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 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 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]

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.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Breathtaking, Alexander the Great at Gaugamela

I’m simply out of breath! I just watched for the hundredth time or so the Alexander Revisited DVD, which is much and much better than the movie that has been shown in theaters around the world. This DVD version is arranged by Oliver Stone the way he wanted it and starts off straight away with the Battle of Gaugamela. What a performance and what an achievement! I admire Oliver Stone’s eye for detail and how he uses all the information available from antiquity – a shame that most viewers don’t see this or don’t realize it.

As always, I sit here with my eyes wide open, afraid to miss the slightest movement or action in this battle of all battles! I witness how Alexander sets off to the far right with the cavalry in his wake, making sure that Bessus takes on the pursuit, luring him away from Darius. Shrouded in a cloud of dust, Alexander’s infantry moves along, hidden from the Persian eye, a magnificent maneuver. And then, when Alexander swings around to the left, heading straight for the center where Darius is standing, Bessus finds himself unexpectedly confronted with Alexander’s infantry! I believe that only few people notice this – a pity because this is a decisive moment of the battle. I always feel out of breath when all the fighting is finally over. It is a rather sudden and unexpected closure when Darius turns around and leaves the battlefield in panic. Alexander, much to his frustration, has to let him go because Parmenion’s left wing is crumbing down and needs his support. The climax is complete, even on the screen!

After this passage, I stop my DVD. I have to recover from my overwhelming emotions!

In the same context, I watched a program last week about Darius where the question was being raised why he fled from the Battlefield at Gaugamela (as he did at Issus, by the way). Historians generally agree that Darius was not a coward. He is being described as a competent leader who has been victorious in many previous fights, so why did he flee when facing Alexander? Well, watching my DVD tonight, I suddenly realized I found an answer to that question. The fact is that Alexander headed straight for Darius – he was attacking him personally! This was no longer an organized battle of one army against the other, neither was it a fight of Persians against Greeks/Macedonians, it was Alexander himself who attacked the Great King Darius, the King of Kings!

Just imagine how in the middle of all that commotion and dust with so much tension in the air, you are suddenly facing a wild screaming “Barbarian”, ready to cut you into pieces! The adrenaline in Alexander’s blood must have risen to peak level by now. How many men has he slain? How much blood has been shed? The frenzy of battle must have been complete and suddenly out that deafening roar of war appears a most striking figure with waving plumes on his helmet, looking at you with piercing eyes that you can feel before seeing them. There comes Alexander in person, charging at you, the King! That should be enough for any man to flee head over heals, wouldn’t it?

I am so excited by what is happening there and by my own unexpected conclusions that I have to take a break in watching the movie. I’ll have another look tomorrow or so. What a grand pitched battle! Isn’t this a splendid reenactment? And then there is the music that supports this battle and carries it to a climax, it keeps on resonating in my head! I have to catch my breath and come back to my senses before returning to Alexander!

[photographs from the movie Alexander]