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, Afghanistan) - 329 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)

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Why Alexander the Great?

Time and again, people ask me: Why are you so interested in Alexander the Great? Why Alexander? What makes him so special? As it sounds very stupid to say, “I don’t know”, I gave the matter some serious thought. As can be expected, the answer is not simple. It is like when being asked, why do you love your wife or why do you love your husband? There is not a clear cut reason, in fact, there are several or several combinations. So too when it comes to my friend, Alexander the Great, for I consider him a friend, someone I know intimately, although he lived two thousand three hundred years ago!
To say the least, he is a fascinating figure. We know his actions rather well from what has been written by ancient historians but not his personality, which modern historians try to unravel to the bone with sometimes the most absurd assumptions. In my mind, this is however the most intriguing side - one that keeps me digging ever deeper.

I can’t remember when or how exactly my passionate interest for Alexander the Great started. I may not have heard of him until my first years in highschool and that is about the time I craved for everything that was Greek and Roman.

The walls above my bed were filled with pictures from calendars showing remains of temples and theaters from all over the ancient world – I knew them by heart, and still do.

Those were the days when Ben-Hur raced from one movie theater to the next, with me in his wake! I lost track of how many times I watched the movie, not so much for the story for that is not particularly exciting, but for the setting, the landscapes, the chariots, the circus, the furniture, the ships and galleys, the uniforms and marches of the Roman soldiers, the hair-dresses and outfits of the ladies, the superb music by Miklos Rosza, etc. To me it simply meant a trip back in time. And all these discoveries about ancient history were further fuelled by treasures from across the borders that were laid out at my doorstep during the World Fair of 1958. The entrance to the Fair was just one block away from my home and it was utterly exciting to have all those faraway countries within reach. It was my worse school year, but that was a small sacrifice compared to the unique exhibitions which each country proudly presented. I think I never missed any free event over the six months the Fair lasted for I might never visit any of those countries, but at least I saw the part that came to me!

Somewhere amidst all those events, Alexander must have popped out, a hero, if ever the world has seen one. Imagine a young man of sixteen receiving the seal of Macedonia from his father to rule the country in his absence. Imagine him again at twenty when his father is assassinated and he has to take charge not only of Macedonia but of all of Greece as well. Philip II was Hegemon of all Greeks according to the treaty signed in Corinth a few years earlier and if Alexander was to walk in his father’s footsteps, i.e. to free the Greek cities of Asia Minor from Persian rule, he needed that title as with it came the contributions from all the participating city-states, including more soldiers. Not even in those days would such a young lad be trusted by the elderly or the politicians, so Alexander had to prove himself. He marched his army north and south through Greece to show his competence with such zeal, speed and victory that two years later nobody doubted that he could indeed invade Asia as planned by his father and approved by the members of the Corinthian League.

So, at twenty-two, Alexander leaves Macedonia appointing his trusted general Antipater as regent, while he sets out with an army of about 40,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry to cross the Hellespont into Asia. The gods are with him, all the way! The Persians don’t take Alexander seriously and don’t even bother to stop him from ferrying his army across. The first opposition happens in a lost corner of Asia Minor, on the banks of the River Granicus. Darius III, King of Persia, King of Kings, does not even bother to be present in person and delegates the attack to a mercenary, a Greek on top of that, called Memnon. Well, Memnon is defeated, and Alexander marches on, taking one city after another, one port after another, all along the coast of today’s Turkey.

Amazingly, it takes King Darius more than a year before facing Alexander in person, this time at the tiny River Pinarus near Issus. The Persian army is huge compared to the Macedonian but it is outmaneuvered after the first minutes of the battle. Isn’t that enough to trigger your interest, your respect, your admiration for this young man? Who is there today at twenty-three to boost of such accomplishments, such leadership, and such audacity? How can I not admire such a personality?
King Darius literally panics and turns around, leaving the Issus’ battlefield head over heals… shame on him! Both kings will meet again, two years later in a decisive combat on Persian soil this time near Arbela, a place we all know as Gaugamela. This really does the trick, as far as I’m concerned. It is a fight worthy of David and Goliath, where Alexander with his 50,000 men stands up against Darius’ troops the number of which may be exaggerated to 500,000 but must have counted at least 250,000 – five times more than Alexander’s! The guts alone! The odds may have been against Alexander but the gods were not, and here too he is victorious as Darius once again fleas into the back country. Tactically speaking, this battle was such a marvelous prowess that it still is being taught at West Point Military Academy! And speaking of guts, do you realize that Alexander attacked an empire that was ten times bigger than his home country?

Well, so far for his campaigns, but Alexander did much and much more than winning battles. He took on the organization of the entire enterprise, working out the logistics and constantly moving his equipment and his soldiers. Everyone looked up at him for guidance, for he was not a puppet king – far from it! His shear spirit never ceases to amaze me. I read somewhere that he knew thousands of his soldiers by name. Imagine how that feels when the king knows you personally. The more reason for you to be motivated and do a proper job, and then there is the gratitude when he recognizes you among your comrades, knowing how well you fought. How inspiring this must have been!

At the height of his power, his empire stretches from Greece to India and from Uzbekistan to Egypt. His army must have counted at least one hundred thousand men, to which you have to add the entire baggage train with its merchants, peddlers, blacksmiths, tailors, stone cutters, ship builders, entertainers, carpenters, cooks, masons, road builders and whores. Alexander managed to take his dismantled ships and catapult towers with him on the road - he introduced the prefab concept eons before the word ever existed - so he could assemble them whenever needed! He moved this mass of people across scorching deserts like the Karakum and the Gedrosian, over snowcapped mountains like the Zagros and the Hindu Kush, and traversed swift running rivers as the Euphrates and Tigris, the Oxus and Indus. I try to picture that crowd of soldiers, horses, followers and equipment trudging through uncharted territories! It is dazzling!


Alexander took it upon him to organize a form of government adapted to each and every tribe and people he conquered. He founded cities at strategic trade-road crossings. We all are familiar with Alexandria in Egypt, but don’t forget cities like Khodjend in Tajikistan, Kandahar, Herat and Ai-Khanoum in Afghanistan, Samarkand in Uzbekistan, to name just a handful – and those cities still exist and still prosper. His task was absolutely colossal, and he just did it! Of course, he had his engineers and craftsmen to assist him but Alexander was the power behind it all! He decided where the city was going to be built, what its lay-out would be, which veterans no longer fit for service would settle there, etc.

Alexander also was a visionary, one that we would love to have around in our modern times! He welded the world into one country for had he lived long enough, he would have conquered the Romans also. As part of that globalization (another modern concept, we think!), he assimilated local gods to Greek gods and goddesses, making them recognizable to all. He stimulated intra-cultural marriages (after years away from home, I suppose all the Macedonian soldiers had children growing up everywhere in Alexander’s new empire), the young boys would receive a Greek education and be trained to join his army. He himself, much to the critics and sorrow of his fellow-Macedonians, adopted certain “Persian ways” not only because the Persians expected that from their king, but that too was part of the fusion of both cultures.

The Macedonians, or even the Greeks for that matter, were not ready to comprehend the vastness, the scale or the grandeur of his conquests, but Alexander did. He made excellent use of the untouched treasuries from the Persian Royal cities, minting huge amounts of gold, silver and bronze coins. He paid his army lavishly, and the men spent the money as lavishly on all kinds of extravaganza and exotics. Trade flourished and the economy was booming to a level unheard off before or after. The coins had Alexander’s image stamped on them and that was a rather new concept for until then only gods were worthy of such a favor. It seems that Alexander’s father, Philip II, was among the first to put his features on coinage, and now it was Alexander’s turn. This started the habit of putting a kings’ image on coins, something that we still do today! His coins were known and accepted all over the empire, from east to west and from north to south. It was the euro of antiquity! And we think we invented the single currency!

Finally, there is Alexander’s legacy, i.e. the impact of Greek fashion, culture and art on the occupied territories that went into history as the Hellenistic Period. Here it is that from Athens to the Indus the official language was Greek, and remained so for several hundreds of years till the Islam took over and Arabic was introduced. The cities which Alexander built were set-up according to the Hippodamian pattern with right-angled streets, and they included familiar buildings like temples, gymnasiums, theaters and stadiums. Alexander’s love for games, sportive competitions and theatrical contests with play-writers and actors travelling thousands of miles, is another tradition that was perpetrated for centuries. Architects and sculptors introduced the Hellenistic style far to the East, which is still very visible today, like for instance in the features of Buddha. And if you are familiar with the treasures of Ai-Khanoum and Tillya-Tepe that are still travelling around the world with the exhibition on "Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum in Kabul" you know exactly what I mean!   [photo source: Musée Guimet]

Our world would not be what it is, had it not been for Alexander the Great. To me history is simply divided in two periods: before Alexander and after Alexander, instead of splitting time up in BC and AD as we do in our Western world. No matter if I am looking at city ruins, statues, jewelry, pottery, theatre plays or ancient writers, I’ll always place them in the time frame related to Alexander. It’s either something that he could have known or was familiar with, or it’s something that he created and shaped in such a way that we can still benefit from it today.

No other man in history has had such an impact on the world as Alexander the Great. Some did try to copy him, like Caesar and Napoleon; others simply tried to conquer the world on their own, like a Genghis Khan or the Chinese Emperor Qin, but nobody raised to his high standards! Nobody ever will. That is why my life is so much centered around Alexander, called the Great, and rightfully so.

3 comments:

  1. I really don't understand what for called Alexander "The Great"? I't s so yet obviously!!! To me he is simply Alexander Macedonian. Enough. He was, he is, he always will be "Great". Greetings from friend of Alexander to friend of Aleksander. Gina

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  2. I've forgotten....simply breathtaking man. Gina

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  3. Thanks for sharing your enthousiasm! Alexander is of course the best, the greatest, the genious to any Alexander-fan...

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