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)

Friday, December 27, 2013

Our beautiful planet earth - or isn't it no longer?

Our planet is quite fascinating, especially if you can look at it through the pictures on this YouTube presentation.



This picture of the world is so very far from what Alexander imagined and knew what it was like. It makes me wonder what he would have made of this? 

I often wonder if he ever saw the beauty of the landscapes he was crossing. As far as I'm concerned, he must have for he moved at slow speed compared to our modern ways of transportation. He walked or rode on his beloved Bucephalus, but what would he actually be doing? Talking to his generals? Drawing imaginary plans? Listening to the problems of his soldiers? Contemplating new conquests? Discussing possible roads with local guides?  I simply cannot picture Alexander just sitting on his horse or walking doing nothing useful. Can you?

Friday, December 20, 2013

Volubilis in Morocco, hardly known

Unfortunately most people visiting Aspendos leave immediately after having seen its unique theater, and skip its aqueduct altogether, although it is a true masterpiece of Roman architecture that can only compete with the Pont du Gard in France or the aqueduct of Volubilis in Morocco.
During a tour of Morocco, I made a stop at Volubilis and my hopes run high when I have a first glance of this huge city spread out over the gentle slopes of the overall green landscape. I fail to see why this location was chosen for the sea it too far away and I’m not aware of any neighboring commercial towns or network of cross-roads, and that in spite of the fact that this city once was one of the largest of North-Africa together with Leptis Magna and Sabratha in Libya and Douga and El Jem in Tunisia. Time for some in-depth research.
The Volubilis I am discovering covers 42 ha. In the third century BC is was a true Carthaginian city built on top of older prehistoric settlements. In the year 40 AD, Volubilis became part of the Roman Empire and the administrative center for the Roman province of Mauretania Tingitana. The fertile farmlands around the city produced rich crops of wheat and olive oil which were in high demand in Rome and contributed to the local prosperity. This answers my initial question but unfortunately nobody informs me about the many buildings and mills dedicated to olive pressing. It is only afterwards that I hear that Volubilis counted 58 oil-pressing sites in as much they have been unearthed until now.
The poor ruins of Volubilis date in majority from the 2nd-3rd century and are pretty disappointing, but that is because most of its remains were largely shaken by the earthquake of 1755 which also destroyed great parts of Lisbon, Portugal. On top of that, the site was widely plundered and stripped of its marble in the 18th century to build nearby Meknes that was supposed to become a second Versailles. An incredible madness considering today’s standards, but on the other hand nothing much has been done to restore any of the key buildings of this antique site as is generally practice nowadays. Moreover, most of the artifacts have been moved to the Archaeological Museum of Rabat. In 285, during the reign of Emperor Diocletian, the Romans suddenly left Mauretania Tingitana and life returned only in 789 when Idris I, a descendant of Prophet Mohammed settled here and renamed the town Walila.
In a distance I discover remains of the city walls dating from 168-169 AD with a lonely arch, the Tingis Gate, one of the eight city-gates. From there the straight Decumanus runs down to the well-preserved Arch of Caracalla at the southern end, erected in his and his mother’s honour in 217 AD. It is decorated with Corinthian columns and was originally topped with a bronze chariot as customary on triumphal arches. The inscription on the outside wall in still in situ and reads as follows:
IMPERATORI CAESARI MARCO AVRELLIO ANTONINO PIO FELICI AVGVSTO PARTHICO MAXIMO BRITTANICO MAXIMO GERMANICO MAXIMO
PONTIFICI MAXIMO TRIBVNITIA POTESTATE XX IMPERATORI IIII CONSVLI IIII PATRI PATRIAE PROCONSVLI ET IVLIAE AVGVSTAE PIAE FELICI MATRI
AVGVSTI ET CASTRORVM ET SENATVS ET PATRIAE RESPVBLICA VOLVBILITANORVM OB SINGVLAREM EIVS
ERGA VNIVERSOS ET NOVAM SVPRA OMNES RETRO PRINCIPES INDVLGENTIAM ARCVM
CVM SEIVGIBVS ET ORNAMENTIS OMNIBVS INCOHANTE ET DEDICANTE MARCO AVRELLIO
SEBASTENO PROCVRATORE AVGVSTI DEVOTISSIMO NVMINI EIVS A SOLO FACIENDVM CVRAVIT
Translated by Wikipedia it says:
For the emperor Caesar, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus [Caracalla], the pious, fortunate Augustus, greatest victor in Parthia, greatest victor in Britain, greatest victor in Germany, Pontifex Maximus, holding tribunician power for the twentieth time, Emperor for the fourth time, Consul for the fourth time, Father of the Country, Proconsul, and for Julia Augusta [Julia Domna], the pious, fortunate mother of the camp and the Senate and the country, because of his exceptional and new kindness towards all, which is greater than that of the principes that came before, the Republic of the Volubilitans took care to have this arch made from the ground up, including a chariot drawn by six horses and all the ornaments, with Marcus Aurelius Sebastenus, procurator, who is most deeply devoted to the divinity of Augustus, initiating and dedicating it.
Only a dozen of columns have been re-erected along said Decumanus and a sharp eye will notice several public fountains (Nympheions) along the way with their worn-down edges where so many water jars have been pulled up.
My guide (who was imposed on me) has no interest for these details and I find it rather annoying to be herded from one mosaic to the next without receiving any explanation about the general layout or history of Volubilis. It feels like a tour of Pompeii in the 1970’s when archaeology was approached in quite a different way. The mosaics are pleasant enough, but rather crude and less refined, and the floors are in dear need of a good cleaning and even restoration job. In spite of the rush I still can appreciate the peculiar round Atrium we are crossing surrounded by twisted columns crowned with Pergamese capitals and the out-of-common layout of what is called the North Baths, but the overall picture unfortunately remains vague.

Beside the Arch of Caracalla there are only two other buildings that clearly stand out in all of Volubilis and these belong to the Capitol Complex with the Basilica and the Forum. It is easy to mentally reconstruct the Basilica because the walls of the five wings are still intact. Opposite lies the Capitol from 217 dedicated to the Roman gods Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, of which only the columns in the front are in place. The 1300 square meters between the Basilica and the Capitol form the paved Forum with the remains of an altar. And this is where my tour ends …


That leaves me with my most burning question: where is that famous aqueduct? Based on the maps it is supposed to run on the east side of and more or less parallel to the Decumanus but I see no trace. The aqueducts of Aspendos and Pont du Gard are quite easy to spot, you simply can’t miss them – why not here in Volubilis? Maybe it is to be found on the other side of the hill, out of view? The site has been put on the Unesco World Heritage List but even in the literature I cannot find any reference to this famous aqueduct… Any additional information is most welcome!

[Click here to see all the pictures of Volubilis]

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

La Route de la Soie, d’Alexandre le Grand à Marco Polo by J Dauxois.

Although the title “La Route de la Soie, d’Alexandre le Grand à Marco Polo” (ISBN 9782268064994) by Jacqueline Dauxois sounds very promising, the book is simply disappointing.

I expected to walk in the steps of Alexander to the east, who for a greater part follows what is later called the Silk Road, to be taken over by Marco Polo who extended his voyage further east to China proper. Not so.

With all my respect for the author/teacher, all I discover is a very sketchy history that starts with Alexander the Great and ends with the Polo family returning to Venice, Italy, with just an occasional word about silk. From Alexander’s times, she jumps to China, to Rome, to Constantinople, the Mongols, the Vikings and the origins of Russia, quoting events randomly and lingering extensively on the wars, atrocities, destruction, murders and killings by the thousands and hundreds of thousands.

Obviously, the part about Alexander interests me most but I am not rewarded. Jacqueline Dauxois lets her imagination run freely, giving details meant only to spice up the story and describing situations in a non-historic light.

The main subject, the Silk Road itself, is hardly mentioned, its route(s) is not mentioned (not even on a simple map), its importance is not explained and its legacy shrouded in mystery!

Maybe I should have considered this book more as a novel, in which case liberties are allowed, but the references the author gives with names and dates lead me to believe otherwise. Maybe this is typically French with their tendency to embellish their story (avec mes sincères excuses envers mes amis français). It’s up to the reader to decide.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

What is the kaunakès?

Kaunakès” is the Greek word for thick cloth, attributed to a woolen skirt or cloak that replaced the old sheepskins. The tufted effect was reproduced later on by weaving loops into the fabric or by sewing tufts on the cloth.


I was made aware of this word when searching for more background information about the statuettes of Bactrian princesses or goddesses at the Louvre Museum. This visit followed my trip to Uzbekistan in search of Alexander’s path in Bactria and Sogdiana. My curiosity was kindled by the Uzbek women’s dresses whose imprint was an intriguing feather pattern on colored backgrounds of blue, green or red. It was obvious for me to link the so-called Bactrian princess with their tufted garments to these modern dresses. Digging further on the subject, I came across the striking statues of the blue-eyed Sumerian priests and their bulky feather-skirts.

The generally white Sumerian statues of which some have retained their striking big blue eye crowd the Museum of Damascus, for instance. They are generally smaller than life-size and their puffy skirts are truly intriguing till confronted with the knowledge of this “kaunakès”. Time-wise both Sumerian and Bactrian statues share the late third/early second millennium BC.

It is known that this was a time of prosperity in Mesopotamia to which Bactria contributed by supplying raw materials. Most people have hardly heard of Bactria and those who have are not aware of its cultural or artistic merits. I find it quite amazing to be confronted with the cultural and artistic exchange that existed some five thousand years ago between Sumer, basically the land between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, and Bactria all the way beyond the Oxus River and the Hindu Kush Mountains.

Bactria produced highly distinctive statuettes as well as exceptionally fine works of metal to which I paid far too little attention when visiting the Louvre since I was focusing on the Bactrian princesses instead. There are many factors that make these statuettes unique. They consist of a number of detachable parts made of contrasting colors, like for instance white calcite and green steatite where obviously the white was used for the body parts while the steatite rendered the dress and hair. It is not always clear to establish whether these ladies are standing or sitting down with their wide skirts spread around them but they all show a flat lap in which their (missing) hands were supposed to be resting. Yet all the dresses show the same featherlike pattern.


There is a theory that points towards labeling these ladies as goddesses and that is not surprising when you realize how they carry themselves with clear awareness and dignity. They may even represent a main goddess of Central Asia that ruled over the natural world and which is otherwise represented by a lion, a snake or even a dragon. Standing completely on its own is a male figure presented in the same pose and in two distinctive colors. Why a male? What or who is he representing?




It is clear that many questions still remain unanswered as a substantial chunk of history in Central Asia remains untold. But it all makes me wonder how this garment lived so long and survived after five-thousand years to be worn as a matter of course in today’s Samarkand or Bukhara, just like during Alexander’s campaign of 329-327 BC in Bactria. Who knows, maybe Roxane wore something similar?

Anyway, it is quite remarkable to see how ancestral traditions are being kept alive in that part of the world – Alexander’s world and ours.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Ancient Corinth in colour!

It is only a tomb, but imagine what the real homes must have looked like!

During works on the Corinth-Patras road, a well-preserved Roman tomb of 3.30x2.63 meters was discovered, complete with vaults and wall paintings. The most striking element however is the stone bed or rather the coffin that was painted in such a way that it looked like a bed!

[Pictures from News Archeology Network]

The tomb, dating from the first or second century AD was accessed through a staircase with a relief tile on either side – one showing a chariot pulled by four horses, the other one pulled by dolphins. The ash urns were still in place in the niches and the terracotta coffins contained bones, oil lamps, bronze coins and several pottery shards. The walls of the tomb were also painted with garlands and fruit, as well as with the pictures of two men and a woman.

A similar tomb has been discovered last year in the same area as part of an ancient cemetery where vessels for burial offerings were found similar to those found at the Kerameikos in Athens, the only other example so far.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Wine is a popular subject these days, now in Bulgaria

It seems wine is a very popular subject for archeologists these days for after Greek wine, not so Greek after all and News about Greek (Macedonian) wine, the latest update now comes from Bulgaria.


[Picture from Focus Information Agency]
 
One of the main tourist’s destinations these days is the city of Nessebar on the Black Sea and it is precisely here that a perfectly preserved cellar full of wine amphorae from the 5th century BC has been discovered. Great news for the wine aficionados!

The cellar measuring 2.6 x 2.5 meters belonged to a house located at the far northern end of the peninsula mostly ignored by later settlers. Amazingly enough more than thirty untouched amphorae were unearthed. Based on their shapes and measurements, they could be traced back to the islands of Chios, Lesbos, Thasos, etc. to transport wine (and oil) from prominent producers and importers.

The article from Focus Information Agency does not reveal whether this wine is still drinkable. I wonder …  

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The trireme, a ship to remember

The trireme seems to be the most intriguing type of ship built and used in the ancient world. It was in fact the most dangerous and effective warship of its time, built for mobility and speed. We know that Tyre had a fleet of triremes when they attacked Alexander to hamper him working on the causeway to connect the island to the mainland. Arrian clearly states that he “took the quinqueremes and five triremes” he quickly assembled to meet the Tyrians and eventually “rammed the majority and made them unsailable”.
Triremes were meant to be used as a ramming weapon and were powered by 170 oarsmen arranged in three rows. The bottom row of oarsmen sat hardly 18 inches above the water level, meaning that the ship was not fit to be used in rough weather or to be handled in open ocean. Yet they were ideal for short battles as they were very fast and maneuverable, a huge advantage during critical encounters. They are known to have been the decisive weapon during the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC when the 371 Greek ships defeated the much larger Persian fleet of 1207 ships.

The first trireme was invented around 700 BC by Ameinocles the Corinthian. It could move fast and under sail under favorable conditions could even reach a speed of 10 knots. So it is not surprising that these triremes were favorites and were optimized over time to be the fastest ship in antiquity. They were used all over the eastern Mediterranean and the practical Romans sailed them until the 4th century AD.

In the past thirty years or so, there have been a lot of discussions about their shapes, the three levels of oars and their overall measurements. All we could go by were vase paintings, coins and pictures on different sculptures as no wreck was ever found. A few construction details were revealed in ancient texts, like the performances of the rowers or the fact that each oar was handled by one single man. Some building sheds however seem to have come to us, providing us with at least the maximum length and beam of a trireme. The length of the oars was a main subject of debate, since they plunged into the water from different levels. In the end, a general agreement has been reached to establish the length of a trireme at 120 feet (37 meters). They were manned by 170 oarsmen of which 31 sat on the top row, 27-29 on the middle and bottom rows.

By the end of last century, the debates flared up and eventually a Trireme Trust was created in 1982 to rebuild a full-size ship. It took about five years to launch the prototype which was baptized gallantly as Olympias. I like to believe that was in honor of Queen Olympias, the mother of Alexander the Great but I couldn’t find any evidence to support my assumption. The modern replica was born in the shipyards of Piraeus using Oregon pine since adequate Greek pine had declined and was not expected to stand up to the strains. Some 20,000 wooden wedges were used to connect the hull planks, which according to tradition were made of beech wood, while the required 25,000 bronze spikes were all hand made. The ramming front was made of cast bronze in two separate pieces. The sails on the other hand were made of linen in Scotland, the only place capable of making such sails.

By 1987 sea trials were carried out in the Saronic Gulf around the island of Poros (1 day), in 1988 with a voyage to Methana and the subsequent circuit of Poros (1 day), in 1990 around the coast to Porto Heli when speed records were reached (5 days), in 1992 the first trireme passage through the Canal of Corinth was achieved and the longest voyage to Corinth, via Aegina and Salamis (6 days) and in 1994 the Olympias was used for public relation purposes with several Greek film crews. Remarkably, the ship even sailed up the River Thames in 1993 to mark the 2,500th anniversary of Greek democracy (I wonder why democracy had to be celebrated in London?).


All these trials led to interesting conclusions in spite of the opposition by the purists who thought that any reconstruction should be based on an archeological wreck, of which none exist. The Olympias sailed under favorable conditions in a sprint under oar at a speed of 9 knots (very close to the 10 knots mentioned above), while she was rowed continuously for more than 30 miles at cruising speed of close to 6 knots. She turned out to be extremely maneuverable and a lot of practical information was gleaned during these trials about the practicalities and logistics of using both oar and (square) sail.

The story of the Olympias has been dormant since, but all of the sudden I hear that scientists believe to be close to tracing the wood from which these ancient triremes were made. They are actually focusing on the Macedonian fir and pine tree of the Olympus in the Pieria area, southern Macedonia, Greece, because their wood locally known as “liacha” has no knots but is very resistant to salt water. This theory is based partly on Theophrastus, Aristotle’s successor, who recorded that these trees were used in the construction of paddles and ships, and partly on the results of archaeological excavation that were carried out in Methone in 2003. Since 2011 scientists from Greece are being joined by those from the USA, Britain and Ireland in a collective effort to discover pure pieces of wood from the 8th century at the excavation site of Methone. I can hardly await the results of this study, especially since this city is part of Alexander’s homeland!

Meanwhile more exciting news comes from recent diving expeditions off the east cost of Sicily near the Egadi Islands where ten bronze ship-rams have been discovered together with a variety of arms and utensils. The site is where the last battle of the First Punic War (241 BC) was fought between Carthage and Rome which was won by the Romans thanks to their smart planning. The ten rams, each weighing as much as 125 kg, were mounted on the bow of the triremes or quinqueremes to be used to simply ram the enemy ship to pieces. This find is quite significant considering that till now only four rams had been recovered for all antiquity. Follow the latest developments on The Archaeology News Network. Another interesting article appeared lately in the Daily Mail. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Picking up Alexander’s traces in Cyrene (Lybia)

Cyrene, now part of Libya, doesn’t come to my mind right away when following Alexander’s track and I must admit that I didn’t expect to meet him there either – yet I did!
It happened at the local museum, although “museum” is a great word for the barren storage room, hidden behind a courtyard with heavy metal doors. There are only a handful of small barred window high up the walls but in honor of the visitors large flickering neon lights are being switched on. I walk among Roman sarcophagi and statues, meeting familiar statues of Apollo, Aphrodite, Heracles, Isis, Hekate, beside the Three Graces and even Marcus Aurelius. Grumpy Demosthenes is looking very sour and I suddenly realize why: Alexander is standing nearby, larger than life-size with poor remains of his beloved Bucephalus at his feet! Oh wow! I’m digging hard in my Alexander history to fit in Cyrene. Thoughts are rushing through my brain, tumbling helter-skelter, pushing each other aside – I have to straighten this out!

 So, I pick up Alexander after the siege of Gaza, when he arrives in Pelusium, his first stop in Egypt. From here he went to Memphis, the capital of Egypt in his days, where he received a delegation from Cyrene that brought him horses among their gifts. There is a beautiful relief at the Cyrene museum praising these horses for their stamina, especially on the battlefield – a quality that cannot have escaped Alexander’s awareness for this noble animal.

A couple of years ago, I attended a lecture by Olaf Kaper who speculated that the gift of horses may have been an invitation for Alexander to visit Cyrene, a Greek colony at that time and famous for its horses. He speculated that his intention was to visit the city but traveled on to Siwah instead. The full story of this lecture has been published earlier under the title “Alexander the Great in Egypt. Lecture of 24 November 2010. Fascinating stuff!
 
My visit to Cyrene was part of a tour of Libya (before the Arab Spring) and I knew that in antiquity it was one of the major cities of North Africa (counting tens of thousands inhabitant as early as the 5th century BC), together with Leptis Magna and Sabratha in Lybia, Volubilis in Morocco and Douga and El Jem in Tunisia. Yet I never made the link with Alexander or even with the Ptolemies who ruled over Egypt that included Cyrene. Besides, in spite of above information, I had no idea that Cyrene was that big – huge excavations works have been widely rewarded!

Before entering the city, I am confronted with the Temple of Zeus – a truly big and imposing temple. Strangely enough it feels very familiar, as if I have seen it before. The Temple of Poseidon in Paestum (Italy) comes to mind, followed by the Temple of Zeus in Olympia (Greece) and the Parthenon in Athens which are approximately both of the same size, yet this one looks less refined and more solid. The Doric columns date from the 6th century but the temple has suffered many restorations and reconstructions over the centuries, including the addition of Egyptian-style capitals. Just like in Olympia, the naos held a huge statue of the Father of all Gods, a seated Zeus with marble feet and arms attached to a plaster body, a copy of Phidias’ work known as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.  The temple was heavily damaged during the Jewish uprise of 115 AD but thankfully Emperor Hadrian rebuilt it, adding a smaller room inside the old complex. Eventually, the temple collapsed during the strong earthquake of 365 that drew a path of devastation all along the coast of Northern Africa.

I thoroughly enjoy this peaceful setting, walking over pavements scraped by scores of sandals in eons past and exploring every minute detail of which there are many: a marble threshold, a marble plinth, a Greek inscription between the regulae and the friezes but also on the architrave, the majestic steps inside the cella that must have led to the colossal Zeus, the tired marble floor-tiles of the peristyle between the cella walls and the outside columns, etc. Enough to trigger my imagination, an idyllic place were I could stroll on and on. In front of the entrance to the temple huge stone blocks have been assembled in an attempt to piece the oversized letters together to read the inscription Jovis Caesar that once framed the portal.


The most remarkable religious development in Cyrene was the introduction of a new god, Amon (with one single “m”), which we know from Siwah in Egypt. It didn’t take long for the Greeks to identify this divinity with their own supreme Zeus, calling him Ammon (with double “mm”) since “ammos” was the Greek word for sand, hence Sandy Zeus. From here, the cult spread all over Greece by the end of the 6th/early 5th century BC. It is here in Cyrene that the picture of Zeus with rams’ horns is born, the Ammon-Zeus as opposed to the later Zeus-Amon – an image that caught Alexander’s attention while he was in Egypt and eventually appeared on Alexander’s coins in later years.

[For further reading, click here: Cyrene, founded by the Greek]
[Click here to see all the pictures of Cyrene]

Friday, November 15, 2013

Cyrene, founded by the Greeks

Although the Phoenicians from Lebanon established early in the 10th century BC three trading posts in the Tripolitania (western Libya), later known as Sabratha, Oea (Tripoli) and Leptis Magna, the Greeks, on the other hand, were the first to establish colonies in the Cyrenaica region of Libya (the east)  in the 8th century BC, i.e. the land around Cyrene. A separation line that still exists today between the regions of Tripoli and Benghazi.

It is highly improbable that Alexander the Great ever visited Cyrene since a delegation of the city met him on his way to Siwah, but he must have been aware of its importance – a reason for me to spend some time in this huge city.

After Alexander’s death in 323 BC, Cyrene and other cities of the Cyrenaica fell to the Ptolemies. It was only in 96 BC that the Romans incorporated it as the Province of Crete and Cyrene, while they were already well established in the Tripolitania. Rome’s appetite for power had led previously to several wars, especially with Cartage (Punic Wars of 264-241 BC, 218-202 BC, and 149-146 BC) which led to the total destruction of the city. By the first century BC, they finally have North Africa firmly in their grip. We know that nobody less than Julius Caesar had his mind set on Egypt and when Octavian eliminated his rival Marc Anthony in 31 BC, Egypt was definitely theirs, including the cities of the Cyrenaica. At that time, the largest export product by far was silphium, a medical and potent plant that disappeared entirely but that was in high demand, especially in Rome. When in 395 AD the Roman Empire is split up between the eastern and western empire, it is obvious that the Cyrenaica becomes part of the eastern empire while the Tripolitania remains attached to the west. This separation till exist under the Byzantine Emperor Justinian who conquers the land in 533 and rules over both regions. A good hundred years later, the Arabs occupy the territory and rule over the Cyrenaica from Cairo as it failed in power and strength to occupy the Tripolitania as well. The first attempt to link both regions is only made last century by Mussolini who constructed a 2,000 km-long highway along the coastline of Libya, the Litoranea, running from Tunisia all the way to the Egyptian border.

This is the history of Libya in a tiny nutshell. Time to take a closer look at Cyrene, which is on the World Heritage List of Unesco.

When I arrive, all I see is a high city wall with a single entrance beyond a dozen steps. Stepping over the threshold, I find myself immediately inside the Hellenistic Gymnasium also called Ptolemaion in honor of Ptolemy VIII who built it in the 2nd century BC. When the Romans arrived in the first century AD, they paved the wide grounds and turned it into a Forum, which evidently was called Ceasarion. The size of this Forum is entirely in accordance with the size of Cyrene itself, i.e. an impressive 85 x 96 meters! Thanks to the efforts of the Italians who excavated the Libyan sites under Mussolini, the majority of the surrounding colonnades have been re-erected. This seems to emphasize its sheer size and makes me stop in my tracks. In the center are the remains of a small temple dedicated to Dionysus (later to Julius Caesar) that has been restored by Hadrian after the Jewish revolt of 115 AD. In one of the corners, I discover delicate black and white mosaics that have weathered heavily – such a shame!

Beyond the Forum lies the Odeon, cozily nestled in the depth, an ideal location for whatever meeting that was held here. Both the Gymnasium/Forum and this Odeon border the notable Battus Street – so striking because a covered gallery ran along its entire length over a distance of some 130 meters. High up the walls of this long Stoa windows were added, each separated by an Atlantes (the male equivalent of a caryatid) representing, in turn, Hercules and Hermes, as both gods were held in high esteem by the local athletes. It is an intriguing sight, these compact male figures that are now balancing on top of the wall. I’ve never seen atlantes figures before and to witness them here in such lavish quantities is something really special.

Across the road, I discover another small theater or Odeon that is pretty well preserved. From the upper row, I have a good overview of the landscape, in fact, all part of Cyrene that has not been excavated as yet. It is huge! Far down I discern a row of Doric columns belonging to the Temple of Demeter. More to the right are the half exposed remains of a theater that was also part of Demeter’s Sanctuary with several altars on the other side. 

When I stop there the next day, I am met by a group of Italian archaeologists digging right next to this temple and exposing several new walls. I’m not allowed to take pictures but can otherwise walk around freely – a unique experience to witness this work in progress from nearby. All over Cyrene now rusted narrow train rails and small wagons are still there where the Italian archaeologists from Mussolini’s days have left them, determined to come back one day, it seems.

From the Odeon I easily enter the prestigious house of Jason Magnus, a well-to-do priest of the Sanctuary of Apollo who built his home around the end of the 2nd/beginning 3rd century. He definitely was “well-to-do” for his residence covers two entire blocks.

A mosaic carpet runs through the corridors and leads me from one room to the next. Quite special is the Triclinium, the summer dining room, paved with splendid marble in the so-called opus sectile fashion. The broad mosaic that surrounds it looks rather poor in contrast but that is because it was hidden by the couches of the dinner guests anyway. Behind the couch-area are faint hints of columns once alternated with statues of the Nine Muses of which one solitary witness remains in situ. Across from the Triclinium lies a special room where the theme of Theseus and the Minotaur is illustrated in a spiral of black and white mosaics, enhanced with the greeting epagatho, i.e. good luck! Beautiful craftsmanship.

My walk continues over the Battus Street, an avenue worthy of a king I would say simply because the sight of all these Hermes and Heracles figures, even without their protecting roof is absolutely stunning. I can’t get enough of this! I finally reach the Agora, not exactly the wide open space one would expect for it is filled with buildings, monuments and two huge altars from the 4th century BC dedicated to Hera and Zeus. It takes some figuring out. On the right-hand side of the Battus Street, I find Battus’ tomb covered with marble slabs on the Agora-side. Nearby I’m unexpectedly confronted with a winged Nikè, almost identical to the famous Nikè of Samothrace now at the Louvre. Well, well, … Upon closer inspection, I see that this victory is standing on an elaborate ship’s bow with a very recognizable bronze ram. This Nikè has lost her wings but her tunica, as can be expected, elegantly wraps around her female body as she proudly faces the sea breeze. This ensemble is resting on the back of a cute dolphin that seems to be carrying the entire ship. It is so special to find this statue in the very place where it is supposed to be!

Opposite the Agora, I notice the round Sanctuary of Demeter and Kore (Persephone), pure Hellenistic and probably from the 2nd century BC. In spring offerings were brought here to ask for the renewal of nature – probably blood from piglets was poured through the cracks in the rock. The seated women seem to represent the priestesses of this temple in a cozy meeting.

On the other side of the Battus Street – which is now much less spectacular without its atlantes – I find three public buildings: the Prytaneum where the city council met, the Capitol from the 2nd century with annex the city archives (thousands of clay-seal that were used to seal documents were found here), and a Temple of Hadrian and Antoninus Pius from the same period. Apart from overgrown mosaics and an isolated Greek inscription, the remains are unclear. From here onwards, the Battus Street simply peters out to where the Acropolis is supposed to be and close to nothing has been excavated. Cyrene turns out to be far bigger than I ever could expect!

Back on the Agora, I pass the Temple of Apollo from the 5th century BC, although the remains are clearly Roman and date most probably from the 2nd century AD. It suddenly crosses my mind that only Hollywood could restore this square to its full glory for there simply is too much-scattered debris and the remaining buildings are nothing more than bare destitute skeletons crying for lots of imagination.

Cyrene has an unexpected grandeur and I wonder in how much the commerce and export of the magic silphium played a role. In any case, the plant was important enough for Cyrene to be represented on their coins as well as on many capitals of their columns. The old Egyptians already used silphium to prevent or terminate a pregnancy and great names as Herodotus, Strabo and Pliny the Elder tell us that is was an efficient remedy against cough, fever, indigestion, wards and all kinds of other ailments – in fact, the aspirin of antiquity. There are several theories explaining why this plant disappeared: it only grew in the wild, cattle was allowed to graze the silphium fields to obtain better meat quality, a change in climate, etc. Who knows?

Just when I think I have reached the end of my visit, I discover the Sanctuary of Apollo at my feet, lovingly spread out over the flank of the hill that slowly runs down to the seashore. It looks like a separate city altogether, as Greek as seldom encountered. What a choice location, what a view! It somehow brings Delphi to my mind, although I don’t immediately know why. Maybe it is the same feeling that only the gods can choose a spot like this. Well, in my eyes the ancient Greeks must all have been gods because local history tells us that the first Greek settlers established themselves on this hillside, next to the source that later on will be dedicated to Apollo in person – hence the appellation Sanctuary of Apollo. The first glance is definitely very promising and very impressive!

The steep cliff to my right is filled with grave sites and tombs belonging to the necropolis - generally, square holes, decorated or not with reliefs, columns and goodbye scene, linked together by zigzagging paths. I do not go that way but instead follow the Sacred Road downhill, heading straight for the Greek Propylaea that from a distance remind me of the Propylaea at the entrance of the Acropolis in Athens, although less majestic. The four simple Doric columns with their restored friezes were built by Praxiades, a priest of Apollo, to mark the very entrance to the city. Nearby, the Romans later created a kind of fountain, the so-called Aqua Augusta, in fact, a succession of water basins cut out of the bare rock. A little further down, stand the remains of five round limekilns which the busy Byzantines built here to burn the marble that was widely available. The kilns are exceptionally well preserved.

Across from the stunning Propylaea stands a nicely built house in the style of the Curie in Rome, although much smaller, of course. This building is called Strateghion and dates, believe it or not, from the fourth century BC when it was consecrated to the strateghoi, i.e. the civilians appointed to lead the Greek army. The Romans later renamed it donarium, i.e. a kind of treasury house. Gee, and I am not allowed inside? I wonder how much is still original or what parts have been reconstructed …

Above me lies the Baths of Paris – or not. I am told that the debate is still ongoing whether the sitz-baths found in the caves belonged to the Greeks or are instead Byzantine placed in abandoned Greek tomb chambers. Some day we may know.

By now I have reached the last water-basin of the Aqua Augusta and clearly, can hear the sound of splashing water running from a source somewhere further in the depth of the cave. What a pleasant place! This is the famous Source of Apollo, which must have changed course over the centuries because of the repeated earthquakes but it is still in the same general area. The cracks in the cave walls letting the water seep through are covered with mosses and green hanging gardens. The water is flowing much faster than expected running down through the city. It is no surprise to see this same water flow through manmade channels into the modern city later on. Time somehow has stood still, hasn’t it?

The most imposing building is evidently the temple consecrated to Apollo in person – you can’t miss it! Again I’m seeking a comparison and this time it is the Temple of Apollo in Delphi that comes to mind although many more columns are standing upright here in Cyrene. Yet both temples date from the same period and both have been repeatedly restored. Most stunning detail is that it was here that the more than two-meters-high statue of Apollo with the Lyre was found in 121 pieces that are now reassembled in the British Museum in London.

Apollo’s twin sister, Artemis had her own temple right next to her brother’s but very little remains. On this side, however, i.e. between the Temple of Apollo and the Source of Apollo, is the place to find the small Temple of Isis that held a rare colorful statue of the goddess, now at the Museum of Cyrene. A little further down is another temple, donated by the abovementioned Jason Magnus – speaking of megalomania.

It is almost by accident that I pass the Fountain of the Nymph Cyrene, a half-round basin set against a small obelisk shaped needle flanked by two lions. It is said to have been presented to the city by a certain Pratomedes in the fourth century BC. Among the profusion of rocks, column-drums, capitals and other blocks, it seems that only this fountain and the Temple of Apollo are really recognizable. I am told that past the Source of Apollo I can find the Temple of Mithras carved inside the cliff, obviously a Roman affair.

At the bottom of the Sanctuary, a huge area is occupied by the grand scale Baths of Trajan from 98 AD that were repeatedly adapted and restored since. The wide assortment of statues now in de local museum come from here, although the best pieces found their way to the Museum of Tripoli (…): The Three Graces, Alexander the Great, a Hermes, a Faun with Dionysus as a Child, the so-called Venus of Cyrene, etc. It is not easy to mentally reconstruct these baths with all its trimming and decorations, but worth trying. After the heavy earthquake of 365, the baths were abandoned till the Byzantines built their own version on top and in between the remains.
 
Here we also find the large Theatre, probably the oldest surviving construction, although this cannot be said with certainty. Originally this was evidently a Hellenistic theater, but in the 2nd century the Roman fashion for animal fights reached Cyrene also and the first rows of seats were removed to be replaced by a protection wall. A tunnel and a corridor to the podium were added, and finally, the theater was transformed into an amphitheater. Well, that is a big statement because the theater stood near the edge of a cliff and there was not enough space to add the full half circle. The result is a kind of compromise of a theatre-and-a-half. The Romans always found a solution for their problems, didn’t they? To the visitor, it looks as if the Amphitheatre lies outside the city walls, but these walls were in fact erected, later on, i.e. end 2nd/beginning 3rd century by a certain Nicodaemus who thought it was inappropriate that the view from Apollo’s Sanctuary would be blemished by the bloody fights in the Amphitheatre. A prudishness avant-la-lettre.
 
It is obvious that my visit predates the Revolution of the Arab Spring and its unfortunate consequences. I have no idea what is left of this proud and extremely interesting city. I can only hope that the situation will normalize any time soon and that unique sites like Cyrene will be there to see by everyone.

[Click here to see all my pictures of Cyrene]