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 (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)

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Knowledge about atoms in Alexander’s days

The knowledge of people in antiquity, and in this case of Alexander the Great, never ceases to amaze me.

This time I came across the ancient Greek philosopher Democritus who lived in the fifth century BC. The information about this brilliant mind often called the father of modern science, is very scanty. Some claim he was born in Abdera, in modern Thracian Greece, around 460 BC, whereas others state that he was born in Miletus in 490 BC. His death is also shrouded in mystery as some sources tell us that he died at the age of 104 or maybe 109. Well, we should not be picky about such details, should we?

Critical, however, is his theory that the universe is made up of tiny “atoms”. On this topic also, historians differ as a similar theory is being attributed to the contemporary philosopher Leucippus although each one is based on a different principle. Nonetheless, the very concept of ‘atoms’ became the staple of the modern scientific tradition.

According to Democritus, everything in the universe is composed of “atoms”, a kind of invisible building stones. Atoms are in constant motion and are separated by empty space. Their number is endless, and they all differ in shape and size. Noticeable is that Democritus described atoms in different shapes, sizes and arrangements, connected to each other with some kind of hooks and eyes, balls and sockets. Most importantly, the concept provided an explanation as to why the idea of a void was necessary in nature. Unlike philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle who were more concerned about the soul, Democritus looked at the world from the practical point of view.

Democritus came from a wealthy and noble family who had strong ties with the Persian King Xerxes. Eventually, he was influenced and/or instructed by Chaldeans and Magi. Democritus travelled extensively to Asia and EgyptHe may have gone as far as India and Ethiopia. On the road, he may have met Anaxagoras, Hippocrates and Socrates, although his real mentor was Leucippus of Miletus who shared his theory of atomism.

As such, Democritus was an incredibly fascinating figure, but when we realize that he lived a good century before Alexander, our view of antiquity takes an entirely different twist. If only because of his teaching by Aristotle, we have no reason at all to doubt that the king was totally familiar with this atomic theory (and many others for that matters).

We still like to file our knowledge away in separate boxes by country or ideology while in reality, the world in antiquity was at least as vast as ours is today.

Those who want to dig deeper into the atomic theory and the role played by Democritus may want to read this article published in The Universe Today.

[Picture of Democritus from The Universe Today]

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Deciphering cuneiform texts

Translating the content of tens of thousands clay tablets is a lengthy and time consuming process that can only be compared with the huge amount of papyri scraps that were recovered at Oxyrhynchus. As far as the papyri are concerned, a new computer based program has been put into place (see: Get involved with Oxyrhynchus) to help and accelerate the translations.

Reading cuneiform signs is a far more complicated operation but it is heartwarming to learn that scientists have been able to get extra help from their computer technology as well. The main problem in processing these tablets is the fact that the signs are tri-dimensional and that the cuneiform characters are very diverse.


Thanks to a breakthrough at the University of Chicago, they are now able to make automated transcriptions, especially of those texts that were recovered from the Persepolis area in 1933. Our knowledge about the Achaemenid history is growing rapidly.

This new technology enables to create a database management platform and over the last five years the system has improved significantly. As a result, scholars have created a good machine learning procedure. Currently over 60 terabytes of digitized high-resolution images have been created and are being made ready to return to Iran

The present collection has led to the creation a dictionary of the Elamite language that can be used by today’s students. The machine learning model can successfully decipher cuneiform signs with an accuracy of approx. 80% already. Being able to translate and identify most of the repetitive parts, frees a lot of time for those experts whose task remains to analyze and interpret the difficult place names or signs that still need closer study.

In the future, the deciphering system can be shared with other archaeologists to retrain it in such a way that cuneiform languages other than Elamite can be translated as well. There still is so much to be discovered!

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Excavations resume at the Sanctuary of Samothrace

You would expect that the Sanctuary of the Great Gods at Samothrace is one the frequently visited sites in Greece. It is surprising, however, to learn that the latest excavations took place some twenty-two years ago. Technology and up-to-date techniques have certainly evolved since then and it will be interesting to hear what this new five-year research project will reveal.

Samothrace is very closely tied to the Royal House of Macedonia, especially since the parents of Alexander the Great, Philip and Olympias first met here. The majority of the buildings date from the 4th century BC, and the Sanctuary reached its peak in the 3rd and 2nd century BC. It was ultimately abandoned by the end of the 4th century AD.

The first excavations will start around the Stoa, the Theater and the so-called perivolos (court surrounded by a low wall) where the famous Nike of Samothrace once stood.

The Stoa is remarkable because of its grand scale, measuring about 104 meters in length. It is the only monument constructed using local limestone from the nearby quarry of Adrotiri near modern Kamariotissa. This is the area where the impressive Nike that is now on display at the Louvre in Paris was retrieved.


The main problem is that in and around the Sanctuary not one single stone from the retaining wall is still in its original place. The inventory made by the archaeologists mentions 1,700 loose pieces of limestone, 1,000 bits of roofing and an endless number of fragments that decorated the interior walls.

The excavating team has high hopes that a 3D digital model of the Sanctuary will provide a better view of the location and proportion of the many buildings. Good luck to them!

Monday, March 16, 2020

Hecatompylos, the end of Darius’ pursuit

After a neck-breaking day and night march over difficult terrain, Alexander finally caught up with Darius at Hecatompylos, near modern Damghan (see: Alexander in hot pursuit of Darius). The exact location has been pinpointed at Shahr-e Qumis in north-central Iran.

Once the body of Darius was sent to Queen Sisygambis for proper burial, Alexander allowed his men a well-deserved rest. Those troops that had not been able to keep up with his excessive speed also regrouped. The army was now two days away from the border of Hyrcania, approximately 200 kilometers from the Caspian Gates. In the wider area supplies were available in great number allowing the soldiers to catch their breath for the fertility of Hyrcania was legendary.

[Picture from the Archaeology News Network]

After the king’s death, the area became part of the Seleucid Empire and from 247 till 224 BC Hecatompylos turned to be the capital of the ruling Parthian Empire. It flourished until it was hit and destroyed by an earthquake in 856 AD and Hecatompylos (meaning one hundred gates) was never rebuilt.

In recent decennia, new archaeologist projects went underway with the main purpose to put Hecatompylos back on the map. It is a tall order since today the wide plains of Shahr-e Qumis are absolutely deserted. The picture published in the Archaeology News Network is not inviting at all and it is hard to imagine how such a great city like Hecatompylos could ever have flourished on the spot. It is a huge field covered with shards resembling an abandoned pottery workshop. This area alone measured seven by four kilometers, which by deduction suggest that the population of Hecatompylos would have counted some tens of thousands. The figure may, however refer to the city’s heyday when it was part of the Seleucid Empire or when it was the capital of the Arsacid dynasty by 200 BC.

Whatever the case, we may expect a great deal of surprises and hopefully a huge amount of monuments ranging from the days of Alexander all the way to the 9th century AD.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Triumphal Arch south of the Cilician Gates

Following the Via Tauri after crossing the Cilician Gates, Alexander was informed that the governor of Tarsus no longer wished to hold the city for Persia and was ready to give up the town. Afraid that the satrap would plunder the city on his way out, the people got scared and called for Alexander’s help.


[Picture from the Archaeology News Network]

At that time, the Macedonians were marching near Anazarbus, which after the first century AD the Romans renamed Caesarea. Eventually, the city grew to be much larger than Ephesos.

Anavarza as the Turks called it today has been constantly excavated in the last decades and revealed a double columned highway, 2.7 kilometers long (see: A double highway in antiquity). So far, 1,360 columns have been unearthed and re-erected together with the entrance gate. This arch, which was built to commemorate the Roman victory over the Persians in the 3rd century AD, was in very poor state.

The picture published recently by thArchaeology News Network proves, however, that the restoration project was well done. The 14-meters high gate is 28 meters long and 5.40 meters wide, a correction of the previous dimensions giving a height of 10.5 meters and a width of 22.5 meters (see: More news from Anavarza, Roman Caesarea) – a quite impressive landmark anyway.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Visiting the tomb of Agios Athanasios

The tomb of Agios Athanasios dating from the late 4th century BC is an absolute gem that is to be found some 15 kilometers"away from Pella. Yet I was not aware that the actual site was open to the public.

Peter Sommer Travels’ Facebook seems to hint in that direction as they hope to include a visit to the grave site during their upcoming tour “Exploring Macedonia” that will run from 9 June 2020 till 20 June 2020.

I remember spending hours on hands and feet in front on the panels and reproductions at the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki (see: The Macedonian Tomb of Agios Athanasios in Thessaloniki) taking in all the tiny colorful details of which there are very many.

The two figures guarding the tomb entrance are often depicted but it must be a very unique experience to see the entire façade as it is meant to discover. The frescoes are far more than static figures, as they highlight how the guests behaved, how they were catered with food and wine, and what they wore for such a burial symposium. The same applies to the military equipment of the infantry standing around.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Alexander and the gods

Alexander took religion very seriously. He respected the gods and made his daily offerings to them according to the Macedonian laws. We may accept that these references to the gods and the omens are part of ancient beliefs. It is, however, challenging for us living in today’s world to understand the role the gods played in antiquity when all major events in life were accompanied by religious ceremonies. It was unthinkable to celebrate a wedding or to organize a burial without the proper rites to the gods.

Nobody really knows what Alexander thought about religion. We don’t even know for sure if he ever believed that his father was Zeus/Ammon and not Philip as his mother claimed. During his visit at Siwah, he is acknowledged as the son of Amon. The matter is deadly serious and not as we might assume, a mere recognition that his mother was right. Claiming to be “the son of Zeus/Amon”, or being recognized as such, sealed his right to this title.

As we mainly concentrate on Alexander’s campaigns with facts and figures, we tend to ignore the role of the gods entirely. However, the king gave thanks to the gods whenever appropriate. He made various offerings, either before entering the battlefield or celebrating his victories afterwards. Such occasions were often followed by expensive banquets and competitions of all kinds.

Almost every single river crossing was accompanied by lavish sacrifices. Many altars were constructed on such sites. The most expensive altars may be those erected at the Hyphasis to mark the border of his empire. These twelve altars, dedicated to the Olympian gods were indeed out of proportion and were reported for being “as high as the loftiest siege-towers and even broader in proportion” (see: Alexander erected twelve altars on the banks of the Hyphasis).

Alexander and his army took these sacrifices and the predictions by the diviners very seriously. What’s more, the troops expected this from their king. At every step, Alexander would demonstrate to his army and followers that he acted with divine approval. The one time he worked against the will of the gods was in Babylon, where the soothsayers/magi advised Alexander not to enter the city. He paid the ultimate price with his life. 

Besides the common Olympian gods as Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Apollo, Artemis, Hephaestus, Athena, Ares, Aphrodite, Hermes and Dionysus, Alexander honored several heroes. Worth mentioning are Achilles, the Dioscuri, Hector, Heracles, Asclepius, Patroclus, Priam and Hephaistion. He consulted the gods through the priests and diviners but also listened to local soothsayers and magi.

We have plenty of examples of Alexander funding the construction or reconstruction of temples. When in Ephesos, he offered to cover all costs to rebuild the Temple of Artemis that burnt down the night he was born. In Babylon, the king had ordered the repair of the Temple of Marduk. He took great care to maintain or repair many temples and sanctuaries throughout his empire. He also accepted foreign gods and goddesses, merging them together with similar deities he and his fellow men were familiar with.

The list of Alexander’s offerings to the gods is quite extensive, and the number may be close to 5,000 according to some sources. That is much and much more than one would even consider at first sight.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Greek statues in blasting colors

We still find it difficult to imagine the buildings and statues in Greek and Roman cities in full blasting colors. In an earlier blog, Ancient Greece in full Technicolor, I marveled about the results achieved through spare reconstructions. 

In recent years, in-depth reconstruction work has been done by the team of Prof. Vinzenz Brinkman. For more than 15 years they analyzed the pigmentation of antique sculptures using digital methods whereby the originals were left untouched. New technical photographic techniques using UV-light and –reflectography enabled them to disclose the painted parts of the statues. Even those areas where no pigment had survived could be revealed thanks to the chemical and mechanical transformations on the surface which happened over the centuries. Based on those discoveries, they applied the matching colors on copies of existing statues. The results are absolutely mind-blowing.

The earliest examples were on display at the Liebieghaus in Frankfurt some 15 years ago, and the collection has travelled around the world ever since. Today, however, the artifacts have returned to Frankfurt where they are presented in a larger expanded exhibition. 

Since the first exhibition Bunte Götter in 2008, the number of colorized reconstructions has doubled and includes some antique bronzes with their color touches as well. Over 100 objects from international museum collections can be admired in their “original” colored version. Besides, another sixty artifacts from recent years have been added to the collection, including some pieces from the 19th century. A selection of 22 graphics completes the exhibition. It is a genuine and unique opportunity to submerge oneself in antiquity from an entirely different point of view. 

It is noteworthy that rather than merely coloring their sculptures, the Greeks and Romans managed to expand the formal and narrative structure of the objects. 

The exhibition Bunte Götter – Golden Edition. Die Farben der Antike will run until 30 August 2020 at the Liebieghaus in Frankfurt.

[Pictures from Liebieghaus Museum in Frankfurt]

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Flooded area of ancient Smyrna to become open-air museum

Dialogues between archaeologists and government officials are always difficult. That is nothing new, and the situation in Izmir is no exception.

After demolishing an old shopping center to construct a new one in 2016, historical remains were exposed requiring the attention of archaeologists. They discovered an ancient bath complex, a gymnasium, several shops and storage areas dating from the 2nd century AD. In fact, these buildings had been newly built after a major earthquake hit Smyrna in 177 AD.
The Greek orator and author, Publius Aelius Aristides Theodorus, in short Aristides had delivered a great speech just a year earlier that deeply impressed Emperor Marcus Aurelius who was visiting at the time. So, when Smyrna, as Izmir was known in antiquity was destroyed by the said earthquake, Aristides appealed to Marcus Aurelius. His plea was so impressive that enough imperial funds flowed into the reconstruction of the city. In thanks, the people of Smyrna erected a bronze statue of Aristides in the marketplace. It carried the worthy inscription “For his goodness and speeches”.

Thanks to Aristides, we have a perfect picture of Smyrna’s dazzling gymnasiums and many baths, its agoras, theaters, temple sanctuaries, and harbor area.

To save whatever remains of the ancient city, authorities agreed that the ruins should be preserved, but since 2018 the entire project is on hold because of a recurring problem with the groundwater.

As time passed, nothing was done to protect and secure the archaeological site. As a result, the groundwater kept rising, and excessive rainfall raised the water to an even higher level. It is clear that this water table causes physical, chemical and biological degradation of the exposed walls and floors. 

Instead of building a shopping mall, the construction company will now collaborate to protect the site and create an open-air archaeological area that should be completed in August 2020. Maybe we should put a question mark behind the date, I wonder?

Priority should be given to a drainage system to safeguard the site from any future flooding. The constructors have great ideas to cover the mosaic floors with glass panels and by doing so, to protect them from the weather conditions. Such glass panels can only be efficient as long as the groundwater problem is thoroughly solved. Let’s hope it will work out and that this part of Smyrna will soon be accessible for tourists.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Merv, Alexandria Margiana

The origins of Merv seem to go back to Cyrus the Great, who founded the city in the 6th century BC. As Margu it is mentioned in the Bisutun inscription (see: The Bisutun relief of King Darius I), meaning that it was one of the many satrapies ruled by the Achaemenids.

It is still uncertain whether Alexander took Merv in today’s Turkmenistan, although the area Margiana became part of his empire. When he was in Central Asia, he may or may not have conquered the city. According to some theories, it was Craterus, who founded the town. If this were the case, Alexandria Margiana would be the first and only “Alexandria” founded in Alexander’s absence. A questionable assumption. If Alexander went to Merv, the only plausible time would be while he was in Bactra, in modern Afghanistan. Pending confirmation and further excavations, this question remains unanswered (see: Alexander in Bukhara).

In any case, after the king’s death, Alexandria Margiana became the capital of Seleucus’ Empire. It was his son, Antiochus I Soter, who expanded the site and built the fortress of Gyaur Gala. He named it after himself, Antiochia Margiana.

The rulers of the later Graeco-Bactrian Empire, the Parthians, the Kushans and the Sassanids all recognized the importance of its strategic location. Before the arrival of Islam, Merv was renowned for its Buddhist monasteries and stupas.

Its defensive walls were almost eight kilometers long, fortified by sturdy towers. Through one of the four entrance gates, traders and other visitors would access the clean streets divided in quarters among the branches of the Murghab River and its canals. The principal buildings were the mosques and madrasas, libraries and bathhouses. The market place was centrally located and well-organized. Under the Seljuk sultans, Merv was enhanced with a palace and several administrative buildings.

As a significant stop-over on the prosperous Silk RoadMerv was a welcome oasis full of gardens and orchards surrounded by richly cultivated lands amidst the barren Karakum Desert. Some sources tell us that around 1150 AD, Merv was the largest city in the world. Merchants from as far as India, Iraq and China would have crowded the narrow streets and spent the night in one of the many caravanserais. Besides the trade of silk, Merv was also famous for the high-quality cotton that was grown in the nearby fields.

Unfortunately, Genghis Khan razed the city to the ground killing all its 700,000 inhabitants. The many dams and dykes that supported an efficient network of canals and reservoirs were forever destroyed. Genghis Khan and his Mongols annihilated this life-blood so thoroughly that Merv never truly recovered, in spite of the numerous attempts to rebuild and resettle the city over the centuries.

By 1888, Merv was entirely abandoned. George Curzon, who was Viceroy of India from 1899 to 1905, visited the remains at that time. He describes the city as “Very decrepit and sorrowful looked those wasting walls of sun-dried clay, these broken arches and tottering towers; but there is magnificence in their very extent and a voice in the sorrowful squalor of their ruin.”

Merv today exposes, in fact, four separate walled cities. The oldest settlement from Achaemenid times is Erkgala, whereas the Hellenistic and Sassanid capital Gyaur Gala is built around the Erkgala fort. The Abbasid/Seljuk city is Soltangala and the largest as it sits on the edge of Gyaur Gala. Just south lies the smallest town, Abdyllahangala, which was founded by the descendants of Tamerlane. 

The archaeologists are clearly facing a daunting task. A joint team from Turkmenistan and the UK worked here from 1992 to 2000. A year later, a new collaboration was started between Turkmen authorities and the University College London. It will be fascinating to learn if they ever retrieve some relics of Alexander’s short passage in the area.

[Pictures from The Guardian]