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, October 9, 2011

Dion, the Macedonian Sanctuary

Dion, at the feet of Mount Olympus, has been Macedonian’s Sanctuary for eons. It was here that Alexander brought offerings to Zeus before crossing over to Asia. It was here that his father, King Philip II came to celebrate his many glorious victories. It was here that King Archelaos started brightening up the festivals with athletic and theatrical performances. But all Macedonian kings had one thing in common: they gathered here to sacrifice and bring offerings to the Olympian gods, whatever the occasion. Enough reason for me to take a close look at the place, not the least because of Alexander’s multiple visits.

Although Dion became part of a Roman colony founded by Emperor Augustus in the 1st century AD, the city managed to preserve its Greek character up to the Byzantine times. Yet, after a combination of natural disasters and repeated invasions by the Goths in the 5th century AD, Dion sank into oblivion.

The drive from Thessaloniki, takes me south past the antique sites of Methoni and Pydna, past modern Katerini till mighty Mount Olympus looms at the horizon on my right, an unforgettable and most rewarding view!

Directions in and around Dion (modern Dio) are very clear. The town has been able to lead tourists’ traffic in such a way as not to interfere too much with the daily life of the community. Except for a handful souvenir stores and cafés, not much has changed here. I decide to start with the museum as it is said to close at 3 pm (the excavation site is open until 7 pm) - we are never sure what to expect when walking either through a museum or an archeological site, are we?

The museum is not really big but offers quite some pieces of interest, although I am still not sure whether one should visit the museum before or after seeing antique Dion. I have done it both ways, once in 2006 and now in 2011, but it does not make the explanations any easier. I still have difficulty matching one with the other. Dion is a sanctuary, meaning, in fact, a collection of temples and altars ranging from the 4th century BC all the way to the 5th century AD. Even walking around Dion it is very confusing to sort out the array of buildings, leave alone here at the museum where bits and pieces have to match with the remains out there in the field.

I pick out the pieces that most appeal to me: some statues (like that of Hygeia); heads (Demeter and Niké); funeral steles (Hunter with his dog and Mother and Child); slender funeral craters that are well preserved; terracotta statuettes (a lovely Macedonian boy); coins of all kinds and mainly Macedonian; glass beads and other pieces of jewelry; small ivory heads from funeral couches; mosaics (spiral mosaic from the Villa of Dionysos); and a superbly reconstructed hydraulic organ. I even spend some time checking out the slabs with inscriptions: like the Treaty between king Perseus and the Boeotians; a Letter which Philip V wrote to a certain Eurylochus; and the base for a statue of Cassander. Outside in the grass, I find a dozen or so of Roman tombs with Greek inscriptions and in the shelter of a portico even a stone tomb door, very much like the one that has been reconstructed at the Museum of Pella.

The museum has no cafeteria but I find the place across the street inviting enough and their coffee (Greek) is excellent and their toilets are clean. It a good thing to take a short break to digest all the impressions before heading for the actual site of Dion, which is in fact within walking distance.

It is obvious that this location was one chosen by the gods in a broad flat valley under the watchful eye of snowcapped Olympus. Its icy waters ran and still run through Dion and this holy river saved the city from plundering when after heavy earthquakes it disappeared under two meters of water and mud. We had to wait for centuries to put the city back on the map as many pumps and slush gates are still helping to keep our feet dry.

I start with the Greek theater, more name than remains, but a wooden reconstruction has been put in place and the original layout is clearly visible. It was located outside the actual city walls and built during the reign of Philip V (221-179 BC). It looks out over a splendid park-like field, the very spot where Alexander pitched the tents to entertain his one hundred guests, friends, officers and ambassadors who came from all over Greece to celebrate his departure for Asia. The huge Altar of Zeus where he made his offerings is located near the other end, close to the Roman Theatre from the 2nd century AD. Not often can one come so close to Alexander as we can here.

I wonder if it was in this area that I should picture the famous bronze group made by Lysippus, Alexander’s dedicated sculptor. It represented and was dedicated to 25 cavalrymen which had fallen during the Battle of the Granicus, Alexander’s first victorious confrontation with Persia.

Evidently the most important god worshipped at Dion, was Olympian Zeus, after whom the city was named (the genitive of "Zeus" being Dios). The sanctuaries were used not only by the inhabitants of Dion, but also served the religious needs of a greater number of people during the festivals with thousands of visitors. It is here that the base of a big statue of King Cassander was found, now in the Museum. Various pilgrims' offerings were placed in the sanctuaries of Dion. At the Sanctuary of Olympian Zeus, inscriptions were found referring to important state affairs such as peace treaties, regulation of boundaries, honorary decrees, etc, some of which are now in the Museum. The Macedonians who crowded these festivals could read these texts and be informed – an official newspaper in a way.

It is a most pleasant walk along the banks of the clear fast-flowing steam where fish and crabs have found a home, till I reach the Sanctuary of Demeter. This is said to be the earliest Macedonian sanctuary known to date and was used uninterruptedly from the late 6th century BC to the early 4th century AD. For a leyman, it is not evident to figure out the remains of walls and chambers, but with some effort, one can discern two small temples of the megaron type with an open antechamber and a cella. This is where most of the offerings were found, statuettes, lamps, vessels, beads, etc. which all indicate that an earth goddess of fertility was worshiped here, confirmed by an inscription referring to Demeter (4th century BC).

I now have to cross the lowest part of this cult area, which seems always to be more or less flooded – no wonder when to my great surprise I see the many springs bubbling up amidst the ruins! Reflecting in the water and amidst lush green growths lie the elegant Sanctuaries of Serapis, Isis and Anubis that came to this region during the Hellenistic period thanks to the propaganda of the Ptolemy’s of Egypt. It is a most pleasant sight how these statues are bathing in the water or admiring their mirror image. A metal bridge has been put in place so we can walk very closely through this eerie setting. When I climb out of this depth I pass a Byzantine wall where an unknown deity and the head of Aigle have been reused in its construction. How dare they!

Past the remains of the Roman city wall, I finally enter the city of Dion which is generally Roman from the 2nd century. What we find here is an entire network of streets along which many buildings, warehouses, private houses and public baths have risen. A few of these constructions stand out of course, like for instance the Roman Baths with parts of the mosaic floors and the hypocaust still in place or the Polygon Villa with a 12-sided courtyard surrounded by columns giving access to the house. At the entrance we can still admire the 3rd century mosaic of wrestlers at practice, a very Roman portrait I would say. Further down to the east, we find the remains of the Villa of Dionysos which takes its name from the large mosaic depicting the god that covers the floor of the banqueting room. And then there is the set of reliefs showing very Macedonian cuirasses and shields that has be set up alongside one of the streets. At some places, you can even see the sewage conduits underneath these streets. It always makes me wonder how we possibly managed to lose this knowledge in our Middle-Ages and had to entirely reinvent the system. If you look closely, you’ll also notice that many mosaic floors have been covered with plastic and gravel to protect them, but it’s so unfortunate that we cannot see them!

Dion is much less known than the Sanctuary of Delphi, for instance, but is certainly not less inspiring. It definitively completes a thorough visit of Greek Macedonia. 

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