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, October 23, 2021

The missing piece in the puzzle

The story began in 2017 when a Belgian art collector put several archaeological elements up for sale. The European art catalog offered pieces belonging to a Daunian funerary stele, which were noticed by a State Archaeology lab in Apulia, southeast Italy. 

The stele presented by the Belgian collector was missing its centerpiece. An official from the restoration lab had noticed that the missing part was exhibited in the museum’s collection. It represented a warrior on horseback and his shield. 

[Picture from Archaeology News Network. Credit: Italian Carabinieri Art Squad]   

This was indeed the proverbial missing piece in the puzzle, which set in motion the complete investigation. Soon, Italian authorities recovered nearly 800 separate artifacts which the Belgian collector had gathered illegally. The pieces included Daunian steles, red figure vases, black glazed Apulian ceramics, amphorae and a great number of terracotta figurines. The artifacts have been dated to the period between the 6th and the 3rd century BC, and their value has been estimated to 11 million Euros. 

Luckily, the rare collection has been repatriated to Italy after all the legal appeals of the collector were dismissed. That is an excellent result, of course, although the items have all been taken out of their context and sadly we’ll never know to which grave or tomb they once belonged.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Travelling surprise in Greece

Knowing where to go and what to see is very important in any travel plan, but some surprises can turn out to be true gems. 

It so happened that I could visit the recently excavated cemetery of Akanthoy, near Ierissos, North Chalkidikis. The finds date roughly from the 7th-6th century BC, i.e., before Alexander and thus something he would have known.

According to Thucydides, the ancient city of Akanthos was founded as a colony of Andros, or, if we follow Plutarch, jointly by Andros and Chalkis in the middle of the 7th century BC. It sat on top of a prehistoric settlement. The city took the side of the Persians both in 499 BC (First Persian War) and 480 BC (Second Persian War) and sided with the Athenians in 431 BC during the Peloponnesian War. With the expansion of Macedonia under Philip and Alexander, Akanthos was incorporated into their kingdom. In 200 BC, the city was plundered by the Romans and became a mere province. 

The cemetery has been located underneath the modern city of Ierissos. It has yielded more than 14,000 findings confirming that the site was used all through the Roman age. The best artifacts have, of course, been moved to the Archaeological Museum of Polygyros. 

One of the fascinating spots I happen to stumble upon by chance is these lovingly cared-for tombs discovered in 2014, where everything is kept in situ. I admire the work of the archaeologists who managed to unearth these tombs from different eras in superposed layers while leaving each one undisturbed by the excavation of the others. 

Jars of all sizes and shapes (varying with time) alternate with small tombs, roofed or not. A few poignant small tombs still contain the cremated remains with their original grave goods on top – little earthen pots and jars that helped define the burial date. Also, skeletons of what seem to be young children are surrounded by toy horses and miniature vases. There also are many larger rectangular tombs in terracotta.

Outside, in front of an unmarked building, many larger pots have been collected, some wrapped in protective plastic. They are all waiting to be cataloged and studied together with smaller items filling colorful crates. Archaeology requires a lot of patience!

Friday, October 15, 2021

An introduction to the Scythians

The Scythians are mentioned in different contexts throughout my blog, but they have never been discussed as a people. 

[Picture from World History Encyclopedia.  A map illustrating the expansion of the warrior nomad Scythians between the 7th and 3rd century BC across Asia and Europe. (Simeon Netchev - CC BY-NC-SA)]

We have to go back to Herodotus in the 5th century BC who mentions the Scythians for the first time. The author concentrates on Ukraine, although his description might well extend to the tribes in Central Asia. When talking about the Scythians, we refer to many different tribes roaming the steppes north of the “civilized” world. Their habitat stretched roughly from the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea (north of Persia) to Central Asia and the desert of Mongolia. At this far easterly end, the Chinese protected themselves from Scythian invasions by building their famous Chinese Wall. 

Generally living in small bands, they attacked the cities and towns situated south of their extensive east-west frontier. After a more or less sudden devastating incursion, they would withdraw with their booty into their vast nomadic Eurasian steppe lands. Over the years, some tribes settled as farmers, but they were not interested in founding cities of their own. 

In Central Asia and Persia, the Scythians were called Sacae as both tribes shared the same Indo-European language and lifestyle. These Sacae called Skudat, which the Persians understood as Sakâ. The Greeks, in turn, used the name of Skythes or Skythai. No wonder that the Scythians show up so often in history under a different disguise. 

The Persians suffered repeated attacks from the Scythians, who, even shortly, dominated the Medes in the 7th century BC. They are also known to have played a significant role in the Sack of Nineveh in 612 BC. 

As a result of Miletus’ colonization, the Kingdom of the Bosporus emerged (see: The Kingdom of the Bosporus). It reached its peak between the 6th and the 3rd century BC. During that period, the new settlers maintained strong cultural and trade relations with the Scythians. Over the centuries, the kingdom with its capital of Panticapaeum became a melting pot of civilizations as the Greeks mingled with neighboring Pontic Scythians. 

An earlier blog, A cast helmet from Central Asia, discussed a helmet found near Maracanda, in the tomb of a Sacae leader. The technique of cast helmets was customary in China, which proves that these nomadic Scythians lived far to the east. This particular helmet dated from the 6th century BC and became obsolete afterward. 

The Massagetai tribe living near the Aral Sea also was Scythians. In 529 BC, Cyrus the Great attacked this tribe, ruled by Queen Tomyris. That happened after Cyrus’ negotiation to marry her failed. She bluntly refused to submit to him. As a result, the king attacked her and her tribe and died on the battlefield. 

The Scythians also successfully withstood Darius the Great’s attack at the beginning of the 5th century BC. Later that century, the Pontic Scythians took possession of Thrace. 

In the 5th century BC, the Odrysian Kingdom was founded – merely a union of more than forty tribes which turned Thrace into a powerful state. The Odrysians and the Scythians had reached peaceful relations through their inter-dynastic marriages, which led to establishing the border of their lands at the Danube River. Both peoples mingled and were generally recognized as Scythians. Their agreement, however, was not meant to last as, in the end, southern and central Thrace was divided among the Odrysian kings. Eventually, Philip II conquered their land in 340 BC. The Getae ruled the northeast section. 

Alexander attacked these Getae after his pursuit of the Triballians to the banks of the Danube River in 335 BC. The Triballians had sought refuge on an island. Instead of attacking them in that awkward position, Alexander decided to isolate them and go after the Getae on the other bank of the Danube. He managed to ferry 4,000 infantrymen and 1,500 cavalry across the wide river by night. No wonder that the Getae were in shock when they woke up with this army on their land and fled to the hinterland (see: Crossing the Danube River). 

A noteworthy Odrysian Thracian is Sitalces. His true origins remain relatively obscure, but apparently, he was a prince, maybe even the son of King Cersobleptes of the Odrysian Thracians. He joined Alexander’s army and proved to be a competent commander who led the Thracian javelin-men on more than one occasion. The Thracians appear again at the Battle of Gaugamela. They were placed with the main body of the Macedonian troops, under the command of Sitalces once again (see: Sitalces, commander of the Thracians). Sitalces was also one of the three generals who, on Alexander’s orders, executed Parmenion in Ecbatana (see: The Philotas Affair – Part II – His judgment and execution). 

Back in Central Asia, we should mention the story of a Scythian chief named Karthasis, who offered one of his daughters – most probably one of those warlike Scythian young women - in marriage to Alexander. The King declined, but the story may well have triggered the tale of the Amazons. 

In 329 BC, Alexander marched north to Cyropolis, a city founded by Cyrus the Great. But Cyropolis was situated about 10 km away from the Jaxartes River. Alexander felt that it didn’t serve his purpose, i.e., to protect the country against the nomads inhabiting the lands beyond the majestic river. He decided to build a city of his own, Alexandria-Eschate or Alexandria-the-Furthermost (Ultima), right on the banks of the Jaxartes – the location of today’s Khodjend in Tajikistan. Shortly after starting his project, a general revolt broke out, and the entire area exploded into armed resistance, making it clear that the Macedonians were not welcome.The Scythians on the opposite shore of the Jaxartes also grew furious. Consequently, Alexander set the crossing of the river in motion. He conceived a flotilla of large rafts made of stuffed leather tent covers, rigged together and covered with a sturdy platform. These rafts could carry a heavy contingent of men and even the horses. Besides, Alexander equipped them with long-range catapults, a kind of machine the Scythians would discover for the first time.

When the Scythians recovered from their first shock and surprise, they played their favorite maneuver by riding and attacking in circles. Alexander threw in a mixed force of infantry and cavalry and successfully broke the circle, sending the Scythians to retreat after being hunted down by Alexander for several miles into the desert (see: Alexandria-Eschate and Cyropolis). 

The above gives insight into the Scythians' link between Greece, Persia, India, and China. It may somehow have laid the foundation of the Silk Road as a vast trade network. 

Although the Scythians have no written records, they left us substantial archaeological evidence of their high skills in metalwork. Monumental burial mounts across the Eurasian steppe reveal high-quality jewelry, weapons, vessels, horse harnesses, belts, and other decorative items, mostly made of gold. 

Inevitably, some of these Scythian tribes, such as the Pontic Scythians, settled as farmers, while others kept roaming the vast steppes from Mongolia to the Black Sea area. In the early Middle Ages, the most westerly tribes blended in and mixed with the early Slavs.

Monday, October 11, 2021

A ceremonial chariot discovered in Pompeii

Contrary to general beliefs, Pompeii has not been entirely excavated, although archaeologists restarted their work in the last decade or so. Here as everywhere else in the world, excavations are tributary of the political situation in the country and of the finances made available to carry out the works. Archaeology progresses with stops and goes, which by itself is not as bad as it may sound because technology continually improves. 

At present, excavations occur in the vast area known as the Civita Giuliana, close to the north walls of Pompeii. This section of the city has miraculously escaped looting by grave robbers who dug tunnels very close to the site. 

All sorts of treasures have been brought to light recently, but I feel that the discovery of this four-wheeled carriage is worth highlighting. It so happens that it emerged from a portico with two levels that stood next to the stables. In 2018, archaeologists found three horses in one of the stables. The surviving wooden ceiling had to be consolidated, cleared, and removed to investigate the lower level. 

The pictures shared by the official website The Archaeological Park of Pompeii remind me of those of the Thracian graves of Doxipara (see: Thracian tombs of Doxipara). These tombs date from the beginning of the 2nd century AD, i.e., not so much later than the examples buried in Pompeii after the disastrous eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. 

In both cases, the most striking elements are bronze and tin ornaments. Since the ashes of the Vesuvius froze life in time, the excavation site revealed mineralized wood remains and near-perfect imprints of ropes and floral decorations. Excavating these fragile elements was a daring experience for the archaeologists, and it took them weeks to safely remove the chariot and its ornaments. Besides, the rooms holding the chariot are partially buried under and alongside modern houses. 

Scholars have described this particular type of chariot with four wheels as a Pilentum, used in community festivities, parades, and processions. However, ancient sources also mention the Pilentum for marriage rituals to bring the bride to her new home. 

Scientists and archaeologists agree that this is an exceptional find “in an excellent state of preservation.” 

[Picture from Pompeii site]

The excavation of the chariot posed severe challenges and archaeologists had to proceed carefully to not disturb the imprint left by the wooden shaft and platform of the chariot. The void left in the soil was carefully filled with plaster to reveal the carriage in all its complexity. 

The chariot proper measured 90 x 140 cm, and this is where the seat was located, delimited by metal arms and backrest offering enough space for one or two persons. The frame was richly decorated with alternating engraved bronze sheets and wooden panels painted in red and black. On the other hand, the rear is divided into three registers showing bronze and tin medallions displaying male and female figures in erotic scenes. The top register is filled with small medallions depicting busy cupids, and the bottom register displays a small female herm wearing a crown. 

It was possible to trace the imprint of a large horse whose bronze harness survived in the adjacent stable room. Two more horses were discovered, one lying on his left side and the other on his right side, but their imprint has been disturbed by grave robbers who dug tunnels through this section of Pompeii. However, separate bronze harness elements have been found. 

There is still very much to be discovered here at Pompeii as on other archaeological sites in the area.

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Paphos, the King’s Tombs that belong to no King

One of the most appealing sites of Paphos may well be the so-called “Tombs of the Kings,” although the name is very misleading. No king has ever been buried in any of these underground tombs, but the place is impressive all the same. I stumbled on this peculiar site quite by accident, surprised by the name and location, hardly two kilometers from today’s town of Paphos. 

The “Tombs of the Kings” is an amalgam of underground tombs and burial chambers that create the feeling of a small city – a city of the dead that is. It started to be used as early as the 3rd century BC by Ptolemaic aristocrats and functioned till the 3rd century AD. The burial practice continued into early Christianity when tombs became chapels. Today it has been declared a World Heritage Site. The graves are carved out of solid rock and show a definite Greek, if not Macedonian, influence. The use of this style is not surprising since Cyprus was part of Ptolemy’s heritage after Alexander the Great’s death. The prosperous island (see: Focuson Paphos, Cyprus) was subject to quarrels until the competitive Diadochi finally settled their differences. 

Some tombs appear like miniature houses with a central court surrounded by Doric columns shading frescoed walls. Not all columns are fluted, but the architraves and door lintels often are crowned with the typical frieze of alternating triglyphes and metopes, including the regulae and guttae. In the courtyard and corridors walls, we find niches meant to hold the remains of individual corpses. The space in between the niches displays exciting reliefs. It is not difficult to mentally recreate a lively picture of the costly grave goods and jewelry looted in ancient times. Some of these villa-like constructions are rather elaborate, with arched passageways and staircases running up and down. Originally most walls and tombs were covered with stucco and enhanced with frescoes, of which many traces have survived. It was customary to celebrate the anniversaries of the deceased loved ones with a ceremonial meal, sharing the food with the dead. The custom was common in antiquity, but here the practice creates a rather homely feeling. 

One of the tombs has a large block left uncut in the middle of the atrium, creating more niches. Archaeologists have counted 18 burial sites here, all from Hellenistic times, and three of them were still intact. One of these three contained the remains of a child buried in a terracotta pipe, while the two other tombs revealed precious gifts like a gold myrtle wreath and a fine amphora from Rhodes. 

It is a highly unusual site and most definitely worth a visit!

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Looting, looting and more looting

Treasure hunters are of all times, from the Assyrians and Egyptians to the Greek, Roman, or Byzantine times. They don’t care about the tombs, the churches, or city remains as their only concern is to find valuable artifacts, mostly gold objects. These treasure hunters ignore that their finds are out of context forever. Archaeologists arriving on the site after the robbery generally miss too many pieces to recreate what is lost. 

Turkish authorities have assessed that curfews and lock downs to prevent the spread of Covid have encouraged both professional and amateur looters to carry out illegal digs all over the country. 

Turkey is extremely rich in archaeological sites, many of which have not been excavated yet. It is unfortunate to hear the Ministry of Culture and Tourism confirm that during the past two years, some 3,365 illegal excavations occurred. Of those, only 26 cases were caught red-handed.  

It is hard to imagine people able to move across the country unnoticed by local authorities. As reported by an archaeologist, the looters used generators, hammer drills, and other pieces of machinery. The noise made by such equipment is heard from afar, especially in the countryside. Still, the treasure hunters could work unnoticed by local authorities? 

Monumental tombs around the ancient site of Sardes (see: Sardes, the capital of ancient Lydia and a key-city for Alexander’s Successors) have been destroyed forever. Other examples of looting abound, from a thousand-year-old sarcophagus from the Byzantine or Seljuk time to the destruction and robbing of Armenian churches in search of gold mainly. It remains challenging to trace the smuggling route of the artifacts abroad. 

The pandemic has caused the loss of human life all over the country, but nobody could expect this surge of illegal hunters, causing another loss to the history of humankind. 

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Excavations at Dascylium

We’ll remember that the city was the capital of Hellespontine Phrygia, which Alexander took after the Battle of the Granicus in 334 BC (see: Heading for Dascylium and Sardes). 

[Picture from Archaeology News Network - Credit: Anadolou Agency]

This year, archaeologists recovered a relief from the 5th century BC, i.e., well before Alexander’s conquest, showing Greek soldiers trampled by Persian warhorses probably referring to one of the Graeco-Persian wars. They assume that the artist's purpose was not to glorify either army but to create a work of propaganda.

Unfortunately, the Archaeology News Network doesn’t tell us what led them to this conclusion. The pictures they released are not too clear as they show the team cleaning parts of the reliefs rather than the scene itself.


During their excavations, the archaeologists also exposed sections of a stone and mudbrick wall. This is a rare find from Phrygian times, i.e., the 8th century BC. The remaining wall is 40 meters long, five meters thick, and four meters high. However, because the mudbrick sections have not survived, the original height is estimated at seven or eight meters.

Friday, September 24, 2021

The collection ship rams from Egadi keeps growing

The number of ship rams recovered from the Egadi seabed keeps growing after each excavation season. My last count dated from 2019, when the counter had stopped at sixteen Roman and two Carthaginian rams (see: Still recovering ship rams from the Egadi Islands). 

Today's latest news is that two more bronze rams were excavated in 2021, bringing the total discovered to twenty-five. I must have missed last year’s discoveries. 

[Picture from The Archaeological Network - Credit RPM Nautical Foundation] 

It is incredible that the battle site at the Egadi Islands, where the Romans fought for supremacy over the Carthaginians in 241 BC, is strewn with so many shipwrecks. The ships themselves have, of course, disintegrated over the centuries, but the bronze battering rams remained intact. 

The sheer scale and rampage of this battle are beyond our imagination. Hundreds of ships sought to destroy their opponent by maneuvering in such a way that the prow of the ship where the ram was situated would hit the enemy in the flank and sink the vessel. The stakes were very high as Rome aimed to control the Central Mediterranean, where Sicily occupied a central position. 

The diving site of Egadi has yielded many more objects made of non-degradable material like bronze helmets and cheek-pieces, dozens of lead slinger bullets, together with Hellenistic and Roman coins. 

A vessel from the first half of the 4th century AD emerged from the same area. It appears to be a big merchant ship loaded with amphorae made in Lusitania (an ancient province in the southwest of the Iberian Peninsula) and Baetica (in the most southerly corner of Iberia - Spain). 

After 16 years of diving, the archaeological site of the Egadi Islands has not disclosed all its treasures, and investigations will continue in 2022.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Imagine young Prince Alexander playing football

Sports occupy an important place in men’s lives from an early age onward. This statement is not new, for we are all very familiar with the Olympic Games held in Olympia as early as the 8th century BC. This four-yearly event included javelin throwing, running, long jumps, boxing, and chariot racing, but the list did not mention football. 

[Picture from The Greek Reporter]

The football first appears on a relief kept at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. The picture shows a man balancing a ball on his thigh in front of a boy. The scene on the stone vase dates from the third quarter of the 4th century BC. 

We might assume that the man is showing his son how to control the ball looking with our modern eyes. It may be far-fetched, but the fact remains that since 1958 this very picture appears on the trophy cup for the winner of the UEFA European Championship. It was the work of a silversmith from Paris called Chobillon. 

The UEFA competition is held every four years, just like the ancient Olympic Games. The football tournament makes an obvious link with today’s Olympic Games as they took place in the same year. 

Given the date of the Greek vase, 400-375 BC, we may safely assume that young Alexander and his friends knew the game and probably also played it. 

In ancient Greece, the football game was called Episkyros and played between two teams of 12-14 players on each side. The material used to make the ball is unknown, but I’d be surprised it would bounce like its modern counterpart. One team was supposed to throw the ball over the other team's heads using hands and feet. A white line, the Skyros, was drawn to separate the teams and another line behind each group of players. The purpose of the team was to force their opponents over the backline. How that would show in scoring points is lost over the centuries.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Recent excavations in Myra and Andriake

Any excavation is a long process and none is ever entirely completed. Future generations deserve their part of the research, and modern technology will allow different approaches and views. This is also the case in Myra (see: Ancient Myra from Finike) and its harbor Andriake see: Andriake, port of Myra ). 

Last year (2021), work at Myra  was concentrated on the orchestra of the theater. It is quite exciting to hear that the excavators have reached the Hellenistic level. We will remember that initially the theater was Greek and that the Romans adapted it to their taste. Archaeologists dug to a depth of 4 meters where they unearthed Lycian structures. These obviously antedate Hellenistic times. 

Further excavations in Myra  are hampered by the fact that modern Demre is built right on top of the ancient city and expropriations are a sore subject – here as well as elsewhere. 

In Andriake, on the other side of the main road, archaeologists will pursue their digs in front of the Granary of Hadrian, which has been turned into a museum (see: Andriake’s granary to be turned into a museum and Andriake’s Museum has opened). It has been named The Lycian Civilizations Museum. Beside finds from Myra  and Andriake, it also contains finds from the entire region of Lycia.

The excavations of the main buildings in Andriake are said to be completed. Work will now be concentrated on the north and west of the city.