Alexandria's founded by Alexander

Alexandria's founded by Alexander the Great (by year BC): 334 Alexandria in Troia (Turkey) - 333 Alexandria at Issus/Alexandrette (Iskenderun, Turkey) - 332 Alexandria of Caria/by the Latmos (Alinda, Turkey) - 331 Alexandria Mygdoniae - 331 Alexandria (Egypt) - 330 Alexandria in Areia (Herat, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria of the Prophthasia/in Dragiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Arachosia (Kandahar, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Caucasus (Begram, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria of the Paropanisades (Ghazni, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria Eschate or Ultima (Khodjend, Tajikistan) - 329 Alexandria on the Oxus (Ai-Khanoum OR Termez, Afghanistan) - 328 Alexandria in Margiana (Merv, Turkmenistan) - 326 Alexandria Nicaea (on the Hydaspes, India) - 326 Alexandria Bucephala (on the Hydaspes, India) - 325 Alexandria Sogdia - 325 Alexandria Rambacia (Bela, Pakistan) - 325 Alexandria Oreitide - 325 Alexandria in Opiene (confluence of Indus & Acesines, India) - 325 Alexandria on the Indus - 325 Alexandria Xylinepolis (Patala, India) - 325 Alexandria in Carminia (Gulashkird, Iran) - 324 Alexandria-on-the-Tigris/Antiochia-in-Susiana/Charax (Spasinou Charax on the Tigris, Iraq) - ?Alexandria of Carmahle? (Kahnu)

Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning

Strangely enough, the Cyrus Cylinder never caught my attention, in spite of my repeated visits to the British Museum. It probably was one clay tablet among so many thousands, and even had I been aware of its existence, it is always hard to find that one item among so many in a large museum as this one.

But as the Cyrus Cylinder is being put in the floodlights, I realize what I have missed. Cyrus the Great was raw-model for Alexander the Great and that should be reason enough for me to dig in deeper. Although I was aware of Cyrusgreat heart and his desire to set all conquered peoples free, allowing them to return to their homes and homelands, it did not occur to me that this had been written down on a special cuneiform tablet, in this case in the shape of a cylinder. In today’s context of warring Middle-East and discontent youth worldwide, Cyrusmessage of peace, tolerance and multiculturalism sounds extremely modern. No wonder that the Cyrus Cylinder has been called the first bill of human rights!

This remarkable object is now travelling to several museums in the U.S., together with a number of artifacts adding to a better comprehension of the religions, the cultural and linguistic traditions of the empire founded by Cyrus, that of the Achaemenids (539-331 BC). Their rule ended with the arrival of Alexander the Great and his victory at the famous Battle of Gaugamela.

This travelling exhibition The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning has been organized by the British Museum in partnership with the Iran Heritage Foundation and the Arthur M. Sacker Gallery, Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, where it makes its first appearance. From May 3 through June 14, 2013, the collection will be on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX, followed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY from June 20 till August 4, 2013; the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, CA, from August 9 till September 22, 2013; and the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Villa in Malibu/Los Angeles, CA from October 2 till December 2, 2013.

This precious cylinder was buried as a foundation object to be tied with Cyrus’ conquest of Babylon and is written in Babylonian cuneiform. It claims his victory over the last Babylonian king, Nabonidus, adding that his newly conquered peoples will enjoy religious freedom. Most of the non-Babylonians had been moved from their home countries by force during Assyrians conquests, which included the destruction of Jerusalem. Cyrus now allows the Jews to recover their statues and gods that had been confiscated and taken out of their own temples; they also were allowed to return to Jerusalem in order to rebuild their temple. That gesture earned him the title “shepherd of God” and “Lord Anointed” (Messiah) in the Book of Isaiah. Although Cyrus’ ideology was known for centuries, it was only after the discovery of this cylinder in 1879 that his religious tolerance was proven. But even before this, generations of philosophers, kings and statesmen found their inspiration in his words, from ancient Greece to the Renaissance, to the Founding Fathers. It is not surprising that a copy of this cylinder is being kept at the United Nations Headquarters. The text shows a very modern way of ruling, uniting people from different backgrounds, ethnicities and religions. Thomas Jefferson had declared that the book Cyropaedia written by the Greek Xenophon (431-355 BC) should be mandatory reading for every statesman.

No wonder that Cyrus the Great served as an example to Alexander the Great, being very well aware of Xenophon’soeuvre as he must have read most if not all his books. Had Alexander lived long enough to consolidate his huge empire, we would have seen how he implemented the ideas of the Great King of Persia.

Today’s Iranians are proud to be descendants of Cyrus since he was the first Persian King who decided to break the tradition and allowed deported peoples to return to their homes. I find it hard to place this very concept in our modern world, either in the Middle-East or in Europe for that matter. This cylinder may incite us to deep reflection, I hope.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Zeugma, Border-town along the Euphrates River

Looking at the map of Syria, it is very obvious that most of its cities are concentrated in the west, along or close to the Mediterranean Sea. As soon as we turn to the east, the landscape becomes pretty desolate till we reach the Euphrates River where a narrow stretch of land on either side is being cultivated thanks to irrigation. The only road here follows the bends of the river, dotted with occasional settlements frozen in timeless time.

The Romans handily used the river as a natural frontier and built an entire string of forts in the style of the “limes” along the Rhine River, the Arabic Limes. They needed them as a protection against possible invasions, mainly by the Sassanids from Persia. Looking at the map, we find a succession of towns and strongholds that were erected on this western side of the Euphrates River. Starting upstream, I read names like Zeugma, Hierapolis, Barablissos (on Lake Assad), Sura (where the Euphrates turns east), Rasaffa, Halabiye, Dura Europos, all the way down to Babylon in today’s Iraq. I think it is worthwhile to take a closer look at these names to see what they are standing for and what heritage they have left for us.

Although there may have been some kind of a fort at this location, it is generally agreed that Zeugma was founded by Seleucos I Nicator one of Alexander’s generals, in 300 BC under the name of Seleucia-on-the-Tigris. It was a strategic location on the trade route to the east connecting Antioch-on-the-Orontes with China. In 64 BC this prosperous city was conquered by the Romans who named it Zeugma, meaning as much as “bridge of boats”, probably because of the pontoon bridge that ran across the Euphrates River, which constituted at that time the border with the Persian Empire.

It is known that in 66 AD, the Romans had a special legion (the Fourth Legion Scythica) stationed at Zeugma to protect their empire against invasions from the Parthians and Armenians. The soldiers must have spent their money lavishly if we consider the wealth in mosaics and frescos that have been discovered. By the time the Commagene Empire was annexed by the Romans in 72 AD, the city reached its highest prosperity and the population must have risen up to 80,000 people at least. But like always, good times don’t last and in 256, Zeugma was invaded by the Sassanid King Shapur I with catastrophic consequences from which the city never recovered, especially since its decline was amplified by the violent earthquake that buried most of it. During the 5th and 6th century it became part of the Byzantine Empire and after ongoing Arab raids, it was abandoned once again. We had to wait till the 10th and 12th century for a small Abbasid town to arise in Zeugma.

Zeugma reached headlines in 1990 when the Dam of Ataturk on the Euphrates was completed as part of the huge GAP-project that covers both the Euphrates and the Tigris. This is the fourth largest dam in the world and belongs with 22 others to this project developed to irrigate a territory as large as Belgium. Thousands of people were expelled from their homes and lands as the remains of old Zeugma were flooded forever. Archeologists from everywhere scrambled to save whatever they could before the river and sediments would obliterate the ruins. Personally, I consider such an act of destruction unforgivable. A proud city that withstood eons has to make way for money and politics, more so if you consider that a dam has an average lifespan of 30 to 40 years after which the irrigated lands becomes worthless because of the heavy alkali (salt) deposits in the soil. Besides, other countries located downstream of the Euphrates like Syria, Iran and Iraq are claiming and fighting for their share of the water, with little result I’m afraid.

The excavation work done in extremis at Zeugma has brought many gorgeous mosaics to light which have been transferred to the nearby museum in Gaziantep. A few remains of plastered and painted walls have also been saved, together with some columns, statues, and all kinds of smaller household objects, coins, etc.

The mosaics, however, are of exceptional quality and very well preserved. They mainly pertain to one single villa with an endless number of rooms paved with familiar scenes of gods and goddesses. For instance, Poseidon, Oceanus and his sister/wife Tethys; a large floor mosaic of Oceanus and Tethys together; the classical birth of Aphrodite; Perseus who saved Andromeda from a certain death; a very lively scene of Daidalos and his son Ikarios; a picture of Demeter from a doorway; the river god Acheloos, King of Euphrates on one of the frames; a very colorful rendering of the wedding of Dionysus; a clearly Roman representation of Eros and Psyche; an absolutely fascinating gipsy girl, Gaia, with penetrating eyes; another Dionysus, this time with Bakkha under supervision of Niké; a devilish portrait of Silenos, companion of Dionysus ; another image of Methiokos who was in love with Partenope; the god of the Euphrates in all his majesty; Achilles (Akhilleus) from a courtyards that once held a central fountain; a vivid portrait of Europa; Poseidon on his horse-drawn chariot with a bust of Oceanus and Tethys in the foreground; and many, many more. I had to scramble to see them all within the allotted time for the museum visit, and I didn’t want to miss the various wall-frescos that were put back in their original place around the pertaining floor-mosaics. An exquisite collection that is absolutely worth a visit by itself!

According to the latest news, there may still be some parts of Zeugma that remain visible to the anxious tourist but I have not yet been there yet to see them for myself. I think I was lucky after all to have paid a visit to the majestic collection at the Museum of Gaziantep!

Monday, March 25, 2013

Restoration of the Temple of Apollo in Side, Turkey

At last, the Turkish authorities have decided to work on the preservation of ancient Side! When I was there a few years ago (see: Side didn’t put up any resistance to Alexander) I found the antiquities rather neglected and in dear need to be freshened up to say the least.

Anatolia University is starting with the famous Temple of Apollo, the icon-image on every travel folder in the area. It is evident that the temple’s columns and decorations have suffered badly from the sea moisture and salty water. Their plan is to prevent (further?) corrosion of the columns. How exactly they are going to do this, I’m not told, but it has been 35 years since the last archeologist worked here.

Beside this Temple of Apollo, they launched a landscaping project around other buildings like the Temple of Tyche, the Temple of Dionysus, the Temple of Athena (which remains I hardly could locate!), and a basilica (I wonder which one). From what I read in Today’s Zaman, they mainly aim to stopping the corrosion.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Side didn’t put up any resistance to Alexander

The name Side means “pomegranate”, a well-known fertility symbol in antiquity that we also find on coins. The origin of Side itself is shrouded in mystery. Arrian tells us that the city was founded by people from Cyma, a city north of Smyrna (modern Izmir), but if we believe Eusebius the city was settled at least two hundred years before the Trojan War, i.e. about 1405 BC. For now, neither option can be proved.

In antiquity, however, Side occupied a special place because of the language that was spoken there which did not resemble any other known language or dialect and certainly didn’t sound like Greek. It was unique to Side if we believe Arrian (and why shouldn’t we believe him?). Inscriptions and coins use this unique language as far back as the 5th and 3rd century BC. In any case, it has been determined that it can only be of Anatolian origin, i.e. proper to Pamphylia because it is in no way related to the Greek dialects of Sillyum or Aspendos. Greek started to be used only after the conquest of Alexander the Great, which is sustained by an inscription from about 300 BC.

On his march through Pamphylia in the early spring of 333 BC, Alexander took possession of Side. Not much has been said about it, just that he left a garrison behind before moving on to Sillyum. After his death, his general Ptolemy ruled over the city till the Seleucid Dynasty took over in the 2nd century BC. Later on, Side was included in the Pergamon Empire. However, the city was involved in the profitable piracy business and the Cilicians used it as a pivotal base for their slave-trading. When Emperor Pompey expelled the pirates in 67 BC, the people of Side hurriedly erected a statue in his honour. The city flourished under Roman occupation but weakened as soon as the empire fell apart. This is evidenced by the city walls which were built about the fourth century inside the once larger city limits.

There was a short revival however in the fifth and sixth century. The Theatre was repaired and a new Forum was built in honour of Arcadius (395-408), as well as several other buildings. But the Arab invasion of the 7th century caused its final decline and by the end of the 10th century, the few remaining inhabitants moved to the newly founded Antalya. The last people who lived here were the Seljuks in the 12th century. We have to wait till 1895 when Greek Muslims migrated from Crete and sought refuge among the ruins. The new village called Selimiye is consequently built on top of old Side. It takes some detective work to find the old remains among today’s houses, gardens and alleys. On the other hand, a large part of the antique city is still buried under drift sand, especially in the north-eastern corner where the Roman city walls literally disappear in the dunes.

At the entrance of the city, a parking lot has been built and I’m glad I can leave my car there and don’t have to figure out the narrow street pattern. I am lucky to enter the city just where I wanted, meaning through the Hellenistic Gate (Megale Pyle) from the 2nd century BC with its two round towers, just like the ones in Perge but in much poorer condition. If I had not seen the Hellenistic Gate in Perge, I would have missed this one entirely and it would have been very difficult to imagine what the towers looked like.

The shocking picture here is the newly asphalted road, a coat smeared over and on top of the old Roman pavement – a barbarian crime, nothing less!

Behind me rise the impressive remains that belong to a large Nympheion, another mental link for me, this time with Sagalassos. I just didn’t expect to find a fountain of this size in Side. The explanation panel is set up in Turkish, English and German, together with a drawing of the fountain’s reconstruction. This Nympheion dates from the 2nd and 3rd century, just like most of the ruins around here – i.e. the heydays of the Roman Empire.

The antique and now asphalted colonnaded street runs past elegant remains of a covered sidewalk with shops behind them. I can walk freely among these remains and this certainly adds to the charm. I climb to the top of one the sand dunes, hoping to spot the sea, and I do. In fact, my view reaches as far as Alanya to the east while in the north I’m stopped by the peninsula of Side. Inviting dark blue water splashes against the rocks and sunken ruins, creating a screen of thousands sunlit stars.

I move on and climb to the next dune top and from here I clearly see the large Theatre, but that is for later as I’m close to the beach and decide to walk to the old port which is now entirely sanded up. I pass impressive ruins with column stubs that look like a Nympheion but are labelled as being the façade of the Library. The space in front was once occupied by the Agora measuring the nearly standard 100 x 100 meters, but I miss the shops that usually surround it. Remains of columns and ceiling caissons lie everywhere and I can’t help thinking that the sand surely will damage these carvings (a normal abrasive) – not the happiest way to preserve ancient stones.

The road now leads me to the centre of today’s Selimiye with a continuous row of restaurants and souvenir shops on either side. The merchants and waiters try all the tricks in the book to draw the attention of the tourists; it is obvious that nothing has changed since antiquity.

At the end of next side-street, the white marble columns of the Temple of Apollo appear, the standard picture in every travel guide that now becomes real. The effect of Carrara marble against the intense blue sky and sea is simply perfect. From between the arches of nearby Lima Basilica, I take my first pictures, while at the same I marvel about the size of this Basilica from the 5th/6th century which remained in use for many more centuries in a reduced size.

The longer I stare at those few slender columns of the Temple of Apollo, the more I see. The delicate not entirely Corinthian capitals supporting a pediment decorated with numerous individual faces staring down at me. Somewhere between the broken marble on the floor, I find a piece of the pediment with one of those faces; finely decorated edges with lion-heads; this temple must have been something very special indeed. Next to it I should find its twin, a temple dedicated to Artemis, but I fail to see anything indicating the presence of a building. As always, the location has been chosen with perfection and is not less impressive than the location of Cape Sounion in Greece.

Back in the streets of Selimiye, I get terribly annoyed by the noise, the cars and the tourists but above all by this idiotic asphalted street still lined with stubs of the original colonnade. I discover the remains of the Romans Baths, the so-called Harbour Baths from the second century but since modern houses have been built inside and against the old walls it is difficult to get a clear overall picture. These baths must have been quite large, measuring 36 x 19 meters, but it is a pity to find them in such poor shape.

Finally, I arrive at the theatre that has been considerably propped up and the many vaults are reinforced with iron beams. I wonder how safe it is to get inside. I always find a theatre a very exciting place to visit, where the past remains so palpable simply because over the centuries thousands of people have walked through its open or vaulted corridors, or chatted comfortably sitting on the stone benches. The entrance takes me immediately to the diazoma, the promenade halfway the theatre right in the middle. It is said to be one of the largest theatres in Pamphylia and should hold approximately as many people as the one in Aspendos. This is hard to judge because the scene is poorly preserved and almost nothing is left from the backstage-wall (paraskenia) either. From the coolness of the vaults I admire its location amidst the sand covered remains behind which the entire coastline unfolds towards Alanya.

The sides and upper parts of the theatre are off-limits because of the danger of collapse, but most the “safe” parts have been well restored. Like the city, this is clearly Roman although there was originally a Greek theatre on this spot. Meanwhile, I have stepped all the way down and when I look back over my shoulder, I’m surprised by the height. Of the people at the entrance on the diazoma I only see their heads. I think this is the first time in my life that I feel dwarfed in a theatre, overwhelmed by the entire construction. I walk to both extremities of the semi-circle while admiring the decorated remains on the podium. It is said that the scene was completely overgrown with trees and bushes when it was first discovered, tearing the construction apart. Comparing the pictures George Bean took in the 1960’s (see: Turkey’s Southern Shore) with today’s appearance, it is obvious that a lot of work has been done. After a while I climb back to the diazoma to find that the stairs to the upper seats start in the vaulted corridor – there was no outside access in this theatre.

Back outside on the main street, I automatically reach the small Temple of Dionysus that is attached to the remains of the Arch of Vespasian. The cars have to drive underneath the Arch, taking turns since the opening is not wide enough to enable two cars to pass together. When in the 6th and 7th century the population of Side had shrunk considerably, this arch became a city gate in the newly built protection wall. In a way that is still visible today because beyond this point the modern restaurants and shops stop, giving way to the ruins of the antique stores with walls reaching approx. 1 or 2 meters high. One of these stores is quite special because the living quarters of the owner were located behind the up-front store, and in one of the rooms I even discover the original mosaic floor still in place.

To the right of the Triumphal Arch of Vespasian are the remains of a Nympheion, squeezed between the street and the space that belongs to the Archaeological Museum. This museum has been set up inside the well preserved Roman Baths. It is one of those rare occasions where I can have a real feel of what such baths must have looked like in spite of the modern concrete roofing that seems to blend in elegantly. Entering through two arched doorways, I access the frigidarium, the coldest part of the baths; next is the sweating room and finally I reach the largest room, the caldarium or hot room where pipes of the floor-heating system are still visible in places; the last two rooms were the tepidarium or washing rooms. The marble floors and the walls of the basins are in very good condition and the spare natural light sources add to the genuine feeling. Among the statues and other artifacts of the collection I cannot find many striking pieces, except for an inscription in the language of Side which I have never encountered before; and a Pamphylian sarcophagus from the 2nd century with high reliefs of dancing cupids under the sloping roof festooned with lion heads. The less important or broken pieces have found refuge in the adjacent garden but are certainly worth a visit; also the workshop where a richly decorated sarcophagus is being painstakingly puzzled back together.

All in all, I spent three and a half hour walking around in old Side, purposely ignoring the modern tourist traps of course - lovely!

[Click here to see all the pictures of Side]

Monday, March 18, 2013

Turkey’s Southern Shore by George Bean

"Turkey’s Southern Shore" (ISBN 0 510 03202 8) is simply the best and most complete book one can find about the larger Antalya area in Turkey, in spite of the fact that information about accessibility and state of the excavations may be outdated since George Bean died in 1977.

George Bean is a legend in this country where everybody seems to know him, has met him or their parents, relatives, neighbors have. He was a broad shouldered man of almost six foot tall and that alone was enough to impress whoever saw him. But apparently he had a most pleasant character and unlike today’s hurried archaeologists, he would simply make his way to the local coffee-house for a chat with the villagers about their daily business, the harvest and their way of living. Slowly winning their confidence, he then would bring up his interest in archeology with surprising results.

He definitely loved this country and his deep interest for its past transpires through every line. It is surprising to discover how much history, facts and figures he manages to cramp in the story of each town he describes while at the same time he keeps things simple enough to make it passionate reading. Clear drawings, often just a few lines, illustrate his vivid tales and the book is further enhanced with a handful black-and-white pictures. No bombastic language that only an initiate can decipher, but plain words and sentences we all can understand.

In this book, George Bean mainly covers Pamphylia in southern Turkey, but also Pisidia with cities like Termessos and Selge, and Lycia with Phaselis and Olympos. When exploring Pamphylia on my own, it was a true pleasure to talk to locals about this book I carried under my arm. It was as if I were presenting George Bean’s business card for time and again I received a most warm welcome and appreciative words towards this esteemed author. Unbelievable!

Beside his “Turkey’s Southern Shore”, George Bean wrote another three books, “Aegean Turkey”, “Lycian Turkey”, and “Turkey Beyond the Maeander”. You may have a hard time finding any of them though; best chance is a second hand acquisition. Each and every one of these books is a precious tool and an unequalled jewel very much worth the effort looking for.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Admiration for Alexander, or adulation, or veneration?

Alexander more than any other conqueror or king has fired the imagination of scores of people over the centuries. In many eastern countries his memory is still very much alive as locals can point you to a road he took, a mountain path he climbed or a fort he built. Cities, lakes and strongholds are named after him and legends are still being told as bedtime stories and by travelling barters.

It must have started right after Alexander’s death in Babylon by his generals and his soldiers alike. We will remember how the men insisted on saying their goodbyes to their dying king. They carried him on hands in spite of their differences when they refused to join him in his attempt to reach the outer eastern ocean, the end of the world as they knew it. Alexander’s generals fought for nearly forty years in order to rule over at least part of his empire, maybe out of greed or out of ambition, but basically it all goes back to their admiration for Alexander and their desire to follow in his footsteps.

The fight over his corpse is another sign. We must be thankful to Ptolemy that he snatched away Alexander’s funeral carriage from Perdiccas’ escort on his way to Macedonia. Had Alexander’s body arrived in his homeland for burial as was customary for all Macedonian kings, we may never have heard of the adulation and veneration he enjoyed in the following centuries. It took some chaotic years till Macedonia had a new ruler and when this happened it turned out to be Cassander, Parmenion’s son, and we know how he treated Alexander’s son Alexander IV, wife Roxane and mother Olympias! There would have been little or even no hope for any respect or consideration for Alexander’s body had it fallen in Cassander’s hands.

We owe it to the Ptolemaic dynasty which ended with Cleopatra of Egypt that Alexander’s body was kept “in state”. It is in Egypt that the Great King’s shrine was visited by many, the best known being the Roman Emperors. Julius Cesar is said to have wept over his tomb; Octavian, the later Emperor Augustus, laid a golden crown on the mummified corpse breaking off his nose in the process; the half-witted Caligula dressed up with Alexander’s breastplate taken from the mausoleum; Vespasian must have visited the tomb since he reigned out of Alexandria instead of Rome; Hadrian crowned himself with the elephant headdress on specially issued coins in Alexandria, in an imitation of Alexander; Septimus Severus is reported to have been shocked by the accessibility of the dead king’s remains and ordered the burial chamber to be sealed off; Caracalla, son of Septimus Severus, claimed to be the reincarnation of Alexander and is said to have taken some cups and weapons from the tomb. Clearly the Roman emperors’ admiration turned into adulation as they set out to imitate Alexander which they saw as their example and hero.

One of the most striking and best known images of Alexander is without doubt the mosaic discovered in the Villa of the Faun in Pompeii. We do not know who lived in that house and ordered this magnificent floor, but he must have been quite an admirer of Alexander, an adulator even.

Even in our modern times, I hear many tales of people creating Alexander shrines in their homes, enhancing their interior with copies of statues and wearing Alexander coins around their necks. In the third century already, a Roman aristocratic family wore coins with Alexander’s image as jewels or stitched onto their garments. They are reported to have eaten from plates carrying a picture of his face and used special bowls telling the story of his life! And this was only the beginning, of course. Shortly afterwards, it had become fashion among the people of Constantinople to wear an Alexander coin on their head to protect them from evil. Coins and medallions in all sizes and shapes soon appeared with Alexander’s effigy. Pure veneration, isn’t it?

In the footsteps of the Roman Emperors, later rulers would be treading. Napoleon wishfully considered that he had found Alexander’s tomb during his campaign in Egypt, while it turned out to be that of Nectanebo II. The so-called Alexander-sarcophagus that is now in the Archeological Museum of Istanbul depicting a fighting Alexander never contained his body; it was found in Sidon and was made by a Phoenician admirer of the king.

Tsarina Catherine of Russia was inspired by Alexander and named her grandson after him, telling him about the great exploits of his illustrious namesake. In a way, her ambition to build a vast empire was similar to Alexander’s. In fact, when the Russians adopted the orthodox religion from the tenth century onward, the Alexander tradition had been carried over and he became their hero.

King Louis XIV of France took great interest in Alexander the Great and proclaimed himself to be the new Alexander – why not? He commissioned a series of paintings by Charles Le Brun to enhance his palaces and since the French king’s fashions were copied by other European courts, we see painters at work in the palaces of Italy, Spain, Germany and Austria, bringing the saga of Alexander back to life once again.

Whether or not Alexander thought of himself as a god or simply from godly descent, once he was dead many people considered him to be a god or at least a hero. In our modern world either definition is hard to value as nobody reaches the state of godliness anymore. Christianity has handily replaced all the gods of the ancient pantheon by saints, so today we would speak about sainthood and then only in the context of the Christian belief which has nothing in common with Alexander’s great exploits. The church counts many saints called Alexander, but none of them refers to Alexander the Great

Today’s heroes on the other hand can only be found among those achieving heroic deeds like saving a stranger from a fire or drowning, or rescuing a comrade in war. The heroics of antiquity were of a different kind, attributed to men who in their achievements surpassed those of average people and because of that were placed somewhere between heaven and earth. Men like Achilles and Alexander, of course, but also dynastic leaders among the Ptolemies and Seleucids. We know that when Hephaistion died, the army honored him as a hero (not waiting for the official confirmation by the Egyptian priests) – they cannot have done less for Alexander.

Time and again, I’m surprised to hear how many people carry Alexander in a corner of their heart, often with a sense of homesickness for a time they never shared and a man who never had his equal in later history. So many wanted and tried to emulate him, to no avail. Yet he should be proud of his achievements for he left us such incredible memories. One of his main heritages is definitely Hellenism that spread around the world like a wildfire and persisted for many centuries, in the east and in the west. Rome or Alexandria could not have known their grandeur without Alexander’s heritage, nor could the Greco-Bactrian or the Indo-Bactrian civilizations have flourished. Persia’s revival under the Sassanid dynasty existed because of Alexander, and Christianity or even the Islam could not have caught on without the Greek language which rested on Hellenism – all this we can thank Alexander for!

[Top photograph Colin Farrell as Alexander in Oliver Stone's movie]

Monday, March 11, 2013

Greek wine, not so Greek after all

The consumption of wine was widespread throughout antiquity and not only by the Greeks - or Macedonians! I just learn that a DNA study has been undertaken in search of the place where the wild grape was domesticated for the first time .

Botanists collected samples from grape vines all over the Near East, i.e. southeastern Anatolia (roughly today’s Turkey), Armenia and Georgia. They also analyzed the residues from wine jars thousands of years old. I am not familiar with chemical techniques, but as I understand from this article published by Phys.Org, they looked for significant amounts of tartaric acid, which by the way was only available from grapes in antiquity.
Armed with their results from ancient winemakers in Georgia, Armenia and Iran cross-checked with the traces in old clay vessels, the researchers were able to place the very first domesticated Eurasian grape in southeastern Anatolia at some point between 8,500 and 5,000 BC. Southeast Anatolia is part of the Fertile Crescent, where our civilization is claimed to be born. This is generally the area between Euphrates and Tigris called Mesopotamia in today’s Iran and Iraq, and also comprises southeastern Turkey, the Levant down to ancient Egypt. This crescent is widely accepted as being the birthplace of the world’s first known domesticated plants.

Thanks to DNA research, botanists were able to isolate 13 so-called founder grapes by running through a family tree of European grapes. This ancestor grape is called “vitis vinifera” and the very theory cancels the idea that most Western European grapes supposedly came independently at different times from various places in the Middle or Near East, or from Egypt, Greece or Turkey.

It is quite interesting to learn that wild grape vines still grow in gullies and washes somewhere between the Turkish cities of Elazig and Diyarbakir. Specialists call it a true pilgrimage to genetically 8,000-9,000-year old vines! It seems like finding the mother of all grape vines!

Unfortunately these ancestral wonders are being endangered by a virus called phylloxera, which in the late 19th century annihilated so many vineyards all over Europe. It seems that wild wines are somewhat protected by their eco-system, while cultivated varieties are extremely vulnerable. Because of that, experts fear the worst for the Kurdish Diyarbakir region where we may lose a unique genetic diversity. A remedy is to graft vines onto disease-resistant rootstock, but this procedure is being rejected by the local population and eventually the Turkish wine industry is doomed to suffer the consequences. 

It is quite dramatic to realize that these precious grape vines that have survived so many centuries and even millennia might soon disappear for ever.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Good news from the Museum of Olympia

Not all the news from Greece is bad and the headlines of a recent article made me very happy: “Greek police recover stolen antiquities from Olympia.

[picture from]

Early 2012 we got the devastating news that two masked men smashed display cabinets at the Archaeological Museum of Olympia where some of the most valuables treasures from the temples of Olympia were kept. The robbers took 76 precious artefacts, mainly bronze and clay statuettes of apparently incalculable value. Because of austerity measures here as well as all over Greece, museum staff was reduced to a minimum and the poor lady keeping watch in Olympia was gagged and threatened at gunpoint.

Presently, Greek police are proud to announce that all the stolen items have been recovered in Patras when a gold ring from the collection was put up for sale. A police officer posing as a potential buyer was presented a 3,200 years old gold ring with a starting price of 1,5 million Euros, which soon dropped to 300,000 Euros. This ring eventually led to the other stolen items, which had been buried in the fields near Patras.

All is well that ends well …

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Ancient Greece in full Technicolor

Greek statues and temples in full Technicolor? A very shocking thought, that is obvious but it is much closer to the truth than one would expect initially.

The first colour reconstruction I ever saw was a corner of the Alexander Sarcophagus at the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul and honestly I thought it was rather exaggerated. The colours were simply too bright, too blunt, too plain and did in no way match my concept of Greek perfection. It wasn’t until I unexpectedly stopped at the rarely visited Macedonian Tomb of The Judges and the Tomb of the Palmettes that I was entirely taken by the charm and exotic feeling of the bright yet delicate polychromy.

A few years ago, I saw the painstaking reconstruction work done by the team of Prof. Vinzenz Brinkman on TV and their ensuing display at the Liebieghaus in Germany. For more than 25 years they analyzed the pigmentation of antique sculptures using digital methods whereby the originals were left untouched. New technical photographic methods using UV-light and –reflectography enabled them to disclose the painted parts of the statues. Even those areas where no pigment had survived could be revealed thanks to the chemical and mechanical transformations on the surface of the stone over the centuries. Based on those discoveries, they applied the matching colours on copies of existing statues. It was an absolute mind-blowing and a true eye-opener.

I lost track of these precious objects till last summer when while visiting Die Rückkehr der Göter in Cologne, Germany, I found the catalogue “Bunte Götter” (Gods in Colour) revealing that the collection of polychrome statues had grown considerably as it travelled around the world from one museum to the next, from one city to the next. Meanwhile several of the most colourful pieces have made the headlines and personally, I had great difficulty in making my choice from the superb pictures in the above-mentioned catalogue. I can’t wait to see them for real!

One of my favourites is the figure of an Archer, identified by some as Prince Paris of Troy, made around 500 BC and once part of the west pediment of the Temple of Aphaia on the island of Aegina (Greece). I can’t get enough of the vibrant colours, the patterns of his pants, the livelihood of his presence. The Persian horseman from the Acropolis in Athens shows the same patterns in the rider’s pants (today we would speak of leggings, wouldn’t we?) but he looks somehow less appealing because his horse is left blank because its original colour could not be defined with certitude. Another statue fitting the same time-frame is that of Athena with striking (and at first sight, rather unreal) green coloured snakes at the edge of her cape. And then there is the so-called Peplos Kore (approx. 530-520 BC), whose original condition revealed traces of red, blue, yellow and green pigments. A close scrutiny with modern technology brought this young girl to life, dressed in a ritual garment embroidered with animals, moving her to the state of godliness rather than that of an ordinary girl. This proves that the new techniques lead to new discoveries as well.

This is an entirely new way to look at early Greek marble sculptures and ornamentation. Who would have expected such magnificent dresses, such bright details, or such colourful statues decorating the ancient Greek temples, tombs and maybe even houses? I remember the circle of Kore as it stood in the old Acropolis Museum where I marvelled at the traces of colour in their hair and their painted earrings, wondering what they must have looked like new. Well, now I know.

Polychrome paintings were not limited to early Greek statues alone, of course, although they may be the most rewarding examples. The technique was applied widely, covering pediments, friezes, walls and ceilings of temples and tombs, decorating theatres and other public places, terracotta statuettes like those of the well-known Tanagra type, sarcophagi and even mummy portraits. The practice continued all the way through the Greek classical period and Hellenistic times, as is proven by the famous Alexander Sarcophagus from Sidon; and copied by the Romans as shown by the impressive head of Emperor Caligulafrom ancient Rome.

I can’t wait till they’ll tackle Alexander the Great. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see the true colour of his hair and if he really suffered from heterochromia (one blue and one brown eye according to Peter Green)? That will be the day!

A selection of this polychromic artwork can be admired on this link: "Gods in colour".