Alexandria's founded by Alexander

Alexandria's founded by Alexander the Great (by year BC): 334 Alexandria in Troia (Turkey) - 333 Alexandria at Issus/Alexandrette (Iskenderun, Turkey) - 332 Alexandria of Caria/by the Latmos (Alinda, Turkey) - 331 Alexandria Mygdoniae - 331 Alexandria (Egypt) - 330 Alexandria in Areia (Herat, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria of the Prophthasia/in Drangiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Arachosia (Kandahar, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Caucasus (Begram, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria of the Paropanisades (Ghazni, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria Eschate or Ultima (Khodjend, Tajikistan) - 329 Alexandria on the Oxus (Ai-Khanoum OR Termez, Afghanistan) - 328 Alexandria in Margiana (Merv, Turkmenistan) - 326 Alexandria Nicaea (on the Hydaspes, India) - 326 Alexandria Bucephala (on the Hydaspes, India) - 325 Alexandria Sogdia - 325 Alexandria Rambacia (Bela, Pakistan) - 325 Alexandria Oreitide - 325 Alexandria in Opiene (confluence of Indus & Acesines, India) - 325 Alexandria on the Indus - 325 Alexandria Xylinepolis (Patala, India) - 325 Alexandria in Carminia (Gulashkird, Iran) - 324 Alexandria-on-the-Tigris/Antiochia-in-Susiana/Charax (Spasinou Charax on the Tigris, Iraq) - ?Alexandria of Carmahle? (Kahnu)

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Alexander the Great exhibition in Mannheim

I am dying to share my Mannheim experience where I visited the exhibition on Alexander the Great. It is one of the best I ever saw, very well planned and organized with bilingual explanation in English and German.

At the very entrance I was immediately welcomed by an entire Alexander committee: the Alexander head from Munich, the one found at the Villa Hadriani now in Bad Homburg, the so-called Erbrach head from Berlin, the one from Alexandria now at the Glyptothek of Copenhagen, a small incense burner from Brussels which I never managed to see here (kept in the catacombs!), and the head from Dresden. A most gracious bronze of Alexander riding Bucephalos from Naples found in Pompeii, surrounded by several bronze statuettes in typical Hellenistic pose, resting on his (lost) spear. Besides plaster copies of Aristotle and the Azara Hermes, there were plenty of Alexander coins, medals (including Philip and Olympias), a beautiful attic vase representing Achilles, some jewelry, etc. I spent, at least, a full hour in that first room alone!

When at last I managed to let go of Alexander, I moved to the next room with several maps. Firstly, the world as known by Alexander through Aristotle with a reconstruction of Hekataios’ map followed by maps of what the world looked like after Alexander’s conquests and maps by the Arabs in our early Middle Ages. Against the long wall a huge map of Alexander’s conquests was mounted with push buttons for the location of the battlefields and the cities he built on his way east; and next to it, there was a kind of Google map tracing his steps while zooming in on the terrain here and there as he marched through mountains and vales – very impressive!


Most exciting though was the 15-foot sarissa that visitors were allowed to handle. This is quite an experience, so heavy, so difficult to handle! I now could clearly see the joint halfway where the sarissa could be taken apart for transport and the counterweight butt at the bottom end with its sharp point. There were also two bronze helmets to try on. I never realized they had a leather lining, but then it was so evident for the soldiers could never have tolerated the steaming heat or blistering cold of the very metal on their head, of course. I was very much surprised by the weight on my head and the Macedonian helmet, although rather comfortable compared to the Pilos one, created a kind of resonance, a surround noise like an echo and I wondered how deafening this must have been on the battlefield. Wow! A showcase at the far end then contained elements of the full armor with breastplate, different types of helmets (Phrygian, Chalcidicean, Greek, etc); greaves, lead catapult stones, decorative elements from shields and horse harnesses including a round plate representing a war elephant worth of Porus, etc.

Inevitably, I was to come across the Alexander Mosaic, here as an oil painting by the Italian Michele Mastracchio who created this scene shortly after its discovery in 1831. It may not be the best copy but interestingly he filled in the blanks that are lost on the original scene.

The next section is about the Persian Empire, Foe, and Fascination – and fascinating it was! The visitor is received by a lively Persian guard in glazed bricks from the Palace of Susa and to the left is an amazing relief of an Achaemenid nobleman dating from the days of Darius I. Further, small items like Assyrian bracelets with animal heads, appliqués, and crowns in pure gold; an alabaster vase with an inscription in four languages (old Persian, Babylonian, Aramaic and Greek) reading “Xerxes, the Great King”; a terracotta statue of a wealthy lady; clay tablets; several reliefs from Persepolis; a bronze cup inlaid with gold and silver figurines; cylinder seals; bronze bowls and libation cups; rythons inlaid with silver and gold; all wonderful pieces!

Then follows the subject “vision of the others”, i.e. how the Greeks saw the Persians and how the Persians perceived the Greeks. To me, this might well have been Alexander’s vision of the Persian Empire before he conquered it. From the Greeks’ point of view, we mainly see the Persian life depicted on the vases while the Persians express their perception of the Greeks rather on coins and cylinder seals. And then there are of course the gift-takers from the reliefs on the walls of Persepolis.

In the adjacent room, Alexander arrives in Babylon. Very helpful is the large-scale model of the city along the Euphrates with the canal surrounding the city walls, the Procession Way that Alexander must have used, the many temples and, of course, the very Ziggurat with the Temple of Marduk/Bel. To give the visitor an idea of Babylon’s blue glazed brick walls, there is a striding lion from the Museum of Vienna and a mythical griffon from the Museum of Berlin, a very select choice. Without the Chaldean priests, Babylon would not have been what it was and there is plenty of proof of their influence with the many clay tablets predicting the future, including those foretelling the outcome of the Battle at Gaugamela. But there are more tablets in cuneiform writing containing chronics, astronomical calendars, texts of law, the tables of multiplication, mathematical problems with geometric drawing, and even a zodiac calendar with the stars! Then a series of terracotta heads, men, women, satyrs, musicians and Eros figurines; and small terracotta statues in Greek tunics, except one wearing a Babylonian(!) robe. Last but not least, definite signs of truly Greek influence on a roof tile from the 3rd-2nd century BC and a frieze fragment probably pertaining to a theater built in Babylon many years after Alexander’s death, around 1st-2nd century AD. And, don’t miss the tiny glass vases which are said to be Parthian but look very Roman!

To show how Hellenism took over in the East, there are several good examples: a terracotta of Europe seated on a steer; limestone and terracotta statuettes of Heracles; a cylinder seal with a surprising Heracles; an alabaster lady in Greek tunica; a delicate marble Aphrodite from Dura Europos (which I just visited in Syria); medallions of a Parthian king (reminding me of Charlemagne) and a winged goddess; fragments of capitals, plaques and metopes, all very Greek indeed.

Big surprise, a Chinese warrior – or isn’t it? I have to look twice at this larger than life-size figure that reminds very much of the terracotta warrior found in the graves of X’ian. What is this doing here? Well, believe me or not, it is a Parthian warrior found in the Temple of Shami, southwest Iran, dating back to the 1st century BC/1st century AD and on loan from the Museum of Teheran. Well, well!

Coins, coins, and more coins! Alexander and his Seleucian successors knew how to make the economy boom. Striking here is the imitation of an Athenian Tetra drachmae from Bactria, representing Athena on one side and the owl on the reverse. It seems so out of place! And all this leads us to Alexander’s legacy in Bactria, homeland of Roxane. Here we see two small cavalry men, one bronze in Median dress and one gold in Kushan dress (the successors of the Greek-Bactrians). There is also a tiny Alexander who lost his horse, but it’s him for sure. The story goes that it was part of a miniature set imitating the life-size bronze group representing Alexander with the 34 men he lost at the Battle of the Granicus; the original was made by Lysippus and sent to Dion where it stood till the Romans took it to Rome in 146 BC. Bactria would not be complete without examples of the finds from Ai Khanoum with many terracotta heads. From a later period, there are terracotta heads found at the Oxus Temple in what is now Tajikistan, a true mixture of Greek and Bactrian. One of the faces still carries freshly traits of paint and it was as if I were looking at Osama Bin Laden, of all people! The same goes for the heads found in Khalchajan, amazingly real! Some statuettes are in a very bad condition, broken into a thousand pieces and lovingly restored, but they definitely show their Greek roots. Another showcase contains wonderful pieces of furniture made out of ivory with clear Hellenistic influences, as seen also in the remains of a sword and elements of a flute. More terracotta household items, inlaid stonework and vessels, jewelry in gilded silver and pure gold, glass vases and beakers as those found around Bagram, ceramics, and medallions with pure Greek goddesses and figurines. Through the Kushan dynasty, the influence is still very much alive till halfway the 4th century AD. If only Alexander could have known this!

The exhibition ends with the subject “Buddhist art in Bactria and Gandhara” with several small pieces more Bactrian than Greek if you ask me, but the two Buddha statues are absolutely exquisite. There is also a smaller relief with scenes from Buddha’s life where he is surrounded by figures in very Greek outfits. Here also, I find several heads of men and women in white limestone. The heads in the next showcase look very much alive as they are made in painted terracotta. They come from Kara-Tepe in Uzbekistan and are just a little smaller than life-size, but show such expression that you wouldn’t be surprised to encounter them in today’s streets!

What I like less is the series of twelve drawings made by a certain Gerard de Lairesse around 1680 of Alexander’s triumphal entry in Babylon or the huge majolica tiles composition of the famous Alexander Mosaic made at the explicit request of Emperor Friedrich Wilhelm in 1843 – both too idealistic to my taste. Even the artistic and refined miniatures of Alexander illustrating medieval books in parchment and paper do not appeal to me. It is like making a modern statue or a modern painting, stating that this is Alexander – no way!

This visit has been so captivating that I went around three times, spending, at least, seven hours in all visiting the exhibition over two days. The audience here was amazingly quiet - even the tour guides spoke in a near whispering voice in order not to disturb, making the visit such an enjoyable one.

[Since I was not allowed to take pictures, my illustrations are just an indication of the artifacts that are exposed in Mannheim, yet they are very closely related]

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