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)

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Stagira, the Birthplace of Aristotle

The name of Stagira sounds like magic for it is the birthplace of no one less than Aristotle! Aristotle was born here in 384 BC. His father, Nikomachos, had been the doctor for King Amyntas III of Macedonia, the grandfather of Alexander the Great, yet both his parents died while Aristotle was still young and he was adopted by a relative. At the age of 18, he went to Athens where he studied at Plato’s Academy for twenty years, i.e. till Plato died in 347 BC. Meanwhile he had founded his own school in Assos (Troas in today’s Western Turkey) and three years later, he moved to Lesbos where he met Theofrastos who was to be his successor at the school in Athens. In 343 BC King Philip II of Macedonia invited him to Pella in order to provide proper schooling for his son, Alexander. When his task was finished three years later, Aristotle withdrew to Stagira till he returned to Athens in 335 BC, founding his own school, the Lyceum where he worked for the next twenty years or so. Being accused of impiety after the death of Alexander the Great, he moved to Chalcis where he died, only 63 years old. Tradition has it that a year after his death, the people of Stagira officially had his remains transferred to be reburied in their city…

If you look for the city of Stagira on today’s map of Greece, you’ll be directed soon enough to the peninsula of Chalcidice in eastern Greece. But surprisingly that is only a modern town whereas the historic site of Stagira is located some odd 30 km to the east, just below Olympiada on the shore of the Aegean Sea. A good way to pinpoint the site, I found out is to use the Wikimapia layout of Google which gives the traveler plenty of detailed information beside the satellite image.

I’m leaving Thessaloniki in the early morning, heading straight east over the old road to Kavala and beyond that to Alexandroupoli and eventually to Istanbul. Most trucks and heavy traffic opt for the new freeway that skirts Lake Koroneia and Lake Volvi on the north side, making my drive along the southern side a most pleasant one. On my right lay the rich wooded hills of Chalcidice in a full array of green dotted with yellow broom and a wealth of flowers in the cleared fields in between. In the wind-still morning air the lakes peacefully reflects the clouds and their own harvest of reeds and other water plants. Of course, my thoughts drift off to Alexander who has marched his army along the opposite shores on his memorable conquest of Asia. Before him, it was his father Philip who must have followed either side during his many battles while creating the coherent Macedonian kingdom which he left to his son after his assasination. In antiquity this part of Chalcidice was rich with silver mines and the towns I cross could tell me many a story. It seems however that they have stopped in time. Life evolves at a different pace in this part of Greece.

At Stavros I take a right turn south to the settlement of Olympiada, a pleasant village of about 650 inhabitants that was built by refugees expelled from Aghia Kyriaki, Turkey, in 1923. According to oral traditional, Queen Olympias was exiled here by Cassander but from historical point of view this story is not correct for in reality she was exiled to Pydna. Anyway, the new settlers called their city Olympiada, in honor of Alexander’s mother based on this tradition. Its beautiful beach of fine white sands and clear waters is now favored by tourists from Germany and Bulgaria it seems, but presently in the second half of May it is still very quiet and unspoiled. At the end of the village, I find a cozy harbor with a dozen of fishing boats, overseen by an orthodox chapel with easy access from either the sea or the road to Ouranopoli. This main road also takes me up to ancient Stagira, signed and fenced and with space to park my car.

All is quiet here. Except for the rustling of the wind through the low trees and the songs of many birds, all I can hear is my own breathing. From the entrance gate a rough track runs upwards between bright honeysweet broom shrubs – a feast for the eye, till I reach the old city walls. A big map offers what seems to be an easy walk around the place, but it soon turns out to be a more difficult one as I venture into the dense shrubs and bushes.

Stagira was build over two successive hills and was defended by the wall I’m facing, protecting its people not only from the land side but also from the seaside. In its heydays, roughly between 500 BC and 350 BC, this wall was two kilometers long and often as thick as two meters. Although it has been nicely restored or probably just because of this, the wall is clearly visible in the landscape from afar.

The city was founded around 655 BC by colonists from the island of Andros and later from Chalcis. Like the rest of Greece, they were involved in the Peloponnesian War in 424 BC, becoming an ally of Sparta but changing camp soon after to take the side of Athens. Like many other cities on the peninsula, Stagira joined the Chalcidian League whose seat was in Olynthus (which I’m also visiting). But then Philip II set off on his expansion conquests of Macedonia and he is the one who besieged Stagira in 349 BC and thoroughly destroyed it in the process. When he later on hired the services of Aristotle to serve as a tutor for Alexander, he may have promised to rebuild the city as part of his (re)payment but it never recovered its previous wealth. It is in this context that I definitely wanted to visit Stagira, of course.

The remains of the city walls are very impressive to say the least. It is interrupted by several watchtowers, only three of them being round and I’m standing right next to such a round tower as I enter the city through an opening close to the Acropolis. The view I discover all along the coastline is beyond my expectations, a mixture of memories from the Costa Brava when I look south in admiration for the strategic choice when I see Olympiada and its harbor at my feet. The day is not really clear but I can oversee quite a stretch of coastline to the north and northeast within visual contact of Amphipolis and the Strymon delta. I have visions of the Athenian corn fleet for instance, keeping close to the land as it made its way back home maneuvering from one port to the next. Or how about seeing the enemy or pirate ships approaching from up here? There is nothing wrong with my imagination, of course!

Strangely enough the structures of these stone walls vary a lot, why that is I don’t understand. To the right the wall is built in the rough Lesbian or polygonal style, while the round tower and the left part of wall is set up in what is called “Egyptian style” using square and rectangular blocs of different sizes and materials (limestone and marble) alternating with dark flat stones – with surprising effects. It seems that some parts of the original walls still stand up to four meters tall.


I try to stick to the path as I visualized it from the billboard at the entrance, but there are too many side tracks and no indication to the next site of interest. I follow my own gut-feeling, passing by several ruins of Classical and Hellenistic houses from between 5th and 3rd century BC till I reach the open space at the very heart of the city, the Agora. Here I am confronted with an unusual rectangular public building measuring 26 x 6 meters indicated as a Stoa although it was in fact a hall used for public debate. It had three closed walls around which a simple stone bench was set, while the one open long side faced the Agora. A broad staircase, although placed off center, marked the entrance. The Stoa was covered by a roof held up by a row of eight columns aligned in the middle of the construction. Sadly only the foundations have survived and it takes some imagination to picture it in full glory. In front but to the side are remains of a small altar and on the other side of the market place those of a water cistern. The shape of this Agora is rather random as if the space has simply been used to the best of the possibilities without any basic pattern.

To the right begins a paved street, Greek in as far as I can judge, passing along several storerooms. These are rather small rooms, one of which contains the remains of three large jars stuck in the floor and a larger clay basin probably used for the storage of cereals. The next room reveals two large elongated holes chiseled in the rock (more or less in the shape of a boat) with a number of cavities in which most probably large earthen jars could stand. A remarkable sight, I must say.

My path leads me past the Byzantine wall from the 10th-11th century which cuts the old city in two and is made of all sorts of materials – typical Byzantine if you ask me for they were master recyclers avant-la-lettre. But underneath, archeologists have discovered remains of the archaic city wall from the 6th century BC. Amazing how this city limit was being used and reused after 16 centuries! Halfway that straight wall rises a big square tower and surprises me with a full-size flooring made of inlaid marble; the open rectangular space in the center of the room seem to indicate the place for an altar, possibly dating back to the 6th century.

Descending to the southern edge of the peninsula I stop several times to take in the scene, picture perfect views into the next coves and beaches. Close to the water edge the dense growth gives way and I stare into remains of walls and rooms clearly sunken under sea-level. What an exciting discovery! From here I reach what appears to be the oldest part of Stagira where an archaic Sanctuary (6th century BC) and late Classical walls have been exposed. Well, that is what the books say but honestly I can’t make out what is what. I climb to the top of this northern hill that is crowned with more Byzantine buildings and walls that seem to have been built one on top of another without clear pattern. However, a very delicate and promising piece of cornice from this sanctuary can be seen at the Museum of Polygyros in Chalcidice.

It is midday and the air is becoming pretty hot, luckily I took enough water with me. Yet I’m dying for a cup of coffee – maybe in neighboring Olympiada? I leave Stagira over what turns out to be the long way which however offers a magnificent last view of the city walls. The car is hot too but it will have to do down to the cafés and restaurants along the seashore. I find a quiet and shady table at the edge of the sandy beach where the hotel-restaurant owner has set up a large white tent decorated with shells and crude crafted maritime items painted in lively colors. What a breather! I sit back to stare over the peaceful sea and blue sky. All is well and the café frappé is exactly what I needed.
After collecting my breath and my brains again, I decide to drive down south over a green road on the map to Ouranopoli that is as far as the road will take me because the remaining section of the peninsula is property of the monks reigning over the Athos Mountains. From above Olympiada I make a last stop to admire the small island of Kapros, stretching in all its length at a good two kilometers from the shore. Kapros means “boar” in Greek and this is truly what it looks like. Even in antiquity the resemblance had not gone unnoticed for Stagira’s silver drachmas all carried the image of a boar …

I drive through Stratoni and Ierissos to Nea Roda where I hope to see traces of the canal dug by King Xerxes I of Persia in 480 BC. Persian conquests and occupation have been a reality over the centuries, yet when we read about it we tend to brush over the names and dates to return to the history of Greece as we like to see it. Just try to picture Iran occupying Turkey and invading Greece – not very likely, but Iran was Persia and mighty powerful in the 5th century BC. We should not forget that Persia has interfered often enough in Greece’s internal affairs, up to the time when Alexander the Great reversed the odds.
Fact remains that in 492 BC King Darius I of Persia sent a large army and fleet across the Hellespont in order to invade mainland Greece. This fleet, which was following the land army closely, was however destroyed by a storm at the promontory of Mount Athos. Three hundred vessels were lost and 20,000 men drowned. In the spring of 490 BC, Darius tried again. Heading for Athens, he was however decisively defeated at the Battle of Marathon, putting an end to his Persians conquests - for the time being that is. New plans were drafted but Darius died in 486 BC before he could execute any of them. It was his son Xerxes I who took over and who personally led the Second Persian invasion of Greece in 480 BC with one of the largest armies ever assembled. Xerxes had learned from Darius’ disastrous naval experience of 492 BC and ordered a canal to be dug through the narrow of the Athos peninsula where it is only two kilometers wide. This was probably one of the biggest engineering assignments of its time, shortcutting the long sailing route around Mount Athos. This is the place I want to see for myself.

But – in order to conclude my summary about Persian’s role at this time in history – this didn’t mean a complete victory of the Persians over the Greek city-states for even after being victorious at the Battle of Thermopylae the Persian fleet suffered a severe defeat at Salamis. A year later the Greeks united against the Persians and put a final halt to the enemy invasion at the Battle of PlataeaView Larger Map

Preparing for this wonder of the world, I searched for traces of the digging on satellite pictures but the line of the old canal is very vague. The land is rather level with only a few low hills before rising again towards Mount Athos at the very tip of the peninsula but if one looks carefully there is dark green line of trees where this canal once ran through the land from east to west. Somewhere along the modern road which more or less follows its tracé from Nea Roda to Trypiti on the other side of the narrow I pass a large billboard that confirms that I have arrived in the proximity. Exciting to be here at last but rather disappointing there is so little left to see.

Since I got this far, I decide to continue to Ouranopoli that promises beautiful sandy beaches and an old Byzantine fort at the threshold of the Athos monasteries which are off limit anyway. Exotic villa’s and plush hotels line the road into the city which turns out to be thoroughly spoiled by the tourists. One souvenir shop next to the other, one fast food place stuck to the next with bawling music filling the air. I take a quick picture of the lonely but commanding fort squeezed between the harbor for fake pirate ships and a modern parking lot, and turn back in search of peace and quiet. I find such a spot back again in Olympiada as I decide to take my evening meal at the same place where I tasted the coffee earlier in the day. Blissful scenery and delicious Greek food crowned with their local krassi – what more could I ask for…

By now it is time to investigate the modern city of Stagira, where I am told there is a park dedicated to Aristotle and his works, called “the Natural”. At this hour, I’m fortunate enough to have the park to myself allowing me to investigate the several instruments that illustrate the phenomena of nature. A shiny white marble statue of Aristotle inspired by works from antiquity oversees the lovely park.
I take my time and stop at each construction: the parabolic reflectors (reflecting even a whisper from one to the other); the sun dial (which also gives the month of the year); a huge lens (to prove the focusing of energy); a large compass (to illustrate that Aristotle’s philosophy is universal); the pentaphone (five slabs of granite that produce a sound close to that of ancient scale of pentaphone); two series of optical disks (whose designs, when set in motion, blend together to form another pattern); inertia spheres (the shock of one sphere is gradually carried forward from the first to the last sphere); a pendulum (where the oscillation energy of one element is transferred to the other two); and finally the water turbine (when cranking the lever, one is able to create a swirl in the water column similar to that of a tornado). It’s fun, I can assure you! At the far end of the park I try my luck at the telescope focused on the Athos peninsula but it is out of order. I take a picture in the zoom instead, with low hopes for the outcome since, as said before, this is not exactly a clear day, but in the end I manage to get a glimpse of illustrious Mount Athos! Saying my goodbyes to Aristotle I can’t help thinking he is happy here.

The drive back in the low evening sunshine is one that will stay with me forever. The road takes me right across the middle of Chalcidice, another green road on the map. I am under the charm of the lush wooded hills with a wide variety of trees and shades of green. At times the blooming broom bushes on either side of the road are touched by the delicate sunrays and metamorphosed into pure gold. I hardly meet another car or traveler on this long drive of more than 100 km back to bustling Thessaloniki – lucky me!

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