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 Oreitide - 325 Alexandria in Opiene / Alexandria on the Indus (confluence of Indus & Acesines, India) - 325 Alexandria Rambacia (Bela, Pakistan) - 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, 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.

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