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, December 28, 2012

Macedonia, Philip’s life-work - Alexander’s heritage.

When we read about Alexander the Great, we easily get the impression that he is the genius who decided to cross the Hellespont to conquer the rest of the world, winning every single battle and playing the political correct move each time he encounters a new city on his path.

Evidently, he had to settle a few matters “back home” first but they seem futile in comparison of what is achieved later on in Asia. Such a statement is only partially true since we have little or no background information of what the status of and in Macedonia was when Alexander became king in 336 BC. Ancient writers have not been very helpful in that field as they generally start Alexander’s history at the moment he sets out to Asia. Plutarch is the only one to relate some details about his youth. So, it is not surprising that our overall picture of Alexander is somehow distorted.

Pushing aside the heroics for the moment, we know that Alexander at the age of 16 was made Regent of Macedonia by his father, King Philip II who was leading a dangerous campaign around Perinthus. The King’s calculated assignment to appoint his son with such a trustworthy position cannot be underestimated! When Alexander was 18 years old, Philip felt confident enough to place him opposite the Theban Band at the Battle of Chaeronea, where the young prince and his cavalry killed the unbeatable Theban Band to the last man, eliminating a centuries-long entity for good. King Philip must have been very clever and realistic to judge the capabilities of his son. Not many fathers would do that and, as it turned out after the King’s assassination, no friend or foe either. None of them believed Alexander would so handily continue in his father’s footsteps. He led an attack at lightning speed against the northern tribes all the way to the Danube and south against Thebes who secretly hoped to stand a good chance against the young King. These fights went down in our history books with only a few lines as Alexander’s great tactical manoeuvres are overshadowed by his later conquests in the East.
Yet we forget that up to this point we owe most of Alexander’s successes to his father, for Alexander’s genius was not born overnight. Although we know that Philip led many a fight against his Macedonian neighbours, we generally ignore that this was a never-ending struggle. The stubbornness of the Balkan people certainly was no less than that of the Bactrians Alexander had to face in Central Asia years later. On top of that, Athens with Demosthenes in the front rows was always cross. As soon as Philip dared to sneeze so to speak, Demosthenes had his critics ready and Athens listened.
It generally is beyond our awareness that Philip was the one who restructured and united Macedonia – a far from easy task (the present politic situation in Greece is nothing new). Philip cemented the loose city-states into one country, Greece, and with the League of Corinth he made sure they would no longer fight each other. What an accomplishment! Philip understood like no other the art of diplomacy, besides being an excellent tactician and general. He knew how to eliminate each enemy at the right time and how to manipulate his opponents pending the ideal moment to act.

When Philip II of Macedonia is assassinated in 336 BC, he was at the top of his power ruling over an enlarged Macedonia and a unified Greece (all the Greek city-states except Sparta). Alexander could almost immediately leave for Asia, were it not that because of his youth he first had to prove himself a worthy successor to his father – on the one hand towards the neighbouring tribes and on the other hand towards Greece as heir to his father’s title of hegemon of the League of Corinth.

It is clear that the kingdom of Macedonia as inherited by Alexander had been conquered with bits and pieces by his father over a period of a good twenty years. When Philip was elected king (he was only meant to be regent for the infant Amyntas, his brother’s son), the country was on its knees and only a miracle could save it. Well, Philip was that miracle and he made it work. He spent little time at his palaces of Pella or Aegae, and often had to fight simultaneously on different fronts, from Thessaly and Thebes to the Black Sea. He went through immense efforts to make peace with everybody and in between all the bickering and the revolts he managed to rule the country, lead the economy to heights unheard of, and negotiate with every single ambassador in appropriate style! Not an ideal setting to pamper Alexander in a care-free youth. It is evident to see where this young king got his determination from! Yes, like father, like son! What an example he was for Alexander!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Alexandria was born under a regal star

With Christmas just around the corner and the stories about the star of Bethlehem flaring up once again, the time feels right to talk about the "birth" of Alexandria in Egypt, the first grand scale city built by Alexander the Great.

Alexandria was founded by Alexander in 331 BC and is generally considered as being the first of the "king's towns". Recent studies by members of the Faculty of Civil Architecture in Milan, Italy, have revealed that the main longitudinal axis of the city, the Canopic Way, is oriented towards the rising sun on the day Alexander was born and if that were not enough, to the Regulus star that rose in the same direction. This is not a pure coincidence but an achievement where astronomers and architects or rather diviners and builders, worked hand in hand. An exciting revelation that incites us to have a closer look at the foundation of Hellenistic cities.

In spite of the statements made by Plutarch and Diodorus, the location of Alexandria was not particularly suitable to build a city. In fact, it was set on a narrow strip of land squeezed between the sea and the marshy lands at the mouth of the Nile’s Canopus mouth. Preliminary works required, if we believe what is written in the Alexander Romance, the drainage of a number of canals before covering the area with streets – at least three of such canals have been located during recent excavation works. Moreover, other excavations carried out in the early 20th century revealed that the Canopic Way was actually deeply carved out from the underlying bedrock. Nothing was left to chance. 

Alexander never saw his city completed (achieved by Ptolemy who inherited this part of Alexander's Empire after his death) as it became the home of the famous Lighthouse (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world) and the incomparable Library of Alexandria, but from its very start the place was very unique.

Hippodamus of Miletus, who had revolutionized ancient town planning by introducing a plan of his own that answered to rigorously right angled streets at mathematically equal distances, had been widely used throughout Greece and Asia Minor since the fifth century BC. What Alexander did in Egypt was taking the very concept one step further by adding an element of "cosmic" order.

From the very beginning, the city was designed in all its details with a rather huge perimeter. It was divided in five quarters, labelled with the five first letters of the Greek alphabet. The main east-west road was called the Canopic Way and the main cross-road was strangely enough a dyke (Eptastadion) which connected the isle of Pharos to the mainland. The particularity of this city plan is that this Canopic Way played the role of city centre with all the official buildings and temples aligned along its 30 meters wide street instead of placing them around a central agora. Yet the most striking factor is that this road was not laid out according to local topography but ran slightly off a parallel with the coastline of the Mediterranean.

Thanks to computer calculations, the Italian researchers determined the position of the sun in the fourth century BC taking into account that the path of the sun in the sky has changed over time because of the variations in the earth's orbit. This is how they were able to determine that on July 20, 356 BC, the day on which Alexander was born, the sun rose in near perfect alignment with the Canopic Way – the "near perfect" being less than half a degree off, a negligible difference. On top of that, they established that "Regulus", the so-called "King's star", i.e. the brightest star in the constellation of Leo located near its head, also rose along the same alignment. This is a clear statement that the city of Alexandria was born under its very own stars if you include the sun into stardom.

Who would have expected Alexander to take his planning to such a divine stage? And why would he have gone through so much trouble?

One would expect that the Egyptians were responsible for this kind of calculations. After all, they had a long history of associating the sun god Ra with their pharaohs and they had built the Great Pyramids perfectly oriented to the four points of the compass. Yet that was ignoring the thorough knowledge of Greek mathematicians and astronomers. Only now do we realize that the planners of the city did not use the Egyptian solar calendar running 365 days per year, but the Greek lunisolar calendar. Alexander was born on the sixth day of the first month of the New Year and New Year’s Day was the day of the first new moon after the summer solstice, which eventually leads us to the 20th of July in 356 BC. Additionally, the rising of the stars was used by the Greeks as forerunners of important festivals and this might very well apply to Alexandria.

Is it a surprise or a coincidence then that “Regulus”, the star associated with kingship since Babylonian times, rose at the very same azimuth on that same day? Knowing Alexander, he would not have missed the opportunity to include such a symbolic moment in the foundation of his new city. After all, he had just returned from Siwah where he had been declared to be the son of Ammon-Zeus. Researchers now agree that Alexandria in Egypt was, in fact, the prototype for later Hellenistic towns designed as “king’s towns” meant to refer to the divine power of their founder (and probably to the memory of Alexander).

It is interesting to hear that the Italian team have taken their research yet one step further to see if this same solar alignment occurred in other cities of the same period within the same cultural context. For that purpose, they examined the foundation of Seleucia on the Tigris and the magnificent funerary monument at Mount Nemrud in today’s eastern Turkey.

Seleucia on the Tigris was founded in 300 BC by Seleucos, one of Alexander’s generals, who by 305 BC became king of eastern Asia as Seleucos I Nicator (see: Seleucus Nicator, in the wake of Alexander). Seleucia, located as the name says on the banks of the Tigris River in modern Iraq, may be more symbolic than expected at first sight. The city is not far from Babylon, where Alexander died in 323 BC and where Seleucos built his new capital. Just like Alexandria, the foundation of this city is lost among many legends. Seleucos himself was acclaimed as a god, son of Apollo and it is obvious that this divine power rubbed off on this city. 

Diodorus described the shape of Alexandria to be “similar to a chlamys” and Pliny records that Seleucia resembled an eagle. But focussing on Seleucia’s main street, the Italian team discovered that its Canopic Way was entirely inspired by that of Alexandria. Based on archaeological maps and on satellite images, they established that if Alexandria and Seleucia had been on the same latitude, the sun with a flat horizon would have risen in Seleucia in alignment with its Canopic Way on the very same day as it rose in Alexandria. There is, however, a slight difference in latitude between both cities and the match would occur on July 27 instead – a minimal difference, but still close enough to Alexanders birthday. On top of this solar match, there is also a close concordance with the famous Regulus star.

The Italian professors are therefore tempted to declare that the foundation of Seleucia has been inspired by that of Alexandria, both from practical as well as symbolic perspective. Being located so close to the place where Alexander died, it is not difficult to attribute an identical reference to his power several years later. The King’s Star only adds to the magic and the mystique of the site.

And then there is the case of Mount Nemrud, where a huge funeral monument was built for Antiochus I Commagene. The same story of Hellenistic divinity applies here although different because we are talking about a tomb and not about a city. Today’s location at 7,000 ft is off the beaten path in a rather remote area of eastern Turkey but must have been a very special place in the first century BC when this monument was built. The two terraces of this tomb are directed towards the summer and winter solstices, and it has been recently figured out that the colossal (now beheaded) statues on the eastern side faced the sunrise on the 23rd of July, being the date of Antiochus’ ascent to the throne as mentioned in the inscriptions on the monument. Moreover, there is another striking coincidence with Alexandria since Antiochus explicitly refers to Alexander the Great as his ancestor in the above mentioned inscriptions.

Only a few people are aware that this tomb includes a peculiar “lion horoscope”, depicting Mars, Mercury, Jupiter and even the crescent moon in Leo. Most notably is the presence here of the Regulus star, which just like in Alexandria, rose at this latitude also around the 23rd of July during the reign of Antiochus I.

Above analysis clearly shows that nothing was left to chance when building new cities or important monuments and that they include more astronomical elements and more references to Megas Alexandros than we would suspect. It would be interesting to see more “Alexandria’s” investigated in the same way for I wouldn’t be surprised if we found more similar evidence in every Alexander city.

Looted art returned to Afghanistan

Certain facts related to the war in Afghanistan hardly reach the news headlines. One of those is the alarming fact that no less than two thirds of the artifacts from the National Museum in Kabul were destroyed or simply stolen during the war of the 1990’s. Among them is a wide and unique collection of Hellenistic and post-Hellenistic art which we owe to the conquests of Alexander the Great.

By luck or by chance, it happens that stolen items are being seized by customs or by specialized official institutions like the Art and Antiques Unit of the British Police services. We are all aware that many objects are smuggled out of Afghanistan to end up on black markets all over the world. It takes constant awareness and alertness from officials and museums alike to recognize and identify those precious pieces.

It has been revealed that the British Museum, for instance, recently assisted in the return of 843 artefacts to Afghanistan, including those entrusted to the museum for safekeeping like the famous Begram ivories and an important sculpture of Buddha. Other objects, including Bronze Age carvings and medieval Islamic coins, were saved by private individuals.

Thanks to the assistance of the Royal Air Force, the precious cargo was flown to Kabul through the army base of Helmand. What an event!

It is such a comfort to read some positive news and to see that at least part of Afghanistan’s own cultural heritage is coming home after so many years of conflict in spite of the frequent looting and the illegal removal of these objects. It is an ongoing project and I hope many more success story will follow this one.

[picture from BBC]

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Greek city of Leukaspis in Egypt

At last, the recently excavated remains of Leukaspis will soon be opened to the general public!

Leukaspis disappeared from the map after the heavy earthquake of 365 AD and was rediscovered only in 1986 during roadworks under today’s luxury vacation resort of Marina el-Alamein, nearly two hundred kilometres west of Alexandria, in Egypt. Archaeological research exposed more than fifty different constructions belonging to the old town and its necropolis. The remains have all been dated between the 2nd century BC and the 7th century AD, and based on the many statues, the city may have been devoted to the cult of Aphrodite.

Leukaspis was founded in the 2nd century BC by the Greeks, and its name means as much as Wild Shield (or Shell) which may refer to the white sands in the area, although it was also known as Antiphrae. It must have been a quite prosperous harbour-city counting as much as 15,000 inhabitants in its heydays, exporting grain, livestock, wine and olives to other countries around the Mediterranean.

Excavations have revealed that the merchants lived in elegant two-story villas with inner courtyards surrounded by living quarters and prayer rooms. Rainwater was collected from the roofs and channelled underground towards the family cistern, while sophisticated sewer systems evacuated the waste waters. The social and economic life of the city evolved around the intersection of the two main streets. It is here that the remains of a basilica and a hall for public events were found, to be converted into a Christian church in later years. Greek columns and bright limestone walls are still standing up to six foot high in some places and the visitors will also be able to climb down the shafts of the rock-tombs to the underground burial chambers of the necropolis.

Leukaspis was a major stop for the coastal trade between Egypt and Libya, which in later years was extended to other cities around the Mediterranean Sea but mostly to Crete, as it was closer to this city than to Alexandria

Disaster struck in 365 AD when a massive earthquake rocked the entire coast of North Africa, setting off a tsunami wave that also devastated Alexandria. Most settlements along the coast disappeared, if not as a direct result of the earthquake, then certainly because of its long-term effect in though economic times.

Unfortunately, nothing remains of the old harbour as an artificial lagoon was built here in the 1990 (using dynamite) around the new summer residences of top government officials. Luckily the remains of Leukaspis are now protected from such barbaric measures…

As a strange coincidence, today’s Marina also is a holiday village for Egyptians who want to escape the stifling summer heat in search of the cool breezes of the Mediterranean. Plans exist to bring more year-round tourists to this area, away from the pyramids and Pharaonic temples, yet also close to the El-Alamein battlefield and its World War II cemeteries. There are signs that many a soldier from the allied troops sought refuge inside the rock-tombs of Marina.

And just some 30 miles away another tourist attraction could be the massive Temple of Osiris where archaeologists are hoping to find the burial place of the famous lovers Anthony and Cleopatra. After all, she was the last descendant of King Ptolemy I, Alexander’s faithful general and maybe even his half-brother.

[pictures are from Associated Press]

Friday, December 14, 2012

Revealing ancient Greek music, the Seikilos Epitaph

During my recent visit to the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam for their exhibition about Horses and their Riders, I was quite surprised to see a piece of a column engraved with Greek letters and in between the lines some strange characters that were labeled as musical notes. I thought nothing was known about ancient Greek music, leave alone their inscription in stone!

From the explanatory label I learned that this column, actually a copy of the original now in Copenhagen, was discovered in 1883 near Aydin in Turkey. It was called the Seikilos Epitaph, dating variously from 200 BC to 100 AD making it the oldest surviving example of musical composition in the world. Well, how do you like that!

The stone had a life of its own after its discovery. It had been entrusted to the museum of Smyrna as Izmir was called then, until the city was destroyed during the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922) and was lost. At some later time it was found in a Turkish garden where it served as support for a flower pot. To make it fit his needs, the Turkish owner had ground down the bottom part, erasing the last line of the epitaph. Eventually it made its way to the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen.

The ancient Greek text on this tombstone reads "Εἰκὼν ἡ λίθος εἰμί.Τίθησί με Σείκιλος ἔνθα μνήμης ἀθανάτου σῆμα πολυχρόνιον" meaning “I am a tombstone, an image. Seikilos placed me here as an everlasting sign of deathless remembrance”.

I find it extremely exciting to read such a personal message enhanced with its own music. It seems that as early as the 4th or 3rd century BC, Greek professional composers and choir leaders had developed a musical system. Texts of theater plays, however, were often copied without music as the singers would learn the tunes by listening to them rather than reading the very notes. In any case, this means that this epitaph showing the lyrics together with the music is a very unique piece.

Ὅσον ζῇς, φαίνου,
While you live, shine,
μηδὲν ὅλως σὺ λυποῦ•
have no grief at all;
πρὸς ὀλίγον ἐστὶ τὸ ζῆν,
life exists only for a short while,
τὸ τέλος ὁ xρόνος ἀπαιτεῖ.
and time demands its toll.

The last two words on the column read Σείκιλος Εὐτέρ[πῃ], Seikilos Euter[pei] which means “(from) Seikilos to Euterpe”, whereby Seikilos dedicated this song to Euterpe who was probably his wife. Amazingly the song has been “re-edited” and can now be heard on this YouTube video.

Digging a little further in this fascinating subject, I learn that older Greek music notations do exist (for instance, the Delphic Hymns) but all what remains are fragments. The Seikilos Epitaph is the only full song we have. However, there are bits and pieces that reached us on cuneiform tablets going back as far as 2,000 BC and also extracts of Chinese court music from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) which is supposed to be the exact copy of the melodies performed during the preceding 16 centuries – yet none can be proved.

During the last exhibition on Alexander the Great in Paris, the Louvre organized an evening of ancient Greek music. Annie Bélis, member of the French School in Athens, spent many years reconstructing antique musical instruments and researching papyri and inscriptions for musical notes. I must admit I was rather sceptical at first as the French like to show off, but there seems to be true value to her study.

This leaves me with an entirely new field to be investigated.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Ever heard of Germenicia?

Well, I haven’t. That is, till now when I read this article in the Hurriyet Daily News about this ancient city of Germenicia in Southeast Turkey that was buried underground for 1,500 years.

Once again, we owe it to illegal excavations that started in 2007 under a house in the province of Kahramanmaraş for authorities to decide the complete excavation of the mosaics and the city in order to turn it into an open-air museum.
[picture from]

Germenicia is contemporary of Roman era cities like Zeugma and Yamaçeviler. Until now, archeologists had not been able to locate this city although it was identified as Kahramanmaraş on old maps, simply because there were no architectural remains left. Germenicia was a very important and magnificent city which even stamped its own coins, but it remained hidden as a result of invasions and fires.

The illegal digs have now set a plan in motion to divide the region into 19 parcels of land, five of which promising to be important enough to start excavations. The mosaics have changed the future of the city that was buried till now. It has been established that two-storied Roman villas were built here around 400 AD.

Germenicia was named after the father of Roman Emperor Caligula, and is to be pinpointed at the foothills of Ahir Mountain in the neighborhood of Namik Kemal. Archaeologists believe that the city was buried by landslides as a consequence of a severe earthquake. They estimate that as many as one hundred villas with 15-20 rooms each are to be found in the region, and the newly unearthed mosaic suggests that it belongs to a floor decoration in one of these villas.

Time will tell us what other treasures have been buried in Germenicia for so many centuries.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Myra, the city of Saint Nicolas

Myra is one of the main travel destinations for every tourist in the area. What most people don't know is that Saint Nicolas is very much part of the Dutch folklore whose birthday is still being celebrated on the 6th of December (Sinterklaas). From Holland, the holy man wondered off to America where he was and still is honored as the Santa Claus we all know. However, Myra in Turkey is the true place to venerate this saint.

Although he was born in nearby Patara between 260 and 280 AD it is here in old Myra, today's town of Demre, that I find the St. Nicolas Church. Nicolas was a popular bishop, famous for his miracles and appreciated for his kindness.

The earliest church was built in the 6th century AD, supposedly over St. Nicolas' tomb. The church we see today, however, dates from the 9th century and was further rebuilt in 1042. It is no surprise that it lays in a deep pit, five meters below ground level like the rest of old Myra.

Based on its history, the mosaics and frescos don’t come as a surprise to me, but it is the general feeling about this church that is catching. The floor is covered with luxury marble mosaics and the Romanesque style windows beam the sparse light together to enhance a specific area. The mosaics show an endless combination of geometric patterns and motives like in Islamic times, completely lacking scenes of animals or plants. All the walls and the ceilings are still in place and it is not difficult to imagine the impact on the churchgoer of one thousand years ago.

The altar is a simple rectangular stone framed by four marble columns once holding up a canopy, I suppose, resting on the colorful mosaic floor. Behind it, the semi-circular seating in the apses is still in place, reminding me of the old synagogue of Sardes. At the edge of the step down to the nave, there are two taller and thicker columns crowned with lushly decorated capitals.

Along the outer walls of the side corridors, I see several tombs, including the sarcophagus of St. Nicolas. The cupolas and vaulted ceilings are still embellished with paintings of saints and apostles in vivid colors, especially after their restoration a few years ago. In other parts, I find only geometric design and I suppose those date from a later period. It all comes as a surprise to me for although I had no idea what to expect, I would say that it surpasses my wildest expectations!

Leaving the church through what may have been the main entrance, I walk over a paved courtyard with a water well, reminding me of those in the Florentine houses. A few more buildings are being excavated and the Corinthian columns and vaulted arches lead me to believe there was a monastery attached to this church.

I am pleasantly impressed by this church and I am glad I stopped to see it. Well, after all, it is listed as being the third most important Byzantine structure in Anatolia. That should mean something, right?

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Ancient Myra from Finike

Today I decide to drive to nearby Myra. This is where Santa Claus was buried, not the legend but the real man, Saint Nicolas, of course. His grave is still here although his remains were stolen by Italian merchants in 1087 and taken to Bari, Italy. 

After Finike the coastal road follows the contours of the landscape with every curve around the capes and inside the bays, offering rewarding views at each and every turn. It feels strange to be driving on this well-maintained road that I seem to know so well looking at it from the gulet when I sailed these waters last year. It appeared as a horizontal scar in the landscape, now a winding ribbon of asphalt that is not free of danger from falling rocks. But I enjoy every mile of it. Soon enough I enter the modern town of Demre that fills the entire bay and I am happy to see that there are plenty of road signs directing me to ancient Myra.

Most of the ancient city lie underneath today’s Demre and is hidden under five meters of alluvial silts from the Demre River. This large plain is now almost entirely covered with greenhouses stuffed with tomatoes – very efficient but not exactly a sight for sore eyes.

Myra was first mentioned in the 1st century BC when it was one of the six leading cities of the Lycian League (with Xanthos, Tlos, Pinara, Patara and Olympos) but its origins are believed to go back to the 5th century BC. The name was spelled MYRRH and the Lycian coins bear the abbreviation ΛΥΚΙΩΝ ΜΥ. Myra once had a great Temple of Artemis Eleuthera (a distinctive form of Cybele), said to be Lycia's largest and most splendid building. However St. Nicolas had the temple completely destroyed. How dared he?!

The ancient city was terribly hit by the earthquake in 141 AD and our friend Opramoas of Rhodiapolis donated no less than 200,000 denarii for its reconstruction, together with two other benefactors, Licinus Langus of Oenoanda and Jason of Kyaenai. Under Emperor Theodosius II it became the capital of the Byzantine Eparchy Lycia. Myra lost one-third of its population to the plague in 542-543 AD, and after subsequent Muslim raids, flooding and earthquakes, it was mostly abandoned by the 11th century. 

Plainly visible upon arrival is the Greco-Roman Theater of Myra chiseled into the rock and said to be the largest in Lycia and the third largest in Turkey. This is where I start. It is indeed quite impressive and I manage to arrive before the busloads of tourists. I walk between interesting debris of carved stones from the Theater showing theatrical masks and beautiful reliefs of birds, mythological scenes and, of course, the ever-present Three Muses. Then I climb all the way to the top, 38 rows above the skene for a complete overview of the modern town of Demre and to get a feeling of what the theater-goers in early times must have seen looking towards the sea. Several rows lower I walk the well-preserved diazoma whose facade is rich with inscriptions, niches, and reliefs. The holes in the terraces once held wooden posts to which sunshades could be fastened, just like I have seen before in Limyra and Arykanda. A real touch of luxury, and why not? It seems that in the 3rd century AD the theater was even used as a circus and for water sports!

Left of the Theater, I can’t miss seeing the many Lycian tombs cut out in the face of the rocks, but they are not accessible for visitors; only the ones in the eastern necropolis are. So I set off to that side but then I don’t find any path in spite of my repeated attempts through the orange groves and medlar orchards. I see a signpost indicating that the Lycian Way passes here, but I wish the backpacker good luck to find out where he is going for I can’t and honestly, after yesterday’s experience hunting for Rhodiapolis I lack the energy to investigate much further. An old woman kindly tries to put me back on track, handing me a couple of sweet apples, but in vain! OK, that was that.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Macedonia’s gold and silver mines today

Macedonia’s gold and silver mines are once again making headlines. Whoever would have thought that King Phillip II of Macedonia had exhausted the mines that became part of his kingdom after conquering Thrace and Chalcidice is entirely wrong.

We know that in 357 BC Philip watched the Chalcidice very closely since it thanked its economic importance to the mines of Crenides, just above the port of Neapolis (today’s Kavala), a valuable naval base in the region. Philip marched in and defeated the Thracian forces. He was determined to stay and in order to put his stamp on this place he changed the name of Crenides to Philippi. These newly acquired mines provided Philip with a reliable and steady inflow of money, Crenides being the largest and most profitable mine. By 356 BC money was flowing in steadily from these recently acquired mines and it is said they yielded more than 1,000 talents a year, more than enough to cover his military expenses and provide regular pay to his soldiers.

At about the same time, Philip had kicked out the Athenians from the Chalcidice where they had established settlements at Potidaea (on the neck of the Cassandra peninsula), close to Olynthus, and fought with them over Amphipolis on the trading route with Thrace, including abovementioned mines of Crenides. In the process, Philip obtained control over the mines of Stratonici, Skouries and Olympiade on the east side of the Chalcidice peninsula.

The Chalcidice is one of the most beautiful regions of Greece, least spoiled by tourism and rich with forests of oak, beech and pine and a main producer of wine, honey and olive oil. This is exactly where today’s big mining companies face each other to bring them back into production.

Canadian Eldorado Gold and Australian Glory Resources want to turn Greece into the biggest producer of these precious metals by 2016. A very ambitious and controversial project in a country desperately needing fresh currency. The projects are not exactly new but until now they were stopped by environmentalists because of the inevitable pollution, especially in the case of gold mining. Yet, in a region where unemployment hits 25% of the population it is understandable that conflicts between opposing parties arise. The companies promise to create 1,500 new jobs but local environmentalists argue that their present jobs will become obsolete: fishermen, beekeepers, lumberjacks, all those working in the woods and in the tourist sector will be hit.

What disturbs me personally is to read for instance that the contract between the Greek state and Eldorado’s subsidiary Hellas Gold stipulates that they are not liable for any “historic environment liabilities”. Is nobody paying attention to the consequence for our heritage, I wonder? As always, politics and money are the winners. In this homeland of Aristotle, plans are being drawn to create an open pit mine of approximately 700 metres in diameter together with a subterranean mine, and the first trees have been felled already. By 2016 the combined locations of Skouries, Olympias and Stratoni  are expected to  produce about 345,000 ounces of gold.

[picture from]

Another “hot-spot” is the Sapes mines located northwest of Alexandroupolis in today’s province of Thrace, also once actively exploited by King Philip, which is expected to have an annual output of about 80,000 ounces of gold. In this area also, 24% of the population is without a job; together with the other three mining sites mentioned above, these rates are higher than Greece’s average.

But there is still another factor to consider, and that is how much profit these enterprises will yield to the Greek treasury. Glory, for instance, based on the current estimated lifetime of the project will pay about $80 million in taxes and approximately $22 million in royalties. However, there is no law regulating taxes on royalties from the mining activities in Greece and in the end, the gross of the profits will not end up with the Greeks themselves.

Gold miners predict Greece could soon be the biggest European producer. Yes, could be, but will it work to boost the economy?

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Philippi, Macedonia’s gold and silver mines

Philippi is one of the milestones in the life of King Philip II but maybe even more so in shaping the history of Macedonia. An exciting place to visit in order to visualize its importance.

Today Philippi lies within easy reach from Thessaloniki thanks to the freeway Thessaloniki-Amphipolis-Kavala, roughly 160 km. From there the road North to Drama and Serres leads you straight to Philippi after less than 15 km. It is a lovely drive, in spite of being on a freeway for the road offers impressive views over Lake Koroneia and Lake Volvi along which King Philip II of Macedonia as well as his son Alexander the Great must have marched eastwards. Between Stavros and Amphipolis, the road runs close to the sea as it crosses the delta of the River Strymon, which before Philip’s reign was the eastern frontier of Macedonia. From Amphipolis to Kavala, the road runs a little more inland but right around the foothill of the Pangaeon Mountains, rich in gold and silver mines. And that is what Philippi was all about.

The antique city of Philippi was situated at the top of a hill, overlooking extensive marshlands that ran all the way to the seashore. On the east we find the gorges of the Sapaeans and Corpileans, while in the west we discover the beautiful fertile plains that bordered the River Strymon. There is another nearby hill called the Hill of Dionysus, rich in gold. The remains we see today are mostly from the Roman city located at the foot of the ancient citadel, but that is a different chapter in history.

Let us start with King Philip, who was the one to put the place on the map, starting the early years of his kingship. At that time, the place was called Crenides because of the many springs bubbling up around the hill, and it was a colony of the island Thasos. Towards 357 BC the king of eastern Thrace besieged the strategic and precious city of Crenides, just above the port of Neapolis (today’s Kavala), a valuable naval base in the region. Philip immediately marched in and defeated the Thracian forces. He was determined to stay and in order to put his stamp on this place, he changed the name to Philippi. He fortified the city walls and towers of this strategic location from where he could control the entire Strymon valley and beyond that all the way to the Danube hinterland. Beside that, he had access and control over the port of Neapolis.

These newly acquired mines provided Philip with a reliable and steady inflow of money, Crenides being the largest and most profitable mine. To improve the situation further, he had the marshy plain drained and cultivated, adding another boost to the local economy. 

The city prospered in Hellenic times thanks to the Via Egnatia which passed through Philippi in the 1st century BC, making it even more important. Philippi turned out to be a major center, connected through this Via Egnatia with Amphipolis, Thessaloniki, and the ports of the Adriatic Sea in the west, and to Neapolis and Byzantium in the east.

Things changed dramatically when the plains of Philippi became the theater of an important battle in 42 BC. Two Roman armies approached each other: Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Julius Caesar and defenders of the Roman Republic, arrived from the east, and a bit later, the triumvirs Marc Antony and Octavian moved in from the west, wishing to avenge the murder of Caesar. This was not just a battle between rival factions, the future of Rome depended on it. Because Brutus and Cassius had occupied the best positions on two hills approximately 4 km from Philippi, Marc Antony tried to circumvent Philippi by building a causeway through the wetlands to the south of the city, but Cassius discovered the plan and built a transverse dam. But then, Marc Antony unexpectedly stormed Cassius' camp. This was a great maneuver for it made Cassius believe that all was lost, and he committed suicide. That was a far too hasty decision for at the same time Brutus had defeated Octavian and captured his camp and that of Marc Antony. In other words, both sides had won a victory and suffered a defeat.

A second clash occurred a few days later. This time, Marc Antony and Octavian were able to lure Brutus into a battle he should not have accepted and the triumvirs ended up victorious. As we know, eleven years later Octavian defeated Marc Antony at the Battle of Actium and took on the surname Augustus. Veterans of these battles were settled in Philippi, which became a Roman colony (Colonia Augusta Julia Philippensis). The city expanded and became an economic, administrative and artistic centre, the result of which we can still see in today’s remains.

An important visitor of Philippi was Apostle Paul, who spent time here in 49 or 50 AD establishing the first Christian Church of Europe, making Philippi a metropolis of Christianity.

The city slowly was abandoned in the early 7th century AD due to repeated earthquakes and the invasion of the Slavs. However it survived the Byzantine era as a fort on top of the acropolis but was entirely deserted after the Ottoman conquests of the 14th century.

All the road-signs are in place and ancient Philippi welcomes the visitor with a spacious parking space and an even more spacious park where school children seem to have gathered today for a special outing. I hope they are not screaming like this around the site!

They are not, I even seem to have the excavation site all to myself, except for a bus or two with Chinese tourists who move with a discipline of their own.

• The very first building I encounter is inevitably the theatre. It was probably built by King Philip II around the middle of the 4th century BC and was improved in the 2nd/3rd century when the Romans made rearrangements and additions to meet the needs of that time.

The walls and the acropolis. The line of the walls begins at the top of the hill and it surrounds the foot of the hill and part of the valley below. The structure has two architectural phases: the first was built by Philip II and the second by Justinian I in A.D. 527-565. Inside the acropolis there is a tower dated to the Late Byzantine period.
The Agora (Forum). The Agora built during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, was the administrative centre of Philippi. The public buildings are arranged around a central open square (100x50m). It is bordered on the north side by the Via Egnatia, and on the other sides by steps and porticoes leading to the main municipal buildings. Parallel with the Via Egnatia were fountains, a rostrum and commemorative monuments. The west side is bordered by traces of a temple and administrative buildings. In the southwest corner stands an unusual upturned marble table, the cavities of which are thought to have been used for measuring, and holes in de the ground of playing marbles.

The Palaestra. The largest part of the monument is now covered by Basilica B. The Palaestra comprised a peristyle central court, rooms and a small amphitheatre.
The prison of Apostle Paul. The structure is actually a Roman water cistern which was later converted into a cult place.

Basilica A. Large, three-aisled basilica (130x 50m) with transept aisle on the east side, a square atrium and gallery over the aisles and the narthex. Fragments of the luxurious pavement and part of the ambo are preserved in the middle aisle. Particularly impressive are the frescos that imitate orthostates (dados) in the porch of a chapel. Dated to the end of the 5th century A.D.

Basilica B. Three-aisled basilica dated to ca. 550 A.D. It has a narthex and annexes to the north and south (phiale, vestry). The almost square in plan, central aisle was covered with a vault supported by huge pillars composed of ancient drums. A second vault roofed the sacred Bema. Its sculptural decoration is under the influence of Constantinople.

Basilica C. An impressive three-aisled basilica with narthex and transept, and a double ambo. It had luxurious marble inlaid floors and rich sculptural and architectural decoration. Dates from the 6th century A.D.

Octagonal church. The building is square in plan as seen from outside and octagonal inside. The nucleus of the whole structure is the vaulted tomb-heroon of the Late Hellenistic period. The octagonal church was built in ca. 400 A.D. and replaced the first small church dedicated to Apostle Paul.

• In the area between the Via Egnatia and the cult buildings of the Octagon, we find one of the Baths of Philippi. The complex also includes the phiale, a baptistery and a monumental gateway towards the Via Egnatia.

[Click here to see all the pictures of Philippi]