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)

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Immortal Alexander the Great. The Hermitage Museum in Amsterdam.

Just brace yourself, for the treasures from this exhibition will leave an everlasting impression on the visitor’s poor soul! In a way, the many artifacts are meant to convince the public that Alexander is indeed “immortal” if ever such need existed. In my eyes and in the eyes of his many admirers over the centuries, this statement is redundant and throughout history, the adulation for Alexander reaches the headlines on a regular basis. We all know how the Roman Emperors admired him, to start with Caesar who allegedly was deeply moved when he visited Alexander’s Tomb in Alexandria. But even less valorous Emperors like Caligula and Caracalla liked to dress up like him posing with his shield and helmet. During the Middle-Ages, we saw the evolution of the Alexander Romance, a collection of the most fantastic stories based however on true facts. The Persians revived him as Iskander the Two Horned with colorful miniatures in their delicate manuscripts. Closer to home we find rulers like Catherine the Great of Russia and Louis XIV of France who envied his name and his achievements, and we owe them a true Alexander cult which erupted all over Europe.

In today’s world, we take a more analytical point of view when we look at Alexander’s life and heritage, where our critical eye leaves nearly no room for any imagination or even appreciation. However, the outcome remains unchanged for Alexander left an everlasting imprint on the lands and the peoples he conquered. He cannot have done this on purpose for how could he have foreseen how deeply Hellenism would revolutionize the world then and now. Traces of his Hellenism may not be so obvious but are still very much present in our daily life. Just take a closer look at our churches, cathedrals, villas, museums, palaces, etc. More often than not their facades are embellished with Greek columns and pediments enhanced with Greek figures in their decorations. How many sculptors, jewelers and potters from Europe to China to America have copied Hellenistic statues, jewels, and vases? How deeply have these influences touched our daily life, time and again?


Useless to mention that my expectations are running high when I rush through the entrance gate of the Hermitage Museum as the very first visitor of the day. The Museum is located in an old 17th-century building whose interior has been completely modernized. The layout is well thought-off with the latest technologies and the friendly personnel are a pleasant bonus.



The exhibition starts on the first floor with The Myth of Alexander the Great, illustrated by 17th-century paintings of Alexander. Personally, I could have done without them for the Alexander who is portrayed here gives, in my eyes, an exaggerated and deformed image. We find Pietro Antonio Rotari ‘s work of Alexander and Roxane; Sebastiano Ricci portraying Alexander’s court-painter Apelles while he is painting Campaspe; and Charles Le Brun, an excellent artist no doubt, who knows how to please Louis XIV. But none of this meets my personal vision of Alexander although the paintings by themselves are excellent, of course. On the opposite wall, we can admire panels by Antoine Marie Melotte (from nearby Liège in Belgium) who has translated Le Brun’s painting in wood carvings, and at the far end of this room lures a magnificent tapestry made in Brussels (1661-1695) representing Alexander with the Family of King Darius. But my heart skips a few beats when I reach the Hellenistic and Roman statues in the second half of this room.

This section is about Alexander’s Reality. It starts with the world in which Alexander grew up in Macedonia amidst his godly forefathers and mythical heroes. The eye catchers are two huge statues, evidently Roman copies of Greek originals, one representing Heracles with the apples (2nd century) and the other Dionysus/Bacchus (also 2nd century, after an original from the 4th-3rd century BC). I personally prefer the smaller Heracles killing a Nemean lion (2nd-3rd century AD) in full action with tense muscles, very realistic. Next to it stands a rather complete marble statue of young Eros ready to shoot his arrow from his drawn bow. This too is a Roman copy, just like the identical statue I know from the Louvre in Paris. Nice to meet his brother here! At the far end I meet up with to names that were familiar to Alexander, Aeschines depicted on a marble medallion from 150 AD and the head of Demosthenes, a Roman copy of 100-125 AD from a Greek original by Polyeuktes.

The showcases are filled with weapons and armament among which a 16th-century steel breastplate covered with bone scales and lion masks, a pattern which goes back all the way to antiquity. In contrast, there is a huge Greek breastplate with a frightening looking Medusa in its center dating back to the 5th-4th century BC and found in the northern area of the Black Sea – something Alexander must have known.

The set would not be complete without a collection of Greek vases, mostly the type with a black background like the hydria from about 500 BC showing Achilles and Polyxena or the volute-krater carrying a picture of offerings dating from 340-330 BC found in Apulia (Southern Italy). The heroic figure of Achilles occupies a central place in Alexander’s life and in the decoration of the various vases, so again on another black-figured hydria from Attica (510 BC) where Achilles is bending over the body of Hector – a very well-known scene.

The main part of this section covers Alexander’s Journey, a word that apparently prevails over the appellation “conquests”. Visitors can follow the road of his entire expedition on the computer with interactive maps, but the images move too fast if you ask me and I wonder if anyone who looks at Alexander’s route for the first time is able to follow his progress and realize his impact. I have my doubts.

Luckily, the exhibition continues in chronological order, starting with Alexander’s crossing into Asia (today’s Turkey), his progress through Syria to Egypt, and from there to Persia and Babylonia, to reach Bactria (northeastern part of today’s Afghanistan) and finally even India. Not only do we see what Alexander must have seen, but more so the imprints of what he left behind, i.e. the Greek influence on local art and on the local way of life. It goes without saying that I have never seen most of these artifacts, not even in pictures for they never or seldom leave the Hermitage in St Petersburg. I even wonder whether the tourist in St Petersburg will actually see all of this for the Hermitage Palace is far too big and the visits, from what I’ve heard, far too short.

Anyway, there are several striking pieces I want to highlight here. To start with there is a small marble head of Alexander from the 1st century, evidently a Roman copy of a Greek original (most certainly by Lysippos) and although rather damaged it is still very resembling. Then, a portrait study of one of the Ptolemies from Egypt (3rd-1st century BC) which illustrates the impact of Alexander’s General Ptolemy and his offspring on Egypt. There also is an impressive collection of cameos made of sardonyx. I particularly remember the one portraying Alexander hunting boar from the 1st century AD (from Italy), the one of Alexander-Helios, son of Cleopatra VII and Marc Anthony, depicted as Horus-Harpocrates from the 1st century BC (from Egypt); the twin portraits of Ptolemy II Philadelphos and Arsinoe II from the 3rd century BC, i.e. the so-called Gonzaga cameo (from Alexandria); the Triumph of Dionysos from the 1st century BC (also from Alexandria) and a particularly fine Zeus with brown curly hair from the 3rd century BC (again from Alexandria). Pictures of these precious pieces can be found under the Dutch tab Beeldmateriaal van de Hermitage (not available in the English version, unfortunately).

In the middle of my excitement and concentration, I’m suddenly disturbed by a guide, who is projecting his comments from three rooms further down. Gee, can’t he lower his voice? This is terrible for I can’t hear myself! I’m deeply upset by this disturbance that pulls me away from the spell of this Alexander world. It seems that the best thing I can do presently it to take a coffee break and I take off in search of the cafeteria.

When I return, the storm has subsided and peace has returned so that I can pick up where I left off. More thrilling items are luring from all sides! In the Egyptian showcase and as a matter of course, I come across Cleopatra VII of Egypt, a delicate basalt statue from 51-30 BC with clear Hellenistic elements. This is the Cleopatra we all know as Queen of Egypt although she unmistakably has Macedonian blood from the first Ptolemy running through her veins. New to me is to hear that besides Caesarion, her son with Ceasar, she had another three children, this time with Marc Anthony: a son Alexander-Helios (see above) and twins, a girl and a boy. After Cleopatra’s death, the children have been raised by the sister of Octavian, the imperial victor, after which they entirely disappear from history. I was not aware of this part of her life; I learned something new today. I’m also quite surprised by the bronze head of a “Hellenistic ruler with helmet” that looks Egyptian but is not. It probably originates from the Eastern Mediterranean and should belong to the 2nd-1st century BC. 

Then unexpectedly I am walking among life-size heads, Roman copies of course, like the marble bust of Achilles that somehow reminds me of Alexander and is copied from an original from 170-160 BC; and the head of Meleagros also from a Greek original from 350-340 BC. Striking and obviously, Hellenistic also is the marble head of Mithridates VI Eupator from Pergamon dating from 90-80 BC. The relief fragment from Iran also demands some attention: it represents a royal guard from about 500 BC belonging either to Xerxes or Darius. Lovely to see this at eye level.

Scattered among these statues and statuettes I’m enchanted to find a collection of coins from all corners of Alexander’s Empire. First, there are coins of Alexander himself with ram’s horns, lion head or elephant skin, and of Alexander’s successors in similar attire. The gold stater with Alexander from Macedonia is an inevitable eye catcher and the Bactrian coin where the ruler wears a kind of sun-helmet looks very familiar too. Originally, only gods and goddesses were depicted on these coins and I notice a very special silver one with the profile of Zeus who has his hair made of oak leaves. Take a good close look for this is really something unique.

Nike, the goddess of Victory, was also very popular, not only on coins (there is a wonderful golden one on display here) but also in jewelry like the golden-winged earrings from mid 4th century BC, in a typical Greek representation which is believed to be a reduced copy from a monumental statue. Most charming is the set of earrings with a pendant of a dove sitting on a tiny swing that must be going back and forth with each move of the wearer’s head. The dove is dressed in colored glass and hessonite (a cinnamon colored quartz). This jewel was made in Alexandria in the 2nd century BC. I think they would look very well on me.

Athena is also present, of course, and the seal-ring of Athena Nikeforos really deserves some attention. This ring is pure Greek also from the 4th century BC and was apparently found in the Northern Black Sea region. Such craftsmanship in those days! While talking about gold, I’d like to mention a few rare items. There is, for instance, a very well preserved golden bowl with handles in the shape of animals from Persia dating from the 5th-4th century BC; a golden quiver (gorytos) with action scenes from the live of Achilles from the Northern Black Sea area dated 350-325 BC; and finally the many golden Greek olive crowns from the same area, mid-4th century BC – there must have been lots of them for they keep turning up so often in so many different sites. And finally a gorgeous golden choker from East Iran dated 5th-3rd century BC.

Finally, there are miscellaneous objects among which some striking bronze and silver bowls and beakers. I admire a very fine silver drinking cup (kylix) with at the bottom the figure of Helios in his carriage and a bronze Hellenistic head used as a decorative element on a chariot - both from the 3rd century BC. It is here that I come face to face with the silver gilded Phaleras, larger than I imagined them, showing scenes of fighting elephants in a clear mixture of Greek and Asiatic elements, dated 3rd-2nd century BC and found in East-Iran. All in all too much to make a complete list, but they certainly deserve our attention.  All in all too much to make a complete list, but they certainly deserve our attention. I can’t get enough of it, of course!

The exhibition now continues on the second floor. This part is only about Alexander’s Legacy, but I have to admit that I expected more convincing material. There are a few papyri written in Greek to prove that this language was still in use after the Arabs had conquered the Middle-East. From here, it is only a short step to the Middle-Age concoction of the Alexander Romance and the miniature illustrations of Iskander in the Persian literature of the 15th and 16th century. I’m not too impressed with these exhibits for they are far from the “Greek” image that we know of Alexander.

Last but not least, we reach the pump and circumstance of the Russian Court, which I personally think is exaggerated like the Alexander statue that was cut end 18th century from walrus bones – a meager figure on horseback. A more rewarding result has been achieved with the huge bronze clock from the end of the 19th century where Alexander is (very idealistically) depicted while reading. The story goes that Alexander wanted to avoid falling asleep at any cost and that is why he is holding an iron ball in one hand. If his attention lapsed or if he was about to fall asleep, the ball would slip from his hand and fall in the bowl underneath with a loud rattle. He would be certain to resume his reading after that. A charming tale, but we are looking at an elegant, attractive and handsome Alexander. All pictures and photographs show only his face and that is a pity for I’m totally taken by his entire posture, his delicate sandals, and his elegant chair with his weapons leaning against it – not to mention the fine relief that runs all around the base of the clock.

To prove that Alexander the Great is still a topical figure in our times, there luckily is a reference to the movie which Oliver Stone made in 2004. And I do say “luckily” because the movie has been rejected by much of the public and by many historians. These critics, in my mind, do him wrong and are definitely without foundation. The old movie with Richard Burton never got such critics, far from it, and that movie is absolutely horrible to watch.

Well, that’s it. In the wide corridor on the way downstairs, you can stop at four monumental pictures by Erwin Olaf, who made a photographic interpretation of Alexander. This man, at least, understood what was expected of him when he was asked to combine objects of this exhibition with life figures. This is great art and it pays off to take a moment to watch these superb creations. For your information, one of his photos is shown on the billboards for this exhibition. Had he lived, Alexander would certainly have been flattered!

In short, this exhibition does credit to its name: The Immortal Alexander the Great. Alexander has truly defied the centuries and 2,300 years after his death he still lives on in our imagination. If that does not mean being “immortal”, what is?

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