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 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 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)

Friday, March 22, 2019

Turquoise mining site unknown to Alexander?

China is a long way from Alexander’s path but I can’t help wondering how much of China the Greeks knew after all. The subject has been developed in an earlier post The First Emperor, China’s Terracotta Army and Alexander the Great.

Anyway, a mining site in the eastern province of Xinjiang yielded more than 1,200 turquoise artifacts. Beside a large amount of pottery and bronze items, some textiles, and pieces of stone and bone were also found.

The mining site of approximately 8 sq km is located close to the ancient Silk Road and was active during two well-defined periods: the Spring and Autumn Period ranging from 700 to 476 BC, and the Warring States Period that covered the years 475 to 221 BC. This last end date coincides with the foundation of Qin’s Dynasty, i.e., that of the First Emperor. Interestingly, it is known that by 334 BC (during Alexander’s lifetime), there were seven Warring States: Qin, Chu, Wei, Han, Yan, and Qi, who were very much divided.

The discovery of the turquoise source seems to confirm industrial exchanges between Xinjiang and other regions of China. Based on these facts, it is not entirely impossible that Alexander had some knowledge of those far eastern states.

In any case, the influence of Hellenism in China has been established with the life-size and life-like terracotta figures of athletes (see: Alexander’s influence reached all the way to China) and with the vast terracotta army in the tomb of Emperor Qin (see: The First Emperor, China’s Terracotta Army and Alexander the Great)

The first archaeological surveys started in 2016 and will continue later this year.

Monday, March 18, 2019

The site of Kasta Hill and the Tomb of Amphipolis

Kasta Hill is a huge tumulus made of limestone having a perimeter of almost 500m which can easily be spotted from nearby Amphipolis. It is a landmark that inevitably impresses any visitor.

Since 2014, the hype of the Tomb of Amphipolis has traveled around the world as a wildfire but now that the fever has subsided, it is time to consider a number of facts that has been established since.

A first serious link with Hephaistion based on a monogram found at the tomb site was mentioned in an earlier blog (see: Amphipolis, a Heroon for Hephaistion?). Meanwhile, some have argued that this tomb was meant to contain the remains of both Alexander and Hephaistion but this does not look very plausible for different reasons.

Firstly, since only Alexander could be the one ordering the construction of a tomb for Hephaistion, most probably soon after his death in 324 BC. At that time, there was no reason for Alexander to plan his own grave next to his friend’s. We should keep in mind that Alexander could afford to call on the best professionals in every field from all over the world – which he frequently did. In the present case of building a tomb and/or memorial for his dearest friend Hephaistion, no expense was too high or too extravagant. It has, however, not been established what happened to the remains of Hephaistion after his body was burnt on the elaborate pyre that was built for him in Babylon. Most probably, the bones were washed in wine the Macedonian way, wrapped in a luxurious cloth (probably a purple one) and placed in a precious (most likely gold) casket or larnax that was lavishly decorated with precious stones. Alexander may have kept this larnax in his tent pending the burial in the tomb at Amphipolis but as the king himself died before returning to his homeland the project never materialized and it remains everybody’s guess what happened to the remains of Hephaistion. Besides, it is difficult to imagine who would have cared enough about him to take charge of the matter.

Secondly, and in spite of his deep love and affection for Hephaistion, Alexander was first and foremost the King, King of Macedonia and what’s more King of Kings. He was well aware of his kingship and what it meant for the people he had conquered, especially for the Persians. In his position, it was totally impossible for the Great King to be interred in such a far away place as Amphipolis. It may have been Parmenion to suggest that city as he still belonged to “the old Macedonian stock” and was convinced that the body of Alexander should return to Macedonia to be buried with his ancestors. But the body never arrived in Macedonia as it was diverted to Egypt instead.

On the other hand, there is the hypothesis about the image of the Rape of Persephone that is considered to be a common link between the Royal Macedonian tombs. The second chamber of the Amphipolis tomb contains indeed a mosaic floor depicting Persephone abducted by Pluto, god of the underworld. It has been suggested that this picture ties the tomb to the Macedonian royal family.

The oldest representation is to be found in the tomb of Eurydice, the mother of Philip II and Alexander’s grandmother. The next and probably most striking picture of the Rape of Persephone is the one associated with the tomb of Philip in Tumulus of Vergina. It is, however, important to note that it is not part of Philip’s tomb but painted on the wall of another tomb in the same tumulus, making it a weak candidate for belonging to Macedonian royalty. All in all, that hypothesis is not very convincing either.

A last theory or speculation that arose around the Tomb of Amphipolis is even stranger than the previous ones but, who knows, it may contain some truth after all. It has been calculated that on the day of the Equinox of 21 December the sun lights up the third room of the Amphipolis Tomb and would at some point shine in a straight line from Delphi. Well, for what it is worth …

The excavations at Kasta Hill have been stopped for now but with the material gathered so far the archaeologists have their work cut out. As always, we have to wait and see what will happen next.

[Picture of the Rape of Persephone from Vergina is from reddit]

Thursday, March 14, 2019

A Celtic imitation of Alexander’s gold stater

Slovenia does not immediately spring to mind when it comes to archaeology but this message is truly an exception.

[Picture from RTV Slovenia - Photo credit ZRC SAZU]

Earlier this year, archaeologists were at work in Podzemelj unearthing as many as fifteen graves dated back to the 4th century BC. Among these finds was a bronze belt with a gold coin, and this coin happens to be a Celtic imitation of an Alexander the Great stater, with Nike and Athena on the reverse. These figures are helpful to narrowing the coin down to the first half of the 3rd century BC. Finding such a stater in Europe is very rare.

Among the grave goods, they found some pottery together with spears, fibulae, belt buckles, etc. Further study will tell us more about these kinds of burials, which strangely enough were almost void of human remains.

The origins of Podzemelj go back to prehistoric times but the city continued to exist into the Roman era as some inscriptions have confirmed. The town lies in southeastern Slovenia, close to the border with Croatia – definitely a region where one will not expect finding anything related to Alexander!

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Tomb of Darius I reveals new inscription

Excavations in Persepolis and at the nearby tombs of Nasq-i Rustam started nearly two hundred years ago, and the sites have been explored in the decades that followed.

The latest discovery was made in the upper right corner of the relief façade decorating the Tomb of Darius I at Nasq-i Rustam. A tri-lingual inscription in Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian had until now remained hidden underneath a coat of dirt and lichen.

A more in-depth description of the site has been given in one of my earlier blogs, Achaemenid Tombs at Naqsh-i Rustam and Persepolis.

Of course, using the modern technology and a special crane, researchers were able to access the corner above the head of the figure on the far right. The text has not (yet) been disclosed but academics specialized in ancient Iranian language are very excited because it contains valuable information about the inner circle of the Achaemenid kings, their associates and advisers. It also transpires that this inscription adds new verbs to all three languages.

The archaeologists evidently hope to find more such inscriptions which can be added to what is known so far about the archives of Persepolis.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Alexander at Thermopylae

Nothing much is left of this once so highly strategic pass. All we can see today is a flat rather fertile plain gently sloping down from tall mountain walls to the sea at the distant horizon.

Hard to imagine that it was here that the historical Battle of Thermopylae took place in 480 BC between Leonidas of Sparta and King Xerxes of Persia. For two full days Leonidas, the leader of the Greek city-states, was able to pin down the Persians at this pass until he was betrayed by a local resident who guided the enemy troops behind the Greek lines – a tactic that was to be used repeatedly by Alexander during his eastern campaigns. When Leonidas realized that he was trapped, he dismissed the bulk of the Greek army and fought a last stand with his 300 Spartans.

This act of bravery can only have fired Alexander’s imagination, especially considering that for him this battle took place less than 150 years earlier. Meanwhile, other battles had been fought here like the one his father led on his way to Chaironeia two years before and in which Alexander took part.

Today there is nothing to remind us of Alexander’s (or Philip’s) passage at Thermopylae, only a memorial monument erected in honor of the Spartan King Leonidas. The center piece is a most splendid modern statue of Leonidas in classical style carrying the famous inscription “Come and take them”, i.e. the words addressed by the Greeks to Xerxes who demanded their surrender. On either side of Leonidas runs a relief depicting battle scenes ending on the right hand side with a marble figure of Taigetos, representing the highest mountain in the Peloponnese and on the left hand side the personified Evrotas, a river of Laconia. This monument stands pretty much at the edge of the old coastline that follows the adjacent modern highway.

It is here at Thermopylae that Alexander, after the murder of his father, summoned the members of the Amphictyonic Council, basically responsible for managing the oracle of Delphi. With their pledges of support, he is able to rally northern and central Greece to his cause – a minor detail in his later campaigns but a very important one in these early days of his kingship.

Thermopylae, meaning literally Hot Gates, is named after the hot springs that bubble up near the historical pass. The hot springs are still working today and it is quite exciting to sample the hot water temperature as the soldiers of Leonidas and Alexander must have done. What a rewarding way to get in close touch with the past.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

The Punjab, Land of Five Rivers

One close look at the map will make you realize that the Punjab is an enormous alluvial plain that counts far more than the five main rivers. Situated at the foot of the Himalayas, it covers a surface of over 50,000 square kilometers, and its watershed is fed by snow and glacial meltwater from the world’s highest peaks like the Karakorum, the Hindu Kush, and the Himalaya Mountains.

The Achaemenids had only conquered the lands west of the Indus, meaning that once Alexander crossed this mighty river he entered uncharted territory. Modern historians do not spend much time following the king’s march further east and his countless river crossings but rather focus on battlefields, sieges, and other ruthless fights. However, each and every crossing including the countless tributaries is an enormous logistic enterprise. It makes you wonder how many of these rivers, streams and waterways the Macedonians had to cross with any means available. That alone is a gigantic task!

After taking the Aornos Rock, Alexander headed for the Indus River where Hephaistion had worked hard to build a pontoon-bridge across the river as well as a fleet partly new and partly reassembling the elements which had been carried along. The crossing of the Indus took place at Ohind, modern Hund in north-western Pakistan (see: Alexander crossing the Indus at Ohind).

Once his troops reached the opposite bank, Alexander headed for the capital Taxila at the junction of the major trade routes from Bactria, Kashmir and the Ganges valley. This was the realm of Omphis, the son of King Taxiles who had visited Alexander while he was still in Bactria and died before his arrival in India. Beside sending provisions to Hephaistion during the construction works, King Omphis welcomed Alexander with 200 silver talents, 3,000 oxen, 10,000 sheep, 30 elephants, and 700 Indian cavalry and 5.000 infantry.

The next river Alexander had to tackle was the Hydaspes (modern Jhelum) where the famous battle against King Porus took place (see: The Battle of the Hydaspes and the genius of Alexander), a masterpiece and a genius enterprise that was never surpassed.

As casually mentioned by Arrian, Alexander marched on through the populous region taking some thirty-seven towns and a large number of villages as the natives surrendered without much protest. Their lands were graciously handed over to King Porus.

The following obstacle was the Acesines River (modern Chenab) which was so wide and swift that Ptolemy found it necessary to mention it in his biography used by Arrian. It is hard to simply imagine a three kilometers wide river and how much one could see of the opposite bank. The Macedonians used boats to get across but navigation among the rocks was a true challenge and many were broken up and the men swept away with the current. The floats for the baggage and horses fared much better as they were far more shallow than the boats but the trip was nevertheless one more logistic challenge.

The Hydraotes River (modern Ravi) was another major river on Alexander’s path, and as he marched through these lands most of the Indian tribes surrendered without resistance. Those who refused were, of course, taken by force. Sangala was such an exception (see: The siege of Sangala). The tribes nearby the city had sought and found refuge inside its strong walls. Eventually, Sangala was taken by an assault in which up to 17,000 Indians were killed while over 70,000 were taken prisoner.

The last of the five major rivers was the Hyphasis River (modern Beas). Here, the Macedonians bluntly refused to follow Alexander anywhere closer to the edge of the world in spite of his eloquent and fiery speech. This was a serious blow to the king’s ego and pride but after three days he issued the order to retreat.

Obviously, Alexander withdrew in style, and after building twelve altars (see: Alexander erected twelve altars on the banks of the Hyphasis) to thank the gods for having led him so far as conqueror and leaving an impressive memorial to his own accomplishments, he turned around having to cross the Hyphasis, Hydraotes, and Acesines once again. He sailed down the Hydaspes to ultimately reach the Indus River.

Some scholars consider Alexander’s experience in the Punjab as useless and a waste of time but it is hard to believe that he would do anything without reason. He would not endanger the life of his Macedonians lightly and he certainly would not have invested nine months of this life on a sole whim. Judging Alexander’s conduct with today’s eyes is impossible, besides we only have sparse historical documentation to support his decision-making.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

A solid gold bust of Septimus Severus

Gold, like bronze and silver, is a commodity that over the centuries was melted down time and again by whoever possessed the precious mineral and wanted to transform it for his own use. This is why large bronze statues are so rare and the examples we have in our museums these days generally come from underwater archaeology where they were hidden from view. Large gold objects are even more rare.

This brings me to this solid bust of Emperor Septimus Severus made end 2nd/beginning 3rd century AD. It was found in 1965 among the ruins of ancient Plotinopolis, a city founded in the early 2nd century by Emperor Trajan who named it after his wife Pompeia Plotina. Plotinopolis was actually built on top of the Thracian and Hellenistic town of Didymoteicho which the Romans sacked in 204 BC.

The city was ideally located on the banks of the Bulgarian Maritsa River that becomes the Evros River when it enters eastern Greece. The surrounding plain was very fertile and controlled a branch of the Via Egnatia.

Today Plotinopolis is called Kale after the Turkish word for castle as it lies south of Edirne, Turkey although only 20 km north of Soufli in the Thracian Province of Greece.

The magnificent gold bust of Septimus Severus can be admired at the Archaeological Museum of nearby Komotini – certainly worth the detour!

Friday, February 22, 2019

A private museum becomes a family feud

The private museum is in fact a collection of works of art held by the Torlonia family in Italy, the largest privately owned marbles and paintings in the world.

The value of its 620 marbles, the villa and its painting gallery has been estimated at nearly two billon Euros. It belonged to Prince Alessandro who had mainly moved these artifacts to the basement of his villa to collect dust. What a shame!

Anyway, the fact remains that with the death of the prince, the heirs are fighting over these treasures and the matter went to court. The judge’s decision was not to disperse the goods, certainly not among the heirs, and to take into account that this is a unique Italian artistic heritage.

Most of the artifacts result from archaeological excavations made by the family on their own land but also count pieces that were “purchased” from noble families in need of cash. Prime items are, for instance, the colossal head of Apollo of Kanachos, the Athlete of Myron, the relief of Portus which was the immense port of Rome, and the sarcophagus of Hector. Experts have labeled this collection as being more important than that of the Capitoline Museum or the Vatican Museum.

Prince Carlo Torlonia would like to see these works of art exhibited together in a museum with his name while the other heirs would gladly sell it even if it were to be dispersed among interested parties in the United States. It has been confirmed that in 2016, for instance, at least thirty experts came to Rome to asses the works.

Pending to shed some light on this unhappy situation, the Italian judge has for now stopped the succession procedure.

Italy’s patrimony is at stake, of course, but after all art belongs to everybody and there should be a way to make these rare works of art available to all.

Monday, February 18, 2019

The Gold of Macedon. Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki

As an exception, I am including this booklet about the gold collection from Macedonia which is an important section of the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki (The Gold of Macedon, ISBN 978-960-214-269-1).

Not only is this booklet a very useful tool while visiting this grand collection but it also provides a clear insight into the technology and use of gold, especially in the wake of Alexander’s conquests that triggered the circulation of huge amounts of this precious metal in the ancient world.

Of course, the presence of gold was known throughout the Mediterranean from early antiquity onward and, as a start, the museum as well as the book present a very useful map of the main gold mines. This is followed by an overview of the various uses for gold, from jewelry and coins to pure decorative items.

The third chapter is treating the technology involved from its mining, to the array of techniques developed in creating gold objects and in the process of gilding. Several examples are given, including drawings to illustrate the complexity of handling this malleable ore with splendid detailed photographs.

The booklet and the exhibition end with the immense richness of the Macedonian cemeteries. Beside functional objects, there is a true wealth in artifacts that accompanied the dead into the afterlife no matter whether they were interred in simple pit-graves, cist-graves or in elaborated tombs and sarcophagi. Noteworthy are the Macedonian cemeteries of Sindos (121 graves), Pydna (some 2,500 graves), Aghia Paraskevi about 500 burials), Nea Philadelphia (180 graves), Katerini, Aenea, Lete, Stavroupolis, Europos, Cassandreia, etc. But the major part of this collection comes from the Derveni cemeteries, northwest of Thessaloniki that yielded countless refined objects among which the world-famous Derveni Crater occupies a place of honor (part of Tomb B that yielded over one hundred objects alone).

This booklet not only provides an extremely useful insight in the exquisite artwork produced by the craftsmen of the 4th and 3rd centuries BC but it also gives an exceptional view of the wealth available after Alexander’s death.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Into the Plains of the Danube River

After their fierce battle at Mount Haemus (modern Shipka Pass in Bulgaria at 1150 meters), i.e. the major thoroughfare from Philippopolis to Gabrovo and Veliko Tarnovo, the road was open for the Macedonians.

Alexander’s next goal was the Triballi who lived south of the Danube. On his way north, he crossed the Lyginus River (modern Yantra) near Veliko Tarnovo. It is here, according to Arrian, that the bulk of the Thracians sought refuge on an island in the river as soon as the Macedonians had passed through. When the young king heard the news, he reacted in a way that became so characteristic for him in the years to come: he retraced his steps to face the enemy head on. He managed to dislodge the unsuspecting Thracians and ran them down. As a result, 3,000 of them were killed but many escaped through the dense woods.

At this point, Alexander was only three days march away from the Danube. On his way through the broad fertile Danube plain, he captured several Triballi strongholds before reaching Odessos, modern Varna on the Black Sea. Today, these flats are covered with endless fields of sunflowers, colorful patches among the gold of the harvested cornfields. One may wonder whether sunflowers were cultivated back in antiquity but it turns out that the plant is native to North America and thus arrived much later.

Odessos is one of the many colonies founded by Miletus around 585-550 BC which functioned according to the Greek administrative pattern (see: The many colonies of Miletus). It was an important trading hub exchanging goods with Asia Minor and the Greek islands as well as with the Thracians living inland. Odessos proudly resisted the siege of Philip in 339 BC but on this occasion was taken by Alexander. The town flourished later on when Lysimachos ruled over Thrace after Alexander’s death.

Today’s treasure of Varna is to be found in its Archaeological Museum with the precious artefacts recovered from the so-called Varna Necropolis. This burial site counted 294 graves from 4600-4200 BC and has yielded some of the world’s oldest gold which is exquisitely exhibited – a must see!

This is just a parenthesis as Alexander marched on to dislodge the Triballi and the Thracian tribes who with their wives and children had taken refuge on Peuce Island at the mouth of the Danube.