesus (less than 4 miles wide), it needed an access to both the eastern and the western side. 

Lechaion, looking towards the Gulf of Corinth, served the western sea routes to Italy, Sicily and beyond to Spain. The harbor of Kenchreai, in turn, is situated on the Saronic Gulf from where the ships sailed to and from the Aegean, Asia Minor, Syria and Egypt. Before the modern canal was built, goods had to be transported overland from one port to the other. Lightweight and heavy warships were hauled using a platform along the road connecting Lechaion to Kenchreai. This road is known as the Diolkos. 

For more than two thousand years this cobblestone road was the only means to move between the eastern and the western harbor of Corinth, unless one would round the Peloponnese peninsula, a long and risky detour of about 190 miles. 

Last year, a thorough restoration project was set in motion to protect this ancient roadway, which is still clearly visible in some areas. It ran over a distance of approximately 5 miles and had an amazing width that ranged from 3.5 and 6 meters. This marvel of technology appears to have been created at the end 7th century/early 6th century BC. It was meant to transport goods as well as warships across the isthmus, and functioned far into the Roman times. 

So far, about 1,100 meters of the western section of the Diolkos has been uncovered but it has not been traced on the eastern side at the Saronic Gulf. It seems that at its northwestern end, a paved platform had been constructed to tow the ships on land. With the help of cranes, they were then placed on wheeled structures and pulled by slaves using two main tracks running 1.5 meters apart. 

Although the Diolkos ran roughly parallel to the Corinth Canal, it did not follow a straight line. S-shaped turns in the road and grades of no more than 1.5% made progress hazardous. To keep the ships on the tracks, the road was studded at places with fortifying walls. A true prowess of engineering.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

The mystery about Alexander’s Wall

What is known as Alexander’s Wall is a section of the Elburz Mountains located about five kilometers east of the Caspian Sea. From what Michael Wood showed us is his documentary In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great, it looked like a straight dike in the landscape. 

Although Alexander may have passed the Caspian Gates, the obvious opening in this wall during his pursuit of Bessus in 329 BC, there is no indication why this wall was named after him. He most probably had nothing to do with its construction, even if he is known for having built comparable defenses in Margiana. 

From the geographical and historical point of view, this wall separates the arid lands in the north where the Scythians used to live from the fertile lands to the south, which were overall in Persian hands. 

Recently, archaeologists established that at least a part of the wall can be dated back to the Achaemenid Empire (6th-4th century BC). Later research revealed baked bricks, which were carbon dated to 47-570 AD. This may well fit the theory that the construction of this wall took place under Khusrau I who ruled from 531 to 579 AD. This Sassanid King is known for having defended Hyrcania against the Huns of Central Asia. 

Research in the area is very difficult because over the centuries much of the stones and bricks have been removed to serve as construction material elsewhere. 

The link to Alexander, however, has been kept alive mainly through the Quran. Here it is said that Dhûl-Qarnayn (The Horned One) erected a large wall to keep out the Barbarians, which the Quran calls Gog and Magog. As we know, The Horned One is a name attributed to Alexander as son of the Egyptian god Ammon depicted with ram’s horns. 

If we follow what the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus wrote in the 1st century AD, the Scythians crossed the passage in the wall which was used previously by Alexander, and shut the opening with iron gates. Also the Syrian Christians mention the story of Dhûl-Qarnayn shortly before it appeared in the Quran. It is reportedly based on a letter which Alexander wrote to his mother. This is not unlike what is mentioned in the Alexander Romance back in the original version from Alexandria of the 4th century AD. This means that the story, true or false, existed already before it was included into the Quran.

However, history and legend once more go hand in hand when talking about this Alexander Wall because two more sites have been identified by that name. They are situated on the western side of the Caspian Sea as they blocked the passage across the Caucasus Mountains. The most favorite version is the one mentioned by Marco Polo as the Caspian Gates of Derbent. This wall stretches over a distance of 40 kilometers and is marked by 30 fortification towers. True or not, it is up to us to make up our own mind! 

Friday, March 12, 2021

Old Buddhist complex discovered in Pakistan

Alexander the Great and the later Greco-Bactrian Empire with its unique artistic expression eventually led to the emergence of the Kushan Empire that ruled much of modern Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern India from 30 AD to 375 AD.

It is remarkable that the common thread through that part of history is Buddhism, which existed already in Alexander’s day and still lives on today. Hellenistic art, however, was soon picked up by the Buddhist sculptors and painters to explode in fascinating and vivid artwork that lived on to the end of Kushan dynasty in the Gandhara civilization. 

The Swat region in Pakistan is very remote and only occasional archaeological excavations have been carried out. Consequently, today’s discovery of a Buddhist monastery in Barikot (Bazira in antiquity) from the 1st century AD is headline news. 

It is a vast complex in the center of a small valley composed of several stupas, meditation halls and a school where philosophy was taught. The Buddhist monks lived in small cells cut out of the mountain walls above. 

The most remarkable feature at this Abbasahib-China Buddhist site are the fresco paintings. Six of these figures are intact and depict Buddha in different poses, including the Namaste (greeting) pose. The frescos are not only rare, they are said to be unique since no other example of such wall painting have been discovered so far in the Gandhara  area. It is difficult to see the real beauty of these paintings because they are set in niches situated right underneath the ceiling. Scholars speak of a new chapter in the historical records of early Buddhism in Swat. 

Until now, it was believed that Swat and Gandhara  possessed an important painting school but this could not be documented until these intact murals were found. A serious plea is made to preserve this unique archaeological site! 

Overall, there seem to be approximately 150 Buddhist heritage sites in the northwestern corner of Pakistan alone, including the Swat Valley. So many treasures are still hidden and awaiting to be discovered!

[Pictures from The Archaeology News Network]

Monday, March 8, 2021

The Gate of Cyrus at Pasargadae (near Persepolis)

About five years ago, I mentioned that the foundations of a city gate had been discovered in Pasargadae (see: Archaeological research resumed at Pasargadae). At that time and pending further research, it was assumed that it had probably been built by Cyrus the Great to celebrate his victories.

By now, archaeologists have been able to prove that this gateway had indeed been built upon the orders of Cyrus and that it was actually used from the reign of his son, Cambyses onward. Although the article published in the Archaeology News Network speaks of a gate near Persepolis, it is clear that we are talking about the same monument. After all, Pasargadae lies only 40 kilometers from Persepolis.

This imposing gate measured 30 x 40 meters and once stood 12 meters high. It was entirely made of mudbricks which were covered with glazed bricks as we know from Persepolis, for instance. However, the composition apparently was inspired by similar decorations from Babylon where the lower section was embellished with lotus flowers and the higher portion of the wall displayed mythical animals.

The colors have faded dramatically but the outlines of the flowers and animals are not too difficult to recognize.

Also noteworthy is the fact that the central rectangular room of 8 x 12 meters bore cuneiform inscriptions in Babylonian and in Elamite.

[Pictures are from the Archaeology News Network]