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)

Monday, April 29, 2013

Andriake, port of Myra

The site of Andriake lies just across the road from Myra. Driving up, I can’t miss noticing the huge Granary that Hadrian built there: 65 meters long by 32 meters wide, a real eye catcher! It is now marshy land and it seems nothing much has been done to revive the ruins when I stop here in the Spring of 2008, but there is enough to entice me.

The road ends at the harbor from where the day-tourists are taken by glass-bottom boats to visit the sunken remains on the north side of Kekova Island, which I saw when I sailed the Lycian Coast with Peter Sommer Travels. There is plenty of activity in the local dry-docks where seasoned craftsmen are hammering and soldering to get their vessels in shape for the upcoming season. I walk through the sand that the Lycian winds have blown into Andriake harbor over the past centuries, turning it into a swampy area with plenty of waterfowl.

It is not difficult finding the Granary that Hadrian built here when he visited Myra in 131 AD although there is no real path leading to it. After passing the remains of uninspiring walls amidst the bushes, I come to an open space revealing the building on the higher side of the slope. This Granary or Horrea is composed of nine successive rooms which could hold a total of 6,000 cubic meters of grain. Each chamber inside the building is connected to the next while each has its own wide entrance door to the outside also. There must have been huge locks on these doors, I think, looking at the empty space in the side wall where the bolt obviously fitted in. The façade and the partition walls are built with rectangular blocks but for the back wall, the more sturdy polygonal technique was used. Looking closely, I discover the bust of Hadrian and his wife Sabina still in place above the central room. Between the square guardhouses that frame the façade at each end, I also find the reliefs depicting the dreams of the warehouse keeper who served here in the 5th century AD. One of the door lintels shows a relief of shield and spears, and between the windows above (that must have provided the necessary ventilation) protruding blocks may have held decorative statues.

Andriake does not look much today but in antiquity, it was a chief port for the Egyptian vessels on their way to Rome. Egypt was the breadbasket of the Roman Empire, so Andriake was a major transshipment port for grain from Alexandria. Like the bay of Iasos in Western Turkey, Andriake harbor could be closed off by a strong chain.

As I walk on, I reach the Agora or Plakoma that was surrounded by shops on three sides. What strikes me here is the huge underground cistern half hidden under the large white slabs of the Agora floor where the city stored its fresh water. What I see is nothing more than a partial pavement half hidden under the low bushes, with gaping openings to the entrails of the cistern. I move around with caution, carefully avoiding these pitfalls.

There are more walls and buildings that look like Basilicas and baths but I cannot figure them out properly in this overgrown terrain. From my readings, I remember that there must have been statues here to honor Germanicus and his wife Agrippina who visited Myra in the year 18 AD, but I’m not sure where.

I leave the rest of the city with its hexagonal tower, its mixture of polygonal and rectangular walls, and the necropolis with Lycian sarcophagi higher up the hillside for what it is. I have seen enough for now.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Damascus after Alexander

Whether Alexander was in Damascus, either after the Battle of Issus or on his way from Egypt to Gaugamela, is a debate on its own which I will not tackle here. For now, I’m interested in Damascus after the disintegration of Alexander’s Empire and the imprints left by his successors as well as by the Romans afterward.

Main competitors in Syria after Alexander’s death in 323 BC were Seleucos and Ptolemy, two of his generals who fought for their share of his empire during which Damascus regularly changed hands. Seleucos I Nicator established his capital in Antioch-on-the-Orontes, today’s Antakya in Turkey, whereby the power of Damascus was annihilated. Later on, however, Demetrius III Philopator rebuilt Damascus according to the Hippodamian plan and renamed it Demetrias

But in 64 BC Roman Emperor Pompey conquered the western part of Syria and occupied Damascus. He added the city to the others belonging to the Decapolis ( a group of ten cities on the eastern edge of the Roman Empire) as he considered it to be an important center for Greco-Roman culture. In 37 AD, however, Caligula gave Damascus to the Nabataeans simply because he didn’t know what to do with it. So it happened that the Nabataean King Aretas IV Philopatris ruled Damascus from his own capital, Petra, till in 106 the kingdom was finally added to the Roman Empire. Damascus fell under the supervision of Rome and in 222, it was promoted to “Colonia” by Septimus Severus. The city prospered during the Pax Romana and played its role as a caravan stop on the trade routes from southern Arabia, Palmyra, and Petra to and from the Silk Road to China. Damascus was the turning table for all the luxury goods that were in high demand in Rome.

It is a rainy day in Damascus when I finally leave the souks, which are darker, dirtier and stuffier than the bazaars of Istanbul. I’m happy to see familiar Corinthian columns and Roman arches from the 2nd-3rd century amidst the many stalls with fruit and vegetables seeking shelter under white and bright blue tarps – a highly disturbing factor in my photographic eye. The open space after the souks looks pretty confusing partly because of the merchants offering their goods and partly because of the ruins that don’t seem to match any pattern. Traffic of cars, carts, scooters and lots of people with heavy plastic bags fill the square in a hectic cohesion. You don’t know where to look to move across to the opposite side.

The opposite side is, in fact, the exterior wall of the Umayyad Mosque that matches the old precinct of 385 x 305 meters that held the colossal Roman Temple of Jupiter. The massive limestone blocks on the lower part are unmistakably Roman. Obsolete entrance gates have been blocked up, often leaving only the refined earlier frame-decorations. On top of the eastern wall there even is a Babylonian feature, the so-called merlons, a step-pyramid-like architectural decoration. Each corner of this precinct used to have a defense tower, but when the temple was turned into a mosque only two towers remained, serving as the base for its square minarets: the Cat Bey Minaret and the Eesa Minaret. This last one is the tallest and is also called the Minaret of Jesus because many Muslims believe that Jesus will appear here on the Day of Judgment. Later on, a third square minaret was added, the Arus-Minaret, i.e. the Minaret of the Bride.

Today, the mosque has its own entrances, the most beautiful one being reserved for the male believers, whereas the women have to use the side door. Curious tourists like me are led to the back-door, of course. The famous Umayyad Mosque occupies indeed a very special spot as it has been erected on top of the old Temple of Hadad (1000 BC), the local Semitic god of storms and lightning. Under Roman rule during the first century AD, a new temple dedicated this time to Jupiter was built right on top, making it the largest sanctuary in the east. In Byzantine times in the late 4th century, the Christians replaced the temple by a cathedral consecrated to John the Baptist, and it is said that his head is kept inside in its own precious shrine. 

Originally nothing changed much after the Muslim conquest of 636 as the cathedral was simply shared by the believers, the Muslims using the eastern side of the church and the Christians praying on the west side. But during the reign of Caliph Al-Walid I of the Umayyads, this arrangement changed. He thought that the church became too small for his congregation and he concluded an agreement with the Christians to purchase their cathedral before taking it down. And so it happened that between 706 and 715 the present mosque was erected. The construction was inspired by the Mosque of Prophet Mohammed in Medina. It became a place for personal and collective worship, religious education, political meetings, administration of justice, and help the sick and poor. It sounds strange to hear the Caliph asking the Emperor of the Byzantium for 200 skilled craftsmen to work on the decoration of his mosque – a Muslim asking a Christian for works of art – but that’s what he did. The Caliph’s request was granted and the result is this construction that definitely shows Byzantine influences. In the end, thousands of craftsmen were involved, not only Byzantine but also Coptic, Persian, and Indian. In those days, the mosque was the most impressive and the largest in the Islamic world. It was considered as being one of the wonders of the ancient world.

I know the inner courtyard and mural mosaics only from pictures and I’m totally unprepared for what I’m about to see. The vast courtyard is surrounded on three sides by an arched gallery supported by a mix of pillars that mostly lost their marble covers and by Corinthian columns. On the fourth side runs the entire length of the mosque itself. The stunning mosaics representing paradise or possibly the oasis Ghouta made by the Byzantine craftsmen cover the upper part of the walls of the gallery. The quality of their work is absolutely superb. They used a combination of colored glass, stones and marble enhanced with pieces of silver and gold to depict idyllic houses amidst lush green trees and plants along an imaginary stream. It was considered as being the largest mosaic in the ancient world, covering over 4,000 m2. The four meters high wall below the mosaics has generally lost its veined marble, leaving sore holes where the marble plates once were fixed to the rough wall. A separation band decorated with reliefs of vines and grapes separated the marble part from the mosaics, but only a few fragments have survived. Because of that strong Byzantine influence, I often have the feeling of walking in Istanbul instead of Damascus!

In a corner of this huge courtyard stands the octagonal Treasury resting on shortened Corinthian columns. Its walls are entirely covered with mosaics similar to those on the walls, and also applied on a gold background so typical in Byzantine art. It dates from the same time as the construction of the mosque. The libation fountain, however, is more recent and definitely is pure Islamic with its elegant curved roof.

I am very much impressed by this space. The rain has stopped by now and a shy sun is trying to light up the courtyard adding sparkles to the mosaics, but it is mainly the reflection of the entire complex on the wet marble floor that is so unique. I would never have thought that rain could add so much to the beauty of the place!

By now, it is time to turn to the magnificent Umayyad Mosque itself, whose outside walls match exactly the Roman Temple of Jupiter, 157 meters long and 100 meters wide. The façade carries a Byzantine design especially around the main entrance which is decorated with similar mosaics to those on the surrounding walls. The mosque is crowned with a cupola that has nothing Islamic but looks rather Byzantine. A very unusual but most pleasant combination.
When I step inside, the true size of the mosque really hits me. It’s huge and surpasses any mosque I’ve seen before. I even find it more powerful spacious than the Aya Sophia in Istanbul for instance; this may be due to my mental match with the earlier Temple of Jupiter or the rectangular shape of the sanctuary which automatically creates an optical space. The prayer-hall in divided into three aisles, supported by tall Corinthian columns reused from the previous Temple of Jupiter and from the Church of Mary in Antioch-on-the-Orontes. The interior reminds me of our Christian churches but here the columns support long wooden beams and a row of short columns on top of them with small arches above the larger ones underneath. I wonder if the Roman temple had a similar wooden ceiling – could be.

This was one of the first mosques using this kind of layout (the other was the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem) where the visitors can easily see the mihrab, the minbar as well as each other. The interior is generally kept all white, with here and there a few mosaics and geometric motives. This Umayyad Mosque has been rebuilt several times after serious fires broke out, in 1069, 1401 and 1893, this last one damaging most of the large mosaics. What we see today has been partially restored.

Here, the Muslim women generously can move freely through the entire left aisle with a special corridor leading to the shrine of John the Baptist and the baptismal font. The men evidently can wander through the largest part, the central and right aisle. The tourists are truly privileged in this case for they can walk freely throughout the entire mosque. According to one of the legends, the head of John the Baptist was found when the Christian cathedral was demolished, complete with skin and hair. It has been placed in a wrought shrine and since it is supposed to possess magical power, people still flock around the shrine to touch the metal grille that surrounds it. The floor is, as usual, entirely covered with carpets muffling the sounds, which adds to the serenity of the place. Through an open door, I catch a glance of the courtyard, a contre-jour picture framing a couple of women staring outside. Such a peaceful scene.

In fact, there is nothing left in Damascus that could refer to Hellenistic times as all traces generally have been erased and supplanted by Roman constructions anyway. We know however that the Romans used Greek and Aramaic foundations to layout Damascus, covering an area of approximately 1,500 x 750 meters, inside its protective walls. Damascus counted seven city gates, but only the Bab Sharqi on the east side has survived.

Although built according to the Hippodamian plan with straight streets and crossroads, only one such street remains: the “Street Called Straight” or “Via Recta” running east-west through old Damascus from the Bab Sharqi Gate to the Suq Madhat Pasha Gate, actually 20 meters north of the Bab al-Jabiya Gate at the western end. However, in those days, the street was 26 meters wide and 1.5 km long, flanked by covered porticos with shops. I think it must have looked prettier than the modern souks! Today’s Via Recta is much narrower and lays 4-5 meters above ancient levels.

The monumental Roman arch (or Gate of Sun), approximately 700 meters west of Bab Sharqi was excavated in 1947 and reconstructed at the present street level, on the exact spot where the Decumanus (now Via Recta) and the Cardo (north-south road) met. On both sides of the Via Recta, remains of the dug-out Roman columns have been put back in place – a very revealing sight! The city gate has kept its Roman features with a central wide arch for the carts traffic and two smaller arches on each side for the pedestrians. The ancient city walls are generally well preserved but it is hard to figure out which parts are still Roman and which have been added later on. They are a complete mixture of stones, bricks, blocked entrance doors and opened windows from the houses that have been built afterwards against the wall.

This about summarizes the Greek and Romans remains of the city. There definitely must be more ruins hidden five meters underground as the excavated city gate and columns along the Via Recta have proven, but if or when future digs will be considered and carried out is a totally different story. Today Damascus counts 1.7 million inhabitants and the very core of the city (within the ancient walls) is very densely populated. I can’t see by what magic archeologists will ever be able to map out the remains of so many superposed layers of occupation, spreading over hundreds of centuries. Not anytime soon anyway.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Apamea (Syria), heritage of Alexander

If we believe ancient Egyptian, Ugarian and Hittite texts, Apamea goes back to 2,000-1,000 BC. Under Persian rule, it was called Pharnake, but the city really enters my field of interest with Alexander the Great, who left a garrison behind and renamed the city Pella after his own hometown. The name Apamea appears in 300/299 BC when Seleucus, a successor of Alexander, created one of the grandest cities in the east.

We have to go back to the mass-wedding in Susa in 324 BC when Alexander arranged a mixed wedding party for about one hundred of his close friends and generals in order to bring Greece and Persia together. Seleucus' bride was to be Apame, the daughter of Spitamenes of Bactria. This union must have been a happy one for it is the only one to survive Alexander's untimely death in 323 BC. Apame accompanied her husband during all of his expeditions and campaigns, and that cannot have been very comfortable traveling. In any case, after conquering the east, Seleucus decided to move the capital of his empire from Babylon to Antioch-on-the-Orontes, today's Antakya, Turkey. The region pleased him so much that he decided to dedicated another beautiful city over Pella that was founded initially for Alexander's veterans and he trnamed it Apamea after his wife. Apamea became his most important city, together with Antakia mentioned above. Laudetia, as Antakya was known by Seleucus, was named after his mother and Seleucia-on-the-Tigris was named after himself – yes, his empire reached all the way from the Mediterranean to the Indus! Seleucus truly moved in Alexander's footsteps!

The location of Apamea is worthy of Alexander, high above the fertile valley of the Orontes River, right on the junction of the busy road that connected the east with Antioch. Approaching today’s town of Afamia, the visitor will see antique Apamea atop of a trapezoidal hill sitting just behind the new settlement – shining like a crown-jewel. Huge parts of the 16 km-long city walls from the 2nd century BC and more than one hundred watch-towers can still be seen, at times reaching as much as 10 meters high. Apamea, I’m told, is four times the size of the more familiar Palmyra.

Pompey didn’t show much consideration for Apamea when in 64 BC the city became part of the Roman Empire. Yet it rose again and reached its peak at the beginning of the 1st century AD when the total population ran close to half a million (of which 380,000 were slaves), counting 40,000 horses and 500 fighting elephants. Unfortunately, Apamea was entirely destroyed during the cataclysmic earthquake that occurred on 13 December 115 AD (an estimated 7.5 on the scale of Richter).

This was the time to reform Apamea from a typical Hellenistic city into a Roman one. We may owe it to Emperor Trajan who resided in nearby Antioch-on-the-Orontes at the time of the earthquake and nearly lost his life in the disaster, to rebuild Apamea. He kept the original Hippodamian plan which fitted the known Roman pattern anyway with a Cardo and a Decumanus. Apamea was enhanced with bath houses and public fountains, and near the original Hellenistic agora, a new temple was dedicated to Belos or Baal. Near the city-walls, a huge theater was built on the prior Hellenistic foundations and it equaled the theater of Ephesus with a seating of over 20,000 persons! Roman/Byzantine Apamea lasted until it was conquered by the invading Muslims in 636 AD.

I have great expectations when I finally visit Apamea since for years I have been in awe for the magnificent columns and mosaics that are the showpieces at the Archeological Museum in Brussels. It was there that I saw the spiral columns for the first time and when I met them later on in Sardes and in Ephesus, I mentally kept calling them “Apamea columns”. It is worth mentioning that the area was first excavated by Belgian archeologists in the 1930s and that the first restorations started in the 1970s – hence the museum pieces.

I enter Apamea from the north, next to the Antioch Gate. I immediately stop in my tracks since what I’m seeing is a Hellenistic city-gate, two round towers just like the better-preserved ones that guard the entrance to Perge, Turkey – definitely a piece of the heritage left by Alexander through Seleucus, of course.

Turning to the south, I face the most impressive Cardo Maximus, once a busy commercial through road and as Roman as you can find. And impressive it is: nearly two kilometers long and 38 meters wide, originally lined with 1200 columns of which 400 are still standing, each approximately 9 meters high and generally crowned with Corinthian capitals. The spiral columns I am expecting show up further down the road next to the agora, till then they are just plain.

On my left, behind the colonnade and paved sidewalk stand well-preserved facades of shops, up to the first floor with decorated window and door frames – ready for use it seems. The pavement of the Cardo is pretty much intact and clearly shows the traces left by the many carts that delivered the goods up and down the street.

The Cardo which almost looks like a boulevard is crossed by two Decumani. The first crossing is marked by a 14 meters high votive column resting on a triangular base, smack in the middle of the straight road – something I haven’t seen anywhere before. It is quite something to walk over this centuries-old pavement flanked by these giant guards looking down on you! The gray clouds blend in with the gray weathered columns and contribute the melancholic atmosphere.

Further down the Cardo, I find the Roman Baths built by Emperor Trajan (116-117). I am told that they are positioned in such a way that the water could flow down with gravity from the city walls. They have been rebuilt and renewed time and again until the 7th century and were still functioning during the rule of the Ayubbids and Mameluks. Excavation works are still in progress and earthen water and sewage pipes have recently been exposed. A little further on, I recognize the inevitable Nympheion and behind it I discover the public latrines fit to receive 80-90 people – a cozy place. Closer to the city center stands a column decorated with a relief of Bacchus carrying the thyrsus staff and framed with vine motives. This once was the basis of an arch signaling the entrance to a side street.

Finally, I reach the immense Agora (300 x 45 meters) where the typical spiral columns along the Cardo replace the otherwise unfluted ones. For me, this is how Apamea should be! After closer scrutiny, I notice that the spirals twist alternatively to the right and to the left, which from a distance make a V-pattern creating a zigzag effect. Apparently, they date back to 166 AD. Three of these columns have a console that held a statue of respectively Antoninus Pius, Lucius Verus, and Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. Another one carried a statue in honor of Lucius Julius Agrippa, a leading citizen of Apamea, set up by Quintus Munatis Marinus, who carried the title of Beneficiarius as he helped to rebuild the city after the devastating earthquake of 115 AD. Further West are the remains of the famous Temple of Zeus Belos, known for its oracles and heavily visited by the believers, which included Emperor Septimus Severus. This temple was used without interruption till Christianity took over in 384-385 AD.

This is where I have to end my visit. The day is hiding behind the lead-coloured clouds and I deeply regret that I cannot take a picture of the golden sunrays illuminating these majestic colonnades. It is too late to walk down to the famous and grand theater at the end of the next Decumanus.

Apamea is absolutely a top location to visit as the remains from Hellenistic and Roman times are so vividly present. As I mentioned above, the city suffered heavily from the Muslim invasion leading to the decline of its wealth. During the 7th century, however, Apamea knows a short revival with the coming of the Crusaders. In 1106 Prince Tancredi from Normandy arrives here at the head of the First Crusade – later to be promoted to Prince of Galilea and Regent of the Princedom of Antioch. In 1157 and again in 1170, northern Syria is being hit by a series of severe earthquakes, destroying Apamea, together with cities like Hama, Emesa (Homs) and Antioch-on-the-Orontes (Antakya).

It is certain that even in antiquity Apamea appealed to everyone’s imagination and received many important guests. Cleopatra VII stopped here on her way back from the Euphrates when she accompanied Marc Anthony on his campaign against the Armenians. Septimus Severus arrived in 179 in his capacity of Legatus of the Fourth Scythian Legion and later, in 215, Emperor Caracalla paid a visit on his way home after staying in Egypt. And now it is my turn!

At the foot of this marvelous city lies a caravanserai built around 1524 by the Ottomans, where merchants and pilgrims could rest and spend a night on their way to the Orontes Valley. The building has recently been restored and serves as a museum for the finds from Apamea, mainly grave steles and mosaics from private houses, among which the exceptional mosaic of Socrates and the Wise Men. However, the largest and probably the best-preserved mosaic is to be found in the Archaeological Museum in Brussels.

[Click here to view all the pictures of Apamea]

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Deir Ezzor on the Euphrates in Syria

Deir Ezzor is one of those cities whose foundations go back to the third millennium BC, the days of King Sargon I, till it fell in the hands of King Hammurabi (reigned 1728-1686 BC) , followed by the Assyrians, the Chaldeans and the Persians. It is located some 450 km northeast of Damascus on the banks of the Euphrates River. 

When Alexander the Great campaigned marched through Syria, Deir Ezzor became part of his empire. After his death in 323 BC, the country was ruled by Seleucos, one of his former generals. In Roman times this green oasis was a crossroad on the trade route that connected the Mediterranean Sea with India. We may not forget to mention Queen Zenobia who in the third century fervently opposed the Roman presence and occupied the city. 

By the fourth century, Deir Ezzor fell under the rule of Aleppo and afterwards became part of the Ayubbid and the Mamluk empires. Tamerlane (read more under the Label Central Asia) and his Mongols totally destroyed Deir Ezzor in 1401, after which the city sank into the desert and disappeared.  

In is only in recent years, when oil was discovered in the region that Deir Ezzor was revived, and this is what we are seeing today.
The confrontation with the Euphrates River is always an exciting experience. The river was used as a frontier line for eons and still is – in fact, the other side (east) is where Mesopotamia starts. The French, who arrived here end of the 19th century built a narrow suspension bridge, a mini San Francisco Bay-bridge, executed by nobody less than engineer Eifel! Recently, a wider modern bridge has been built for the motorized traffic. It is an unforgettable adventure to cross this old bridge on foot as it is now reserved to pedestrians and to feel the soft swinging movement caused by our steps. The strong current of the Euphrates is clearly visible from up here and setting foot on Mesopotamian soil for just a short moment it definitely worth the detour. 
This is the story in a nutshell. Unfortunately, no traces have been found of Alexander’s presence here – not yet at least.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Valley of the Thracian Kings, Bulgaria

In my opinion there are other and more urgent priorities in Bulgaria than to stimulate tourism and archaeological projects, but their Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister apparently think otherwise. They have decided to spend 3,5 million Leva (approx. 12,25 million Euros) to the whole project.

A share of 3,5 million Leva (approx. 1,75 million Euros) is being allotted to boost tourism in the Valley of the Thracian Kings in the Kazanlak area and to study a Thracian tomb near the village of Buzovgrad. One million Leva will go towards archaeological studies, two millions towards infrastructure and 500,000 Leva to improving water supply and sanitation. Bulgarian authorities hope that the Valley of the Thracian Kings will be added to UNESCO’s list of protected cultural heritage since their plan is to link ten Thracian tombs together.

These Thracian tombs deserve much more attention than they are getting presently for they are so unique! Several years ago I was able to visit the Kazanlak Tomb and I was very disappointed to learn on the spot that I only would see a replica since the original tomb was sealed off to protect it from outside influences; the inside air was kept at a steady temperature to guarantee the highest possible conservation level. A very understandable measure, of course, but utterly disappointing when you come all the way to see a mere copy. I hope that this new project will enable the curious visitor to see at least some of the magnificent original wall-paintings.

This was several years ago after visiting an exhibition about the history of Bulgaria. It was an overwhelming experience and I remember how I stared at the map of Bulgaria in an unsuccessful attempt to recognize any of the cities. All I could match with my memory was the capital Sofia and the city of Plovdiv because this was ancient Philippopolis founded by Philip II of Macedonia. That the country was bordered on the north by Romania and in the south by Greece was also obvious as well as his eastern frontier touching the Black Sea – but that’s about it. The exhibited artifacts were stunning, reaching back as far as 8,000 BC. This date in time was so abstract that when I reached the showcases with pieces from 800 BC I thought I was walking in circles! The artifacts showed such high level a craftsmanship, such eye for details, such delicate and intricate work of precious metals, wood, bone, etc that I was completely baffled. I had no idea.

This led me to visit Bulgaria in order to know more of its history and one of the highlights for me obviously was Kazanlak, a city founded in the 7th century BC by the Thracians with a unique tomb that was discovered by chance in 1944 while digging around the Roman Baths built on top of it. The word "kazan" literally means "still", very much like the stills used till recently in the rose industry.
The Kazanlak Tomb, built during the 4th/3rd century BC,  was smaller than I expected and counted three distinct rooms: the entrance where the guests gathered for the funeral; a corridor with pointed arched ceiling that reminded me of Agamemnon’s tomb although this one was painted; and finally the inner chamber where the walls and the circular ceiling were covered with frescos as well. The quality of these paintings clearly showed Greek influence yet executed conforming to Thracian traditions, how amazing! A novelty in those days was the perspective achieved by creating the light and shade effect.

The Thracians could take up to six wives and their favorite, generally the youngest one, was “allowed” to accompany her husband to the hereafter – a definite honor. Depends upon your opinion, of course. They considered that dying was a happy event because babies cried when they came in this world, meaning that the place they just left must simply be a better one. This is why the deceased is represented accompanied by his favorite wife and also with a number of horses which were highly prized.

Evidently, there are many more tombs to visit, like the one of Buzovgrad mentioned above but also, I suppose, many others. The ones coming to my mind are for instance the Ostrusha Tumulus near Shipka that counted six rooms; the Svetitzata Tumulus from the 5th century BC that was still sealed and contained a stunning massive gold phial in the shape of a gold mask like those discovered in Mycenae and Macedonia although this one was made from a much thicker sheet of gold; and finally the Kosmatka Tumulus containing a splendid temple with impressive façade where King Seuthes III, the founder of Seuthopolis was buried in the early 3rd century BC. His magnificent head made of bronze shows a good-looking man, inspiring intelligence, and nobility, certainly not the traits of a barbarian as one might think.

In fact, I can’t wait till these unique tombs and tumuli are fully made accessible to the public, another priority to put on my list!

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Roxane’s tomb linked to the Lion of Amphipolis?

Much sooner than I expected, there is a sequel to my short article “Has the tomb of Roxane and young Alexander been located?” In spite of financial shortcuts, it seems archaeological work on this site has not been halted.

We all known that it was Cassander who, as king of Macedonia, sent  Queen Roxane and her son by Alexander the Great to Amphipolis, to murder them both shortly afterwards. Under these circumstances it sounds very strange to hear that this tomb was erected by Dinocrates, builder of Alexandria in Egypt and favorite architect of Alexander the Great. Alexander had a soft spot for Amphipolis from where his fleet sailed east with him in 334 BC and the city he intended to honor with a magnificent temple – a plan that never materialized due to the king’s untimely death. 

Since my story appeared in October 2012, about three quarters of the total perimeter of the so-called Kasta Tumulus  has been exposed, making this tomb almost as large the one in Vergina. The wall of the monument is built of limestone blocks covered with marble slabs from Thassos. It is clear that part of the stones have disappeared or have been removed for use elsewhere over time. It is surprising however that archaeologists have been able to establish that the blocks of marble used in the reconstruction of the nearby Lion of Amphipolis are actually pertaining to this very tomb. It is obvious to whoever visited this lion monument, that a great number of lose blocks and columns are lying around. One of the architects working on the present excavations, M Lefantzis, went so far as to assume that the tomb itself once was covered with soil and topped with a lion, the one that has been reassembled further uphill and known as the Lion of Amphipolis.

During the second century AD, the tomb was deliberately and thoroughly destroyed by the Romans, dragging most of the blocks, including the lion into the Strymon River. Why this happened and why in such a violent way, I don’t know. At the times of the Balkan wars (1912-1913), Greek soldiers dug out a great deal of blocks from the Strymon riverbed, which led to reassembling the lion monument at the spot where we see it today. A great many pieces could not find a reasonable place in the reassembling works and they were left behind at the foot of the monument.

Today’s archaeologists are once again collecting and categorizing the numerous marble blocks from the river bed as well as from around the Lion of Amphipolis and because they have not found a penis, have come to the conclusion that we are looking at a lioness instead. While a lion-statue may be used to honor a male hero or king, a lioness traditionally crowns a female tomb. Because of the large size of the Roxane tumulus, it is automatically linked with a female of royal blood, and who else would be important enough here in Amphipolis at the end of the fourth century BC but Roxane?

The inside of the tumulus still remains a secret and it is quite an exciting thought that it might be the burial site of two persons so dear to Alexander, even if he has never seen his son and heir by Roxane.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

More Royal Tombs found at Aegae

Talking about Royal Tombs at Aegae (modern Vergina), the impressive Tomb of Philip II of Macedonia immediately comes to mind, while other smaller but not less important tombs are often being dismissed.

In spite of the financial problems in Greece, it is heartwarming to hear that excavations are still ongoing, bringing three new tombs to light, especially in Alexander’s homeland. The tombs are located near the Vergina Town Hall amidst a cluster of earlier discovered tombs that were closely related to Alexander’s ancestors, the Temenids who fled Argos in the early 9th century BC to settle over here.

Picture from Archaeology News Network 

The largest of these three tombs stands almost up to its original height and still shows traces of blue and red painted bands. Inside the funerary bed and urn were placed at the southern end.

Yet the tomb on the north side dating probably from mid 5th century BC seems to be more impressive although its walls only reach up to 4.5 meters approximately. The hypostyle hall measures 7 x 5 meters, with two Ionian columns on high square bases supporting the stone ceiling, while four framing semi-columns add an elegant touch. Each of the corners is filled by quarter-columns and amazingly a recuperated capital still has traces of white plaster under blue and red painted Ionian scrolls. The entrance is from the north in between two semi-columns and can be reached through a monumental stairway. Here too, the funerary bed and urn are located opposite to the doorway. According to the scholars, this tomb is very promising as far the history on the origins of Macedonian tombs is concerned. At a later stage, the tomb seems to have been used as depository for several corpses of horses, dogs, adults as well as infants and toddlers, mingled with shards of pottery, tiles and pieces of a marble funerary stele. These remains were apparently thrown in together during a single, probably tragic incident that seems to be connected with the destruction of Aegae by the Romans and the fall of the Macedonian Kingdom – as a consequence of Perseus’ defeat at Pydna in 168 BC.

All tombs were looted in antiquity, and it is thought that this looting might coincide with the destruction of the royal necropolis of Aegae in 276 BC. Yet some significant finds were made: a relief in gold, probably a decoration element for a shield; a golden oak, once part of a wreath and proof that the tomb belonged to a man; pieces of a cuirass in the form of scales; and a number of golden discs carrying the Macedonian star.

Interestingly, the archaeologists dug deeper underground to expose a fifteen meters long floor paved with pebbles. This floor together with a few pieces of white and colored plaster from the walls seems to pertain to the original building of which nothing else is left. They were able to date this early construction thanks to a coin of Perdiccas II (454-413 BC) discovered on the premises. Fragments of a larger sculpted floral motif with spiral shoots, buds and acanthus-leaves may indicate that these elements belonged to a funeral monument.

In the end, these new discoveries may lead to learn more about the fate of the Macedonian Kingdom from the time of King Amyntas (530-498 BC) and Alexander I (498-454 BC), ancestors to both Philip II and Alexander the Great, as those earlier times are still mostly shrouded in mystery. Exciting stuff!