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)

Friday, January 29, 2010

Into the Land of Bones, Alexander the Great in Afghanistan

Into the Land of Bones, Alexander the Great in Afghanistan by Frank L. Holt. ISBN 0520279933. What a book! I even read it twice for there is so much information in there that I couldn’t grasp it all at once.
The subtitle “Alexander the Great in Afghanistan” may sound a little confusing as that country did not exist in Alexander’s day, but the land and its people were very much the same. Frank Holt retells the story of Alexander’s conquests in the area and projects them against the successive occupations by the English in the 19th century, by the Soviets in the 20th century and the Americans in this century, and it turns out that all the armies and their leaders faced the same problems.

Alexander the Great spent two full years campaigning in Bactria, as Afghanistan was called then, trying systematically to eliminate one warlord after the other just to see new warlords taking over behind his back as soon as he moved away. His fighting was the bloodiest ever and he lost more men in these two years than he had since he left Macedonia seven years before.

Even the English got a taste of it when they went into the First Afghan War in 1838. Four years later, they had not reached their goal and only one European survived the disastrous expedition. The Second Afghan War was fought from 1878 till 1889 but the success of the British – like that of Alexander two thousand years earlier - was short lived and as General Roberts rightfully put it in those days: Afghanistan should be left alone.

This is quite a statement but nobody listened. Nobody learned from Alexander’s experience (I will not call it mistakes, for what would have been right?) and nobody learned from the British either. The Soviets gave it a try in 1979 while the Americans entrusted the mujahideen warlords with their money and munitions for their bloody crusade. Eventually, the Afghans rebelled, the Soviets moved out and the Taliban took over, bringing “law and order”. On 9/11, the world was taken by surprise and another superpower landed in Afghanistan.

It is a unique experience to follow Frank Holt as he goes back and forth in time, considering Alexander’s options and scrutinizing his actions, comparing them to what the British and the Soviets did so many centuries later. The landscape has not changed and the people have not changed. Afghanistan is still being ruled by its warlords and their subjects still live on as they lived for centuries, attending their own business and mistrusting all foreign intrusion.

This book is as much the history of Alexander the Great as it is the history of more recent times, and that is what makes is so captivating. It is definitely worth reading, although sad to realize that we have not learned anything over the past two and a half thousand years since Alexander was fighting there.

Also available as eBook

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Seleucos Nicator, in the wake of Alexander

Here I was in Syria, visiting Apamea. The Cardo Maximus is no less than two kilometers long and flanked by rows and rows of columns. Originally, there were 1200 of them, now about 400 still standing – a highly impressive view.

I hear that it was Seleucus (later called Seleucus Nicator, i.e. the Victorious) who built this city and named it after his wife, Apame. During the mass wedding party which Alexander the Great organized in Susa in 324 B.C. as a symbolic fusion between east and west, between Macedonians and Persians, Apame, the daughter of Spitamenes the Bactrian, became Seleucus’ bride. It seems to have been one of the few successful marriages for she accompanied her husband on all his expeditions, even as far as India – and that in spite the fact that travelling cannot have been very comfortable in those days.

For those who don’t know, Seleucus was one of the generals in the army of Alexander the Great. Upon Alexander’s death in 323 B.C., he and his fellow generals got caught up in a series of succession wars that went down into history as the Wars of the Diadochi. Those were very confusing times where every general tried to get the best or most prosperous tracts of land, since Alexander had not appointed any successor (his son with Roxane, the later Alexander IV, was not born yet and Heracles, his son with Barsine, was in fact a bastard son). The initial division of Alexander’s Empire among his generals, in which Seleucus was appointed satrap of Babylon, did not last long and less than a year later, in spite of his best intentions, Perdiccas was murdered by his own generals, Seleucus, Peithon and Antigenes when he invaded Egypt. Ptolemy retaining Egypt for himself, came to terms with the murderers by granting them respectively the provinces of Babylon, Media and Susiana.

After that, Seleucus managed to stay more or less out of further conflicts and successive Diadochi Wars and finally was able to include Persia and Media in his conquests. He even made an alliance with King Chandragupta of India. The Diadochi Wars as such were over by now, but the fierce fighting and endless greed of Alexander’s generals was still cause for more wars. Seleucus defeated Antigonus in the Battle of Ipsus and killed Lysimachus on the battlefields of Lycia in 281 B.C. Soon afterwards Seleucus died too, assassinated by Ptolemy Ceraunus, son of Ptolemy I of Egypt, at one time one of Alexander’s generals. Brother in arms with Ptolemy for so many years, he ends up to be killed in later life by his very son. How glorious can one’s life be?

If Alexander could have foreseen his own untimely death, I’m sure he would have provided arrangements for his succession. Unfortunately, it was not the case. Yet, there certainly was no room in his mind for the constant wars and futile bloodshed that unfolded.

In between all this fighting and conniving, Seleucus still found time (and money) to expand and structure his Empire. After having used Babylon as the capital of his kingdom, he decided to move it to Antioch-on-the-Orontes, today’s Antakya in Turkey. He was apparently so much at ease in this part of the country that he built another marvelous city further inland (initially started by his rival and enemy Antigonus) and called it Apamea in honor of his wife. It thus became one of his main cities. But he didn’t stop there, of course. He also built Laudetia, now Lattakia, the Syrian port on the Mediterranean, which he named after his mother (to keep things in the family), and later on he founded Seleucia-on-the-Tigris (named after himself!) as his Empire by then reached from the Mediterranean all the way to the Indus! Alexander’s example definitely was not lost on him.

Well, this is what the books have to say. Now I am finding myself in Syria, driving up to Apamea. The first thing I see is a high flat topped hill crowned with many towers connected with city walls – 16 km long, they say. Well, well,… The bus drives uphill and stops at the northern end of the Cardo Maximus, at the Antioch Gate, so I can walk down the road to the other end of the city. I’m immediately drawn to the Cardo with all those impressive columns, of course, but I can’t help turning around to take a closer look at the rubble behind me where the very gate is supposed to be. Now that’s a surprise! A surprise I am the only one to notice though, for this gate is Hellenistic! Once you have seen the Hellenistic towers in Perge (inside the Roman walls), you can’t miss recognizing them even when in ruins – like in Side and in Sillyum, all in today’s Turkey. And now I find them here, of all places! If ever I expected this! Seleucus had quite a master to follow in his footsteps!

Alexander’s achievements did indeed leave an ever lasting imprint on his entourage and on his generals. This is what the birth of Hellenism truly means. Even in his boldest and most daring dreams Alexander the Great could not have envisaged this to happen, but it did – and this is the very proof of how Alexander has changed history, be it in geography, economy, army tactics or architecture! The Romans copied him, and so did the Persians, the Indians, the Italians of the Renaissance, the British with Christopher Wren – you just name it! Nothing was left unchanged, nothing was ever the same. As I so often say, there is the time before Alexander and there is the world after Alexander. We owe him so much, we owe so much to his Hellenization!

Alexander never ceases to amaze me, for here once again I saw what he accomplished and instigated others to do so many years after his death! Isn’t that amazing?

Monday, January 4, 2010

Alexander the Great and the Magi

What have they in common, you’ll ask. Well much more than you would expect, provided you allow yourself to think about Magi in general and not about The Magi from the Bible who followed their star to Bethlehem.

Magi were known as Wise Men from Mesopotamia, particularly famous around Babylon by their local name of Chaldeans, were reputed among others for their knowledge in astrology. In those days there was no distinction between astronomy and astrology, both forms of star observation went hand in hand. By studying and analyzing the celestial heavens, these Wise Men could, for instance, predict major events to important people. This knowledge was already mentioned by Herodotus in the 5th century B.C. who defined the Magi as a priestly caste from upper Mesopotamia.

[The Three Wise Men, 6th century mosaic from the Basilica of Ravenna, Italy. Photography by Nina Aldin Thune]

The Magi we are familiar with, are the Three Wise Men who visited the Lord Jesus, but this fact is based on a simple and non-explicit quotation by the evangelist Matthew, who stated that they came from the east, which is evident geographically speaking, and brought expensive gifts of myrrh, frankincense and gold with them. Nowadays there is a discussion going on whether there were three Magi or more for Matthew only mentions three gifts, which has been interpreted as each Magi carrying one gift, while evidently there could have been ten or thirty of them offering these three gifts.

Now we all know that Alexander the Great always looked for his omens. So, when he was in Babylon in 331 B.C, he came into contact with these Magi, the Chaldeans as Arrian called them, i.e. the priests of Marduk or Bel, for “in all matters of religious ceremonial he [Alexander] took their advice, offering sacrifice to Bel in particular, according to their instructions”. Alexander even gave them the money and instructions to rebuild the famous Temple of Bel.

After his campaigns to the East, through what is now Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, Alexander returned to Babylon in 323 B.C. and was met by the Chaldeans outside the city walls. They advised him not to enter Babylon, as it was considered a bad omen. Arrian tells us this story “… Alexander, after crossing the Tigris, was met by some Wise Men of the Chaldeans, who drew him aside and begged him to go no further, because their god Bel had foretold that if he entered the city at that time it would prove fatal to him”. Plutarch relates a similar story in which Alexander got the news through his naval commander, Nearchus: “As he [Alexander] was upon his way to Babylon, Nearchus … came to tell him he had met with some Chaldean diviners, who had warned him against Alexander’s going thither”. Alexander complied but as time went by he lost his patience and decided to enter Babylon after all - his destiny was already sealed. It was written in the stars and Alexander died shortly afterwards in Babylon. The diviners must have known this but it remains a guess whether or not Alexander was fully aware that he would die if he ignored the warning.

By ancient writers, we usually refer to our western historians, but what about the literature in the East. There are, for instance, the Enuma Anu Enli records of celestial omens, which archaeologists have recovered from the Assyrian Library in Nineveh. The authors were Chaldeans, who left us tablets detailing the movements of the planets and how they disclosed the fate of mankind. These astronomers had the duty to warn authorities when they discovered that some major event was going to happen. They had done so before, for instance, at the approach of the decisive Battle at Gaugamela, that engaged Alexander the Great against King Darius III of Persia "The son of the king will become purified for the throne but will not take the throne. An intruder will come with the princes of the west; for eight years he will exercise kingship; he will conquer the enemy army; there will be abundance and riches on his path; he will continually pursue his enemies; and his luck will not run out."

Now among these tablets of Enuma Anu Enlil there is also one predicting Alexander’s death: "When in the month Ajaru, during the evening watch, the moon eclipses, the king will die. The sons of the king will vie for the throne of their father, but will not sit on it."

It is plain to see that these Magi knew about births and deaths. Why then are we so reluctant to accept knowledge and proven facts reaching back thousands of years? Just because they have not been scientifically proven? Just because we look at these stories as tales from old times and naïve peoples? We still may learn so much from our past, if we simply would allow ourselves….

All this reminds me of a clay tablet at the British Museum in London that was found in Babylon, Iraq. It tells us about meteorological and astronomical phenomena that were observed on the 29th day of the lunar month (the second month) in the year 323-322 B.C. Written in cuneiform script, it is a record of the death of Alexander, although he is simply mentioned as “king”. No western record of that ultimate moment has survived so far. Here too we could make some effort to read more about our history through the available legacies in the east. Why should we pretend that our Roman, Greek or maybe Egyptian sources are the only reliable ones? The Magi are not part of a fable. Why are we willing to believe that they came all the way to Bethlehem to pay tribute to the King of the Jews but would not have been able to predict the life and death of Alexander the Great and that of other kings?

We still have a long way to go…